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3 Spelling and hyphenation

3.1 Spelling

3.1.1 General principles

A good dictionary such as the Concise Oxford English Dictionary or the Oxford Dictionary of English should be consulted on matters of spelling and inflection; for US English texts a dictionary such as the New Oxford American Dictionary is indispensable. The dictionary will give guidance on recommended spellings and acceptable variants, and cover irregular or potentially problematic inflections. The main rules of spelling and inflection are outlined below.

English has an exceptional tolerance for different spellings of the same word. Some, such as bannister and banister, are largely interchangeable, although a dictionary will always indicate which is the preferred or dominant version. Other words tend to be spelled differently in different contexts: for instance, judgement is spelled thus in general British contexts, but is spelled judgment in legal contexts and US English. On the other hand, accomodation and millenium are commonly encountered in print but are not regarded as correct or acceptable spellings of accommodation and millennium.

Unless specifically instructed to follow the preferred spellings of a particular dictionary, an editor does not generally need to alter instances where a writer has consistently used acceptable variants, such as co-operate or caviare, rather than the preferred spellings, which in current Oxford dictionaries are cooperate and caviar. However, comparable or related words should be treated similarly: for instance, if bureaus rather than bureaux is used then prefer chateaus to chateaux, and standardize on -ae- spellings in words such as mediaeval if the author has consistently written encyclopaedia. For more on house style and editorial style see 2.3.1 and 2.3.2.

3.1.2 British and US spelling

Certain general tendencies can be noted in US spelling:

  • e where British English has ae or oe: estrogen, leukemia, hemoglobin

  • -ense for -ence: defense, offense, pretense, license (noun and verb)

  • -er for -re: caliber, center, maneuver, miter, scepter

  • k for c: skeptic, mollusk

  • -ll for -l: appall, fulfill, distill, enroll

  • o for ou: mold, molt, smolder

  • -og for -ogue: analog, catalog (see 3.1.7)

  • -or for -our: color, honor, labor, neighbor, harbor, tumor

  • z for s: analyze, paralyze, cozy (but advise, surprise).

In British spelling fetus is used in technical texts but foetus in general readership; US usage is always fetus.

For sulfur/sulphur see 21.4.1.

Further details are given in sections 3.1.3 to 3.1.9 and in Chapter 21.

3.1.3 Verbs ending in -ise or -ize

For most verbs that end with -ize or -ise, either termination is acceptable in British English. The ending -ize has been in use in English since the 16th century, and is not an Americanism, although it is the usual form in US English today. The alternative form -ise is far more common in British than it is in US English. Whichever form is chosen, ensure that it is applied consistently throughout the text.

Oxford University Press has traditionally used -ize spellings. These were adopted in the first editions of the Oxford English Dictionary, Hart’s Rules, and the Authors’ and Printers’ Dictionary (the predecessor of the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors). They were favoured on both phonetic and etymological grounds: -ize corresponds more closely to the Greek root of most -ize verbs, -izo.

For some words, however, -ise is obligatory: first, when it forms part of a larger word element such as -cise (= cutting), -mise (= sending), -prise (= taking), or -vise (= seeing); and second, when it corresponds to nouns with -s- in the stem, such as advertise and televise. Here is a list of the commoner words in which an -ise ending must be used in both British and US English:

advertise

advise

apprise

arise

chastise

circumcise

comprise

compromise

demise

despise

devise

disenfranchise

disguise

enfranchise

enterprise

excise

exercise

improvise

incise

merchandise

premise

revise

supervise

surmise

surprise

televise

In British English, words ending -yse (analyse, paralyse) cannot also be spelled -yze. In US English, however, the -yze ending is usual (analyze, paralyze).

3.1.4 -ie- and -ei-

The well-known spelling rule ‘i before e except after c’ is generally valid when the combination is pronounced -ee-:

believe

brief

ceiling

conceit

deceive

fiend

hygiene

niece

priest

receipt

receive

siege

There are exceptions, notably seize. Caffeine, codeine, and protein are all formed from elements ending in -e followed by -in or -ine, and plebeian is from the Latin plebeius.

The rule is not valid when the syllable is pronounced in other ways, as in beige, freight, neighbour, sleigh, veil, vein, and weigh (all pronounced with the vowel as in lake); in eider, feisty, height, heist, kaleidoscope, and sleight (all pronounced with the vowel as in like); and in words in which the i and e are pronounced as separate vowels, such as holier and occupier.

3.1.5 -able and -ible

The rules governing adjectives that end in -able or -ible relate to etymology: adjectives ending in -able generally owe their form to the Latin ending -abilis or the Old French -able, and words in -ible to the Latin -ibilis. When new adjectives are formed from English roots they take -able, as in conceivable and movable. New words are not generally formed with the -ible suffix.

With some exceptions, words ending in a silent -e lose the e when -able is added:

adorable

excusable

indispensable

movable

However, in British English some words of one syllable keep the final e when its loss could lead to ambiguity:

blameable

hireable

likeable

sizeable

In words ending -ce or -ge the e is retained to preserve the soft c or g:

bridgeable

changeable

knowledgeable

manageable

noticeable

serviceable

whereas if the word ends with a hard c or g the ending is always -able:

amicable

navigable

In US usage, before a suffix beginning with a vowel the final -e is often omitted where in British usage it is retained, as in blamable, likable, and sizable. But it is always retained after a soft c and g, as in British usage.

3.1.6 Nouns ending in -ment

When -ment is added to a verb which ends in -dge, the final e is retained in British English:

  • abridgement

  • acknowledgement

  • judgement (but note that judgment is the usual form in legal contexts)

In US English the form without the e is more usual (abridgment, acknowledgment, judgment).

3.1.7 Nouns ending in -logue

Some—but not all—nouns that end in -logue in British English are often spelled -log in US English. Analogue and catalogue usually end in -log in America, and a few other words, such as dialogue and homologue, have the -log form as an accepted variant.

3.1.8 -ce and -se endings

Practice is the spelling of the noun in both British and US English, and it is also the spelling of the verb in the US. However, in British English the verb is spelled practise. Licence is the spelling of the noun and license of the verb in British English, whereas in US English both the noun and the verb are license.

US spellings of defence and pretence are defense and pretense.

3.1.9 -ae- in the middle of words

The -ae- spellings of encyclopaedia and mediaeval are being superseded by the forms encyclopedia and medieval, although they are still acceptable variants. The dated ligature -æ- should be avoided, although note that the title of the Encyclopædia Britannica is styled thus. Archaean, haematology and similar, largely technical words retain the -ae- in British English, but in US English are spelled Archean, hematology, etc. The -e- spelling is predominant in technical writing, whether British or US in origin.

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