Spelling words ending in ‘-able’ and ‘ible’

Some adjectives end in the letters ‘-able’ or ‘ible’. They mostly refer to the ability or necessity to do something e.g. ‘washable’ (you can wash it), ‘visible (you can see it), ‘emailable’ (you can email it), and the pronunciation is the same. So how on earth do you know which spelling to use?

There are several approaches we can take depending on the person who is trying to learn it.
If I have a student who really struggles with spelling of even very common and simple words, then whether to use ‘-able’ or ‘-ible’ isn’t their greatest priority and I would use Hint 1:

Hint 1: It is much more common for words to end in ‘able’ than ‘ible’. So if you don’t know and there’s no dictionary around, use ‘able’ – you’ve got about a 5:1 chance of being right!

But obviously that’s not good enough for some people. If I was teaching someone who had a reasonable knowledge of the English language I’d get them to look at some ‘-able’ and ‘-ible’ words and notice the following:

Hint 2: Generally we use ‘-able’ when a complete word remains (or just without a final silent ‘e’, or a ‘y’ changed to ‘i’) when we take the suffix away. So for example, ‘fashionable’ – ‘fashion’ is a complete word, so add ‘-able’. But ‘edible’ – ‘ed’ is not a complete word meaning ‘eat’ so it’s ‘-ible’. Of course (being English!) this isn’t always true but it’s a good guide. If that doesn’t help, try this:

Hint 3: Play around with the root word and see if you can make any words with ‘-ation’ with it. So if you don’t know if it’s ‘applicable’ or ‘applicible’, think of ‘application’. If you can make an ‘-ation’ word then it’s probably ‘-able’. So here it’s ‘applicable’. But if you play around with it and can only make an ‘-ition’ ‘-tion’, ‘-sion’, ‘cian’ or ‘-ion’ word it’s much more likely to be ‘-ible’. For example, it’s ‘visible’ because of ‘vision’.

This should satisfy most learners but let’s say I am teaching someone who has studied Latin or is a bit of a linguist. They are not usually the ones who come to me with spelling problems but if they do:

Hint 4: If the root comes from a Latin verb ending in ‘are’, use ‘able’. If it comes from an ‘ire’ or ‘ere’ word use ‘ible’.

Hint 5 is for anyone:

Hint 5: New words are often made with ‘-able’, but not ‘-ible’: ‘emailable’, biodegradable’, ‘clickable’, ‘offsetable’, ‘recession-proofable’. (I may have made the last two up but they are allowable!)

5 reasons why English spelling is difficult

1. English spelling is 'deep'
2. English is a mixing bowl
3. English remembers its roots
4. There are many Englishes
5. Blame the printers

1. English is ‘deep’

English is sometimes described as orthographically ‘deep’ – that means it is often not written as it sounds. Other languages are much easier to spell because the words are spelled the same way as they are pronounced – these are called ‘shallow’ languages – such as Finnish, Italian, Arabic. Then other languages are not based on sound at all, such as most of Chinese and some related languages – these languages are ‘logographic’.

2. English is a mixing bowl
A lot of people in the world speak English now, but remember the language started on a small island which was invaded several times by different groups of people. Each group influenced the language spoken in England. Imagine England as a big bowl. Elements of each language were added and it was all stirred up together. No wonder it’s not very regular!

3. Original spellings
All modern languages ‘borrow’ words from other languages. Sometimes the spelling of those words are changed so they are more similar to other words in the receiving language. For example, the English word ‘scanner’ has been changed into ‘├ęscaner’ in Spanish to reflect Spanish pronunciation and spelling patterns. In English, however, spelling is rarely changed when we take a word from another language. So ‘chef’ (from French) is not changed to ‘shef’, although this would be a better phonetic spelling for this word in English.

4. Many Englishes
Not only has English been influenced by other languages, but it has also spread around the world in all directions. English is the first, primary or official language in many countries on 6 continents: Europe (e.g. UK), North America (eg USA), South America (e.g. much of the Caribbean), Africa (many ex-British colonial countries such as Kenya), Asia (e.g. India) and Australia. The English spoken in many of these places show great variation so the spelling cannot reflect the pronunciation – or the spelling would also be different in each country!

