Spelling Glossary


Gateway -- A pictorial view of how English spelling works

First glossary entry -- 'Angle brackets'

A middle glossary entry -- 'Morpheme'

Last glossary entry -- 'Word Sum'

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A pictorial view of how English spelling works

Use this table as it is; or as a gateway into the glossary. Click on >> to fast forward to the linked entry.



English Spelling
Words Written Words ←→ Spoken Words


Morphology >> and Etymology >> Morphemes >> ←→ (Morphemes)


Phonology >> Graphemes >> * ←→ * Phonemes >>


Expressing and Relaying
Spelling or Speech
Mechanical Units Letters
Phones >>

Understanding English Spelling requires a knowledge of morphology, etymology and phonology.

We commonly think of letters as the basis of spelling, but it's only when they are used singly or in combination as graphemes that they start to contribute to the representation of meaning in text or connect with how words are spoken. They're arguably too low-level a construct to add understanding to the English spelling system, in the same way as individual loops or pen strokes would be. For that reason, they (and phones, their phonetic counterparts) are in a distinctive colour here, indicating that their function is purely mechanical.

An asterisk indicates multiplicity, eg. a grapheme is made up of one or more letters.Upper rows in this representation show higher levels of organisation and meaning. Lower rows show lower-level details.

Both written and spoken words are made up of morphemes, but written morphemes are easier to identify. Spelling of morphemes stays relatively constant compared with how much spoken morphemes may change in pronunication.

For example, the phoneme /n/ corresponding to the final grapheme <n> in the word "govern" isn't present at all in the way many speakers would pronounce the word "government", while the morphemes <govern> and <ment> are very clear in the spelling <government>.

The main types of morpheme are prefix, base element, suffix.

< > Angle brackets

These enclose a grapheme, morpheme, spelled word or other sequence of letters in a spelling.

See also / / and [ ].

* Asterisk

Use this to show that what follows is an incorrect or impossible spelling.


Used as a shortened name for a base element.

This glossary uses 'base element' for emphasis or just plain 'base' where the context is clear.

Base Element

Each word contains a base element that holds the core of its meaning.

Words containing the same bases generally have connected meanings, though sometimes the connection can be more metaphorical than literal.

A free base element is capable of standing as a word on its own, eg. the free bases <state>, <red> and <dream> are all complete words.

A bound base typically requires a prefix or suffix to form a word. Because they're not words in their own right, bound bases can be harder to spot at first, but they're useful building blocks once you do start recognising them.

For example, the bound base <struct> isn't a word on its own. Adding the prefix <con−> creates the word <construct>; or adding suffix <−ure> creates the word <structure>.

Some words have more than one base. For example, the compound word <railway> has two bases <rail> and <way>.

Base elements are the most important kind of morpheme.

Choosing valid base element spellings isn't always straightforward.

Connecting vowel

The connecting vowel is an element of word structure that is found in words of mostly Latin and often Greek origin. For example, the second <o> in <chronometer> is a connecting vowel between the two bases <chrone> and <meter>.

The vowel letters <e>, <i>, <o> and <u> can all function as connecting vowels.

Words of Greek origin almost exclusively use the connecting vowel <−o−>.

Connecting vowels are structural in origin and have an etymological source. They also often reflect in spelling how words have developed their current spoken English form.

Here are some more examples:






Connecting vowels often replace a final silent <e> in the preceding base or stem.

See also combining forms.


A consonant letter is any letter that isn't a vowel letter.

The letter <y> generally acts as a consonant letter at the start of a word or base element, eg. in <you>. In other cases , it behaves like a vowel, especially when it replaces the letter <i>.

The term consonant can also refer to phones and phonemes.


Etymology tells you the history of a word or a morpheme. It can also help you identify morphemes within a word.

English spellings reflect the varied historical roots of English. These include influences from Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Norman-French as well as classical Latin and Greek.

Many words have kept their original character, so you don't have to be an expert in these historical languages to appreciate English etymology. For example, if the grapheme <ch> represents the phoneme /k/ such as in the English word <chaos>, then this is characteristic of a Greek root.

Etymology brings out the relationships between words through time, while word families illustrate relationships between words in English as it exists now.

Families of words with the same underlying base element will often share the same etymological root, so a good dictionary containing etymologies can often help you track down base elements.


