Monthly Archives: October 2015

Licence or license? Practice or practise?

If you’re American, it’s simple: use license and practice and you won’t go wrong.

If you’re British, things are more complicated. Use licence and practice as nouns and license and practise as verbs. The adjectives formed from the verbs also have the s spelling.

Hence this passage from the UK’s General Medical Council:

If you want to continue to hold a licence to practise, then you will need to revalidate like every other doctor who is licensed. However, you may not need a licence to practise if you don’t carry out any clinical practice.

This is glorious in its precision, but also quite magnificently daft.

Let’s face it: this distinction is pointless. The Americans are right to reject it. It serves no purpose other than to make some people feel confused, to make others feel smug, and to waste everyone’s time. Precisely zero confusion would result if we spelt the verbs and nouns the same way.

Why do we in Britain have this distinction? (From what I gather, most other English-speaking countries follow British rules, although Canadian usage leans towards American.)

The rule is often explained by analogy with advice (noun, with a c) and advise (verb, with an s) – or device and devise, or prophecy and prophesy. That’s how I learned which one to use. But with these three pairs, we pronounce them differently too. So it still seems odd.

And many other words manage perfectly well to do double duty as verbs and nouns without needing their endings spelt differently: promise, release, incense, reverse, discourse, divorce, advance, silence, sentence, notice

What’s going on?

Looking into the history, I found that the practice/practise distinction is much older and better-established than the licence/license one. Practice/practise was in place 300 years ago, and for a while the pronunciations did differ, but licence/license was a 19th-century rationalisation that has struggled to catch on. And both distinctions are now weakening.


According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the P-word first appeared in English about 600 years ago. This was, to quote Terry Pratchett, “before they invented spelling”. So early forms are all over the place: practysse, practyce, praktese, practis… and many more!

I looked at the OED’s example sentences over the centuries to see how often spellings with c and s – and even z – were recorded across the centuries. With the caveat that this is just a small selection, there does seem to be a pattern:


At first, the word was mostly used as a verb and mostly spelt with an s. This fits with the etymology, which the OED roots in the Middle French practiser and the Latin practizare. Then the noun use grew, and as it grew it became more likely to have a c, as was more usual for nouns. This in turn influenced the verb spelling, giving it a c some of the time. But by the 1700s, the distinction was pretty firmly there.

The early z spellings – more common for the verb than the noun – are intriguing. Here are a couple:

Pleasanter to practize is this than the former and moste exact for Altitudes. (1560)

He practized the vtter ouerthrowe not onely of all Christian societie, but of the state of the whole world also. (1581)

These hint at a different pronunciation. The OED reports that the verb “was originally stressed on the second syllable”, but later shifted to match the stress of the noun. With –ize endings, you can see how that might have gone.

And take this 1439 poem by John Lydgate, in which he rhymes practised with devised:


Either it was spoken differently back then or Lydgate was just a useless poet.

And there’s more recent evidence.

In the introduction to his 1836 dictionary, Benjamin Humphrey Smart talks about the pronunciation of similar nouns and verbs. He points out that one way we sometimes distinguish the two is with a difference of stress: for example, refuse is stressed on the first syllable as a noun but on the second as a verb. This pattern is far from universal, but there are definitely others: incense, contract, upset, conduct

Then Smart says:

The vulgar, then, are in the right when they say prac’tice [noun, stress on the first] and to practise’ [verb, stress on the second]; but here… the caprice of fashion interferes, and in this one instance obliges us to pronounce noun and verb, though differently spelled, in all respects alike.

Whichever “vulgar” people he had in mind, this shows that an alternative pronunciation for practise was still getting some use as recently as the early 1800s.

If the noun and verb were stressed differently, that would fit with their being spelt differently, too – just like advice and advise. Then, after a while, the pronunciation of the increasingly common noun took over that of the verb, but the spellings – with a body of written evidence to establish them – stayed as they were.

In more recent history, the Google Books data shows that, from 1800 to 2000, the practice spelling of the noun has reigned supreme, with practise very rare. The verb’s spelling has been more mixed, but practise has consistently been well ahead of practice – until recently. This recent rise in practice as a verb might be part of the catastrophic modern decline in literacy that swivel-eyed liberals have inflicted upon our once-great education system, but I think it’s more likely that this is a sign of growing American influence.


The L-word (spelt at first in various ways) is about as old as practice/practise. But the licence/license distinction isn’t. Looking again at the OED’s example sentences, century by century:


Here there’s much less of a pattern. C was more common for both noun and verb at first, and then the s spelling became more common for the verb – but also quite common for the noun.

From these sentences, there’s limited evidence to back up the OED’s claim that the licence/license distinction is “now prevailing usage”. That claim was made in 1902 (the entries for practice and practise were updated in 2006).

The OED of that day seems to have been fighting a battle. It notes that late-19th-century dictionaries “almost universally have license both for noun and verb, either without alternative or in the first place”, but insists that the s spelling “has no justification in the case of the noun”.