5. Blame the early printers
Before and during Shakespeare’s time English spelling was very… um… flexible. There were lots of ways to spell each word and nobody really minded which one you used. Then when the printing press arrived in England in the 16th century, the early printers felt it was their job to standardise English spelling and they made some strange decisions. It has been suggested that ‘women’ is spelled like that because the printers thought that all the up and down strokes in ‘wimin’ would be too difficult to read (Frank Smith). Now it’s just difficult to spell!

I’ll look at each of these aspects of English spelling one-by-one in future postings on this blog. And also some ways that this knowledge can help with spelling English words.

If you can’t wait that long, go to http://www.elgweb.net/spelling_article.html

Smith, F. 2004 Understanding Reading: A Psycholinguistic Analysis of Reading and Learning to Read. Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

Three-letter rule?

I bet you weren’t taught this at school.

Look at these pairs of words

by .............buy
in ............. inn
to ............. two
so ..............sew
or ..............oar
I ............... eye
no ............ know

Did you notice:
Do the words in each pair have

  • the same sound?
  • the same meaning?
  • the same spelling?

How long are the words in each column?
What kind of words are in column A) and in column B)?

These word pairs are all homophones so they sound the same but the meaning and spelling are different. You will see that in column A) all the words have one or two letters only. In column B) they are at least three letters long. In column B) we find only ‘content’ words – usually nouns, verbs and adjectives which carry clear meaning – and in column A) we have ‘function’ words. - the words we use for grammar.

Vivian Cook, in his excellent The English Writing System, claims that “content words must have more than two letters” These ‘rules’ always worry me, but it does look like it’s generally true, though it may be better to say “words that can only be used as content words must have more than two letters”. ‘Go’ can be a content word (“I want to go now”) or a function word (“I’m going to get fit next year”). There are very few other content words with two letters in common use.

Interesting that!

Read more by Vivian Cook:
His website: http://homepage.ntlworld.com/vivian.c/index.htm
The English Writing System by Vivian Cook. Published by Arnold (2004).
Accomodating Brocolli in the Cemetary by Vivian Cook. Published by Profile (2004)

Mnemonics - tricks for tricky spellings

There’s one BIG problem with writing about spelling … everyone is waiting for you to make spelling mistakes. And they love to tell you when you do!

So I have to be really careful. But there are some words that I have problems spelling, like:

rhythm, weird, broccoli, graffiti

So I’ve had to find ways to remember these using mnemonics (little tricks to help you remember something).

Rhythm: Rhythm Helps Your Two Hips Move

Weird: You probably know that spelling ‘rule’ : ‘i’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’. It’s a is a rubbish rule, as there are so many exceptions (eight, weight, height, seize, beige, caffeine, society, science, ancient …) but I always remember that ‘weird’ doesn’t follow the rule because it’s… weird.

Broccoli: Two ‘c’s and one ‘l’? Or one ‘c’ and two ‘l’s? I found a way to remember. The ‘occo’ in the middle of the word looks a bit like the little round things that make up the top of a broccoli floret . You may have to squint to see it, but, hey, it works for me.

Graffiti: Two ‘f’s or two ‘t’s? I have a way to remember this too, but I’m not going to tell you because it’s rude!

To make mnemonics really memorable they are best if they are:
Personalised – what will help you remember
Amusing – if it makes you laugh you’ll remember
Meaningful – it means something to you
Pictorial – it should create a picture in your mind
Easy to remember – not too complicated
Rude – this really helps.

In other words, PAMPER yourself with mnemonics. You’re worth it!

Do you have any spelling mnemonics to share? If so, leave a comment.

Want to know more about teaching spelling? Go to www.elgweb.net/

Hello and welcome to The Spelling Blog


This page is for people who find spelling difficult, especially if English isn't your first language.
It's also for teachers who teach writing and spelling.
And it's for people who are just interested in English spelling.

First, I wanted to show you this. Here are some great videos of children teaching people how to spell:

Clever teacher, clever kids!

Hope you enjoy it. Leave me a comment and tell me.


p.s. Hope you have time to visit my website The English Language Garden at http://www.elgweb.net/ - there are lots of spelling activities and more there.