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16 Spelling Rules You Should Have Memorized

If you've been tripped up by "embarrassed," "necessary," or "rhythm," you're not alone. Use these tips to never misspell these tricky words again.

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Woman holding plastic glass of iced coffee with milk on grey background

Coffee is necessary

Spelling rules are a necessary part of proper grammar, and good old “necessary” definitely counts as a word that might give you pause when you’re trying to spell it. The C’s and S’s both make the exact same sound, so it’s hard to know where each goes (not to mention whether they’re double or single letters). When you need to use the word “necessary,” think about ordering one coffee with two sugars—one C, two S’s. This will be especially helpful for you if you’re someone for whom coffee is, indeed, necessary.

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Blueberry tartlet, pie, tart with vanilla custard. Slate stone background. Top view Copy space

Eat your dessert

“Dessert” is a tasty treat; a “desert” is a dry, sandy stretch of land. Their meanings are different as can be, but they’re only one letter apart. Here’s a great way to know without a doubt which one belongs in your sentence: Remember that the kind of dessert you can eat has two S’s, just like a tasty “strawberry shortcake.” Test your spelling knowledge, and see if you can recognize these state names without vowels! 

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Bicycle wheel with reflector close-up on the blurred background of the sea beach at sunny summer day.

A spelling tip…and a safety tip

Don’t be afraid to admit that “bicycle” is a confusing word to spell. The placement of the Y and the I can be misleading, so it’s no wonder that people are far more likely to use its monosyllabic abbreviation, “bike.” But all it takes to remember how to spell the full word is this simple (and true) sentence: “You shouldn’t ride your bicycle when it’s icy.” Wherever you ride your bicycle, know whether you’re “traveling” or “travelling”.

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Two red roses on the gravestone

Spooky spelling lesson

If you say the word “cemetery” out loud, it’s easy to see why people might be inclined to spell it with at least one “A.” Just remember that a cemetery can be “eerie,” a word with three E’s—just like “cemetery.” If you want to challenge yourself with some really hard-to-spell words, check out the winning words from recent National Spelling Bees.

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Letters of the alphabet on a Keyboard, E

Not so E-asy

Suffixes are confusing. Why do you leave the “E” when “arrange” becomes “arrangement,” but get rid of it when “guide” becomes “guidance”? While the fate of the E in these cases might seem totally random, there actually is a rule to it—and once you know it, these words will never trip you up again. Leave the “E” when the suffix begins with a consonant. This applies to words like “fate-ful,” “complete-ly,” and “excite-ment.” When the suffix begins with a vowel, remove the E, as in the case of “lov-able,” “relat-able,” and “hop-ing.” But because English can’t resist being extra-confusing, there are a couple of exceptions to the rule, like “truly” and “noticeable.”

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drums closeup and drum sticks.

Don’t let the “rhythm” get ya

How many H’s? How many Y’s? “Rhythm” is one wacky word when you really look at it; that second syllable doesn’t have a vowel in it at all! Luckily, there’s a simple little mnemonic device you can use to remember how to spell it. Recite this sentence: “Rhythm Helps Your Two Hips Move.” The first letters of each of those words spell “rhythm.” Here are 14 of the hardest words to pronounce in the English language.

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Close up of old English dictionary page with word affect

Affect vs. effect

These two words mean virtually the same thing, but they’re different parts of speech, which adds a whole new level of confusion. That makes this one of the trickiest spelling rules to keep straight. But there’s a way to do it, and once you know it, you’ll never mix up these words again! “Affect” starts with A because it’s the action word, or the verb. “Effect,” on the other hand, is the end result, and they both start with E.

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close up two key on grey background, Bunch of keys.

-y vs. -ie for plurals

You know the rule: If you’re pluralizing a word that ends with Y, the Y becomes an IE. That is, unless you’re using keys to get through the doorways of your house so you can finish writing your essays that you’re going to read on your best friends’ birthdays. When does the Y stick around? For the answer to this tricky spelling puzzle, look to the letter before the Y. If it’s a vowel, leave the Y be. If it’s a consonant, like in the words “baby,” “puppy,” and “party,” go ahead and make the IE swap.

