A practice / to practise

Several thousand English words have silly spellings, like ‘friend, said, head’, but the British differentiation between ‘a practice’ and ‘to practise’ is one of the silliest. American English abolished it decades ago, saving countless spelling ‘errors’, without causing any difficulties to anyone.

In British English the ‘practice/practise’ spellings continue to cause endless ‘misspellings’, particularly on school reports. – Perhaps the distinction has been kept mainly to provide an assured source of Schadenfreude to picky pedants?

The differentiation is totally needless. – We don’t use different spellings with ‘to’ and ‘a’ for ‘notice, pause, rise’ or ‘go, play, work’. So why the special treatment for ‘a practice / to practise’? – I can think of no other reasons than to make learning to read and write more difficult, and to provide entertainment for some very sad people.

Giving schoolkids a hard time must have been a major consideration for most of the early fixers of English spelling. The first spelling lists and dictionaries were created mainly by private tutors to the rich. – Making learning to read and write difficult was a good way of ensuring long job security for them.

The main fixer of modern British spelling, however, was the failed schoolmaster Samuel Johnson, with his dictionary of 1755. His attempt to run a private academy in Lichfield flopped before the end of its first year. He then tried to earn a living as a writer for a posh men’s magazine. When that did not go well either, he decided to become a lexicographer.

He was even quite good at coming up with amusing definitions for words,  which made his opus popular. But he made a bigger hash of English spelling than all the other fixers before him. The notion of using just one spelling per sound, or having spellings that obey some logic, appears to have been totally alien to him.

Apart from the ‘a practice/ to practise’ distinction, he made most ‘-is/ –ce, –se …’ endings completely unfathomable: tenis, office, promise, purchase, carcass, witness, lattice, lettuce …’.

He excelled in making learning to write English as baffling and time-consuming as possible. In addition to the ‘-is/ -ice, -ise …’ fiasco, he also made the spellings of hundreds of other endings unpredictable and requiring word by word learning:  flatten – abandon, truncheon, villain; father – doctor, nectar, amateur … .

He made consonant doubling totally incomprehensible: ‘arise – arrive’, ‘shoddy – body’, ‘bus – fuss’.

It is also due mainly to him that 335 words have ended up with 684 spellings, depending on their meaning, like ‘there/their’ and ‘by/buy/bye’; along with 113 sets of completely different words perversely sharing one spelling, e.g. ‘to minute in minute detail’ or ‘to lead like a lead balloon’.

According to Shakespeare, “the evil that men do lives after them”. This has certainly been true of Samuel Johnson. Like Tony Blair, he was not all bad. But the harm he did has far outweighed all his good deeds.

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