I am interested in the rapid rise (since about 1993) in frequency of the spelling smoothes as against smooths.

An Ngram Viewer graph tracking the frequency of usage of the two words from 1800 to 2005 shows remarkably stable levels of usage for both smooths and smoothes for about 150 years (1844 to 1993); but then it shows smoothes beginning a sharp ascent and smooths declining significantly. Ngram shows the two frequency lines crossing in 2002. Simple Google searches for the two words yield about 2.82 million matches for smooths and about 4.59 million matches for smoothes.

In seeking possible causes for the shift, I've looked at a number of dictionaries. In the case of the Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary series, the Tenth Edition (1994) begins its entry for the verb smooth as follows:

smooth vb smoothed; smoothing; smooths also smoothes ...

No previous dictionary in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate series, dating back to the First Edition in 1898, makes any mention of either smooths or smoothes. The Eleventh Collegiate (2003) follows the Tenth's wording.

In contrast, at least three editions of the American Heritage Dictionary—the First Edition edition (1973), the Third Edition (1992), and the Fourth Edition (2000)—give the related forms of the verb smooth as "smoothed, smoothing, smoothes," as does the Encarta World English Dictionary (1999). A Q&A page at Microsoft Support reads as follows:

23. What is the grammar dictionary based on?

It is based on the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English and the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, third edition.

I checked the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, New Edition (1987), and found that it doesn't provide a spelling for the third-person singular form of the verb smooth. It thus appears that for many years, on the sole authority of the American Heritage Dictionary, Word treated smoothes as a correct spelling and marked smooths as incorrect. According to Wikipedia's article on Microsoft Word, Word 95 (released in 1995) introduced "red-squiggle underlined spell-checking." (Oddly, my most recent version of Word—Word for Mac 2011—treats both smoothes and smooths as typos; however, all previous versions that I can remember, going back at least 10 years, favored smoothes.)

The Oxford Universal Dictionary, Third Edition (1944) has an entry for smooth(e, suggesting that it and the OED are constants during the period in question and thus probably had little effect on the shift in overall spelling preference.

Meanwhile, Garner's Modern American Usage (2003) views smoothe and smoothes as simple typos, "doubtless on the analogy of soothe."

From this very limited array of references, I see only two potentially significant factors that changed between, say, 1980 and 2005: the explicit inclusion in 1994 by Merriam-Webster's of smoothes as an acceptable alternative to smooths; and the adoption (probably at some point in the 1990s) by Microsoft Word of the American Heritage/Encarta preference for smoothes over smooths.

A further detail of possible interest is that Ngram shows the frequency of smoothe as declining slightly but steadily between 1985 and 2005, including the period when the frequency of smoothes rocketed upward. The Tenth and Eleventh Collegiates omit any mention of smoothe, and Word has always marked it as a typo.

Is the shift toward smoothes and away from smooths an instance in which a computer program is primarily responsible for a fundamental change in an English spelling preference, or are other factors that I haven't identified just as important? Do any readers here have an especially old version of Word that they can use to examine its spelling checker's handling of smooths vs. smoothes? And does anyone know how (or why) the American Heritage Dictionary came up with its preference for smoothes back in 1969, when its First Edition debuted?

Note: I have edited my original question to include references to a 1973 copy of the American Heritage Dictionary, First Edition, and to a Q&A page in Microsoft Help identifying the sources that several versions of its grammar dictionary relied on.

Further note [11/22/13]: I finally obtained a relevant copy of the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and found that it did not support the American Heritage Dictionary's preference for smoothes over smooths. I have added that detail to my question.

