Collins Language

Blogs from the Collins Language team in Glasgow, UK.

Monday, 22 September 2008

September 2008

Double or quits
The spell-checker has become an integral part of modern life, but it still has its limitations. We have all had the experience of typing in a word we know to be spelled correctly (say, thematization) only to have it underlined in red by Microsoft. Less familiar is when the spell-checker recognizes and accepts two different spellings of the same word, leaving the writer to choose the 'correct' one. This, it was recently pointed out to me, is the case with the past tense of the verb focus. Microsoft (and, indeed, many dictionaries, including Collins titles) will permit you to write/type either focused or focussed. Can it be that both these spellings are actually correct? The short answer is, yes. In British English at least, either spelling is acceptable. The long answer is more complicated.

Most writing guides (including the Collins Good Writing Guide) will tell you that you should only double a consonant before a suffix like -ed or -ing if the word satisfies a series of complicated and easily forgettable conditions like:
a) ending in a single consonant
b) having a single vowel before the final consonant
c) either being a monosyllable or having a stressed final syllable
Thus tip becomes tipped and tipping, commit becomes committed and committing; but we have marketing and not marketting, revealed and not revealled. Focus does end in a single consonant preceded by a single vowel, but the first, not the last, syllable is stressed. By this logic, only focused and focusing should be acceptable. So why do spell-checkers approve both spellings?

Well, English is a language with nearly as many exceptions as rules and this is especially true of English spelling. Focussed and focussing are simply acceptable variants of focused and focusing. If, however, you demand a criterion to judge which spelling is more 'correct', it may interest you to know that focussed and focussing are the earlier spellings. The word was originally only a noun (with plural foci). The verb first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century, when its present and past participles are both spelled with a double s. On the other hand, the single s spellings are the more modern, conforming as they do to three rules cited above. They are also the internationally accepted standard spelling (the double s is restricted to British English). For example, if you set your spell-checker to U.S. English, the focussed and focussing should both be marked as incorrect.

Still confused? We thought so.

Save a tree
Spell-checkers are just one of the many peculiarities of modern writing – or should I say 'word-processing'? What's the difference? Well, the verb write is a native English word, ultimately derived from Old English writan (both the w and the r are pronounced), and its original meaning was 'to scratch', specifically 'to scratch runes into the bark of a tree'. The original speakers of Old English were a continental Germanic tribe, and like all other German peoples of their time, they had only a runic alphabet. This alphabet was not used for writing down long passages of continuous prose or poetry. Rather it was used for things like marking boundaries and territories, say by carving initials into the bark of a tree or into a large, immovable rock. Writing in the (more) modern sense of setting pen to paper (or stylus to parchment) was introduced to Anglo-Saxon society by Christian missionaries, who also brought the Roman alphabet (Latin being the language of the Church). The Anglo-Saxons simply adapted the meaning of their verb writan to suit the new practice.

Nowadays we do most of our 'writing' on a computer, pressing keys on a keyboard to produce electronic reproductions of letters on a somewhat irritating, glowing white screen. We are also discouraged from producing hard copies of what we have 'written' unless absolutely necessary so that we might 'save a tree', thus pulling the modern act of writing even further away from the original sense of carving angular runic symbols in tree-bark.

Robert Groves - Editor