A grammarian on levels of spelling tolerance

by Ray Prebble / 02 February, 2019
licence or license

If you ever wonder whether to use licence or license, there is a pattern you can call on.

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007: License to Kill. Or is it Licence? 

Let’s face it, tidiness is relative. Someone tidier than you is OCD, and someone messier than you is a slob. So when you’re filling out those online dating forms, forget the requirements for a sense of humour, walks on the beach and art-house films. Just provide a series of six photos of an increasingly messy lounge and get your prospective mate to signal when the mess gets intolerable. It’s the best guarantee of everlasting happiness.

Knowledge of language is similar. Someone fussier than you about spelling and grammar is a tiresome pedant (especially if they insist on freely sharing their views), whereas you look down your nose at someone who makes mistakes you ironed out in Primer 4. But then there are some spelling traps that are just annoying for everybody.

Here’s one handy little tip. If you ever wonder whether to use licence or license, there’s a pattern you can call on: License and practise are trickier without the z sound in the -ise, so it’s a good memory aid. Americans don’t bother with this ise/ice distinction, sticking with -ice, which, given the inevitable Americanisation of the world, possibly adds to New Zealanders’ confusion.

Speaking of which, ask a roomful of people whether they spell “organise” with an s or a z and you’ll find at least one person who will heap scorn on the -ize form on the basis that it is an Americanism, corrupting our pure British language. They are wrong. As the Concise Oxford says, “Although -ize is used in American as well as British English, it is not an Americanism.” And it’s not a recent corruption, either – not another example of “where the language is going these days”. It’s as British as Shakespeare and warm beer. Note, though, that some words don’t take -ize in either country, such as “advertise”, “televise” and “exercise”.

Knowing which words take -ise and which take -ize was always a nice way of displaying one’s class (and knowledge of Greek). But with the reaction in the 20th century against the trappings of class came a tendency to simplify, and many publishers – in the UK, but especially in New Zealand – opted to use -ise in all cases. Writers and editors no longer had to lunge for the dictionary to check whether it is “recognise” or “recognize”.

Do you include acknowledgments or acknowledgements? US spelling tends to drop the “e”, as it does from “judgement”, although the New Zealand legal profession insists on “judgment” (and can get very testy about it). There’s no very sensible pattern going on here, though. UK usage (not useage) prefers “mileage” over “milage” and “ageing” over “aging”, but then runs with “lovable” over “loveable”. And both sides of the Atlantic use “changeable” and “peaceable”, to ensure the consonant is soft. When it comes to that annoying question of whether the correct ending on an unfamiliar word is -able or -ible, use a dictionary. Any rule I’ve ever seen has too many exceptions to be useful.

Finally, I do mourn the loss of “effect” and “affect”, now replaced by the all-purpose “impact”. It’s as if, as the 1990s wore on, everyone on the planet collectively decided it was just too damn hard to remember the difference. Effect and affect might have survived if one had only been a noun (The election had a significant effect) and the other only a verb (She was affected by her daughter’s death); but “effect” can be a verb (He strove to effect the organisational changes) and “affect” can (rarely) be a noun (Prozac produced flat affect in half the patients). I concede defeat, but be aware there are still many who despise sentences such as, “The closure impacted the factory workers.”

Take-home message: be careful before holding forth with great certainty and derision about English usage. What you learnt in Primer 4 may not be the end of the matter. 

This article was first published in the January 2019 issue of North & South.

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