I was writing in Word today (with the Canadian English dictionary enabled) and it kept putting a redline under "fourty" which I couldn't understand. A bit of searching says that, even in British and Canadian English, the spelling is indeed "forty" but without any real explanation.


It seems slightly counter-intuitive as we learn to spell so many words with the extra 'u' in Canada, and of course, some Canadian websites will actually write "fourty".


So why do we have four and fourteen, but not fourty?

Update: So I guess really the answer is that, unlike a lot of other words that may or may not be spelled with a 'u' in "recent" times (i.e. when American English became a standard), this has been spelt as "forty" for ages.

  • 10
    It doesn't have a "u" in American English either. – Kit Z. Fox May 24 '11 at 1:15
  • 6
    As early as the 1600s, the OED cites spellings with "o" instead of "ou". One wonders if the pronunciations of the vowel part of "four" and "forty" were pronounced differently at the time the spelling solidified. (I have no idea if this is true though, but it does sometimes explain spelling oddities like this.) – Kosmonaut May 24 '11 at 1:41
  • 4
    @hippietrail: I am just worried it might be voted up even though I don't have any concrete evidence; I could be dead wrong. – Kosmonaut May 24 '11 at 2:01
  • 2
    @Kosmonaut: You're citing the OED and everybody knows English spelling has had either a random or a chaotic evolution with few precise explanations. Are you here for the questions and answers or for the reputation? Good answer anyway (-: – hippietrail May 24 '11 at 2:03
  • 3
    @hippietrail: If I were here for the reputation, I'd have posted it as an answer, wouldn't I? – Kosmonaut May 24 '11 at 2:14
up vote 27 down vote accepted

Before 1600, the OED gives citations where forty is spelled in various ways, but never with just an "o" vowel:

  • feuortig, feortiȝ, fuwerti, uourty (the "u" is really a "v"), fourty, fourthi, fourtie

This might possibly mean that there was some actual diphthong leading to these spellings; since most of these spellings occurred before there was any standardization, it is hard to tell either way.

In 1600, there are three citations, and, interestingly, all of them have just "o":

  • 1602 Contention Liberalitie & Prodigalitie i. iv. sig. B2, "Cham sure chaue come, vorty miles and twenty."
  • a1642 J. Suckling Poems (1646) 37, "And there did I see comming down Such folks as are not in our Town Vorty at least, in Pairs."
  • 1698 J. Fryer New Acct. E.-India & Persia 94, At the end of their Quarentine, which is Forty days.

(We can ignore the "v/f" alternation — something was apparently going with the voicing at the beginning of this word, but it probably has no bearing on the vowel following it.)

Aside from one citation in the 1700s that uses fourty, everything else from then on is written as forty.

One can only guess the reason for this change (at least with the information that I have) — whether it was pronunciation shifting or just orthographic simplification. But I might have an explanation for why this spelling took hold so swiftly in the 1600s: the Bible. The King James edition of the Bible was a major influence on the standards in English spelling. The KJV Bible was published in 1611 (begun in 1604), and (since I happen to have a KJV corpus handy) I see that there are 158 tokens with the spelling forty in KJV and 0 tokens for fourty.

So, even if the spelling of forty was following the whim of a handful of publishers, it got into the King James Bible, and that was that.

  • Thanks :) This is just the type of answer I was looking for. – Jedidja May 24 '11 at 16:28
  • 1
    S the real questions is why does four (presumably from vier) have a u? – mgb Jun 3 '11 at 19:14
  • 1
    @fumblefingers - I suppose a non-native speaker who knew the AE/BE differences in words ending in -our (colour/neighbour/humour) assumed that forty followed the same pattern and BE/CE would spell it with a U – mgb Jun 3 '11 at 20:47
  • 3
    @Martin Beckett: No, it is not from "vier" any more than "vier" is from "four". It is from "feower" (Old English), from some such form as "fidwor" (Common Germanic), ultimately from "kwetwores" (Indo-European - the "kw" -> "f" is anomalous and unexplained, but it also occurred in the second cluster in "five" < "finf" < "penque".) – Colin Fine Jul 5 '11 at 14:53
  • 4
    @Martin Beckett: from Germanic roots. Not from Modern German, which has equally diverged from its roots. – Colin Fine Jul 5 '11 at 17:03

The other answers here have a good summary of the history of the spelling of this word, but:

To be clear, in contemporary English, the standard spelling is forty in all standard dialects and varieties. The spelling fourty, though it has historical precedent, does not have any currency. It is not listed as a modern spelling in any dictionaries.


In Old English, it was spelt feuortig...by the 14th century (Chaucer) it was spelt fourty... and not until the very end of the 17th century was it spelt forty. In other words, it - like multitudes of other English words - went through a process of simplification over time.

The words four and forty obviously have the same root if you go back far enough, but they were actually pronounced with distinct vowel sounds in many past dialects of English (and still are in some present ones). Four was pronounced with a "long o" sound, while forty was pronounced with a "short o" sound.* Apparently, the vowel in forty was shortened at some point in history (the spelling variations may give some clue; another way to find out would be to see what pronunciations were recommended by orthoëpists at different times). This is analogous to the difference in the pronunciation of the "ow" in know and knowledge.

