Etymology Grammar Usage

Stiff upper English

Q: I grew up in Oklahoma and live in Connecticut, but British English often seems more correct to me. For instance, the Times of London uses spellings like “catalogue” and “largesse” (my preferences) while the New York Times uses “catalog” and “largess” (ditto). The London paper also uses “none of them is” and “any of them is” (my choices) while the NYT uses “none of them are” and “any of them are” (ditto).

A: The different spellings and usages you mention aren’t necessarily characteristic of British vs. American practices.

In fact, the divisions aren’t as black and white as many people think. In some cases, for instance, two spellings are used, both in the US and in the UK.

First of all, let’s set the record straight about “none” and “any.”

It’s not true that they are invariably singular. In both the US and the UK, these can be either singular or plural.

When we mean “any of it” or “none of it” (that is, any or no amount of one thing), the accompanying verb is singular. But when we speak of “any of them” or “none of them” (that is, any people or no people), the verb is plural.

For what it’s worth, we searched the archives at both newspapers for “any of them” and “none of them.” Guess what? We found lots of singular and plural examples – at both papers. No comment.

We’ve written before on the blog about “none.” Though many people are misled by the word’s etymology, it’s not true that “none” invariably means “not one.” Unfortunately, this bit of 19th-century folklore is deeply entrenched.

The Oxford English Dictionary agrees. It says that “none,” in the sense of “not any (one) of a number of people or things” or “no people,” is used “commonly with plural concord.” Examples are given from late Old English up to the present.

Now let’s examine the other words you mention. We’ll begin with “catalog” vs. “catalogue.” 

The word was first adopted into English in the 1400s, when it was spelled “cataloge” or “cathaloge.”

It’s derived from the French catalogue and the late Latin catalogus (which come ultimately from the Greek katalogos). The “gue” ending was introduced in the 1500s, possibly to emphasize the resemblance to French.

In American English, both spellings are used; “catalog” is generally preferred, with “catalogue” listed in dictionaries as an equal variant. In British English, both spellings are also used, but the preferences are reversed.

We consulted Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), and the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (published in Britain).

The American preference for “catalog” was underscored early in the 20th century, when the American Library Association endorsed the simpler spelling.

The popularity of the spellings “catalog,” “dialog,” “analog,” and others is evidence of the gradual decline of the “gue” ending.

The New York Times still uses “dialogue,” but prefers the simpler spelling for “catalog.” It uses “analog” for the adjective that means the opposite of digital, but it uses “analogue” for the noun meaning a counterpart or equivalent. (See what we mean about black and white?)

Now, let’s look at “largess” vs. “largesse.” This noun, which means something like “generosity,” was adopted into English from the French largesse in the 1200s, when it was spelled a variety of ways.

The anglicized spelling “largess” was firmly established in the 1500s and for centuries was preferred in both American and British English. That’s still somewhat true in American English, though many Americans as well as Britons have reverted to the French spelling.

As things stand today, according to American Heritage, “largess” is preferred in American English, with “largesse” as a less common variant. Most usage guides agree. But  Merriam-Webster’s gives “largesse” as the more common spelling and “largess” second.

As for the British, Longman gives both spellings equal weight, though “largesse” is listed first. The OED calls its entry for the word “largess, largesse.” (Again, there are more grays than blacks and whites!)

In summary, the variations you speak of are not necessarily examples of American vs. British usage. Or at least, the demarcations are not as cleanly cut as is often supposed. And sometimes different practices are examples of greater or lesser degrees of formality.

We generally prefer the shorter spellings, but feel free to use the longer ones if you like. Be consistent, though. Never mind what Emerson had to say.

Check out our books about the English language