Who’s confident [confidant?] about using -ance, -ence, and similar suffixes?
For those of you who’ve been following my occasional series about homophonous affixes (or, to put it another way, word-endings and -beginnings that sound the same when spoken!), you should now know your -ables from your -ibles and be proficient in fore- versus for- or four. There are plenty more similar-sounding affixes, though, so I thought it was high time to disentangle another set: the pair of suffixes -ance and -ence, and the related pairs -ant/-ent and -ancy/-ency.
These endings are much used in word-formation and cause no amount of spelling confusion, as is evident from many examples in today’s English. For example, the Oxford English Corpus (OEC) shows that independent is misspelled as independant 737 times. Although this only represents 0.3% of the total occurrences of the word, what is significant is that this error appears in many newspapers (such as The Guardian) and specialist journals (e.g. American Zoologist), which have been edited and proofread. It may be comforting to learn that journalists, editors, and other professional writers are just as prone to these mistakes as ordinary mortals, but correct spelling does matter if you’re writing for public consumption: misspellings are distracting or tend to make people irritated, and so the thrust of what you’re saying is diminished or gets lost completely.
Lack of stress leads to spelling mess…
Why do people get these endings confused? To be fair, anyone could be forgiven for not knowing which one to choose: when you hear them spoken aloud, they usually sound indistinguishable. This is because, in most English words, these endings are pronounced as unstressed syllables (try saying independent, and you’ll hear that the stress is on -pen-, not -dent).
The vowel sound we make when we say the unstressed endings -ance/-ence, -ant/-ent, and -ancy/-ency as part of longer words is /ə/, a centralized, neutral vowel technically known as a schwa; the sound used in the first syllable of ago, rather than /a/ (as in cat) or /e/ (as in bed).
The good news is that, although you should always check any spellings in a dictionary if you’re not sure, there are a few simple rules which you can apply to this set of words to make choosing the correct suffix easier.
-ance or -ence?
These endings are used to make nouns, meaning either: a quality or state (e.g. ignorance is the state of being ignorant about something) or an action (e.g. emergence is the action of emerging from somewhere).
One key way of knowing which ending to choose is to be aware of the words that these nouns are formed from. Some are made from verbs (e.g. performance from perform) and some are from adjectives (for example intelligence from intelligent).
- If the word is formed from a verb that ends in -y, -ure, or -ear, then the ending of the noun will be spelled -ance, for example:
- If the noun is related to a verb which ends in -ate, then the ending is likely to be -ance, for instance:
- A further tip is that, if the stem of the word (the part before the ending) ends in a ‘hard’ c (pronounced like the c in cab) or a ‘hard’ g (pronounced like the g in get), then the ending will be spelled -ance. For example: significance; elegance.
As for the other nouns which end in -ance, there are no hard-and-fast rules, so you may find it helpful to memorize them. Here’s a handy list of the most common:
- If the word is formed from a verb ending in -ere, then the ending will be spelled -ence. For example:
So, you may ask, why is perseverance (from persevere) spelled -ance? Sorry, it’s simply an exception to this rule…
- Does the related verb end in a stressed -er syllable? If yes, then -ence is the correct ending, as in:
Note that, although the verb differ is stressed on the first syllable rather than the final –er, difference is still spelled with -ence at the end.
- If the word contains the syllables -cid-, -fid-, -sid-, or -vid- immediately before the ending, the correct suffix is -ence. For instance:
- If the stem of the word ends in a soft c (pronounced like the c in cell) or a soft g (pronounced like the g in gin), then the ending will be -ence. For example:
The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted vengeance in in the -ance list – yes, although it’s pronounced with a soft g, it’s an exception to this rule.
Again, some words don’t follow these rules (or the ‘rules’ have several exceptions, so can be rather difficult to learn). Here’s a list of some common nouns ending in -ence:
-ancy or -ency?
Reassuringly, -ancy and -ency behave very much like -ance and -ence, which means that similar spelling tips are applicable. For example:
- Nouns made from verbs ending in -ate have the spelling -ancy, e.g. hesitancy (from hesitate) or vacancy (from vacate).
- Nouns with a soft c or g before the ending are spelled -ency, e.g. agency; emergency; urgency; complacency; decency.
Here are some of the most common nouns ending in -ancy:
And these are the most common ones that end with -ency:
-ant or -ent?
The suffix pair -ant and -ent are used:
- to form adjectives referring to a quality or state, such as arrogant, fragrant, convenient, different.
- to form nouns which refer to an agent (someone or something which does something). For example, an accountant is a person who prepares financial accounts, and a resident is a person who resides somewhere.
Again, similar rules apply to these words as to words ending in -ance/-ence, or -ancy/-ency. For example:
- Words which derive from verbs ending in -y take the -ant suffix, e.g. defy—>defiant; occupy—>occupant.
- If the word is related to a verb which ends in -ate, then the ending is -ant, e.g. deviate–>deviant; hesitate—>hesitant; tolerate—>tolerant.
- If the word is related to a verb ending in -ere, the ending is -ent: cohere—>coherent; adhere—>adherent.
- The ‘hard c/g’ and ‘soft c/g’ rules also apply. So -ant is used as the suffix following the hard sounds (e.g. extravagant, communicant) and -ent for the soft sounds (e.g. intelligent, recent).
Here are some of the most common nouns and adjectives ending in -ant:
These are some of the most frequent words ending in -ent:
Dependent/dependant and pendant/pendent
These two pairs of words can end in -ant or -ent. They occur as both nouns and adjectives and the spelling depends on their part of speech.
Starting with dependent/dependant: in British English, the noun always used to be spelled dependant, but the variant noun spelling dependent is now acceptable too. In US English, the standard noun spelling is dependent. The adjective is always spelled dependent, however, in both varieties of English. (Independent, however, is always spelled with the –ent suffix, whether it’s used as an adjective or a noun.) To summarize:
|Noun:||He’s a single man with no dependents. [British and US English]|
|He’s a single man with no dependants. [British English]|
|Adjective:||We’re dependent on his goodwill. [British and US English]|
|We’re dependant on his goodwill. X [Incorrect use]|
The situation regarding pendant/pendent is a little less complex. You can use the spelling pendant for both the noun (she wore a silver pendant) and the adjective (pendant catkins), but the spelling pendent is never used for the noun: it’s just an adjective (pendent catkins).
One final tip: because the same rules apply to each pair of endings, once you know how one word in the set is spelled, then you can be sure that the related words are spelled the same way. For instance, if you know that competence is spelled with the -ence suffix, then it follows that the endings of the related adjective competent and the noun competency also take the appropriate -e- spellings. I’m sure you’ll agree, it’s nice that one part of this suffix confusion is consistant – sorry, wait, I mean consistent.
The opinions and other information contained in the Oxford Dictionaries Online blog posts do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of OUP.
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