English is a very difficult language to learn – and not just for those whose mother tongue is something else.
Native speakers may, in fact, have a harder time, because they may have picked up the rules (more or less accurately) by osmosis, rather than having them clearly articulated.
This is complicated by English spelling, which is fluid. Before the early 1700s, you could spell things more or less how you felt – which largely meant phonetically. There were, for example, 20-odd variants of Shakespeare in use during the playwright’s lifetime (and his own spelling of the name was inconsistent).
Even modern writers are faced with choices, and there isn’t always a clearly preferred spelling – as the following examples will attest.
Dreamed or dreamt?
Many verbs used to have past-tense forms ending in both –ed and-t. In modern English, one form or the other may survive, or sometimes both. It isn’t always clear which one is better: go by instinct.
No one still writes stopt or curst, but on the other hand you would always use crept, dealt, felt, kept, meant, slept and swept.
Verbs that could go either way: bereave, burn, dream, kneel, lean, leap, learn, smell, spell, spill, spoil.
Amongst and whilst are still with us, although the latter is not often seen in North America. Someone plumped for betwixt in response to the tip on between versus among, but don’t go there.
Preventive or preventative?
Both OK, shorter form better?
Roofs or rooves?
Both are correct. My instinct would have been to go for rooves, but the Oxford English Dictionary Online and Fowler’s Modern English Usage prefer roofs. Not sure I agree…
Similar words that could go either way (and Fowler prefers –fs except as noted): hoof, oaf, scarf (-ves better), staff (staffs when it’s about personnel, staves when musical), wharf.
And then, of course, there are the Toronto Maple Leafs, for whom there is no linguistic (or perhaps other) explanation. (The rapper Snoop Dogg likes Leafs for a different reason.)
Next time: should that be –able or –ible?