I am not sure if my title is clear but perhaps this example will clear things up. I wanted to write the word "amygdala", I sounded it out and concluded that it must be spelt "amigdala".

When I looked it up I was disappointed that what sounded like an "i" should have been a "y". I am curious if there are any rules of the language I should be aware of to avoid making such a mistake in the future.


  • 1
    The only rule that will always work is "look it up in a dictionary". If you learn any other rule, you will still make mistakes — in addition to having to remember a rule that makes you make them in the first place. And this is not something specific to English, either. Spelling simply does not reflect pronunciation. Because that is not its (only) purpose. – RegDwigнt Dec 29 '13 at 22:40

I don't think there is anything about pronunciation or spelling that should tell you whether a word is more likely to contain a "y" or an "i" in an intermediate position. About the only thing you have to work with is the word origin.

  • Words derived from Greek are much more likely to have "y" in their spelling than are words of Latin origin, basically as a substitute for where the Greeks used ϒ ("upsilon").
  • The other exception to this is that before an ending that starts with a vowel, you generally won't find an "i" (crying, tying, dyad).
  • Thanks, now the next obvious question is - how do you know which words are derived from Greek vs Latin.. – user2202911 Dec 29 '13 at 20:50
  • 1
    No easy rule for that, I'm afraid. You'll have to develop that with practice. But the "stranger" the word sounds, the more likely it is to be Greek. But certain prefixes and suffixes always correspond to Greek (homo-, hetero-, mono-, poly-, -um) correspond to Greek, while others (uni-, circum-, a-, bi-, -us) derive from Latin. – aeismail Dec 29 '13 at 21:09

A couple of rules govern the use of I and Y:

1) English words do not end with I (nor do Eng. words end with U,V, or J) Therefore, I is used in the middle of English words, Y is used at the end of Eng. words.

2) The single vowel Y (not multi-letter phonograms: -oy, -ey, -ay) changes to I when adding ANY ending (try/tried; beauty/beautiful; baby/babies, copy/copier), UNLESS the ending begins with I (trying [rather than triing!]; babyish, copyist).*

*In English we do not have an I followed by an I: "Hawaii" and "skiing" are foreign words which have not been conformed to English rules.

RESOURCES REFERENCED: The above info is shared with thanks to Wanda Sanseri (BFI.com) in SPELL TO WRITE AND READ; to Romalda Spalding in THE WRITING ROAD TO READING; and to Margaret M. Bishop in THE ABC'S AND ALL THEIR TRICKS. Check out these resources for add'l info!

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.