License vs. Licence

By Maeve Maddox

My recent post on Driver License vs. Driver’s License stirred a discussion about the spellings licence and license.

In American usage, the word license is used as both noun and verb:

license (noun): permission to act.

license (verb): to grant or issue a license to someone, usually after special qualifications have been met.

Modern British usage distinguishes between the noun licence and the verb license:

She has framed her licence to practice medicine and hung it on the wall. (noun)

She was licensed just last week. (verb)

According to a note in the OED, the spelling licence for the noun is more etymologically correct than license because it comes from Latin licentia, by way of French licence. The editor notes that licence would be an acceptable spelling for the verb as well, but acknowledges that the spelling license conforms to the rule that governs other noun/verb pairs like prophecy/prophesy and advice/advise.

Although modern British usage prefers the spelling licence for the noun, Dr. Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language has these entries for license (so spelled):

License, a permission, liberty. (noun)
License, to grant leave; to permit by a legal grant; to set at liberty. (verb)

Late 19th century British dictionaries “almost universally have license both for noun and verb, either without alternative or in the first place (OED).”

And it’s clear from several of the OED citations used to illustrate the noun licence that at least some British authors and journalists spelled it license up until the 20th century:

Others would confine the license of disobedience to unjust laws. (1861)

The Sandy Foundation Shaken’ was printed without a license from the Bishop of London. (1872)

The same license was granted to him for dealing with all future criminals of the same class. (1888)

These implements of license were originally made by God. (1901)

I like the modern British practice of distinguishing the noun from the verb. In fact, for a very long time, I believed that licence was the only way to spell the licentious kind of liberty described in 1Peter 4:3: “licence, debauchery, hard drinking, noisy revelry, and drunkenness.”

It’s perhaps regrettable that Americans have only one way to spell license, but that’s the rule.

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4 Responses to “License vs. Licence”

  • Glenn

    Like you I like the distinguishing practice followed by the Brits and their Commonwealth minions in the antipodes (I’m Australian, or in the vernacular, Strayan). I always thought the US practice was to distinguish noun/verb in the reverse to the British. I could’ve sworn I’d seen the US-origin journals and texts I read refer to practicing and licencing people who have a practise or license, but now I’m not so sure! Help!

  • venqax

    So once again it’s the British who stray from the traditional path, not the rebellious Americans. 🙂 I really don’t see any need for 2 different spellings. That just unnecessarily complicates things. Noun vs verb is almost always obvious in context. Why do it? We don’t do it in the vast majority of cases where a word can have a noun or verb form. Do you face someone with your fase, or vice versa? Do you lase your shoe with a shoelace, or the other way around? Pase the floor with long or short paces? I would say a distinction like advice/advise is good because the pronunciation of the variable letter is actually different. Though advize would be better still.

    @Glenn: I don’t know if you were intentionally making the point or not, but practice/practise is similarly distinguished in British, but in American it is always practice with at C.
    I practice my lines for the play.
    The doctor has a practice in town.

  • AnWulf

    I hold with venqax. No need to hav two nother spellings for the same sound. I’d like to see practis keep the s and drop the e for both noun and verb.

    Advize was once common:
    “In the next place, I advize you not to marry early.”
    John Adams autobiography, part 1, “John Adams,” thru 1776

    It should be advise (noun) and advize (verb).

  • Karlos

    It is good to see that the care of language is still a passionate subject. I am even interested to see that some people think that certain words should be changed. In 1985 i got my licence to rude a motorcycle, however i am almost certain at that time it was spelled license. Years later i was ridiculed for spelling it incorrectly. I see now that there is a fair chance i was right. In 1979 i was in a grade 4 classroom competition where the question was asked as to what the first day of the week is. I wrongly answered Monday, for which my team lost the competition. At the time it was widely taught that Sunday was the first day of the week. Now my son has been taught that it is Monday. What i want to know, is who decides what and when changes to the vocabulary of a country should happen? Is it a trivial thing to change? And what of those people like me who have had similar experiences? Nowadays i find it hard to remember the correct spelling of more words than i care to admit. Changing more will make life interesting. I believe in change for progress, but not change for the sake of change. Just my opinion. KD

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