Samuel Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 uses s for the noun, although noting some examples that use c:

johnson license noun

The first dictionary I can find to state the distinction is Smart’s of 1836:

smart def

He explains that this is because of the general principle that –ce is a noun ending while –se is a verb ending. This ignores, of course, promise, release, incense, reverse, discourse, divorce, advance, silence, sentence, notice etc.

However, Smart doesn’t observe the distinction himself. Elsewhere in the book he defines apothecary as “a dispenser of medicines, having also a license to practise medicine” and allowance as “Sanction, license, permission”.

Likewise for other members of the 19th-century grammarati. Henry Alford, in his bestselling The Queen’s English (1846), doesn’t observe it:

A curious extension of this license is sometimes found.

I expect we shall soon see “groceress” and “tea-dealeress,” and licenced “vendress of stamps.”

And Henry Sweet, in A New English Grammar (1892), acknowledges both spellings for the noun.

Then the OED, echoing Smart, laid down the law, and from the Google Books data the c spelling of the noun did become more common in the early 20th century. Later in the century, though, the s spelling began rising again – US influence, I’d guess, as with practise.

The spelling of the verb was mixed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, although from the 1980s the s spelling shot up. There could be two reasons for this: either a modern surge in prescriptivism or growing US influence. The latter fits much better with the other results.

So, at no point in British history has the licence/license distinction been dominant. Its supporters (like Henry Fowler in 1926) did their best, but on the whole people persist in not finding much use for it.

In the 21st century

Most modern British dictionaries still state both distinctions as fact. The only exception I’ve seen is the online Oxford Dictionaries, whose entries feed into the gradual updating of older OED entries. It accepts that licence is now “an acceptable variant spelling of the verb”.

What about recent usage?

As far as I can tell, in edited text, spelling still mostly follows the dictionaries. So for business writing I’d recommend doing the same, for the time being. But more broadly, the distinctions are unravelling – at least in unedited writing.

For that, I looked at GLOWBE, a corpus of online usage from 2012 (while some websites are edited, many aren’t). On British web pages, this is where we are:

  • Practice as a noun remains dominant: it’s more than 20 times as common as practise (comparing searches for the practice and a practice with the practise and a practise).
  • Practice as a verb makes a surprisingly strong showing: you practice, they practice and we practice are all more than twice as common as the practise equivalents. Practised and practising are still more common than practiced and practicing, but not by much.
  • Licence as a noun is only about twice as common as license.
  • License as a verb seems to be about twice as common as licence (although the numbers are small on either side). Licensed and licensing are 15–20 times as common as licenced and licencing.

I think we’re in the middle of a generational shift. Soon, dictionaries will accept practice as a variant spelling of the verb. Then, as it becomes more and more popular, they’ll stop labelling it variant. Practise will survive but seem old-fashioned, like whilst or homoeopathy.

Licence/license will become blurrier: more dictionaries will accept licence for the verb, and then license for the noun (all those “software licenses” we see). Eventually we’ll have a situation like that of adviser/advisor or artefact/artifact, where the choice is a matter of taste. I doubt licence will completely disappear: many of the bodies that issue licences are traditionally minded. No transport minister would ever want to announce to Parliament the Americanisation of driving licence.

Those of us who’ve had the distinctions drilled into our heads will continue to twitch when we notice a “wrong” spelling, but in time we’ll die out. The earth will close over our heads and English will live on, that bit more efficient for being rid of us.

Contractions: which are common and which aren’t?

Contractions – “you’re”, “we’ll”, “can’t”, “don’t” etc. – generally make language sound less formal, and avoiding them makes it more formal.

Over the years, contractions have become more acceptable higher up the formality spectrum. This is part of a general shift that’s been going on for decades: styles of language that were once firmly seen as casual are now more widely used in more businesslike contexts. Likewise, styles of language that would have been common and neutral in, say, the 1950s now tend to come across as very formal.

On the whole, your best bet is to trust your judgement. Use contractions or not depending on whether you feel comfortable saying the phrase that way, in that sentence, in that context, for that audience. But take care: if your tastes are more old-fashioned or new-fangled than your audience’s, you may miss your mark.

And if you’d like some evidence to double-check your judgement against, I have plenty – from COCA, the Corpus of Contemporary American English.

COCA is a database of English use – 450 million words’ worth – from a wide range of sources. It covers fiction, newspapers, magazines, academic journals, and transcripts of unscripted TV and radio, from 1990 to 2012.

I searched COCA for 77 contractions and their spelt-out counterparts (there are others, but life is short). For instance, I searched for “didn’t” and “did not”, recorded the number of uses per million words, and then divided the “didn’t” number by the “did not” number.

This gives the relative frequency of use for each contraction: how common each is relative to its spelt-out version. A small number means a phrase is rarely contracted, 1 means both versions are equally common, and more than 1 means it’s usually contracted. The more common a contraction is, the more comfortable you can feel about using it.