A grapheme is a string of one or more letters that represents a phoneme.

The link between English graphemes and phonemes is described by its phonology.

While letters are mechanical units, it becomes necessary to consider graphemes when reasoning about spelling.

For example, it can be useful to keep in mind that the letter <t> and the grapheme <t> are distinct entities. The letter <t> is a mechanical unit that can be part of the graphemes <t>, <tt>, <th> or <tch> (and possibly others), each of which has its own implications regarding etymology and phonology.


See syllable.


Morphemes are the basic building blocks of words and each morpheme has an associated meaning.

This meaning is lost or changes to something unconnected if you divide up the morpheme into anything smaller.

Once you've divided a word into its morphemes, you can write the word as a fully expanded word sum.

The meaning of the final word is then connected, sometimes subtly, with the meanings of the morphemes in its word sum.

You can do various tests to check whether part of a word really is a morpheme:

There are three kinds of morpheme that concern spellers: prefix, base element and suffix.

Sometimes there are small changes in spelling at the joins between morphemes. The suffix checker deals with the case when a suffix is added to a base or stem.

Another example of this is when a connecting vowel is needed between two bases or between a base and a suffix.


Morphology describes how words are built up, usually in terms of morphemes.


A phone is an elementary spoken sound. It's the smallest segment of speech recognisable as complete and distinct.

Phones can be identified without any understanding of the meaning of what is being said. When meaning is used as an additional criterion in distinguishing the basic units of speech, one or more phones may be grouped to form a phoneme.


A phoneme is a basic unit of pronunciation, which would change the meaning of a word if it were pronounced differently.

Each phoneme is made up of one or more phones, which are each represented by a symbol from the International Phonetic Alphabet.

English spelling represents whole phonemes using graphemes, linked by a farly complicated phonology.


Spoken English has around 44 phonemes, obviously more than the 26 letters of the alphabet. Written English is made up of units of meaning or morphemes, which can be pronounced differently in different words while their spelling is relatively fixed.

Because of this, there needs to be a flexible link between letters and sound; and groups of one or more letters or graphemes are needed to represent each phoneme. A single grapheme, on the other hand, may also need to be capable of representing two or more different phonemes.

This, sometimes complicated, relationship between graphemes and phonemes is known as phonology.

For example, as well as its obvious pronunciation as /ch/ in <change>, the grapheme <ch> often represents the phoneme /sh/ in words derived from or through French, such as <machine>; and it can represent /k/ in words derived directly from Greek, such as <mechanical>.

Similarly, the grapheme <c> in the suffix <−ic> is pronounced /k/ in <electric>, but /sh/ in <electrician>. The flexible link between a grapheme and the corresponding set of possible phonemes means the spelling of the morpheme <−ic> can remain unchanged in both words while the pronunciation does change.


A prefix is an element of spelling added to the beginning of a base or stem. It usually has a recognisable (but sometimes slippery) effect on the meaning or force of the word it occurs in.

Like a suffix, it's a type of morpheme. It can't exist on its own and must be attached to either another prefix or a base.

/ / Slash brackets

These enclose a representation of one or more phonemes. They indicate a phonological transcription.

See also < > and [ ].

Spelling a base element

Spelling a free base element is straightforward as it is a word in its own right.

Spelling a bound base is more tricky as it isn't possible just to check the spelling in an ordinary dictionary.

The suffix checker works for bound as well as free bases, provided care is taken in choosing the spelling of the bound base. In particular, some bound bases will always behave as if they have a final silent <e>, so they need a final <e> in their spelling.

For example, the word <critic> has an easily recognisable suffix <−ic>, leaving the letter string <crit> as the likely base element. But running crit + ic through the suffix checker would lead you to the incorrect spelling <*crittic>.

This is corrected by applying a final <e> to form <crite>, a bound base derived from the Greek verb 'to judge'. Now running crite + ic through the suffix checker leads you to the correct spelling <critic>.

The spelling <crite> becomes obvious in a word such as <hypocrite>.

Similarly, the bound base <voce> (with a final <e>) is the base element shared by the words <vocal> and <vociferous>.

[ ] Square brackets

These enclose a strictly phonetic representation of speech, where the symbols represent phones.