  • smoothe is exclusively a verb, syn of smooth. The latter spelling is standard for all word forms. cf. oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/smooth – Kris Feb 8 '13 at 5:32
  • 3
    Exactly as one would expect: "Smoothe, which appears about a tenth as often as smoothen, is not a dictionary-recognized word, but we can understand why people might be tempted to use it. Consider the nouns breath, teeth, and sheath. Each has a corresponding verb ending in ebreathe, teethe, and sheathe. Yet while these nouns are pronounced differently from their verbs—the nouns with a hard th, the verbs with a soft one — smooth and its verb are pronounced the same." grammarist.com/usage/smoothe-smoothen – Kris Feb 8 '13 at 5:40
  • Here are links to the Ngrams I mentioned above, for the years 1800-2005. For "smooths" vs. "smoothes": books.google.com/ngrams/… And for "smooths" vs. "smoothes" vs. "smoothe": books.google.com/ngrams/… As the second Ngram shows, the rise in popularity of "smoothes" (logically the third-person singular form of "smoothe") isn't attended by any improvement in the fortunes of "smoothe." – Sven Yargs Feb 8 '13 at 23:59
  • I wonder if may also have to do with increasing use of the word "smoothies". Since spelling skills these days are so poor, and further undermined by texting etc, people may indeed be assuming that the letter i is the only thing added, since - as noted above - the other sounded 'th'-ending words do carry an e. – user52164 Sep 16 '13 at 15:37
  • 1
    People pluralise booth as either /buðz/ or /buθs/ but it seems to me some people use the first of those (the "softer" voiced dental fricative) even if they habitually use the unvoiced version in the singular form. Similar to pluralising roof as rooves rather than roofs (where nobody uses singular roove, but archaically that form was once sometimes used as a verb for "bumps up against the roof/ceiling"). Perhaps some people think (or thought) verb/adjective smooth are or should be pronounced differently. – FumbleFingers Sep 16 '13 at 16:53
up vote 8 down vote accepted

As you note indirectly (in that your quote refers to it), the form smoothe is recognised by the OED, and it's the other Oxford dictionaries, including the free-access public online version.

We can find it going back some date, but since a greater variation was tolerated in the beginnings of Modern English, than now, that means little of that period. It's also pointless to speak of who would or wouldn't use a spelling (as we might perhaps a grammatical construction), when we move into the middle of the Modern period, because such would be decided upon by editors or printers, as well as writers, especially in later editions. It's interesting to note the following changes with the same book, Samuel Richardson's Pamela, or Virtue Rewarded, first published in 1740. (Italics his emphasis, bold mine, in each).

Taking one section of a length sentence from the Third Edition of 1741:

…Let no thwarting Accident, no croſs Fortune (for we muſt not expect to be exempt from ſuch, happy as we are in each other !), deprive this ſweet Face of this its principal Grace : And when any thing unpleaſing happens, in a quarter of an Hour, at fartheſt, begin to miſtruſt yourſelf, and to apply to your Glaſs ; and if you ſee a Gloom ariſing, or ariſen, baniſh it inſtantly ; ſmooth your dear Countenance ; reſume your former Compoſure ; and then, my Deareſt, whoſe Heart muſt alwayſ be ſeen in her Face, and cannot be a Hypocrite, will find this a Means to ſmooth her Paſſions alſo :…

Here smooth appears twice, in the spelling most conventional today.

By the 11th Edition of 1776, this spelling has been altered:

…Let no thwarting Accident, no croſs Fortune (for we muſt not expect to be exempt from ſuch, happy as we are in each other !), deprive this ſweet Face of this its principal Grace : And when any thing unpleaſing happens, in a quarter of an Hour, at fartheſt, begin to miſtruſt yourſelf, and to apply to your Glaſs ; and if you ſee a Gloom ariſing, or ariſen, baniſh it inſtantly ; ſmoothe your dear Countenance ; reſume your former Compoſure ; and then, my Deareſt, whoſe Heart muſt alwayſ be ſeen in her Face, and cannot be a Hypocrite, will find this a Means to ſmoothe her Paſſions alſo :…

Here, the spelling has been "fixed" to smoothe.

In a later two-volume version of 1811, we have much more changes:

…let no thwarting accident, no cross Fortune (for we must not expect to be exempt from such, happy as we are in each other !), deprive this sweet face of this its principal grace: and when any thing unpleasing happens, in a quarter of an Hour, at farthest, begin to mistrust yourself, and to apply to your glass; and if you see a Gloom arising, or arisen, banish it instantly; smooth your dear countenance; resume your former composure; and then, my dearest, whose heart must always be seen in her face, and cannot be a hypocrite, will find this a means to smooth her passions also:…

Here the orthography and capitalisation are as we would have them today, and punctuation is close (there's still more space before the colons and semicolons than a printer would put them today, and much more before the exclamation mark). Smooth is yet again, in its most common spelling.

