Language Tips

Spelling tip of the week – compel

© Macmillan
Liz Potter
Written by Liz Potter

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.

A common misspelling in searches of Macmillan Dictionary is *compell instead of compel. Why should this be?

The second part of compel comes from the Latin verb ‘pellere’ meaning to drive, and for many centuries compel, like many similar words, was spelled with a double ‘l’. It was still being spelled thus as late as 1651; yet by 1667, when Milton published Paradise Lost, that second ‘l’ had disappeared. I’m no historian of spelling, but around the middle of the 17th century someone seems to have decided that the second ‘l’ in these words was redundant and people mostly stopped using it. Although the change was not applied consistently, with the double ‘l’ still appearing here and there, in most 18th century texts it has been replaced by the single ‘l’ and has remained so ever since.

Like other similar verbs, such as dispel, control and annul, compel follows the familiar (though not infallible) rule that in words ending with a stressed syllable where the final consonant is preceded by a vowel, that consonant is doubled in the inflections: so compelling, controller, annulled and so on. Perhaps this puts the idea of double consonants in people’s minds, so they spell the base form with a double ‘l’ as well.

An additional complication is that in American English the double ‘l’ is used in the base forms of a few words such as enroll and fulfill while British English sticks to the single ‘l’. No wonder people find English spelling confusing.

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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Liz Potter

Liz Potter

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