It Could Go Either Way

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?

Neil Guthrie (@guthrieneil)


  1. There is a linguistic explanation for Maple Leafs, and a simple one at that.

    “It follows the simple rule that nouns used as proper nouns take regular (productive) plurals even if their common noun counterparts have irregular plurals.”

    See also Steven Pinker, _Words and Rules_

  2. Some of the -ed/-t variants have different usages e.g. bereft = deprived of, bereaved = a relative died.

    e.g. burnt offering, but burned frying pan (maybe something totally consumed is burnt but something only singed is burned?)

    preventive as adjective, preventative as noun. I have taken preventive measures, I have done this as a preventative.

    Never heard or seen ‘rooves’ (or ‘oaves’)

    It is certainly interesting how many options one can find in current English, though, and that’s without going into regional usages.

    Maybe it’s just as well that you can’t readily get into pronunciation in this format. I recall a high-school English teacher asking the class if ‘leisure’ should be pronounced lee-zhur or leh-zhur. The smart kid in the class said the word could be pronounced ee-ther/eye-ther way.

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