The move from smoothe to smooth tells us little, for we know that is the most common spelling today so would expect to see such a change alongside those to punctuation, but that from smooth to smoothe between 1741 and 1776 points to a controversy; someone decided that smoothe was to be preferred over smooth enough to change the previously printed text. While the change was not as radical as that which changed the capitalisation for the 1811 version, it was either in the same spirit, or was stronger still and held the original to have been in error.

Or in other words, there's nothing new here. We could go back earlier, but it's rather pointless. While spelling prior to the 18th century wasn't quite the free-for-all it's sometimes described at, it was considerably looser than it was since then, and also the ngrams data we're using is too sparse to tell us anything useful. For the record, the graph for 1500-1800 for relative preference looks like:

enter image description here

These two spikes are massive compared to what we'll find later, and against a general trend of nobody ever using smoothe. This isn't showing a trend, or lack of trend, this is showing a lack of good data. (Any earlier again, and we're looking at Middle English, and while the ending of smoothe/smothe/smethe may have had an effect on the existence of the form smoothe, it's clearly meaningless in terms of the sort of comparison we're doing here).

For the period since though:

enter image description here

Incidentally, bar some differing spikes near the beginning, these are much the same for British and American sources. As we can see, smooth was always the more popular by a massive margin, but smoothe was never entirely extinct.

Now, let's compare with the third-person singular:

enter image description here

Now, the relative popularity of smoothe vs smooth is included here, but never rises high enough to feature visually on the graph. While smoothes was always considerably less popular than smooths until the 1990s, it was still massively more popular than smoothe was.

Possibly this could be explained by smoothe only being used of the verb form (or at least, it is only accepted in that spelling in the verb form by some dictionaries that accept it at all), while smooth is accepted in both.

The most interesting point of comparison prior to the 1990s, is that while both smoothe and smoothes gain in relative popularity in the first half of the 19th century, after that smoothe begins to die down, while smoothes holds a relatively stead position.

It' would not be surprising that those who use smoothe would also use smoothes and those who use smooths would also use smooth, but what we have from the mid 19th century until the 1990s is a sizeable number who use smooth but also use smoothes.

We can get a rough measure of that preference from this (again though, this will over-estimate due to those who use smoothe as a verb using smooth as an adjective):

enter image description here

And it's a curious matter that we had so many, even prior to the massive spike in the 1990s. It's not hard to see why some would favour smoothe when we consider soothe (all the more since soothe/sooth is a spelling mistake people are warned of, as they result in different words). It's more surprising to see people essentially treat smooth as having an -es ending, that other -th words do not have. Granted, there are some "gotchas" when it comes to -es endings (particularly when it comes to -y and -o words), but it would certainly be interesting to find a justification made for the spelling choices at the time.

When it comes to the 1990s, the change is truly massive. While ngrams can show some strange peaks and troughs around this period, presumably due to matters of the available data, this seems to go way beyond that.

I'm inclined to believe that it must be strongly linked to the spell-check matter that you brought up. In a way there's nothing new in this either; reliance upon computer spell-check algorithms are new obviously, but changes in technology and conventions around how writing is produced for consumption affecting our spelling, are as old as Modern English. In other words, I think much of the blame lies with Microsoft Word.

There is a dip for the last year of the dataset. This could be nothing but an artefact of the data collection (that is, a side-effect of ngram's imperfections, and nothing else), but it could also be the fact that as you say neither are accepted by the current version, sending people to other sources to check them, while some other spell-checks differ in opinion (I don't have a copy of Word to hand as I'm not on a set-up used for the sort of programming tasks where I'd want to test how Word treated something, only for writing for which I use LibreOffice. It, and Firefox as I type in this box, both allow smooths but question smoothes).

The period before then I find more puzzling. Dr. Johnson records smooth, and is perhaps the first to condemn the use of smoothen ("A bad word among mechanicks for ſmooth"). He makes no mention of smoothe and smoothes and in his examples he includes ſmooths and the obsolete ſmootheth which could be modernised as smoothes, but just as likely as smooths.

