The Double El(l) Dilemma

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 1833 portrait of Noah Webster

After graduating from Yale in 1778, Webster zigzagged across the Nutmeg State for several years, trying unsuccessfully to find work as a lawyer. Dissatisfied with several teaching jobs, he began writing articles supporting the American Revolution. While doing so, he founded a private school where he wrote his wildly successful grammar and pronunciation guide, called The American Spelling Book. Webster championed consistency in grammar foremost, but as new editions of the book were published, he changed certain British spellings. Defence became defense. Theatre became theater. And the second l was dropped from words like counsellor and traveller. By separating us from the British way of spelling, Webster hit upon something revolutionary: This act of defiance — this Americanization of words, if you will — not only strengthened the American identity by showing that it was different from British identity but also encouraged the publishing of American books on American soil. The United States therefore would not have to rely on the importation of publications from England. Self-reliance like this was important in the early days of the Republic: it created a sense of American pride, as well as more jobs.

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.

Postscript

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 https://noahwebsterhouse.org.

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