Saturday, May 06, 2006

Judg[e]ment about acknowledg[e]ment

On a publishing mailing list, a member asked why we Americans prefer judgment over judgement and acknowledgment over acknowledgement (the latter spellings being preferred in Canada and the UK)—especially as spell checkers accept both. As with many such American–British spelling differences, this one traces directly to Noah Webster.

My 1856 edition of his dictionary shows both words with only the single spelling, sans e. By the Second Unabridged, that spelling was shown first and the spelling with e was shown second. However, all subsequent entries using the same word (phrases such as Judgment Book) are shown with only the first spelling. Further, most courts and most publishers held to the strict rule that—even though the lexicographers made it clear that two spellings juxtaposed in that way were equally acceptable, in the days of prescriptivist dictionaries—the first spelling among equals, in terms of physical placement in the dictionary, was always to be used. This was merely a practical convention to eliminate stylistic inconsistency; but it was also self-fulfilling prophecy to the extent that if all editors and publishers stuck to one spelling it would of necessity occur more often in printed work, thus influencing subsequent editions of dictionaries.

Next time you are in a bookstore, browsing some obscure aisle where self-published books occupy some of the shelf space, here's a quick test to get an idea of whether a book has gone through at least some semblance of an editing process: Flip to the front and see if Acknowledgments is spelled correctly. Check to see if there is a Foreword (a word before), too, rather than a Forward or (shudder!) a Foreward.


Erin M. Hartshorn said...

"Flip to the front and see if Acknowledgments is spelled correctly."

So after arguing that this spelling is a self-fulfilling prophecy, you still state that only it is correct?

Well, then, by all means let us make the plurals of badge and ridge, badgs and ridgs, since we have added suffixes to them as well.

A foolish inconsistency? Perhaps, but I find it just as foolish to say that because I go along with Noah Webster dropping the u from honor and color, I must also follow his lead in dropping the e from these other words.

Dick Margulis said...

Hi, rww.

You are free to spell any word any way you like, of course. I would not presume to dictate to you that only one way is correct. I suggested, and still maintain, that a reader who wants to know whether a self-published book has been edited (by an independent editor, rather than by the author's cousin) can use this quick test.

There is no law against an author's publishing an unedited book or self-consciously insisting on unconventional spellings, just as there is no rule that says such books are of less value than more conventionally edited books. Readers can buy what they want to buy.

My rule of thumb works, regardless, for those who choose to apply it.

As to whether an editorial convention is a foolish consistency or an aid to communication, well, you have your opinion and I have mine. Fortunately, my clients share mine.


Anonymous said...

In many if not most cases the US forms are the older forms - for instance the 'ize' endings which some US spell checkers insist on inserting. If you read literature of the 18th century in the original English you will see that the spellings often resemble modern US rather than UK variants.

This is down to different evolutionary systems.
For similar reasons the UK dispensed with the Grand Jury aeons ago while the US legal system still uses the institution as a lynchpin.

So in many cases if you want to see the original UK systems still in use, as Horace Greely famously said ...

Gordon Hill

Dick Margulis said...


I'm sure you know that Greeley did not originate "Go West, young man," but quoted someone less well known, John Soule, and has been credited with it ever since.

That aside, you make a good point. A great deal of Elizabethan speech is preserved in Appalachia, both in vocabulary and in pronunciation. I think, though, that we have to acknowledge the extent to which Webster made a conscious, politically motivated decision to differentiate US English from British English through the mechanism of spelling reform.

Actually, now that I think about it, this may have been the most successful effort ever undertaken at spelling reform in English. Individual words have migrated in their spelling over the ensuing years, but organized efforts have generally failed (mostly, I think, because they were based on the wrong principles).