Webster seems to be inspired by Johnson's remarks when he notes smoothen "for smooth, is used by mechanics; though not, I believe, in the U. States.". Again, he lists smooth without any comment on an unusual third-person singular, or any variant. By the 1892 edition, his successors have dropped smoothen but added nothing of note to smooth.

That a dictionary of record like the OED notes smoothe, and by extension smoothes is to be expected; both forms are quite clearly in considerable and respectable, albeit minority, use for some time. The OED would be out of line not to note it. There seems to be nothing to learn from the versions I have to hand on the curious use of different variants for the conjugation.

The Heritage dictionary is the most curious, in noting (according to your question) only smooth and smoothes but not smoothe or smooths, in their respective positions. I can't think of any analogous case of the top of my head, so we can imagine the usage panel were consulted at some point, and presumably returned the opinion that smooth and smoothes were simply the correct forms. It could be no more than the matter of asking too small a pool of opinions (just about anyone will find something strange in any usage panel's decisions).

Amusingly, I went to write smooth in the third person singular in a comment, while in the midst of writing this. I could not for the life of me decide how I normally spell it! I wouldn't feel particularly strongly that it must be one or the other, but I was stuck for some time; "I know there are two ways it is spelt, but can't remember how I spell it!". Maybe the usage panel felt not too differently to that!

  • Thank you for your thoughtful response. I have an old Windows 98 machine at home that likely has either Word 95 or Word 98 on it; when I have time to check it, I'll add a note to my original query indicating whether Word was already rejecting "smooths" in the mid- to late 1990s. I haven't yet been able to nail down the identity of the dictionary Word is based on, but I'm hoping to unearth some information on this question at the computer magazine where I work. Finally, I agree that the biggest mystery is why, even in 1980, the American Heritage Dictionary ignored "smooths" altogether. – Sven Yargs Feb 11 '13 at 2:30
  • By the way, though my copy of Webster's International Dictionary (1898) lists "smoothen" as being obsolete, and though the First Collegiate (1898) based on that dictionary omits "smoothen" completely, "smoothen" returns in the Third Collegiate (1916) without any indication that it is obsolete (or even rare), and has appeared in every subsequent edition o the Collegiate Dictionary. The Third Collegiate was an abridgement of Webster's New International Dictionary of 1909, which I do not have, but I would guess that it removes the "obs." label from "smoothen" as well. – Sven Yargs Feb 11 '13 at 2:39
  • I now have a copy of Webster's New International Dictionary (1926), and it does indeed provide an entry for "smoothen" without the "obs." label or any other limiting label. That same dictionary doesn't mention "smoothe" at all (as one would expect, given that it doesn't appear in a Collegiate series dictionary until 1993). As I noted in an addition to my original question, Microsoft Word claims to have based its spelling checker spellings on the American Heritage and Longman dictionaries. I do not have the latter. – Sven Yargs Sep 16 '13 at 17:05

It's the pronunciation. The word smooth has a voiced 'th' at the end, which is usually spelled in English with 'the' at the end of words.


Unvoiced /θ/:

Voiced /ð/:

People are extending this rule to the spelling of smooth, which violates it. Why is this spelling error turning up more in Ngrams recently? Good question; I don't know. It might just be that the Ngrams corpus is less-well proofread today than it was in the past.

I attribute it to lotion containers that advertise that their contents "smoothe and soothe." (Me, it irritates!)

My 2003 version of Office Word underlines 'smoothe' as a spelling error. It is, though, set to English as we use it in the UK, rather than American English. I have never seen smoothe in print in anything here in the UK (thank heavens).

  • Hi, bamboo. Check to see whether your version of Word 2003 doesn't also mark smooths as an error. It does in the U.S. English version. As I noted in my question (above), "my most recent version of Word—Word for Mac 2011—treats both smoothes and smooths as typos." – Sven Yargs Sep 16 '13 at 17:56
  • It doesn't seem to, but I do recall, aeons ago, doing something with the spellcheck dictionary, so maybe it did initially. – bamboo Sep 17 '13 at 12:24

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