The Spelling Society’s Guide To Better Spelling

The Sounds made by Vowels


Sound as in

Other ways of representing the  sound


















may, made, vein, weigh, danger, paste



cede, receive, leaf, he, believe  



side, my, mild, mind, sign, sigh



lode, foe, flow, go, old, folk, post



futile, refute, feudal, usual






palm, father, bath (rp), half,



fir*, fur*






autum(n), ought, walk, fraught, all, already,



bear, lair
















* sound distinguished by having an r at the end (some dialects pronounce the r more distinctly than others.)

rp = Received Pronunciation  (British English)

The table above shows the many ways in which English vowel sounds can be represented.  The letters and letter combinations in black can usually be relied on to represent only the sounds in question, although some of these combinations are less common. The letters and letter combinations in red, however, can represent more than one sound, and it is these that cause a lot of the problems in learning to spell. Specifically:

The tricky vowel combinations

The main letters and letter combinations that can represent more than one sound (and which therefore cause so many problems) are as follows:

(i u– usually as in bun, BUT can also represent the sound in put or bullet.

(ii) ea – usually as in clean, BUT can also represent the sound as in lead, dead, deaf (here the a is essentially redundant),

(iii) ear – usually the sound as in dear BUT can also represent the sound in tear (cloth) bear, (animal).

(iv) ei  - represents a variety of sounds (vein, weird, heir, receive. Note: When ei does represent an ee sound it usually follows a c. BUT the old saying “I before e except after c” has too many exceptions to be reliable.)

(v) ie – usually as in lie, BUT can also represent the double ee sound in believe.

(vi) oo – usually the sound in food, BUT can also represent the sound as in good.

(vii) or – usually the sound as in form,  BUT can also represent the sound as in worm

(viii) ou – usually the sound as in found,  BUT can also represent the sounds as in wound or could.

(ix) ough – represents a variety of sounds (eg cough, dough, ought, rough, through, hiccough – when not spelled hiccup).

(x) ow – usually the sound as in cow, BUT can also represent the sound as in low,  show.

Unfortunately there are very few reliable rules for predicting which sound these combinations will represent on any one occasion. TIP – It’s best to treat the first mentioned sounds above as the regular sound, and the others as “irregulars” to be learnt, including all the ei and ough words.

Of course, it’s open to argument as to which of the pronunciations is the regular one in some cases. For example you could say that oo represents the sound in “good” almost as frequently as in “mood”. However, there is no distinctive letter combination that stands for the sound in “good,” (apart from could, would and should). So perhaps it’s better to treat all words containing this sound as irregular (and therefore to be learnt), and to regard the sound in “food” as the regular sound represented by double “oo.”

The Magic E Rule

In a single syllable word with one vowel plus consonant plus the letter e, the effect is to change the pronunciation of the first vowel. We call this lengthening, thus: can / cane, pet / Pete, slim / slime, rod / rode, tub / tube.

In words of more than one syllable, a single vowel when stressed, followed by a consonant and then another vowel is also usually lengthened, thus: making, mating, ceded, whining, tuning.

The Doubling Rule

In words of more than one syllable, doubling the consonant is used to shorten a vowel that would be lengthened under the preceding rule, thus: spanning, fennel, thinner, sorry, butter. Also doubling shortens the vowel sound (when the syllable is stressed) of ar, er, ir or and ur words (tar / tarry, her / herring, stir / stirrup, slur / slurry).

Doubling is not required when the syllable is un stressed (eg opening). Doubling at the end of words - we have already shown that the s at the end of a word is frequently doubled to show that it stand s for the hissing sound rather than the z sound. Other letters that are usually doubled at the end of words are f (stuff, cuff, buff, puff), and l (fill, shall, mall, stall). Exceptions: until, dispel.

If these rules were followed consistently, then English spelling would be much easier to learn. But unfortunately the doubling rule is much ignored. Doubling occurs in words where it should be omitted, (eg accommodate which logically should be spelled acommodate); and omitted in words where it should be applied, (eg as “solid” (which logically should be spelled “sollid”). These irregularities generally just have to be learnt, but a number of rules can reduce the memorisation task.

Tips for Dealing with Exceptions to Magic E and Doubling Rules

The following may be helpful:

(a) Some combinations of consonants normally act like a single consonant for the purposes of signifying a magic e: eg qu (sequin), gu (vague), and any single consonant followed by -le (able, bible, idle, ogle).

(b) Certain suffixes lengthen the preceding vowel, eg (do)sage, (do)tage, (na)tion, (Thra)cian, (o)cean, (conta)gious, (Gre)cian, (gra)cious, (pa)tient.  But a preceding i is NOT normally lengthened by such  suffixes, eg  (magi)cian, (rendi)tion, (deli)cious, (presti)gious.

(c)The letter x does not normally lengthen the preceding stressed vowel (eg axing, execute).

(d) The letter u generally obeys the Magic E rule but additionally:


(i) it is almost invariably long at the beginning of a word (unite): exceptions: words beginning in un with a negative meaning (uninspiring) or in up (upend), or when preceding two consonants (ugly);

(ii) it is usually long when stressed and preceding another vowel which is the last syllable, (eg fuel, dual);

(iii) it is usually long when unstressed following a vowel and consonant(s) (unusual, annual).


(e) The effect of adding e and other endings to ar, er, ir and ur

Single syllable words

(i) ar – a final e usually turns the sound from ar (as in bar) to that in bare, stare, care etc.;

(ii) er obeys the Magic E rule, eg mere, here;

(iii) ir obeys the Magic E rule eg dire, ire, mire, tire;

(iv) or –an added e does not generally affect the or sound: pore, snore; 

(v) ur – obeys the Magic E  rule: cure, endure, lure etc.


Double & Multi-Syllable words – syllable stressed

(vi) ar – the syllable usually keeps the same sound as if e had been added, (caring staring etc).

(vii) er – ditto (serious);

(viii) ir – ditto (firing, wiry);

(ix) or – ditto  (boring);

(x) ur – ditto (fury, jury ).


Double & Multi-Syllable Words – syllable unstressed

vowels are usually short (eg arachnid, erase, restoration, tamper etc). EXCEPTIONS: direct, irenic.

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