Change y to i ... or change i to y?

Sometimes I find it's useful to turn things upside down. Looking at something in this different way prevents me from just accepting it the way I've always looked at it and makes me consider it more carefully, perhaps noticing things I hadn't seen before.

I like doing this with language 'rules' too. I want to check out for myself whether they are really reliable enough to be useful. I've certainly found some that weren't.

y to i
In English spelling, we often hear, "If a word ends with y, change it to i before adding a suffix". This is generally true but there are, of course, exceptions. If there is a vowel before the y, it doesn't usually change. And there are irregular instances such as say and said.

One of my posts was about letters not found at the end of native English words. It contained a PowerPoint presentation in it called Never-Ending Letters in which I identified i as one of those letters (except of course for the pronoun I). While I was writing it I noticed that it might be a good idea to turn this so-called 'rule' about y changing to i on its head - turn it upside down in other words.

i to y?
What if we said: "Don't write i at the end of a word - change it to y? In other words we're changing i to y (at the end of a word) instead of changing y to i (in the middle of a word). In a compound word we also keep the 'rule' about no i at the end of each part. As well as this, we need to change i to y before a suffix beginning with i, to avoid a double i like we get in the (non-native) word skiing.

So we write tries, tried and trial, but we can't write tri for the first form of the verb (because native English words don't end in i) so we spell it try. And we can't write triing, because we don't have double i, so trying.

Let's look at more examples, to test it out:
We write babies, but baby (end of word), babysit (compound word) and babyish (avoiding double i).
We write happier, happiest, happiness and happily, but happy (end of word), and happyish (avoiding double i).
We write reliable, reliance, and relied, but rely (end of word) and relying (avoiding double i).
We write beautiful, beautify and beautician, but beauty (end of word).
We write said, but say (end of word) and saying (avoiding double i).

OK, it works ... but I'm trying to decide if this is a better way to look at it or not. There are pros and cons.

There are fewer (if any) exceptions. As long as we are talking about native English words, they don't finish in i (except the pronoun I).
The fact that a vowel before a y stops it changing to i becomes irrelevant. If there's already a y, we don't need to change anything.

The base forms that end with y aren't usually the problem when it comes to spelling. It's the longer forms that are usually more tricky. These usually contain i.
When we teach, we usually start with base forms and later deal with inflections and suffixes.

My conclusion
Turning this rule on its head is probably more accurate and easier to understand but would involve teaching words in an unnatural order. So I probably wouldn't use it with low level students, but at a higher level, if students were having difficulty, I might well point it out.

So has this little experiment been a waste of time? No, I don't think so, because it's always useful to question what's generally accepted as true. Another perspective is always useful.

What do you think?
I would love to hear your comments on this.

The Spelling Thief

Which words do learners most commonly misspell in Cambridge exams? According to the Cambridge Learners' Corpus, these:


There lots of ways to help prevent learners losing marks from misspellings such as these in Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners, my award-winning book. 


Ya gonna wanna sorta luv this - non-standard spelling surprise

I wanna look at some 'non-standard' spellings. I'm gonna surprise ya wiv some information about dem. I dunno about u but I thought these spellings were sorta new, from the sixties maybe. But I gotta tell ya, they've been around a long, long time. Ya might not believe me, but it must be true cos I read in it David Crystal's book, which I luv by the way, called The Story of English in 100 Words. He tells us when these words first made it into the dictionaries as 'alternative' spellings cos they were used so frequently:
  • wanna   -   1896
  • gonna    -   1913
  • ya         -   1941    
  • wiv       -   1898
  • dunno   -   1842
  • sorta     -   1790 (yes, really!)
  • gotta     -   1924
  • cos       -   1828
  • luv        -   1898
And look at this:
An S A now I mean 2 write
2 U sweet K T J 
The beginning of a poem called "An Essay to Miss Catherine Jay" by an anonymous author in 1875.
Great to see how the young people of today are reviving old spellings!



British Council Award for ELT Writing - 'Teaching Spelling' awarded Special Commendation

I am delighted to tell you that my book, Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners, has just won an award. It has been given a Special Commendation in the British Council Award for ELT Writing.

The British Council Award for ELT Writing

The inaugural British Council Award for ELT Writing is a £1,000 award that recognises an outstanding contribution by an English Language Teaching author or authors, and is administered by the Society of Authors.

