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3 Spelling and hyphenation

3.2 Inflection

The chief rules whereby words change form to express a grammatical function are described below. In some cases there are acceptable variant forms in addition to those forms shown.

3.2.1 Verbs

Verbs of one syllable ending in a single consonant double the consonant when adding -ing or -ed:

  • beg, begging, begged

  • rub, rubbing, rubbed

When the final consonant is w, x, or y this is not doubled:

  • tow, towing, towed

  • vex, vexing, vexed

When the final consonant is preceded by more than one vowel (other than u in qu), or by a diphthong that represents a long vowel, the consonant is not normally doubled:

  • appeal, appealing, appealed

  • boil, boiling, boiled

  • clean, cleaning, cleaned

  • conceal, concealing, concealed

  • reveal, revealing, revealed

Verbs of more than one syllable ending in a single consonant double the consonant when the stress is placed on the final syllable:

  • allot, allotting, allotted

  • occur, occurring, occurred

Verbs that do not have stress on the final syllable do not double the consonant:

  • benefit, benefiting, benefited

  • budget, budgeting, budgeted

  • gallop, galloping, galloped

  • offer, offering, offered

  • profit, profiting, profited

  • target, targeting, targeted

Exceptions are:

  • input, inputting, inputted

  • output, outputting, outputted

  • kidnap, kidnapping, kidnapped

  • worship, worshipping, worshipped

Another exception is focus, focusing, focused, which can double the s as an acceptable alternative: focussing, focused.

Verbs ending in -l normally double the l in British English regardless of where the stress occurs in the word:

  • annul, annulling, annulled

  • enrol, enrolling, enrolled

  • grovel, grovelling, grovelled

  • travel, travelling, travelled

Exceptions in British English are:

parallel, paralleling, paralleled

In US English the final l generally doubles only when the stress is on the final syllable. So words such as annul and enrol inflect the same way in America as they do in Britain, but these verbs are different:

  • grovel, groveling, groveled

  • travel, traveling, traveled

  • tunnel, tunneling, tunneled

In some cases US English spells the basic form of the verb with -ll as well (enroll, fulfill).

Note that install has a double l in both British and US English, but instalment has a single l in British spelling and doubles it in US English.

Verbs generally drop a final silent e when the suffix begins with a vowel:

  • argue, arguing, argued

  • continue, continuing, continued

But a final e is usually retained to preserve the soft sound of the g in ageing, twingeing, whingeing (but not in US English). Singeing (from singe) and swingeing (from swinge) are thus distinguished from the corresponding forms singing (from sing) and swinging (from swing). Raging is an exception. An e is added to dyeing (from dye) to distinguish it from dying (from die).

A group of verbs—burn, learn, spell—have an orthodox past tense and past participle ending in -ed, but in British English also have an alternative form ending in -t (burnt, learnt, spelt). Note that the past of earn is always earned, never earnt, and that of deal is dealt, not dealed, in both British and US English.

3.2.2 Plurals of nouns

Nouns ending in -y form plurals with -ies (policy, policies), unless the ending is -ey, in which case the plural form is normally -eys (valley, valleys).

Proper names ending in -y retain it when pluralized, and do not need an apostrophe:

  • the Carys

  • the three Marys

Nouns ending in -f and -fe form plurals sometimes with -fs or -fes:

  • handkerchief, handkerchiefs

  • proof, proofs

  • roof, roofs

  • safe, safes

sometimes -ves:

  • calf, calves

  • half, halves

  • knife, knives

  • shelf, shelves

and occasionally both -fs and -ves:

  • dwarf, dwarfs or dwarves

  • hoof, hoofs or hooves

For nouns ending in -o there is no fixed system. As a guideline, the following typically form plurals with -os:

  • • words in which a vowel (usually i or e) precedes the final -o (trios, videos)

  • • words that are shortenings of other words (demos, hippos)

  • • words introduced comparatively recently from foreign languages (boleros, placebos)

  • • words of many syllables (aficionados, manifestos)

  • • proper names used allusively (Neros, Romeos).

Names of animals and plants normally form plurals with -oes (buffaloes, tomatoes). In other cases practice varies quite unpredictably: kilos and pianos, dominoes and vetoes are all correct. With some words a variant is well established; for example, both mementoes and mementos are used.