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Girl saying silly words and gets embarrassed. Indoor shot of cute slender woman in stylish garment, covering eyes with hand but peeking, smiling broadly at camera, expressing positive emotions
Cookie Studio/Shutterstock

Don’t be “embarrassed” by a typo

With its pair of double letters, “embarrassed” follows the opposite spelling rules as another tricky word, “necessary.” With some tricky spelling words, “necessary” among them, erring on the side of double letters is not the way to go. “Embarrassed” is not one of those words. Both the R and the S are double in this word, so when in doubt, use double letters. Or remember this trick: If you don’t leave out any RR’s or SS’s, you’ll never be “embarrassed” by a typo.

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Woman accessories on wood background, red handbag and stileto

Here’s a compliment

“Compliment” and “complement” sound exactly the same—and, to make matters worse, their meanings aren’t super different. A “complement” is something that increases the value of, or goes well with, something else. A “compliment” is a kind, praising statement. Homophones like these can be tricky to keep straight. If you’re struggling to be certain which one to use, try these spelling rules on for size: A “complement” is something that “completes” something else. On the other hand, since I like getting compliments, make sure there’s an I in “compliment.” Here are some more homophones that confuse everyone.

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Jumble of letters
B Calkins/Shutterstock

Accommodate more letters

Here’s another one where the double letters trip people up, with good reason. If you get stuck on the word “accommodate,” just remember that it’s a long enough word to “accommodate” both a double C and a double M. Or think that the best “accommodations” at a hotel are the ones with two double beds, just like the word has two double letters.

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Flipping of three sheets of calendar with black and red numbers

Think of the months

When you say “calendar” out loud, it sure doesn’t sound like that last vowel should be an A. If you find this word a little tricky, remember that it has two A’s in it, one for each month on the calendar that begins with A (April and August).

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wild rat in the garage
Holger Kirk/Shutterstock

Need a mousetrap?

“Separate,” the verb, sounds like it should have those two A’s in it. But when you use it as an adjective, you accent only the first syllable and pronounce the last two differently. Nevertheless, the spelling is the same, and you can remember that by reminding yourself that there’s a rat in separate. Check out more common grammar mistakes even smart people make.

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Miniature woman on tape measure

A teeny-tiny mistake

The word “minuscule” means very, very small. So does the word “mini.” Then why, oh why are the first four letters of “minuscule” not M-I-N-I? Well, it’s because “minuscule” comes from “minute,” not “miniature.” So the next time you’re writing out “minuscule,” take a “minute” to remember the origin of the word. Here are some more words and phrases you’re probably using totally wrong.

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Young beautiful girl ashamed looking in side over white background.
Cookie Studio/Shutterstock

Your own worst critic

It can be tricky to remember that the third syllable of “criticize” starts with a C and not an S. This sneaky consonant can be even more confusing when you’re spelling “criticism,” which does have an S in it. Just remember that it’s not nice to “criticize” people’s looks, so leave “size” out of it. Or simply think of the word’s close relatives, critic and critical.

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Deep space image containing constellations Orion, Monoceros, Gemini and many bright nebulae and star clusters
Yuriy Mazur/Shutterstock

The millennium trick

Here’s another word where the double letters can trip you up. Just like with “embarrassed” and “accommodate,” think double or nothing for “millennium.” If it helps you to remember each pair of letters individually, try these tricks. Think about how “millennium” starts just like “million,” with the double L (even though a millennium is a thousand, not a million, years). For the double N’s, think about how a millennium refers to years, just like the word “annual,” which also has two N’s.

Oh, and in case you’re tempted to rely on your computer rather than these spelling rules, you’ll want to review these grammatical errors that spell check won’t catch.

[Sources: Grammarly, ThoughtCo, tipsforreluctantreaders.com, ef.com, thespellingblog.blogspot.com, Grammarly blog]

Meghan Jones
Meghan Jones is a word nerd who has been writing for RD.com since 2017. You can find her byline on pieces about grammar, fun facts, the meanings of various head-scratching words and phrases, and more. Meghan graduated from Marist College with a Bachelor of Arts in English in 2017; her creative nonfiction piece “Anticipation” was published in the Spring 2017 issue of Angles literary magazine.