See also < > and / /.


The stem is what you add a prefix or suffix to when forming a new word.

It differs from a base because it may already have a prefix or suffix attached (so consists of more than one morpheme).

Stressed syllable

See syllable.


A suffix is an element of spelling added to the end of a base or stem. It usually has a predictable effect on the meaning or function of the word it occurs in.

It can't exist on its own and must be attached to either another suffix or a base.

A suffix is a type of morpheme. A consequence is that just because a string of letters occurs at the end of a word, or may even make up its final syllable, this letter string may still not qualify as a suffix.

There are many examples of suffixes in English: eg. <−able>, <−al>, <−ant>, <−ar>, <−ed>, <−est>, <−hood>, <−ing>, <−ion>, <−ish>, <−itis>, <−less>, <−ling>, <−ly>, <−ment>, <−ness>, <−or>, <−s>, <−ship>, <−ure>, <−y>

See also <tion> and combining forms.

Suffixes don't include <tion>

Although the string <tion> often occurs at the end of a word, it isn't a suffix, since the part of the word remaining after removing <tion> often lacks meaning; or if it is meaningful, its meaning is generally unconnected with the original word.

A suffix is a morpheme which must be attached to a preceding suffix or base. Try thinking of counter-examples where <tion> might be a suffix to see if it really is the case.

For example, the suffix at the end of the word <action> is <−ion> and not <tion>.

The base <act> plus suffix <−ion> forms <action> which has a clear connected meaning compared to the original base <act>.

If <tion> were a suffix, we'd be forced to relate the word <action> to the string <ac> which is a prefix (related to the <ad-> prefix), and we would find ourselves with a suffix attached to a prefix rather than to a suffix or base. More importantly, our analysis would have produced a word with no base, which is impossible.

The suffix at the end of the word <fraction> is also <−ion>. At first sight, it might look as if <fract> was meaningless, but in fact it's a useful base element with a notion of 'breaking'. It occurs in words such as <fracture>, <fractal> and <refract>.

Suffixes don't include 'combining forms'

A dictonary might list eg. <graphy> as in <biography> as a 'combining form', which is a clue that this differs from a true suffix.

Our morphological approach separates <biography> into simpler base elements <bi> and <graph> linked by a connecting vowel <−o−>.

You can recognise that <graph> really is a base because it occurs in the word <graphic> which has a clearly related meaning.

The suffix checker works for the word sum graph + ic because <−ic> really is a suffix, but it doesn't say how to join up bases and connecting vowels.


You can count the syllables in a word by tapping out its rhythm as you speak it. Each beat is one syllable.

A word with just one syllable is a monosyllable. Eg. <thud> and <feed> are both monosyllables.

A word with more than one syllable is a polysyllable. Eg. <react> and <polysyllable> are both polysyllables.

The syllable with most emphasis in a polysyllable carries the stress. Eg. in <befitting> the stress is on the second syllable; but in <targeting> the stress is on the first syllable.


The vowel letters are <a>, <e>, <i>, <o>, <u> and sometimes <y>.

The suffix <−y> counts as a vowel suffix, since in this case the <y> acts as a vowel letter.

The term vowel can also refer to phones and phonemes.

Word Family

A word family brings together words which often have both similar form and meaning, typically sharing the same base element.

For example, the word <family> itself is part of a word family that includes:

family families familiar unfamiliar
familiarise familiarising familiarises familiarly

While etymology brings out the relationships between words through time, word families illustrate relationships between words in English as it exists now.

The Word Searcher spelling tool is very useful for discovering specific word families.

Word Sum

A word sum shows how a word is built up by separating each building block by a plus sign + to show 'addition'.

It might also have a re-write arrow → pointing to the finished word.

For example, word sum fiddle + s shows the suffix <−s> being added to the base <fiddle>.

A fully expanded word sum just has morphemes in between the plus signs.

For example, <accommodation> is made up from the word sum ac + com + mode + ate + ion. It has base <mode>; prefixes <ac−> and <com−>; and suffixes <−ate> and <−ion>.

ac + com + mode + ate + ionaccommodation

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Copyright Neil Ramsden 2004-2010.
Last updated 5 Oct 2010   E-mail comments to mail@neilramsden.co.uk