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Today, I saw a news headline on BBC News. It says:

Nuclear power is 'indispensible' says safety agency.

As far as I know, the correct word should be "indispensable". Is it a typo (an example that shows even BBC can make mistakes in headlines) or is this an alternative version of that adjective?

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That BBC could make such a mistake is incomprehensible :) –  mplungjan Mar 23 '11 at 12:10
    
I saw indispensible in Biology textbook. It says, "Linoleic acid and linolenic acid are indispensible to health." –  user18253 Feb 18 '12 at 22:58
    
Since it is inside quotation marks, maybe they are quoting the misspelling by the safety agency... –  GEdgar Nov 12 '12 at 15:11

3 Answers 3

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The Corpus of Contemporary American English reveals some use of indispensible, though it is not mentioned in any of my dictionaries. The use statistics are: 35 for indispensible vs. 1887 for indispensable, so it is overwhelmingly in favour of the latter.

Google ngram confirms that this is not a particularly recent trend, and that the two words were used competitively until 1840, where usage seems to have settled on indispensable.

Google ngram

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Nice use of resources here. Of course, the -able/-ible suffix is pronounced /əbl/ in normal speech, so the spelling difference is essentially arbitrary and irrelevant. –  John Lawler Feb 18 '12 at 23:08

The -able vs. -ible suffix stems from which Latin conjugation the original verb (these adjectives are all related to verbs) was. 1st conjugation verbs, ending in -are, turn into -able suffixes, whereas 2nd and 3rd conjugation verbs, ending in -ere, turn into -ible. I just looked up a Latin reference, and the original verb was 1st conjugation (dispensare), hence the -able ending is correct.

The spelling differences are neither arbitrary nor irrelevant, especially to linguists.

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BBC does make mistakes. I wouldn't be surprised if that headline is revised in a matter of hours or days. Indispensible is clearly a typo in this case, and it is not an uncommon misspelling of indispensable. In my experience, it is rarely frowned upon, and I even thought it was correct until now.

In a similar vein, defensable is also a common misspelling of defensible.

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I stare at indispensible once a year wondering where on earth that red underlining came from. Then it dawns on me, again, and I remember for a while, until the sequence repeats itself the following year. –  Cerberus Mar 23 '11 at 18:06

protected by Will Hunting Nov 12 '12 at 1:00

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