Suffixing: The Dropping Rule

Sep 24, 2021 | Posted by Jennifer

Earlier today I was reading the national news and ran across an article that mentioned all of the “smokey fires” still blazing out West. I couldn’t help it; I cringed. “Smoky” is actually spelled without an e. I know; I graduated from Smoky Valley High School. But for those of us who weren’t as fortunate as to have their alma mater provide the spelling support, how would we know that? It comes down to understanding how suffixes are applied to base words. There are essentially three suffix rules although they are presented in different ways with different names depending upon the curriculum. I will refer to them as the dropping, doubling, and change rules. This blog post will examine the first of these, the dropping rule.

I feel I should first issue a caveat. I LOVE learning about words, and I find this sort of stuff endlessly fascinating. You may not, and that’s totally okay! But if you want to stick with me through the technical stuff, there are some really interesting things ahead.

Before we get to the rules, let’s take a moment to define two terms: base words and suffixes. Base words are morphological units that have meaning. Free bases can stand on their own as words. Examples include run, play, hope, and cry. On the other hand, bound bases cannot stand along without something else helping them, either a prefix or a suffix. Examples of these include fer, spect, and mit.

Suffixes are morphological units that are added to the end of a base. They change the meaning of a base word slightly, whereas a prefix, a morphological unit that appears in front of a base word, changes the meaning of the word significantly. Examples of suffixes include -ing, -es, -ive, and -able.

So how does the dropping rule actually work? It mainly affects words that end in a nonsyllabic, final e (also called a silent-e). Here’s the rule: If you are applying a VOWEL suffix, you drop the final e and apply the suffix, with a few exceptions. Let’s take a look at how this rule works by examining a few base words and using the suffix -ing.

  • hope + ing = hoping

  • spike + ing = spiking

  • love + ing = loving

  • argue + ing = arguing

See the pattern? You drop the e to affix the vowel suffix. But you don’t if the suffix starts with a consonant. Let’s use the suffix -ful to try out a few examples:

  • hope + ful = hopeful

  • force + ful = forceful

  • grace + ful = graceful

Do you see how that works? But as I mentioned above, this rule works most, but not all of the time. You have to be careful if you’re adding a base word that ends in -ce or -ge. If you are adding a vowel suffix that doesn’t start with an e, i, or y, you need to keep the e on to preserve the pronunciation. Let’s check out some examples using the suffix -able:

  • trace + able = traceable (Without the e, the c would change sounds from /s/ to /k/.)

  • charge + able = chargeable (Without the e, the g would change from the /g/ to a /j/ sound).

There is one oddity that I should mention: the word judgment. The base word is judge, and the suffix is ment. Interestingly, the e is still dropped from the base word in American English. In the British Commonwealth, it isn’t. Why do Americans drop it while the British don’t? It comes down to Noah Webster, who made a small typo in his famous 1828 Dictionary. Perhaps the venerable Mr. Webster should have hired an editor to help him out!

Look for future blog posts to address two more suffix rules: the doubling rule and the change rule. In the meantime, keep a sharp eye open for those final e base words paired with suffixes. Hopefully they’ll be spelled correctly, but if not, you’ll know why!

Jennifer Mauser has always loved reading and writing and received a B.A. in English from the University of Kansas in 1991. Once she and her husband had children, they decided to homeschool, and she put all her training to use in the home. In addition to homeschooling her children, Jennifer teaches IEW classes out of her home, coaches budding writers via email, and tutors students who struggle with dyslexia.

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