Here’s a question certain to divide the English-speaking masses. How do you spell the past tense of cancel? If you answer canceled, then you and I probably would agree on many other issues of grammar. If your spelling contains two l’s, perhaps you’re British, an Anglophile, or a lover of gratuitousness. Regardless of your spelling choice, I’d like to suggest why you spell the way you spell: Noah Webster.
Let me explain.
I’m currently immersed in David Sacks’s 2003 history of the alphabet, Language Visible. Among the contents of his letter L chapter is a section devoted to the Colonial American scholar and lexicographer Noah Webster, the man responsible for changing the way Americans spell.
James Herring’s 183 portrait
of Noah Webster
One of Webster’s Americanizations reminded me of a conversation I had one night, over cocktails, with two fellow grammar geeks. The question was whether or not you double the l when a verb that ends in a consonant-vowel-l trio changes to its past (-ed) or gerund (-ing) form. Webster unequivocally ordained not doubling the final consonant of any word that spun off into derivative words when the final syllable was unstressed. To put it more simply, cancel becomes canceled in the past tense and canceling in its gerund form. This was radical, as it defied the British rules mandated by Englishman Samuel Johnson, the reigning lexicographer of his time and place.
Here are a smattering of l-ending verbs that demonstrate Webster’s dictum. Notice that there are far more words that do not add an extra l to their past and gerund endings. Webster, a die-hard patriot, must have known this when creating the first American dictionary. Loyalist grammarians must have raged at the affront.
Last syllable unstressed; do not add an l:
bedevil, bevel, cavil, channel, counsel, equal (we treat qu as one consonant), imperil, label, level, marvel, model, parcel, pencil, revel, rival, shovel, travel
Last syllable stressed; add an l:
excel, expel, extol, impel, compel, dispel, repel, rebel
Even the way we spell the letter L, el, has a British alternative spelling, ell. It’s really a matter of preference; I prefer the former. Of course, if you feel the need to spell all these words with two els, like an English person, be my guest. Your caviling won’t annoy me in the least.
|My second English dictionary, c. 1989.|
The spectacles are Colonial American.
Webster’s rule gets thrown out the window when spelling cancellation. Perhaps this can be attributed to some fiercely loyal Johnsonian involved in the production of Webster’s An American Dictionary of the English Language. (Johnson, I’m certain, is smiling in his grave.)
If you find yourself in Central Connecticut, visit the Noah Webster House, in his hometown of West Hartford, to learn more about the man behind America’s first dictionary of the English language. Information available at www.noahwebsterhouse.org.