The judges said my book:
"confronts the apparent vagaries of the English spelling system with both diligence and charm ... ground-breaking ... makes a potentially dry topic fascinating"
and they called it
"a little gem of a book".
Nice, eh?

Below are some photos from the Society of Authors Awards Party where I received the great news:

 Receiving the award from Clare Tomalin.

There it is!
 So happy!!!

 With winners Michael Swan and Catherine Walter

My book on display with other prize winners 
(most of them fiction, not ELT)

All the prize winners .

The judges were Ingrid Freebairn, Judy Garton-Springer and Alan Maley.


Audio downloads

If you've got a copy of Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners, I've got good news for you! You can now download audio mp3 files for some of the activities ... for free! Just click on the appropriate links on the Downloads page.

The dictations are read like this:
1) The full text at a slow natural pace.
2) Chunks of text repeated, with pauses for learners to write.
3) The full text at a slow natural pace for checking.

You will just hear other texts once.

They are all mp3 files, so you should be able to play them in class on a computer, mp3 player or burn them onto a disc.

How to Teach English Spelling Facebook Chat

Quick bit of news: On Friday (1st June 2012) I'm joining the British Council Teaching English team on Facebook for a chat about guess what ... teaching spelling! Here's what they say on Facebook.

This week’s TeachingEnglish online chat will be tomorrow, Friday 11.00–12.00 (CST – Madrid time zone). We‘ll be talking about that infernal subject – how to teach English spelling – and I’m very happy to announce that Johanna Stirling will be coming along to help host the chat and answer your questions.
Johanna is a real expert in the field. She’s just brought out a new book, Teaching Spelling and maintains a lively blog on the subject
Hope you can join us tomorrow!
Check the world clock for what time it is in your time zone – Best, Ann

That's 10.00 if you're in the UK. Don't forget to check the time if you're somewhere else

To join us go to:

I've never done this before, so hope I can keep up without making too many spelling mistakes ;-)

See you there.

Is our spelling really getting worse?

I read so many people bemoaning the fact that our spelling is getting worse. And most seem to blame technology. I'm not sure that our knowledge of spelling is getting worse and I don't think technology is solely to blame if it is.

The fact is that we write far more than we ever used to (and I think that's a good thing!). And also much of what we write is for public consumption. So of course mistakes are seen more. We are also ridiculously 'busy' with constant distractions, so the main problem seems to be that we don't take time to check what we've written. Even people who are complaining about other people's spelling let themselves down. I read this today:
 "Myself, i HATE to see spelling errors in texts that are supposed to have been proff-read."
It's spell checkers that get singled out for most of the blame. I was sent an article on the subject today that I really want to respond to. So I'm going to!

You can read the article Technology Spell Check Leaves Many Adults Unable To Spell here or just read me ranting about it below.

The article starts off by claiming:
Technology has left many Britons unable to spell words like "definitely" and "separate", a survey has found. It suggests that the UK has produced an "auto-correct generation" that relies on computer spell checks. The poll, which questioned more than 2,000 adults, found that around a third could not spell "definitely" while a similar proportion failed to pick the right spelling of "separate". And around two thirds (65%) picked a wrong spelling for "necessary" from a list that did not include the right spelling.
First objection: Lots of people couldn't spell 'definitely' and 'separate' long before computers were around. I remember only learning to spell 'definitely' when I realised it contained the word 'finite'.

Second: spell checkers and auto-correct are different things. The spell checker warns you that you might have spelled something wrong and encourages you to think about what you meant to write but auto-correct just changes it for you if you've written a string of letters that people often write meaning something else.

Third: I don't like their 'poll'. Asking people to choose the correct spelling when it is surrounded by wrong but plausible spellings is asking for trouble. You might automatically write 'necessary' correctly in a sentence, but when someone offers you the choice of the word with two 'c's or one 's', it makes you stop and think that maybe you were wrong. It plants the seed of doubt. So that's bad enough but here the list didn't even include the right spelling, so it sounds like people were tricked. By the way if you can't remember how to spell the word 'necessary', remember "It's necessary to have one coat (one 'c') and two socks (two 's's)".

