English is one of the Earth's blandest languages, grammar-wise. Of course, it more than makes up for that in
the convoluted spelling of its words. English is derived from at least six root languages, and history stirred
them together until the late 15th century, when William Caxton began printing books in English, and devising spelling
rules along the way. The language itself kept changing faster than the printers could keep up with spelling rules.
Then came the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions, and many new words were added to the language. For many new words,
people tried to spell them by following spelling rules.
Sometimes, following spelling rules even produced an appropriate spelling for a new word. But this was not always the case.
It takes a special kind of person to be a spelling teacher, one who can present schoolchildren with a motley collection
of heuristics and call them "rules" with a straight face. For a week or two, the student is content to follow these "rules",
in the full flush of confidence that he or she finally has a grasp on how something works. It is a heady feeling.
This, of course is the ideal point for the teacher to display the other job requirement, the sadism necessary to
crush the student's confidence by presenting exceptions for every rule.
In this writeup, we will discuss a class of English words that are particularly troublesome to spell. These end with
-ant, -ance, -ent or -ence.
There are, of course, words like want, pence, chant, and lance which just happen to end in one of these four
combinations of letters. You'll probably think to yourself "these don't seem very difficult to spell", and, of course,
they're not. But their longer cousins are difficult to spell, at least if you haven't memorized their spelling. Why?
The difficulty arises because most words use these combinations of letters as suffixes. -ant and -ent
are pronounced identically, as are -ance and -ence. Why? Suffixes are almost always
unstressed syllables, and because of that, a suffix's vowel generally degrades into a truncated 'u' sound, the schwa (ə).
When used as suffixes, -ant, -ance, -ent, and -ence turn a verb into a noun or
- -ant and -ent
- usually form adjectives which describe their antecedent as a performer of the verb's action, or undergoing it. Sometimes they form nouns describing a
performer of the action.
- -ance and -ence
- form nouns, which usually mean the quality of the verb's action being performed or happening.
The suffixes are usually applied to verbs that have survived the journey from Latin through Old French, Norman French,
and Middle English into Modern English. In addition, there are several words derived directly from Latin which have been recently
added to English as scientific and technical terms. Frequently, the verbs themselves didn't survive, but the nouns and adjectives formed from them did.
As some of you may know (and somewhat fewer care), Latin verbs fall into four basic classes describing their conjugation. In one of these
classes of verbs (in fact called the "first conjugation"), the infinitive forms end in -are. In another class, infinitives end in
-ere. This forms the basis of the suffix rules for most verbs: words derived from first conjugation verbs usually get -ant and
-ance, the rest get -ent and -ence. But there are exceptions, even to this!
To add to the confusion, there is a class of words (which we will not list here) which end in -ment.
In the long run, we will have to throw up our arms and proclaim "there are no rules here!".
Because of that, and because it's not particularly useful for most people to have to learn Latin for the sole purpose of spelling words in English correctly, I will present a list of heuristics for you to ponder. In the list's examples you will find the most commonly confused words. But recall all I've said here: When in doubt, use a dictionary!
Gritchka points out a trick that works with a lot of words: Try to turn the problem suffix at the end of the word to -ent(i)al or -ant(i)al. The e or a is again pronounced, and you'll probably recognize one or the other as a real word. Thus, existence becomes existential, and substance becomes substantial.
Add -ant or -ance, when:
- Root ends in hard C or G
Exception: unguent (doesn't exactly fit the rule)
- Root ends in Y
- defy -> defiance
rely -> reliant
vary -> variance
apply -> applicant
dally -> dalliance
ally -> alliance
Exception: mortify -> mortifacient
- Root ends in -ear
- clear -> clearance
forbear -> forbearance
- Root ends in unstressed -er
- aberrant, aberrance1
utter -> utterance
Exception: differ -> different, difference
- Root ends in -ure
- assure -> assurance
endure > endurance
- Begins with A
- avoid -> avoidance
assist -> assistance
- Root's last syllable contains A
- react -> reactant (but see below)
- Verb formed with a suffix containing an A:
- supplicate -> supplicant
deviate -> deviant, deviance
dominate -> dominant, dominance
demonstrate -> demonstrance
Exception: violate -> violence
please -> pleasant, pleasance
attract -> attractant
stand -> stance, instant, instance
Add -ent or -ence, when:
- Root ends in soft C or G:
suffice -> (in)sufficient, (in)sufficience
Exception: suppress -> suppressant
Exception: depress -> depressant
- containing -esce
- senescent, senescence
- -cid-, -fid-, -sid-, -vid-
- incident, incidence
coincide -> coincident, coincidence
confide -> confident, confidence
subside -> subsidence
Exception: confidant (loanword)
- -flu-, -qu-
- Sequence, consequence
fluent, confluent, confluence
Exception: piquant (loanword)
- Root ends in -ist
- exist -> existent, existence
insist -> insistent, insistence
persist -> persistent, persistence
subsist -> subsistent, subsistence
- Ends in stressed -er
- refer -> referent, reference
infer -> inference
defer -> deference
prefer -> preference
Exception: bother -> botherance (whimsical construction)
- Ends in -ere:
- (in)(de)cohere -> (in)(de)coherent, (in)(de)coherence
adhere -> adherence, adherent
interfere -> interference
Exception: persevere -> perseverance
- Verb built with suffixes beginning with E
- intend -> intent (but see below)
- pretend -> pretence (Brit.)
- depend -> (in)dependent, (in)dependence
Exception: advent -> advance
Exception: intend -> intendant, intendance
- fend -> fence
- defend -> defence (Brit.)
receive -> recipient
science, prescience, prescient
present, prescence (different etymology)
1This may actually be a case of people misapplying a rule in reverse. It's been pointed out to me
that aberrant is pronounced with stress on the er, and sure enough, when I looked in the dictionary, that's
what I saw. aberrant, prounounced this way, then becomes an exception for the stressed -er "rule" rather than
an example of the unstressed -er "rule".
Carolyn's Corner: Spelling Observations Regarding Words Ending in -ant/-ent and -ance/-ence
David Appleyard's Guide to Correct Spelling
Webster's New World Dictionary of the English Language, Second Collegiate Edition, 1979, William Collins Publishers