How to spell definite (not definate)

We usually start with syllables, sounds and graphemes then look at morphology to support memory but sometimes the morphology needs to come first and this is such a time. Ask everyone to doodle the concepts as you talk through the words.

1. Start with ‘finite’.

As with other words, you can start by counting syllables and saying them clearly then writing one syllable at a time. If your students don’t need that step, omit it.

Talk about what ‘finite’ means. Look it up in a dictionary or just tell them. If something is limited or has an end then it is finite. What things are finite in life?

2. Now add ‘in’ to make ‘infinite’

Note that the pronunciation is different but the meaning is still related. What does infinite mean? It has no end or limits. What is infinite in life? (Potentially a great discussion here.) So what does the ‘in’ suffix mean? It means not. (You can look these things up on etymonline.com)

3. Now let’s get to ‘definite’

When we think of ‘de’, we tend to assume it means ‘take away’ as in de-frost or de-stress. In this case however, it seems to mean ‘completely’. (Another interesting use of de- is to intensify the original word as in decry, declaim, declare.) So what does definite mean? It means not just finite but completely finite. Lunch isn’t just sometime today but at 12:15. That’s definite. It has a very specific boundary not just the idea of a boundary.

So now we’ve got finite – infinite – definite.

4. The quick spelling check for ‘definite’ is: if you can’t see ‘finite’, it’s not correct.

For a nice vocab stretcher for students who won’t be overwhelmed, look at indefinite – not definite but also not infinite.

PS This is also an example of the proper way to ‘look for words within words as opposed to the ‘toxic morphology’ of looking for completely unrelated words within words. There is no ‘cat in location’, ‘ache in teacher’ or ‘hen in then’ – all real suggestions for spelling those words.

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