The article goes on:
And many people are relying on spell checks - 18% said they use this all the time. Fewer than one in 10 (9%) said they never use a spell check.
Umm ... what's wrong with using a spell check? I use one all the time too. It's a good strategy to catch your typos and words you're not sure about. In fact, what worried me about this was that 82% don't use one all the time. Try it, folks, you'll like it.

Sure there are people who can't spell well - lots of them - and it's a problem. But is it really getting worse or just more obvious? Whichever, I offer two suggestions:

1) Let's not teach children that English is spelled as it sounds (phonics) as more than 50% of it isn't. Yes, they need to learn sound-to-letter correspondences, but they also need to learn about the origins of words and look at a range of strategies for coping with the complexity that is English spelling. (See Teaching Spelling to English Language Learners for ways to do this.)

2) We should all (myself included) train ourselves to pause and check what we've written before pressing the Send button. And again we need more focus on this at school - editing.

So what about you?

  • Do you agree with me?
  • Do you have any proof that spelling has really got worse?
  • How do you feel about spell checkers?
  • And auto-correct?
  • And phonics?

Making Sense of English Spelling

I've just started a new Facebook Page called Making Sense of English Spelling. While I will continue looking at spelling in depth here, on the Facebook Page I will post interesting links, start discussions, give news and shorter comments. Please take a look and 'Like' it if you like it!


Word endings - which letters are not at the end?

It's always easier to learn something if you know the reason for it. In the PowerPoint presentation below we see which letters are not usually found at the end of native English words and how this affects spelling.

Please feel free to use the PowerPoint as you like and share it widely. Just two rules:
  1. Please don't change anything in it (if there's anything that needs changing, please write and let me know) 
  2. Always link back to The Spelling Blog. Thank you.
The embedded version below doesn't have animations. You may think that's a good thing! But actually if you want to use the presentation for teaching it's better to have them - helps learners focus on new information better. So here's a version with simple, useful animations: 

In the next blog post, I'm going to discuss something from the Never-Ending Letters presentation that I think is pretty revolutionary! Any idea what?

Anyway here it is. I hope it's useful. I'm really interested to hear any reactions (in the Comments below).

View more PowerPoint from jomango (that's me!)

Oh no! There was a mistake on the presentation. It's now been corrected so if you downloaded it on or before 28 March, please re-download. Sorry  - and thanks to my father for noticing!


Message for Romanian teachers

I've just been doing some workshops in Romania about Spelling Myths. If you were there, thank you for visiting The Spelling Blog. Please have a look around the Blog or you might be looking for the following pages:

The i before e rule:

-able or -ible:

Another reason for the spelling of dove:

lexical spelling (spelling by meaning)

Homophones - how not to teach them

Look Say Cover Write and Check

Spelling Links

Word Shape generator

And if you want to know more about my book:

Happy spelling!


Improving spelling - never too late: the Jim Henry Story

Jim Henry's family didn't know he was illiterate and in his early 90's (yes, nineties!) he decided he wanted to learn to read and write. He not only achieved this dream but at 98 the lobster fisherman from Connecticut,USA has just written a book about his life. Read more here:

Wow! Pretty inspiring. And a story worth remembering when you think you're getting too old to sort something out.

Have you always felt that your spelling was not good enough? Is it time to do something about it? Try these tips:

1) Read what you enjoy and are comfortable with.

2) Write just a little bit each day. It doesn't have to be long but try to get it right by using a dictionary. Use a pen, but as you come across any words you're not 100% sure about, write these in pencil. Then check them. Or if you prefer to type, turn the Autocorrect off and type the words you're not sure about in a different colour.

3) Keep a notebook (paper or digital) of words you've looked up. Look through your notebooks sometimes and try to see patterns in spelling.

4) Try to learn why words are spelled as they are. Can you relate them to another word with similar meaning? Or look at to see where the word has come from.

5) Try to learn the spelling of words you need a lot or have big problems with. Use my Look Say Cover Write and Check chart: or try this great program to help you:

6) Explore and follow this blog.

7) Get help from a friend, family member or teacher. But make sure it's not someone who makes you feel bad about your spelling. Perhaps you can help them with something that they're not very good at in return - it makes for a more balanced relationship.

8) Remember if a man in his 90's can learn to read and write from scratch, there's no reason why you can't work on improving your spelling.

The tips above are very general. Much more throughout the blog.

Go for it!