Etymology Usage

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Q: It was pointed out to me the other day that I had used “attendence” when it should have been “attendance.” So then I wrote “correspondance” when it should have been “correspondence.” Any rules here or is this one of those things you have to remember?

A: The suffixes “-ance” and “-ence” are used to make nouns out of verbs or adjectives. But there’s no rule for sorting them out. The dictionary is your only hope.

Generally, these suffixes form two kinds of abstract nouns. Some have to do with an action or process (“performance,” “convergence”), and some refer to a state or quality (“elegance,” “absence”).

Why the different spellings?

The short (and rather misleading) answer here is that “-ance” and “-ence” differ because their respective Latin counterparts did, the classical suffixes –antia and –entia.

But the story isn’t that simple.

What complicates things is that a great many Latin nouns ending in –antia and –entia came into English from Old French before 1500. And the Old French spellings all were “levelled,” as the OED says, to –ance, thus ignoring the difference in Latin.

After 1500, however, new nouns coming into both French and English followed the Latin pattern, some ending in “-ance” and some in “-ence.” And some of the old “-ance” endings from the Middle Ages were even changed back to “-ence” to conform to Latin.

Meanwhile, “-ance” took on a life of its own as an English suffix. People began adding it to native English verbs to form nouns (as in “furtherance,” “forbearance,” “riddance,” and “hindrance”).

The result is that there’s no meaningful difference between “-ance” and “-ence” spellings today. Some words reflect a Latin spelling—like “impudence” (from impudentia) and “vigilance” (from vigilantia)—but many do not.

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