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There are about ten times as many words ending in -ence than in -ense, so there's one simple rule of thumb to distinguish them: When in doubt, go with -ence. But is there any sort of rule besides memorize the exceptions that captures these -ense words more clearly?

I'm an English language native (Northeast U.S.) and a reasonably good speller, but there are a few of these which trip me up occasionally. While I'm not overly worried about that, I am curious if I'm missing some easy trick.

This is a list of a few of the -ence words and most of the -ense ones, and I don't see anything. Am I missing it?

-ence (a few) -ense (almost all)
absence cense
affluence commonsense
ambivalence condense
cadence defense
coherence dense
coincidence dispense
commence expense
competence hypertense
confluence immense
credence incense
difference intense
eloquence lense
essence license
fence multisense
frequence nondefense
inference nonsense
licence offense
omnipotence prepense
pence pretense
prominence propense
science recondense
transcendence relicense
transference sense
turbulence suspense
whence tense
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    I think you're being somewhat optimistic in hoping for any solid rules when it comes to spelling in English. Mar 15, 2023 at 19:52
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    And of course many are different in UK English (which sometimes uses -SE for verb and -CE for noun, a distinction lost in US English). I suspect that the -nse are more likely to come from Latin words in -nd- (supine -nsum), while -ce is from -nt- or similar, except for the cases where the US spelling was modified, and even that isn't a general rule.
    – Stuart F
    Mar 15, 2023 at 21:16
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    Lense? Don't you mean lens? (Which comes from the Latin for lentil, because convex lenses are lentil-shaped.) Mar 16, 2023 at 9:14
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    @JohnLawler Spellcheck is a very blunt tool, and can't tell when you meant e.g. ‘to affect’ (to make a difference to) vs ‘to effect’ (to make something happen) vs ‘an affect’ (an emotional state of mind) vs ‘an effect’ (a change). Or many other confusingly-similar cases. Spellcheck is no substitute for knowing the language.
    – gidds
    Mar 16, 2023 at 15:49
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    All the words of more than one syllable in your list that are stressed on the last syllable are spelt '-ense'. (But this is not true for British spelling, which has e.g. 'defence' and 'pretence'.)
    – TonyK
    Mar 16, 2023 at 16:45

3 Answers 3

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In elementary school, starting in first or second grade, we were given a list of 10 words on Monday and were expected to memorize how they were spelled for the quiz on Friday.

In the same vein, I made a list.

When I used a regex dictionary search to find ense$ words, more than 10 words were returned. However, when grouped by etymology, I got less than 10 families of words. (Nine to be exact!) And some of the words are obscure (marked in parentheses), so you can probably ignore those and still live a happy life:

  • (antisense), commonsense, (missense), (multisense), no-nonsense, nonsense, sense
  • (cense), frankincense, incense
  • condense, dense, (superdense)
  • defense, offense, self-defense *
  • dispense, expense, (prepense), recompense, suspense
  • (flense)
  • immense
  • intense, pretense, tense
  • license, sublicense

(* If you decide to switch to British spellings, these words are spelled with a c instead.)

The words in the -pense family have no obvious commonalities in meaning, but they come from pendere "to hang, cause to hang; weigh; pay" (see Etymonline's entry for pensive, for a related example).

To summarize:

When in doubt, go with -ence[...] memorize the exceptions

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  • Another nice tool that I've never seen. I did my own version against a relatively comprehensive but older wordlist. and came up with a similar -ense set. But it's just a wordlist, no etymologies, parts of speech, etc. This is useful. And I'm guessing you're right; it's mostly memorization... I'm terrible at memorization. :-( Mar 16, 2023 at 13:00
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    License also has the alternate licence spelling for non-USAers, although I think it's only different for the noun.
    – Kit Z. Fox
    Mar 16, 2023 at 13:25
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    @KitZ.Fox you are exactly right. In British English license (and prefixed derivatives) is the verb, whilst licence is the noun
    – Tristan
    Mar 16, 2023 at 15:08
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    Heh, I use missense and antisense several times a day as they are very common in my field (genomics). Always fun to remember that just because I happen to be familiar with some esoteric jargon doesn't mean that the words are actually common!
    – terdon
    Mar 16, 2023 at 16:28
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Etymonline gives a detailed history of suffix -ence.

-ense is actually not a suffix the way -ence/ance is.

word-forming element attached to verbs to form abstract nouns of process or fact (convergence from converge), or of state or quality (absence from absent); ultimately from Latin -antia and -entia, which depended on the vowel in the stem word, from PIE *-nt-, adjectival suffix.

Latin present-participle endings for verbs stems in -a- were distinguished from those in -i- and -e-. Hence Modern English protestant, opponent, obedient from Latin protestare, opponere, obedire.

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 (crescent/croissant), 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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A first approximation is that most of the words ending -ence have adjectival forms ending -ent (or in some cases extensions of this such as -ential or -entific) whereas the words ending -ense do not.

Many of the words on the right do not really use -ense as a suffix but come from adding a prefix to another word such as "sense".

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  • That's nice, but the exceptions are large; if we had an equivalent for -ense it could be very helpful, but as everyone has pointed out, this is not really used as a suffix here. Mar 16, 2023 at 13:15

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