Before we get into the detail, here are two top-level findings, averaged across all 77 contractions. First, the trend over time:

cont time

Over just a couple of decades, contraction use has increased.

Second, the differences between different kinds of source (averaged across 1990–2012):

cont sources

No surprises here. Contractions are extremely common in speech and fiction, quite common in magazines and newspapers, and less common in academic journals.

The next tables, getting into the detail, only cover non-fiction writing. This is because I think people are generally happy judging when to contract phrases in speech (and fiction, for those who write it). So from here on, I’m only looking at newspapers and magazines (averaged together, as their overall results are similar) and at academic journals.

Here are contractions ending in “–n’t”:

cont not

The lower the frequency, the more cautious it’s wise to be. But even for common contractions, there will be sentences where it’s better to spell them out. And for rarer contractions, there will be sentences where they work better.

The other common kind of contraction is the sort that joins a pronoun and a verb of the “be” or “have” families or “will”, “would” or “had”.

Here it gets a bit tricky:

  • “Would” and “had”. “I’d” can mean “I would” or “I had”. So to get meaningful results, I had to search for slightly longer phrases. I compared “I would be” with “I’d be” and “I had been” with “I’d been”. Likewise for other pronouns.
  • “Is” and “has”. “It’s” can mean “it is” or “it has”. So I compared “it is being” with “it’s being” and “it has been” with “it’s been”. Likewise for the pronouns “he”, “she”, “who” and “that”. This doesn’t work for “there”, because “there is being” doesn’t really get any use. So I compared “there’s been” with “there has been” and “there is a” with “there’s a” (“there has a” is pretty much non-existent).

These are the results:

cont new&mags

cont journals 2

“Be” verb phrases are the ones most often contracted. In newspapers and magazines, the other kinds (especially “will”) are also often contracted. “Is” is contracted more often than “has”, and “would” is contracted more often than “had”. In journals the pattern is mostly similar but the numbers are smaller.

In both tables, “you” phrases are the most often contracted, followed by “I” and “we”. First-person writing tends to be more casual, and writing that addresses the reader in the second person even more so. Phrases using other personal pronouns – “he”, “she” and “they” – are next-most-often contracted. “It” and “there” phrases follow, although most of the contractions there are “it’s” and “there’s”. Bringing up the rear are “who” and “that” phrases (with a strong showing from “that’s”).

I looked at a few other contractions that don’t fit either of the above groups.

“Should’ve”, “would’ve” and “could’ve” are pretty rare, with relative frequencies of 0.02–0.03 in newspapers and magazines, and 0.00 in journals. “Let’s” (for “let us”) is very common, scoring 3.79 in newspapers and magazines and 0.70 in journals.

I’ll end by quoting some recent usage manual and style guides with advice that, in light of this data, seems fair:

Contractions of the type I’m (= I am) and don’t (= do not) are exceedingly common in informal and online writing and increasingly found in various kinds of fairly formal contexts (e.g. in book reviews).

– Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (2015)

In the past they were felt to be too colloquial for the written medium, and editors of academic journals are still inclined to edit them out. The writers of formal documents may feel that they undermine the authority and dignity of their words. But the interactive quality that contractions lend to a style is these days often sought, in business and elsewhere. They facilitate reading by reducing the space taken up by predictable elements of the verb phrase, and help to establish the underlying rhythms of prose.

– Cambridge Guide to English Usage (2004)

Many writers, especially those who write in formal situations, feel uncomfortable with contractions. And perhaps contractions don’t generally belong in solemn contexts.

But why shouldn’t writers use them in most types of writing? Some excellent writers use contractions to good effect, even in books…

The common fear is that using contractions can make the writing seem breezy. For most of us, though, that risk is nil. What you gain should be a relaxed manner – not breeziness.

– Garner’s Modern American Usage (2009)

Sometimes, lots of ‘cannot’, ‘should not’ etc can seem archaic and formal. That’s a tone we can move away from without jeopardising the overall tone of information coming from government.

Writing for GOV.UK (2015)

Most types of writing benefit from the use of contractions. If used thoughtfully, contractions in prose sound natural and relaxed and make reading more enjoyable. Be-verbs and most of the auxiliary verbs are contracted when followed by not: are–aren’t; was–wasn’t; cannot–can’t; could not–couldn’t; do not–don’t; and so on. A few, such as ought not–oughtn’t, look or sound awkward and are best avoided. Pronouns can be contracted with auxiliaries, forms of have, and some be-verbs. Think before using one of the less common contractions, which often don’t work well in prose, except perhaps in dialogue or quotations. Some examples are I’d’ve (I would have), she’d’ve (she would have), it’d (it would), should’ve (should have), there’re (there are), who’re (who are), and would’ve (would have). Also, some contracted forms can have more than one meaning. For instance, there’s may be there is or there has, and I’d may be I had or I would. The particular meaning may not always be clear from the context.

– Chicago Manual of Style (2010)