Double-L spelling

Brian Hitchcock writes in to the American Dialect Society listserv:

When did Americans start putting two ells in “canceled” and “canceling”?  I am well aware that two ells are preferred in British spellings, and that “cancellation” with two ells has been long preferred on both sides of the pond; for some reason Americans seem to be adopting British practice for the other forms as well.

I can’t tell you how many times I have looked up home pages of people who post on Facebook, wondering they are Canadian, Indian or Australian, only to find they are Americans who just use the spellings favoured (sic) elsewhere.

I expect they will soon start wasting ells on “levelled/levelling”, “bevelled/bevelling“, “travelled/travelling”, “pencilled/pencilling”, “parcelled/parcelling”,
“carolled/carolling”,”devilled/devilling”, “cavilled/cavilling”  et al. as well?

note: or maybe they already have—in the above list, Apple spell-chequer (sarcasm) did NOT flag bevelled, travelled, pencilled, or pencilling as misspelled.

I confess I was not aware of the double-L trend — except, of course in The New Yorker, a fairly recent version of whose stylebook I have in my possession.

IMG-6503(Note the banning of “transpire.”)

The whole single-L notion started with Noah Webster, who in the dictionaries he published in the early nineteenth century promoted new (and what he considered simpler and more logical) spellings for the new American continent. But according to this Google Ngram Viewer graph of word frequency in books published in the U.S., it took until about 1940 for “canceled” to catch up, and until the early ’80s for it to start surging ahead.

Screen Shot 2019-05-20 at 9.44.35 AM

Interestingly, “traveled” took hold in the U.S. much earlier, in the 1910s.

Screen Shot 2019-05-20 at 10.03.08 AM

Reliable data for Ngram viewer only goes up to 2000, at which point the American double-L trend perceived by Brian Hitchcock trend hadn’t come on the scene. The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) takes up the story, and suggests that things started to change right about then. The bottom number indicates that “cancelled” occurred .94 times per million words of text in 1995-1999, and 3.53 times in 2015-2017. (“Canceled” appeared 9.85 times/million in that period–still nearly three times as often.)

Screen Shot 2019-05-20 at 10.29.42 AM

Yet another database, the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, crunches a couple of billion words of text from 2012 and shows “cancelled” appearing 7.17 times per million words of text, compared to 6.13 for “cancelled.” The number is presumably that high because spelling is looser on the web, while most American publishers and periodicals still adhere to the traditional “canceled.” Here are some of the U.S. “cancelled” hits:

Screen Shot 2019-05-20 at 10.17.47 AM

Bringing us up to the present, a Google News search for “cancelled” yields eight of ten American hits on the first page, including these:

Screen Shot 2019-05-20 at 10.23.43 AM

So to Brian Hitchcock, I will say, you are right, and to answer the question you start out by posing: 2000.

 

14 responses to “Double-L spelling

  1. For me, there is a separate branch of language development and assessment, which is the sight or sound test. In this case, double ‘l’ is better because it looks right.

  2. Is the Radio Times, the first of those Google hits, any connection to the UK TV listing magazine of that name? You’d expect them to use the UK spelling..

    To this Englishman, the single ‘l’ always suggests to me that the preceding vowel sound should be modified.

    • I completely agree. ‘Canceled’ looks to me as though it should be read as ‘can-seeled’. I’ve never understood why this was thought o be a good idea by Mr Webster.

  3. I use a double-L in “cancelled” because of this rule that I learned as a elementary school student in the 1950s:

    “We often double an ending consonant to keep a short vowel short. For example, the past tense of ‘stop’ is ‘stopped.’ Otherwise the silent ‘e’ rule below (which also applies when followed by ‘d’) would give it a long ‘o’ sound like soap or hope.”
    https://www.englishhints.com/english-vowels.html

  4. I have always known that these words were sometimes spelled with one L, and sometimes with two, but had never associated the distinction as reflecting a American versus British pattern of preference.

    I think I always spelled these words with two Ls – until such time as my word processing software started telling me to do it otherwise. I probably still always default to two Ls when writing in pen.

  5. How’s that again? You wrote
    >>>>>
    Yes another database, the Corpus of Global Web-Based English, crunches a couple of billion words of text from 2012 and shows “cancelled” appearing 7.17 times per million words of text, compared to 6.13 for “cancelled.”
    <<<<<
    Mentally correcting "Yes" to "Yet" as an obvious typo is trivial, but which "cancel(l)ed" is which?

  6. How about tranquility? The New York Times continues to use the double l

    On Mon, May 20, 2019 at 10:43 AM Not One-Off Britishisms wrote:

    > Ben Yagoda posted: “Brian Hitchcock writes in to the American Dialect > Society listserv: When did Americans start putting two ells in “canceled” > and “canceling”? I am well aware that two ells are preferred in British > spellings, and that “cancellation” with two ells has been ” >

    • I suggest that ‘tranquility’ satisfies the sight standard, and that the additional syllables take the stress away from the ‘l’. If there were such a descriptive word, it would be ‘tranquilled.’ Actually, I rather like that word. :-).

  7. I didn’t learn it as a rule like Dave Lull did, but I always figured that the pronunciation changed when you left the letter as single. ‘Kidnaping’, for example is ‘kid-nape-ing’

  8. Thank you, Ben, for using my query as a springboard for intelligent discussion (and for ignoring the more plaintive and petty parts of it.) The interplay of “British” and “American” spellings, over the decades, is quite intricate and unpredictable.

    p.s. I realize why “pencilled/pencilling” are both fully accepted. They have a short “i” pronunciation rather than the schwa of my other examples.

    p.p.s. the suggested “looks right” test is clearly 100% subjective and not useful. During a period of transition, we have to understand that BOTH “look right”, and that one cannot even say (as I had thought) that one looks “British”. It used to, but I’ll have to get used to the fact that it isn’t . Stil, I’l consider it wastefull, in my own writing, to use two ells when one wil do the job, untill the single-ell version is actualy and finaly deprecated.

    • They don’t look right. That was my point. Throughout my longish life, from early childhood, I have frequently satisfied myself as to the spelling of a word by its appearance, and the method has let me down only once, approximately twenty seven years ago, with ‘harassment’. It still looks wrong.
      As for British and American spellings, there are too many contradictions. ‘Nite’ was believed by many to be an American spelling, but was merely a lowering of the standard for a while. On the other hand, perusal of old British newspapers will often show ‘color’ and ‘labor’, and license as a noun.

  9. Incidentally, back in the eighties and nineties I did a lot of work on Vax computers made by DEC, a US company. I went on several training course run by DEC in the UK, given by UK staff.

    Not surprisingly, the messages produced by VMS, the DEC operating system used US spellings. One course tutor I had seemed to take objection to this. His pet peeve was the message “The program has exited.” He seemed to think that the English spelling should be “exitted” (it isn’t) and always pronounced it “excited”.

  10. ‘…“pencilled/pencilling” … have a short “i” pronunciation…’
    Not the way I say them, they don’t. Am I unusual?

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