How does this relate to the spelling? Well, in general, the digraph "ow/ou" is not used in English to represent a "short o" sound. The word knowledge that I just mentioned is an exception, but there are not many other words like it. So for speakers who pronounce forty with a "short o" sound, the spelling forty reflects the pronunciation better than the spelling fourty. I would guess this contributed towards the eventual standardized spelling without "u".

More details about these two vowel sounds

In John Wells's system of lexical sets, the vowel sound in four (historically a "long o" followed by "r") is called the "FORCE" vowel, while the vowel sound in forty (historically a "short o" followed by "r") is called the NORTH vowel.

If you pronounce these words with the same vowel sound, it means you have the horse-hoarse merger. This merger is part of the "standard" dialects in England and North America, so most general-purpose dictionaries transcribe these words with the same vowel.

In varieties of English without the merger, the exact way these vowel sounds are distinguished varies among different accents. In old-fashioned British "Received Pronunciation," words with the FORCE vowel were pronounced with a centering diphthong transcribed /ɔə/, while words with the NORTH vowel were pronounced with the monophthong /ɔː/ (identical to the vowel found in words like THOUGHT). Wells says /ɔə/ merged into /ɔː/ for most British speakers during the early twentieth century.

Rhotic (r-pronouncing) varieties of English that distinguish these two vowels usually have a phonetically higher vowel in FORCE words (something like /or/ or /oʊr/, which could be characterized as the GOAT vowel followed by the consonant /r/) and a phonetically lower vowel in NORTH words (/ɔr/ or /ɒɹ/, which could be characterized as the THOUGHT or LOT vowel followed by /r/). Here are some audio samples I found on Youtube of a western Scottish, young female speaker's NORTH and FORCE vowels.

*Here are some relevant links that mention this fact:

  • Re. the 3rd paragraph, the vowel sound in NORTH and FORCE I pronounce identically and my accent is British South England/London. The vowels in our and four I pronounce differently, your answer has succeeded in muddling me! You should point out which variety of English pronounces the vowels in the first pair differently. The sound represented by the IPA symbol ɔə I find in the word awe, is that right? And, it seems to me that the difference between ɔə and ɔ: is practically negligible in normal speech. Aren't we in the realms of accents? – Mari-Lou A Feb 3 '16 at 7:21
  • @Mari-LouA: the distinction is not common anymore. You probably do not have it at all. It occured in old-fashioned "Received Pronunciation," and it can be found today in some regional varieties of British English and North American English. The symbol /ɔə/ technically represents a unitary "diphthong," but it's close to the vowel sound in "awe" followed by the unstressed schwa sound of "comma," smooshed together into one syllable. Do you pronounce "board" and "bored" the same way? If you pronounce them differently, you may have ɔ: in the former and ɔə in the latter. – sumelic Feb 3 '16 at 7:49
  • Which regional varieties in BrEng? Liverpool, Yorkshire, Birmingham, Dorset? Please, give one example. I'm not so well versed in AmEng accents. Board and bored I pronounce identically. – Mari-Lou A Feb 3 '16 at 8:06
  • @Mari-LouA: As an American, I don't know enough to be able to say, unfortunately. Apparently, Scottish accents traditionally have the distinction. They are also rhotic, so that's not an example of /ɔə/. I'll try to find some old audio that shows the difference for speakers of Received Pronunciation. – sumelic Feb 3 '16 at 8:10
  • 1
    @Mari-LouA: I just found a possible reference for /ɔə/-- listen for the word "course" around 20 seconds into Queen Elizabeth's 1963 Christmas message. I think she pronounces it with a different vowel from the one she would use in "horse." – sumelic Feb 3 '16 at 8:58

I've been having this argument for about two years now, with a Canadian who was educated in Ontario in the 60s, he swears his dictionary and teacher taught him to spell forty with a U. In fact he goes even further and states that the dictionary noted that forty was the Americanised spelling, which I find highly unlikely, as standard school dictionaries never include that kind of notation.

If the 1611 KJV of the Bible isn't proof enough that 'forty' is the accepted spelling, nothing is.

I'm English by birth and learned to spell in the nineteen forties, not the nineteen fourties.

  • 1
    A Canadian dictionary would actually call it Americanized. I'm just giving you grief; I can't help myself. I do love spelling variations as a reminder that our language is – CynicallyNaive Jun 3 '11 at 16:50
  • LOL, that's exactly how he spelt it, CynicallyNaive, but I find it hard to break the English teachings of a lifetime. The OED offers a choice of ise or ize for many word endings. – Earthling Jun 3 '11 at 17:51
  • On a similar vein, I (and other Eastern Canadains / Ontarians) swear that we learned to spell dilemma as 'dilemna'. It wasn't until Michael Pollan's book came out that I realised the error of my ways. – Jedidja Jun 3 '11 at 18:07
  • I'm not surprised, Jedidja, especially seeing how you spell Canadians, LOL. I hope it was a typo. – Earthling Jun 3 '11 at 18:32
  • Oops. Yes, it was a typo heh. – Jedidja Jun 4 '11 at 4:25

protected by tchrist Mar 1 '15 at 18:30

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality or spam answers that had to be removed, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site (the association bonus does not count).

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.