I cannot quite understand why the 'L' is not doubled when forming 'detailed' from 'detail'. Is that an exemption to the consonant doubling, or did I simply not understand the rules?

From the answers to When is "L" doubled?

When you have a verb that ends in a vowel plus "L" and you are going to add an ending that begins with a vowel then you double the "L".

Example: "They have tunnelled under the wall." vs "They have detailed the plan to tunnel under the wall."

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    I think the British doubling rule may only apply to words with a single vowel before the l. I don't know for sure as I'm American. – sumelic Jun 13 '16 at 0:15
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    @gschenk No, the rules for L are an exception in British English. :) They don't work like the rules for P, T, K, S, B, D J (and so forth). For the rules, see below! – Araucaria Jun 13 '16 at 0:52
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    @TrevorD L is an exception in English - see below :-) – Araucaria Jun 13 '16 at 0:53
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    @HotLicks Not in BE it ain't. (It's not a 'rule' any more or less than any other spelling rule in English) but it's a lot more than a tendency! – Araucaria Jun 13 '16 at 1:04

In British English, in which L is often doubled before inflectional suffixes, it is normally only doubled when there is just one of the letters A, E, I, O, U directly before the last consonant before the suffix:

  • detail[ed] (two of these letters, A & I, behind the suffix - no double L).
  • travel[led] (just one E before the suffix, therefore double L).

L is an exception in British English. It doesn't behave for doubling purposes like other consonants, for example P, T, K, B, D, G. Importantly, it does not matter whether the syllable it occurs in is stressed or not.

American English does not have this L doubling rule. In American English, as with other consonants, the L is only doubled if the syllable before the suffix is stressed.

There are also, as always with English spelling, exceptions to the rule.

  • The word travelled was used as an example for an exception in the two syllable rule mentioned in english.stackexchange.com/questions/323880/… I wonder if the reason is that the stress shifted to the first syllable, as it derives from travailler, where the stress is on the second sylable. – gschenk Jun 13 '16 at 0:57
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    @gschenk Maybe! (I don't know, but it might be an idea :) – Araucaria Jun 13 '16 at 1:01
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    @gschenk FYI, that rule that applies to other consonants only works if there is a single vowel before the consonant, not a a double one ... :-) – Araucaria Jun 13 '16 at 1:03
  • "...directly behind the last consonant..." "Behind"? They're in front of the last consonant, not behind it. – T.J. Crowder Jun 13 '16 at 7:18

Here are some good rules of thumb for knowing when to use a doubled consonant (from David Crystal's book Spell it Out). The OP's example either has a long vowel or falls under exception 1(c). Interestingly the French cognate of the word (détaillé) has the double l.

  1. (a) To indicate that the previous vowel is short (hopping vs. hoping), except (b) in words consisting of a single closed syllable ending in nasals or plosive (pan, not pann, but scuff and bill), and except (c) when the short vowel is written with two letters (breaded), and except (d) when the consonant itself is written with two letters (dishes), and except (e) when the consonant is v or x (axes, devil).
  2. Except not in sets of related words formed from adding (or not) Latinate suffixes (athlete vs. athletic).
  3. Except not in some later French and Latin loan words (proper vs. pepper)
  • Thank you, this puts the rule discussed in the other answer in a wider context, explaining the reasons for it. I find this rather helpful, and appreciate it. – gschenk Jun 13 '16 at 2:59
  • @gschenk This answer is very good for explaining why uninflected words like pen or till have a double or single letter at the end. However, it won't explain why the N in panned needs to be doubled, or why the L in tunnelled is doubled. The rule for doubling is different before inflections. – Araucaria Jun 13 '16 at 9:42
  • If you put in the info about your rules applying to words without inflectional suffixes, then I will upvote it! – Araucaria Jun 13 '16 at 10:10
  • Nice data. It won't explain the double L in tunelled or travelled, for example, though. You say "pan not pann" but the verb is "panning" or "panned" but not "paning" or "paned". These rules from Crystal refer to words before they get inflections, not afterwards. (This is why Crystal gives pan and not pann and bill and not bill and has the rules about plosives and nasals). – Araucaria Jun 13 '16 at 12:44
  • @Araucaria I'd guess that panned had two syllables at the time its spelling was fixed. – jlovegren Jun 14 '16 at 2:41

The comments pointed me to an answer to my own question (ta!).

Exceptions to the doubling rules are discussed in Double Consonants in Gerund .

Relevant here is the rule:

Two-syllable words: ED = If the stress is on the first syllable, the word only gets one consonant + ED.

(from http://a4esl.org/q/h/9807/km-doubles.html)

In British English the stress is on the first sylable of detail, [ˈdi(ː)teɪɫ] (source wictionary).

As an amusing aside, in American, the stress is apparently on the second sylable: If consonants were doubled in American English, it would be detailled in the US and detailed in the UK, wouldn't it?

Please note: While writing this I have been informed by Araucaria that these rules would not apply to this problem. Please consider above in the light of that comment.

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    I'm afraid that won't work for L. L is an exception in (British) English. For this reason there is a double L in words like tunnelled, which has first syllable stress. There's a double L in travelled, which also has first syllable stress. In American English that rule won't work either, because detailed has second syllable stress, because like in British English, we only find double a consonant when there is a single vowel before that consonant! – Araucaria Jun 13 '16 at 0:58
  • Thanks for the comment! Isn't the stress for tunnel on the second syllable? Would you explain the single vowel, wouldn't it need to be writable with a diaeresis to be phonetically two vowels? That is detaïled, which it is not. – gschenk Jun 13 '16 at 1:04
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    No, in tunnel it's on the first. – Araucaria Jun 13 '16 at 1:04
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    No one said anything about phonetic vowels! I made the point in my post by using capital letters to refer to letters. This is a spelling rule which relates to letters (and which only vaguely relates to pronunciation in the case of L). I've got to split, but if you've more questions, leave them here and I'll get back to you :) – Araucaria Jun 13 '16 at 1:06
  • I suppose I must have been influenced by my native German there. There it is certainly on the second, expressed by the spelling 'Tunell' (in Austria and Switzerland, in Germany it is spelled Tunnel, while being pronounced alike). – gschenk Jun 13 '16 at 1:09

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