In this weekly post, we bring more useful content from the Macmillan Dictionary to English language learners. In this series of spelling tips we will be looking at some of the most commonly misspelled words in English and suggesting ways to improve your spelling.
When people want to find the word beginning in Macmillan Dictionary, they often look for *begining. They have apparently fallen foul of a slightly complicated but reliable rule of English spelling.
There is a widely-stated rule that if a word is of one syllable and follows the pattern consonant-vowel-consonant, it doubles the final consonant when adding endings like -ing, -ed and -er: so rub > rubbing and rubbed, big > bigger, sit > sitter and so on. Words with more than one vowel before a final consonant do not double it: so slip > slipping, but sleep > sleeping. (There are, of course, some exceptions, namely words ending in w, x, y, and z: so box > boxing, play > playing, and snow > snowed.)
The same rule is said to apply to words of two syllables, but only if the stress is on the second syllable: so prefer > preferred, begin > beginning, and transmit > transmitter; but paper > papered and happen > happening.
This is fine as far as it goes, but what about words like kidnap (> kidnapper, kidnapping) and worship (> worshipper, worshipping) where the stress is on the first syllable but the final consonant is doubled? Are these just the inevitable exceptions to the rule?
The fact is that the governing factor here seems to be not spelling but sound. If a word has a short vowel or ends with a short vowel (if it has more than one syllable), the final consonant is doubled; and the reason it is doubled is to preserve the shortness of the vowel. *Begining would be pronounced with a long second syllable (like entwined) and the same applies to *kidnaping (which would sound like escaping).
So the rule actually seems to be: if a word ends with a short vowel followed by a consonant, double the final consonant when adding inflections or endings. Begin has a short i, so the rule applies.
Ah, you may ask, but what about American English spellings like traveled and canceling? They end in a short vowel but don’t double the consonant. We will look at these in a future post.
You can find some information on why English spelling is so difficult, as well as helpful tips on mastering it here. You can search for other posts in this series using the tag ‘spelling tips’.
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