March 29, 2004

The difference one letter can make

While I’m on the topic of dictionaries, a particular spelling convention came up in my English Writing class. The word was license/licence. I told my class the usual rule that the s spelling was for the verb, and the c spelling was for the noun, just as it is with practise/practice. I then started to wonder how universal this convention is. The OED makes the spelling distinction, pointing out that the “rule seems to have arisen from imitation of the spelling of pairs like advice sb., advise vb., which expresses a phonetic distinction of historical origin.”

As for American dictionaries, Merriam-Webster and the American Heritage Dictionary list the s spelling for both the verb and noun of license/license. M-W lists the c spelling as a variant and the AHD lists the c spelling as a “chiefly British variant.”

When it comes to Canadian spellings, which is what I’m really concerned with, the verb/noun distinction does seem to be generally accepted. Both the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and the Gage Canadian Dictionary follow the convention in their headwords (though the other spellings are accepted as variants). Is this spelling convention indeed in generally use?

Posted by Mark at March 29, 2004 06:29 PM

When I try to use the British “s” spelling for verb, the Mozilla dictionary suggests I use the “c” spelling. The default speller for Outlook tries to correct me when I use the “s” spelling. I have chosen the British dictionary for my Microsoft Works and Word, so I don’t have that problem there, but I don’t think the grammar check is set to distinguish the use of verb or noun. I know that spell checkers aren’t up to book dictionary standard, but then if we don’t expect much, the pressure isn’t applied or perceived to improve them.
Incidentally, I tried to find an OED at Barnes and Nobles in Savannah, Georgia, yesterday. There were only Oxford American among the choices of Oxford dictionaries of English.

Posted by: jean-pierre at March 30, 2004 07:42 AM