Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Practice or practise?

These two are not spelling variants but two different words: practice is the correct spelling of the noun and practise should only be used for the verb.  So, in British English at least, you always spell practised, practising and so on with an <s>.  But in many cases the two are confused, so that people frequently use them the wrong way round.  The charity Mencap has launched an online Spelling Bee for primary and secondary schools to give children the opportunity to ‘practice’ their spelling.  Sarah Brown, wife of then Prime Minister Gordon Brown, came under fire from the Twitter language police when, having returned from a trip to a kids’ bowling party, she confessed that she would have ‘to practice more’.

The source of both words is the verb practise, which was derived from a French word practiser ‘to strive’ in the 15th century, pronounced with the stress on the second syllable.  The noun was derived from the verb and was originally spelled practise; it was subsequently spelled with the –ice ending to bring it into line with words like justice, cowardice and malice, where the –ice ending derives from the Latin ending –itia.  While, in practice (not practise), this allowed a written distinction between the two words, the two spellings were interchangeable until the 18th century.  To make matters worse, the pronunciation of the verb also changed, with the stress shifting to the first syllable, so that the two words became interchangeable in speech too.  Since the 19th century, the single spelling practice has been used for both noun and verb in the US, making things a whole lot simpler.  What would we lose if British spelling were to follow suit?

Thursday, 7 March 2013


This was once the standard spelling of the word height, comprising the adjective high and the same -th ending that was added to broad to give breadth and long to form length.  But Northern speakers of English changed the -th sound to a -t; while heighth was preserved in southern dialects up to the 18th century, it was the Northern pronunciation that was ultimately adopted into the standard.  The reason we don’t say breadt and lengt is that these are not common combinations of consonants in spoken English.  Try saying them – it’s not easy!  The spelling highth was preferred by Milton, which earned him the censure of Dr Johnson who, in the preface to his Dictionary, criticised the ‘zeal for analogy’ which led Milton to adopt this form.

The older form has survived longer in the US; judging from comments found in the online Urban Dictionary, heighth is particularly associated with southern California.  One definition states ‘This is not a word, even though everyone in southern California uses it.  Don’t combine width and height into heighth. That’s just wrong’.  Another definition, which also links its use with southern California, warns that using this word makes you appear ‘about 30 IQ points dumber’.  The heighth spelling clearly provokes strong feelings: there are no less than three Facebook groups dedicated to its suppression – one is simply called ‘Its Height not Heighth’ (notice the misspelling of it’s!).  The Republican presidential candidate Rick Perry discovered this to his cost when he employed this form in a debate with Mitt Romney in Las Vegas in October 2011, leading to adverse publicity about his ‘pronunciation problem’.  It’s a common spelling on discussion forums, especially ones concerned with DIY.  In one poignant post on Yahoo answers a disappointed lover asks: ‘Why are women so shallow about heighth?’  Amidst all the well-meaning responses, no one pointed out the very real possibility that it is his spelling of height that is the real obstacle.