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OK, so I'm ashamed to admit that as a native speaker I think I've missed something somewhere. I was typing up some documentation and spellchecker kept bugging me. So I looked up some words and found this:

The suffixes -ance and -ence mean “quality of”or “state of.” Words ending in these suffixes are usually nouns. There is no rule that governs whether a word ends with -ance or -ence.

Even the dictionary on my Mac goes so far as to say:

ORIGIN from French -ence, from Latin -entia, -antia (from present participial stems -ent-, -ant-). Since the 16th cent. many inconsistencies have occurred in the use of -ence and -ance.

Is this for real? There really is no rule?

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You shouldn't really be too surprised. (Natural) Language comes first, rules are imposed upon it long after. Only in artificial languages such as the programming ones are the rules and the language itself co-created. –  mickeyf Jan 20 '11 at 16:23
@mickeyf, no, there are natural rules that people follow. Even ebonics has a pretty strict grammar structure, phrases such as "who dat?" are perfectly understandable to the people who speak and listen to it, even if they don't codify it as rules. Without any kind of rules (codified or not) communication wouldn't be possible. –  Stephen Furlani Jan 20 '11 at 16:25
@mickeyf: I guess you both need to agree on the definition of "rules". It sounds to me that mickeyf is talking about prescriptive rules, which are applied at some point in the middle of the life of a language, and you are talking about rules in the sense of structured grammar that all language speakers must necessarily have. I think what this really boils down to is that written language is a synthetic thing and rules for spelling can be inconsistent and even contradictory at times. –  Kosmonaut Jan 20 '11 at 21:19

2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

Yes, this is for real. No, there really is no rule. There used to be a rule in Latin, though. Etymonline explains in more detail:

suffix attached to verbs to form abstract nouns of process or fact (convergence from converge), or of state or quality (absence from absent); ultimately from L. -antia and -entia, which depended on the vowel in the stem word. As Old French evolved from Latin, these were leveled to -ance, but later French borrowings from Latin (some of them subsequently passed to English) used the appropriate Latin form of the ending, as did words borrowed by English directly from Latin (diligence, absence). English thus inherited a confused mass of words from French and further confused it since c.1500 by restoring -ence selectively in some forms of these words to conform with Latin. Thus dependant, but independence, etc.

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+1 This process of borrowings was indeed even more chaotic than I already suspected. –  Cerberus Jan 20 '11 at 14:37
@RegDwight, serious comment: thanks for the answer. dependant shows up as misspelled though on Google and my Mac. Have these been changing back in recent years or something because I feel like my brain is rotting trying to figure all this stuff out. (writing code has borrowed too much of my language regions..) –  Stephen Furlani Jan 20 '11 at 14:43
@Stephen: as an adjective, dependant is the obsolete spelling of dependent. As a noun, it is dependant in the UK, but dependent in the US, where dependant would be considered a misspelling. –  RegDwigнt Jan 20 '11 at 14:54
@RegDwight, how obsolete is obsolete? 50 years, 100 years? –  Stephen Furlani Jan 20 '11 at 14:57
@Stephen: that would make an interesting question on itself. I don't know the answer right now. –  RegDwigнt Jan 20 '11 at 15:07

There are four conjugations of verbs in Latin, verbs that end in -are, -ēre, -ere, and -ire. The four conjugations are still evident in Spanish, French, Italian, etc. In English nouns that derive from these verbs end with -antia, -entia, and -ientia, from which we eventually get our nouns ending with -ance, -ence, and -ience.

e.g. parlance is from parlare, insurgence is from insurgere, audience is from audire. So remembering the spelling in English helps if you studied Latin ;)

However, standard spelling in English wasn't a huge priority until people like Samuel Johnson started writing dictionaries, so there are all sorts of exceptions to these rules.

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protected by tchrist Feb 2 '13 at 14:01

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