From the archives...
The following question was originally posted on the (now discontinued) LOE Forum.
My question is about the long /ē/ sound at the end of a word. I am having a difficult time trying to understand when to use 'ey' and when to use just 'y'.
For example the words: colony, company, felony, harmony all end with just 'y' phonogram. Words: journey, honey, chimney, attorney all end with 'ey' phonogram. When do I use which?
There is not a rule determining which of these spellings of long /ē/ may be used at the end of a multi-syllable word. Both are permitted. This is true with many other English sounds that can be spelled multiple ways - such as whether EA or EE is used in clean, squeak, beef, feet, feat, real, reel, etc.
That said, there are often patterns we can learn for which spelling is more common that make it easier to remember and to make good educated guesses about how to spell a particular word, and that is definitely the case here. The phonogram y spelling /ē/ at the end is much more common.
When we hear a long /ē/ at the end of a multi-syllable word, it is far more likely to be spelled by the phonogram y than by the phonogram ey. Only about ten to fifteen common words end in EY pronounced /ē/, plus a few dozen less commonly-used ones. (You can search this yourself by going to morewords.com and entering *ey in the search.) There are only 255 English words total ending in EY, and many of these are rare or end in the sound /ā/, the other sound represented by this phonogram.
There are thousands of words, on the other hand, that end in the long /ē/ sound spelled with a single-vowel y.
Are you using our Essentials curriculum? If so, are you using the Spelling Journal? Essentials teaches the phonograms and spelling rules, and it also spends a lot of time looking at different options for spelling particular sounds, discussing any relevant limitations from the spelling rules, and talking about which spellings are more common.
Once students learn the phonograms and spelling rules, the words with sounds that have more than one option for spelling permitted by the rules are the only area of English that requires more time in memorization and practice. This is what the Spelling Journal focuses on, so whether or not you are using our Essentials program you might find this a helpful resource.
Note: A few other spellings of /ē/ are also used at the end of a small number of multi-syllable words:
e, as in recipe, simile, catastrophe
ee, as in agree, decree, coffee; also found at the end of words in the suffix -ee (employee, adoptee, payee)
ie, as in cookie, collie, calorie
i, at the end of foreign loan words, as in broccoli, spaghetti, chili
However, while these spellings of /ē/ are all permitted and occur at the end of at least a few common words, single-vowel y is more common than all the other options put together.