English spellings can quickly become confusing, especially when certain words can be spelled more than one way. Unfortunately, there are not always grammatical rules that can easily be memorized and applied.
The adjective “sweet” refers to something sweet-tasting, but it can also be written as a noun — an affectionate term of endearment spelled “sweetie” or “sweety.” The word is most commonly spelled with an “ie” rather than a “y,” though both are considered correct. Certain words, such as “sweetie,” can have multiple applications and meanings.
It is important to understand cultural nuances when words have multiple interpretations. Continue reading to learn more about the history of the word “sweet,” what “sweetie” means, and why we should avoid using it in certain instances.
Words and Meanings: the History and Meaning of Sweet
The word “sweet” found its origin in Old English and is over 5,000 years old. Spelled quite differently than what we see today, the Old English spelling was “swete,” and simply meant pleasing to the senses, mind, or feelings (source).
It also meant to have a pleasing disposition or character.
Old English refers to the oldest and earliest recorded form of the English language (source). It dates back to the 5thcentury. Over time, the English alphabet developed as an adaptation and adoption of aspects of Latin.
Interestingly, and part of the reason for some confusion when determining correct spellings in English, spelling was never really standardized. Rather, words were constructed phonetically, based on sound, and changed both over time and geographically.
The same holds true today — spelling in English can be complicated and confusing.
Understanding the Meaning of Sweet
In today’s English, as well as other languages, the most common meaning for the word “sweet” is simple — pleasant, agreeable, or pleasurable. And in all languages, the word can and does refer to more than how something tastes.
In the mid-13th century, “sweet” referred to a person who was found to be in a wholesome state. In later iterations of Old English, the word could also refer to freshwater as opposed to saltwater.
But it wasn’t until the late 1600s that we’d find the word used to refer to a person’s feelings for another, as in “He was sweet on her,” which essentially reflects romantic feelings between two people.
There are other interpretations of sweet as well, but they all center on human senses or feelings, whether taste, smell, or emotion.
You can smell sweet if you are wearing a pleasant scent or perfume, describe a sound as sweet if the melody is pleasing to the ear, and even the weather has been referred to as sweet on a beautiful, warm summer day.
Here are a few sample sentences where “sweet” is used to refer to a variety of different concepts:
1. The sunshine felt sweet on my face today, the first day of Spring.
2. Her perfume smells as sweet as a rose.
3. The cupcakes were deliciously sweet.
4. I could tell that she was sweet for the boy down the street.
As you can see above, “sweet” can be used to describe much more than taste.
The word also began to adopt additional meaning toward the 19th century, including to describe something as easy or manageable.
And today, in combination with all of the above, the word can also be used as an intensifier or as part of a metaphor, such as “She was sweet as pie.”
As part of a metaphor, you might see the word “sweet” to create a comparison between two things to show that something not usually referred to as sweet has a positive or pleasurable connotation.
In the sentence above, we know that the subject of the sentence, she, is a kind person because she is being compared to a sweet dessert, pie.
An intensifier is a word, more specifically, an adverb or adverbial phrase — a word or phrase that explains how something is done — that strengthens the meaning of an expression to show added emphasis (source).
Below is an example showing how “sweet” can be used as an intensifier.
1. She yelled, “Sweet heavens!” when she saw all of the kittens for sale.
2. “Sweet Lord!” she sighed, “It is so hot outside today.”
The intensifying phrases “Sweet heavens” and “Sweet Lord” add emphasis to the meaning and emotion coming from the speaker.
Understanding Connotations for the Word Sweet
Clearly, the word “sweet” carries with it quite a few applications and uses, but there is one similarity that will help us better understand how and when to use the word “sweetie,” whether spelled with the “ie” or a “y.”
We’ll talk more about how you should spell it next, but first, let’s break down how it is used and its connotative meaning.
The connotation of a word refers to the feeling or idea associated with it (source).
Above, we learned that we could actually use the adjective “sweet” in many different ways and refer to many different ideas, including people, places, and things, too.
But we can also change the form of the word from an adjective to a noun. And instead of using it to describe someone or something, we can use “sweetie” or “sweety” to refer to a person.
A person who is a sweetie is one who has desirable characteristics or qualities, whether in reference to romantic feelings or other uses, such as a way to describe a child. Here are a few examples — note we will use the “ie” suffix here.
1. The little girl was such a sweetie, always smiling and saying hello.
2. My sweetie brought me roses for my birthday.
Above, you can see that sweetie is no longer an adjective but rather a noun (person).
In the first sentence, the little girl is a sweetie because she seems to be caring, and, in the second, the speaker’s partner is her “sweetie” because they have romantic feelings for one another.
