practice and practise

I now do not remember where I took this photo of a museum label. Some museum I've been to in the UK in the last couple of years.  It's been sitting on my computer desktop to remind me to blog about practice and practise. Maybe it's for the best that I don't remember, as to mention them would feel like naming and shaming, since practise there is spel{led/t} wrong.



Let's start with the spelling facts:
  • In standard British spelling, the noun is practice and the verb is practise (in that picture it's a noun, and therefore should have a 'c'). If you need to remember which is which, think of advice and advise: the noun has 'c' and the verb has 's'. What's different, of course, is that advice and advise are pronounced differently. The letter 'c' usually doesn't represent the /z/ sound that you get in 'advise' (but the letter 's' often does). Practi{c/s}e is confusing because they're both pronounced the same, even though they're spel{led/t} differently. That is to say, they're homophones.
    Historical aside from the OED:
    The word was originally stressed on the second syllable [...], and this is still the case in some regional varieties, especially in Scots (hence such spellings as practize, practeeze, practeese). The stress was subsequently shifted to the first syllable, with devoicing of the final consonant, probably by association with practice n.
  • In standard American spelling, they're both practice. Noah Webster promoted dropping practise in his 1828 dictionary (and probably elsewhere), arguing that "[t]he orthography of the verb ought to be the same as of the noun; as in notice and to notice.]" But, like most of Webster's spellings, it didn't really take off in the US until after he was gone—in the late 19th century. 
Now, the reason I wanted to write about this is that the UK spelling seems to be going a bit buggy [orig. AmE]. People claim to me that American spellcheckers are making everyone write practice. But what I tend to see is a lot of practise where BrE should have practice, as in the photo above and this request from a UK-based copy editor's client::
Hi Lynne  I hope you're well. I wondered if you could verify something for me.  A client has asked for a "US spelling" of "community of practice" to be "community of practise".  I think this is incorrect, and I'd love to know what you think.
These kinds of experiences have led me to suspect that instead of American spelling taking over, we have another case like -ize/-ise (which, if you want to read some interesting facts about those, I have a book to sell you). That is, because one of the spellings (and not the other) is known by British people to be unacceptable in American English, that spelling is now perceived as"the British spelling" and then applied willy-nilly. In the case of practice/practise, this means that errors are introduced into the British spelling, while Americans (BrE) tootle along with one spelling. 

So, to test what's happening, I looked, as I like to do, for objective evidence—not filtered through my (or anyone else's) biased attention for one type of error or the other in everyday life. To do that, I looked up practice and practise in the British portion of the Corpus of Global Web-Based English (GloWBE), asked it to give me a random sample of 200 passages with each spelling, and then read each and identified any spelling errors (using the British rules). That is, I looked for nouns in the practise data and verbs in the practice data.

The result:

Of 200 British cases of the spelling practise, 65 were misspelled nouns.
Of 200 British cases of the spelling practice, 23 were misspelled verbs.

At the bottom of this post, I'll stick in screenshots of the data so you can see some examples.

Now, I am not convinced that people were ever good at keeping these spellings straight. Some people were, sure, but homonyms have given people trouble since people started standardi{s/z}ing spelling. We'd need some more historical data to see if this is the pattern of error has always been this way. But at least now, at least in this web-based data, there's less evidence of Americani{s/z}ation of British spelling and more evidence of counter-Americani{s/z}ation—people using the spelling they perceive as not-American, even though it's not the right spelling for standard British English.

Before I go: Some people say to me "I didn't know you were in my town! I would have come to see you talk if I'd known!" I keep my talk schedule posted here. If you're in Brighton or London (UK) in the next few weeks or the DC/Maryland area in August, have/take a look at the schedule and see if you can join us! 


Some noun practises on UK websites (click to enlarge)

Some verb practices on UK websites (click to enlarge)

35 comments

  1. I remember being taught in about grade 5 a way to remember which to use; "ice" (the frozen water) is a noun, so use "practice" for the noun, and "practise" for the verb. I still use this little trick because I'm sure I'd be getting it wrong otherwise.