Compound nouns

Compound words formed by a noun and a following adjective, or by two nouns connected by a preposition, generally form their plurals by a change in the key word:

Singular

Plural

Attorney General

Attorneys General

brother-in-law

brothers-in-law

commander-in-chief

commanders-in-chief

court martial

courts martial or court martials

cul-de-sac

cul-de-sacs or culs-de-sac

father-in-law

fathers-in-law

fleur-de-lis

fleurs-de-lis

Governor General

Governors General

Lord Chancellor

Lord Chancellors

man-of-war

men-of-war

mother-in-law

mothers-in-law

passer-by

passers-by

Poet Laureate

Poets Laureate or Poet Laureates

point-to-point

point-to-points

sister-in-law

sisters-in-law

son-in-law

sons-in-law

Plurals of animal names

The plurals of some animal names are the same as the singular forms, for example deer, grouse, salmon, sheep. This rule applies particularly to larger species and especially to those that are hunted or kept by humans. In some contexts the -s is optional: the usual plural of lion is lions, but a big-game hunter might use lion as a plural. For this reason the style is sometimes known as the ‘hunting plural’: it is never applied to small animals such as mice or rats.

The normal plural of fish is fish:

a shoal of fish

he caught two huge fish

The older form fishes may still be used in reference to different kinds of fish:

freshwater fishes of the British Isles

Foreign plurals

Plurals of foreign (typically Latin, Greek, or French) words used in English are formed according to the rules either of the original language:

  • alumnus, alumni

  • genus, genera

  • nucleus, nuclei

  • stratum, strata

or of English:

  • arena, arenas

  • suffix, suffixes

Often more than one form is in use:

  • bureau, bureaus or bureaux

  • chateau, chateaus or chateaux

  • crematorium, crematoriums or crematoria

  • referendum, referendums or referenda

The plural of formula is now more commonly formulas than formulae in British and US English, even in mathematical or chemical contexts. In general the English form is preferred: for example, use stadiums rather than stadia, and forums rather than fora, unless dealing with the ancient world. Incidentally, index generally has the plural indexes in reference to books, with indices being reserved for statistical or mathematical contexts; conversely, appendices tends to be used for subsidiary tables and appendixes in relation to the body part. Always check such words in a dictionary if in any doubt.

Words ending in -is usually follow the original Latin form:

  • basis, bases

  • crisis, crises

3.2.3 Adjectives

Adjectives that form comparatives and superlatives through the addition of the suffixes -er and -est are:

  • • words of one syllable (e.g. fast, hard, rich)

  • • words of two syllables ending in -y and -ly (e.g. angry, early, happy) and corresponding un- forms when these exist (e.g. unhappy). Words ending in -y change the y to i (e.g. angrier, earliest)

  • • words of two syllables ending in -le (e.g. able, humble, noble), -ow (e.g. mellow, narrow, shallow), and some ending in -er (e.g. clever)

  • • some words of two syllables pronounced with the stress on the second syllable (e.g. polite, profound)

  • • other words of two syllables that do not belong to any classifiable group (e.g. common, pleasant, quiet).

Words of one syllable ending in a single consonant double the consonant when it is preceded by a single vowel

  • glad, gladder, gladdest

  • hot, hotter, hottest

but not when it is preceded by more than one vowel or by a long vowel indicated by a diphthong

  • clean, cleaner, cleanest

  • loud, louder, loudest

Words of two syllables ending in -l double the l in British English:

cruel, crueller, cruellest

Adjectives of three or more syllables use forms with more and most (more beautiful, most interesting, etc.).

3.2.4 Adverbs

Adverbs ending in -ly formed from adjectives (e.g. richly, softly, wisely) generally do not have -er and -est forms but appear as more softly, most wisely, etc. Adverbs that form comparatives and superlatives with -er and -est are:

  • • adverbs that are not formed with -ly but are identical in form to corresponding adjectives (e.g. runs faster, hits hardest, hold it tighter)

  • • some independent adverbs (e.g. soon, likely).

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Preface Editorial team Proofreading marks Glossary of printing and publishing terms