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Poll results: fount or font of knowledge?

There are few things more likely to cause fierce argument between language-lovers than variant spellings of everyday expressions, especially if one is celebrated by language traditionalists and the other by the linguistic vanguard. You may remember the heated arguments that arose over the topic of pronouncing scone (some friendships have never truly recovered) – well, today we are turning from pronunciation to spelling. And it’s not even the old chestnut of British vs. American spelling – rather, we’re looking at some spellings which are changing over time.

Over the past two months, we have asked you to answer three different questions about the spelling of common phrases. All three were taken from this post entitled ‘When does right become wrong?’ The article looked at the ways in which traditionally accepted spellings changed over time, as increasing numbers of people used variants. Thus ‘straight-laced’ (according to the Oxford English Corpus) is used in two-thirds of instances, and ‘strait-laced’ (the accepted standard form) in only a third of cases.

OxfordWords has, since May, presented several of these pairings as polls. In each case, one option is the standard accepted form, and one is an increasingly common alternative.

Free reign vs free rein

The first poll concerned the expression free rein (or free reign). The phrase means ‘freedom of action or expression’ – so if somebody is given free rein (or free reign) they are given total control over their actions. Free rein is the standard accepted version – but how many respondents to the poll chose it? free rein

58% of respondents would write free rein, while 42% of respondents would write free reign. There is a certain logic to both versions, which might help explain why both are popular. Somebody in control would, indeed, reign, while the original version is figurative, deriving from loosening the reins of a horse.

Interestingly, there is a significant difference between American and British respondents. British readers (or, rather, writers) were clearly in favour of writing free rein (73%) while their American cousins diplomatically gave each almost equal approval, falling down on the side of free reign (52%).

free rein_2

(British results on the left; American results on the right.)

If you’re interested, you can learn more about the difference between rein and reign in our blog post: Rein or reign? Hold your horses before applying pen to paper…

Fount of knowledge vs font of knowledge

Next we asked whether you would write fount of knowledge or font of knowledge when referring to a wise person. This is another choice where both options seem to make some sense. A fount is an alternative term for fountain which first appears in the 16th century as a back-formation based on the equivalent mount and mountain. A fountain, of course, is the source of a desirable entity (water) and this inspired the figurative use of a fount of knowledge. A font, on the other hand, is the receptacle used for holding water for baptism – which would collocate with the idea of wisdom being imparted. Coincidentally, it also derives from the word fountain, but via the Latin equivalent font-em.

fount of knowledge

The standard accepted form is fount of knowledge, and this was also the term chosen by the majority of voters in our poll (67%) despite the Oxford English Corpus suggesting that font of knowledge is now the more common form. Evidently our readers have all drunk from the knowledge fountain, and know which version is the longest-standing.

Shoe-in vs shoo-in

Our most recent poll pitted shoe-in against shoo-in. Neither proved to be a shoo-in (or perhaps shoe-in) for the most popular spelling. In fact, the two terms were neck and neck in our poll, with shoe-in taking the lead by the merest of whiskers (0.2%).



However, the standard accepted form is in fact shoo-in. The phrase first appeared with the sense ‘a person or thing that is certain to succeed’ in the 1930s and comes from an earlier use of the term denoting the winner of a rigged horse race.

Interestingly, there was once again a marked difference between the American and British respondents, with a greater percentage of Brits choosing shoe-in (55%), while the reverse was true of our American readers, with 58% opting for shoo-in.

Whether or not you think that we should have a free rein over spelling, it seems inevitable that as long as the English language continues to evolve, we will come across variant spellings for words and phrases. Are there any words that you are uncertain how to spell, or for which you often come across alternative spellings? Let us know in the comments below, and we may well use them in future polls.

The opinions and other information contained in OxfordWords blog posts and comments do not necessarily reflect the opinions or positions of Oxford University Press.