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  2. I'm willing to bet that you saw that sign in St. Ives, Cornwall, where Leach had his studio.

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  3. This brought back memories from When my work was teaching on EFL courses. I suggested the students remembered which was which spelling by remembering that noun has two 'ns' and so practice, the noun, has two 'cs'.

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  4. Lynne: My daughter just finished a semester abroad at Kings College London, so when you mentioned your schedule for talks I clicked through to see if you have an event scheduled she might be able to attend. However, when I arrived at your scheduling page on The Prodigal Tongue and clicked the "Book here" link for "5th/London. What’s wrong with American English? (Nothing.)" my browser said this:

    This site can’t be reached gustave%20tuck%20lecture%20theatre%2C%20wilkins%20building%2C%20gower%20street%2C%20wc1e%206bt’s server IP address could not be found.

    I copied the link address and it reads as follows:

    http://gustave%20tuck%20lecture%20theatre%2C%20wilkins%20building%2C%20gower%20street%2C%20wc1e%206bt/

    Not much doubt that's not a valid URL!

    Thought you'd want to know.

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    1. Sorry about that, Dick! Here's the correct link: https://www.ucl.ac.uk/event-ticketing/booking?ev=18186&spektrix_bounce=true

      I'll fix it on the PT site now. Thanks for pointing it out.

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    2. Thanks, Lynne. I texted my daughter the link and told her your talk was free -- I just don't know if she'll still be in the UK come June 5th. (Right now she's in Croatia, of all places.) The truth is that *I'm* the one who wants to book a seat to your lecture, but I'm stuck on the other side of the Atlantic. Any chance your talk will be recorded and that University College London will put it up on their website -- and/or on YouTube -- so the rest of us can see it?

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    3. I suspect it might be recorded. Whether I decide to advertise that once it's done is another matter. :)

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  5. I am accustomed to BrE writers using the AmE verb, but I was brought up short recently by a member of my choir who wrote about her attendance at ‘practises’ several times in the same letter. It seems to be over-compensation for a difference that one is aware of, but not certain about.
    I use the ‘advise/ advice’ pairing to remember which is the verb - similarly in prophesy/ prophecy.
    However I think that the verb ‘notice’ is a noun that has been turned into a verb, within the last 100 years. I have several letters from my grandfather in the 1920s in which he uses the verb in inverted commas as if it was a new usage.

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  6. Thank you! I've wondered about the same thing (anti-American spellings). Are licence/license and defence/defense also affected?

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    1. I have not had the hours to look into licence/license yet, but 'license' as a verb is rarer than 'practise' as a verb, so I think that would be harder to tell about. 'Defen{c/s}e is a different situation because it's just that one is American and the other British, rather than having homonyms within one of the 'nationlects'.

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    2. I've certainly seen "licence" as a misspelt verb in Ireland, although far less than I've seen "license" as a misspelt noun. For example: "the bus stops only at licenced stops".

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    3. In American football I have seen the phrase "passes defensed" as an alternate to "passes defended", so the use of "defense" as a verb does seem to have some purchase in AmE.

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  7. From Down Under where our writing and pronunciation are caught between two major powers, and I instinctively know which practic/se to use, I did not know the rule. Thank you. Licence/license I do not know at all and I would like to. I have a driving licence? I am licensed to drive? Maybe I know that instinctively too.

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    1. According to Chambers dictionary, in the UK it's a driving licence. In the US, it's a driving license. The verb, it says, can be either to license or to licence, with no suggestion that one is used predominantly in either country.

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    2. Paul, in the US it seems to be a "driver's license" rather than a "driving license". "She got her driver's license when she turned 16." At least that seems predominant in the Midwest and California. (I don't recall Lynne covering this one, but it could have been a DotD.)

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    3. Well, as it happens, I don't actually have a driving (or driver's) licence. (Couldn't get the hang of driving.) I do have a television licence, but they don't have them in the US.

      I think the minimum age for driving in the UK is 17. It's the thing that I find odd in a lot of American TV to see school children driving. I knew no-one who learnt to drive when I was at school - too busy studying for our A-level exams - and I think I only knew one student with a car at university - too expensive. Of course, this was forty years ago, but I did see a statistic in the paper a year or two ago that fewer people under 25 were learning to drive.

