or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Saturday, March 19, 2005

A Reader Writes

From the comments in one of the posts on Monday, March 14th:

"A question for you, pyramus: What of "offense"/"offence"? Both are nouns, and "offense", despite looking like it should be a verb, seems to be the preferred and most common spelling. Any idea how this came about? "

This is interesting, and I didn't touch on it because I was speaking of verbs and, as you note, "offense" and "offence" (and their cousins, "defense" and "defence") are nouns.

The two spellings of those, and others besides ( such as "pretence" and "pretense"), are artifacts of the development of the English language. Since their story is all much the same, we'll deal with the pair you asked about. Originally, "offense" would have been the logical spelling, because it stems from the Latin "offendere", the past participial stem of which is "offens-". However, as English evolved and was cemented into its written form, the spellings "ofense" and "offense" would have been inappropriate, because the terminal "e" was vanishing from the spoken form, softening the final consonant: for instance, the spelling "hense" (a now obsolete form of "hence") would have been pronounced as we now pronounce "hens". That wouldn't do, since spelling was meant to be an exact visual match for a word's pronunciation. (That's why, in the days before dictionaries, there are so many variant spellings--because there were so many variant pronunciations. It's also why so many English spellings are such a poor match for their pronunciations; because pronunciation changes over time but spelling, being committed to paper, is much more inflexible.)

So. As the terminal vowel sound vanished, "offense" would have been the written counterpart of a word that was pronounced "offenze", and since that was clearly wrong, the spelling "offence", with its hard "-s-" sound, sprang up. In time, the inaudible terminal vowel reappeared in the spoken language as a marker for that same hard "-s-" sound (think "pars" versus "parse", for example), and we were left with two different spellings for the same word. American dictionaries chose the "-s-" spellings of these words as standard while the British retained the "-c-" spellings. Except "hence", of course; that belongs to everyone.


Post a Comment

<< Home