To Spell or Not To Spell?

Ah, that is the question! Realizing the difficulty in finding “rules” for grammar in a nation built on the diversity of its citizens, the problem of spelling is particularly annoying. What may have survived as a spelling rule in England’s English may become a conundrum in American English.

How do you spell that place that shows movies or presents plays? The Brits spell it “theatre”. But Americans doffed much of the British spelling when they ran their army out of this country in the 1700s. Now you’ll find local color in theaters, rather than local colour in theatres. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Here are some other conundrums (or is it conundra?) in American English spelling.

Latin words follow certain patterns. The single noun ending in “um” is replaced with “a” for its plural (medium/media, curriculum/curricula, datum/data, addendum/addenda). The single noun ending in “us” is replaced with an “i” for the plural (alumnus/alumni, nucleus/nuclei, stimulus/stimuli). The single noun ending in “a” becomes plural by adding an “e” or “æ” (alumna/alumnæ, formula/formulæ, vertebra/vertebræ). The “a” in Latin denotes “feminine”, so don’t call all graduates of a school “alumni”. Some of them are “alumnæ”.

There’s one more Latin ending that confuses: “ex” or “ix” (index, appendix). And while the Latin purists cling to the “ices” ending (indices, appendices), American English recognizes “indexes” and “appendixes”.

We’re loosening up in other Latin words too. Latin words ending in “on” (criterion, phenomenon) are easily made plural by adding “s” (criterions, phenomenons), rather than the Latin “a” (criteria, phenomena). And those French “eau” words that take an “x” to make them plural in their native tongue (bureau/bureaux, trousseau/trousseaux) can be turned into plurals in American English with a simple “s”.

Luckily, many of those Latin words have been Americanized with the usual addition of “s” or “es” ( nucleuses, formulas, vertebras). As for proper names ending in “s”, just add “es” as in Adams/Adamses (that means the entire family). Or Jones/Joneses. Yeah, it’s cumbersome, but oh so meaningful!

Now we come to the devious nouns-ending-in-o! Oh, oh, oh! Now there’s a real conundrum, requiring formulæ of several sometimes-conflicting “rules” devised by wily linguistics professors in the past with the cunning purpose of completely confusing later generations of writers.

Miss Miller (my own dear third grade teacher, who taught me grammar) gave us four rules to swallow. (Some of us choked them down, only to come up with a simpler way many many years later.) Here are Miss Miller’s four rules for making plural those nouns ending in “o”:

1. Add an “s” to words ending with “o” preceded by a vowel (radio, studio, video, portfolio).

2. Add “es to certain nouns ending in “o” preceded by a consonant (tomato, potato, veto, hero, tuxedo, dynamo, tornado, torpedo). Notice this doesn’t say “all nouns”.

3. Add an “s” to musical terms ending in “o” (solo, piano, fortissimo, alto, soprano, crescendo, banjo).

4. Make your own choice with other words ending in “o” (the profs couldn’t be bothered with any more rules, apparently). These either/or words include: motto, zero, cargo, memento, volcano, and the list changes with each new edition of a dictionary.

And to cover all bases, she told us we could add the simple “s” to any other words we find ending in “o”. Thanks a lot, Miss Miller!

Now, here is Val’s single rule for making plural those nouns ending in “o”:


Nowhere have I found a noun ending in “o” that couldn’t be clearly understood as plural with the simple “s” ending. Nowhere. Can you think of one?

It’s because of these many choices that we have in spelling that I strongly advise writers to keep their own Style Manual. Sure, adopt one of the published ones if you like following someone else’s thinking, but creative artists set their own guidelines, based on choices of their preferences.

Set up your own Style Manual. When you come to a word or phrase or grammar conundrum that requires a decision (and there are many, believe me), make your decision, write it in your Style Manual, and use it consistently in your writing. You will come across editors who may change it for their publication, but if it’s your book, stick to your guns. You are the decider of many of your own grammar, punctuation, and spelling guidelines.

You can create your Style Manual in a simple notebook that you keep next to your computer, or you can create it in a file on your computer. In a very short time, you will remember your decisions because they will become second nature to you. Think of all the time you can save when you don’t have to make a new decision every time.

[Much of this excerpt is from Val Dumond’s Grammar For Grownups (HarperCollins 1993)]

©Copyright 2007 Val Dumond



About Val Dumond

VAL DUMOND is a writer who is enamored with words and putting them together to tell stories. Trained as a journalist, she also managed an advertising agency and public relations business. She has taught writing classes for many years and now focuses on her own writing, editing for other writers, and helping writers publish their books. She owns Muddy Puddle Press, where most of her books are published. Her favorite writing theme is historical fiction: She has done what-ifs for Klondike Kate — Queen of the Yukon, and the unlucky pilot who in 1933 tried and failed to be the first to fly solo across the Pacific. She also did a what-if about the status of women at a bank where she once was overworked and underpaid. (Kate received a new love interest at the age of 70; the pilot received a second chance at his heart's desire 50 years later; and the women of the bank rebelled enough to improve their wages and place women on the Board of Directors.) See: SUGAR, SPICE, AND STONE; WHEN ROOSTERS FLY; and A LITTLE REBELLION…. But Val's grammar books are the ones that draw attention. Her latest, AMERICAN-ENGLISH—The Official Guide (written for writers), is a culmination of five other books about language she has written. This new book urges writers to develop their own writing style by creating their own Style Manual, composed of preferences among the many choices that American-English provides. In it, she uses examples of uses for the various parts of language and punctuation, sets aside a section that's full of writing tips, includes a glossary and index for easy access to language solutions.
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