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    4. I knew people who learned to drive while they were still at school. One of my friends had a Ford Anglia. I started learning to drive but stopped and didn't go back to it till I'd left uni.

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    5. Mind you, when I said forty years ago, I actually meant nearly 50. I left school and went to university in 1970.

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    6. I was mid 70s

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    7. Even in the late 60s it was a thing - I was at boarding-school and on at least one occasion saw a girl in the sixth form proudly driving herself back to school in a parent's car (the parent being there to drive the car home again - no on-site cars on this side of the Atlantic back then, and not many today, either).

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  8. I wonder if there is a much simpler explanation for the very many erroneous BrE uses that has nothing to do with anti-Americanism... assuming that people know the rule (and I'm guessing a fair few dont), maybe people dont know if their usage is a noun or a verb and so have to guess the spelling. I say 'people' but I mean 'me'. I know I've sat my computer having this conversation with myself, and I know I probably go with whatever the spell checker recommends. Looking at the lists you've included, I couldnt say with confidence the correct form to be used in each case. We were not really taught grammar when I went to school (b. 1970s) so if it's not an obvious verb/noun use then it becomes a guessing game. I also hadnt appreciated this difference doesnt exist in the US, which surprises me as I read a lot.

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    1. I've changed it to 'counter-Americani{s/z}ation' in the post now, which is what I usually call it, and which I think is more helpful.

      There are three reasons to think it isn't just bad spelling:
      1. If it were just bad spelling, wouldn't we see equal numbers of 's' misspellings and 'c' misspellings? Or even more 'c' since that's the spelling people will have seen more?
      2. We have evidence that counter-Americani{s/z}ation is going on in UK spelling, from the evidence of -ise (which I'm not going to go into in great detail here, except to say there's even a graph in the book! :) )
      3. It's not hard to find people who do believe that 'practice' is wrong "because it's American". That seems to be what was going on in the email I quoted, and you can easily find claims on line like this one: https://twitter.com/Frostbite___/status/336150080094601216

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    2. Ah, I should have known you'd have an evidence base!

      And BTW I love the book. I was going to give my copy to my mother when I finished it but I decided she can by her own ;-)

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  9. They say that the minute you learn something you see it everywhere. This morning from Wordsmith, Thought for the Day :

    As a general truth, communities prosper and flourish, or droop and decline, in just the degree that they practise or neglect to practise the primary duties of justice and humanity. -William Henry Seward, Secretary of State, Governor, and Senator (16 May 1801-1872)

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    1. Fun fact to know and tell: Seward was Abraham Lincoln's secretary of state and responsible for purchasing Alaska from the Russians. Many thought the purchase was ridiculous and labeled it "Seward's folly". If Seward died in 1872 it's unlikely he (or anyone else of his era) ever knew about the abundant oil reserves that lurked beneath the territory's surface.

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  10. Hi Lynne!

    You may have seen the sign at the British Museum in London. I was there recently and they had a whole gallery dedicated to Korean pottery and ceramics.

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    1. Bernard Leach is not known for being Korean!

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  11. Thanks for the interesting new post. I didn't see a link to the -ise/ize question in it, so I presume it's OK to comment on it here briefly. I've now decided to use -ize per British English spelling rules in all my translations into British or Irish English. It does often mean I have to explain it to my clients a little beforehand, as many Finns will have been taught wrongly in school that one is British and the other American.

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  12. Off topic, I just received your book from Amazon.

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  13. Wow, now I know better about "practise" and practice". Thank You

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  14. Fascinating stuff, as always. I just thought I'd point out that there seems to be some bugginess in the text, appropriately enough next to the word "buggy". On the screen, there's just a spare "[", but looking at the source, I think a whole sentence may have been eaten by the editing software.

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    1. Thanks, Rowan. This comment got lost in the comment buffer for a bit—apologies. I've fixed the post now. Thanks again!

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Abbr.

AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)