But there are times that it is culturally unacceptable to use the word “sweetie” to refer to a person. Let’s take a look at why, next.
When to Avoid the Use of the Word Sweetie
Sometimes, the way words are used can be offensive or sound condescending, which means that the person speaking (or writing) is doing so with an attitude of superiority or a patronizing tone.
Here are a few particular instances when you should avoid “sweetie”:
1. In the workplace
2. In business writing
3. When a relationship is not consensually romantic
4. When a relationship is one of acquaintance
Even though the term sweetie has, in general, a positive connotation, it can be misinterpreted when it is used in a way that makes a person feel uncomfortable, so it is best to avoid it altogether if you are uncertain.
Really, the only time the word should be used in reference to another person is if that person is a child, such as in the example in the above section.
Or, if the person is your partner or significant other, or perhaps if you are referring to a friend’s relationship to his or her partner.
When it comes to business-style writing, formality is essential (source), and the word “sweetie” is considered culturally inappropriate for both males and females.
While certain business communication pieces do still retain a friendly tone, many view the word “sweetie” as offensive.
In the workplace, it’s best if we avoid using colloquial terms such as “sweetie” altogether, too. Similar to business writing, business relationships require a sense of formality.
The best way to address a person in the workplace or in business writing is by their name or appropriate pronoun.
And finally, even if one person has romantic feelings for another, “sweetie” should be avoided unless the relationship is mutual.
You will want to avoid calling a person “sweetie” unless he or she has expressed approval — the same is true for other nicknames, such as “honey.”
Next, we’ll talk a bit more about the correct spelling and why you should generally use the “ie” ending rather than the “y.” However, before we do that, be sure to get yourself a copy of both The Oxford New Essential Dictionary and Dreyer’s English (a style guide).
You can purchase both on Amazon, and you will find them immensely helpful as you navigate the intricacies of the English language.
“Sweetie” versus “Sweety”: Which Is Correct?
There’s really not a direct answer to which spelling is correct, except to say that most often, in English writing, you will find an “ie” ending at the end of the word “sweetie,” not a “y” (source).
For many, this can be confusing because other words do not follow in the same manner.
One example is the word “sweat.” Sweat is a noun, but when you change this particular noun to an adjective to describe how someone looks, we add a “y” suffix to the end of the word to result in “sweaty.”
It would be incorrect to spell the word “sweatie,” so why not an “ie” here?
Unfortunately, there’s no specific rule to follow and no real explanation as to why this is the case. Many have agreed that it all comes down to the changes languages tend to undergo over time.
Spellings are hugely dependent on the history of the word, both where and when it originated.
A lot of shortened names that we give others with whom we have intimate relationships end in an “i” or “y” sound, too. “Mom” becomes “mommy” or “dad” becomes “daddy.” You’ll rarely hear a child call his or her mom “mother,” as it is very formal.
To learn more about different, less formal names for “mother,” take a look at our article on “momma” or “moma.”
You’ll often hear little children add a similar sound to a variety of words, words such as “dog,” for example, especially in reference to a pet. Interestingly, similar to the word “sweet,” both the “ie” suffix and “y” suffix are considered correct here as well.
So, it would be correct to write both “doggie” and “doggy.” It comes down to what is most commonly seen as well as personal preference.
However, you’ll not often find the word “doggie” or “doggy” in writing unless you are dealing with children’s literature as, again, there is a shift in formality both in writing and, of course, how we speak as we grow from adolescents to adults.
Other instances where both the “y” suffix and “ie” suffix are applied interchangeably are nicknames. Again, these are instances of intimate relationships.
Parents may choose to call their son, Fred, “Freddie” or “Freddy.” Or, perhaps, “John” becomes “Jonny” or “Jonnie.”
The important thing to remember is that regardless of spelling, these nickname or “pet” name words, including “sweetie,” are reserved for intimate, close relationships.
They should not be used to refer to people with whom you are an acquaintance or unfamiliar with.
When in doubt, you can do a quick search to find out which spelling is most commonly used. As a rule of thumb, most native English speakers will easily be able to identify the most recognizable spelling, even when there are multiple variations of a word.
So, don’t hesitate to ask, especially when it comes to tricky words like “sweetie.”
English spelling is challenging. Sometimes, there are rules that you can follow to ensure you are spelling words correctly. Other times, it all comes down to memorization. And, more often than not, spelling doesn’t make all that much sense!
Depend on the resources around you, as well as native English speakers, when it comes to understanding the connotations of particular words and when and where to use them correctly — without being offensive.
Over time, many of these words will become more and more familiar to you, and you’ll have a much easier time figuring out which spellings are correct and most commonly used.