One of our readers asks if there is a rule for knowing when to write –ence and when to write –ance at the ends of words such as:
affluence, eloquence, essence, influence, insurgence
ambulance, clairvoyance, finance, ignorance, nuisance
In a priority list for English spelling reform, the spellings –ence and –ance, –ent and –ant, surely deserve a place near the top.
Both –ance and –ence derive ultimately from Latin endings spelled –entia and –antia.
Before the Sixteenth Century when English scholars busied themselves trying to make English spelling and grammar conform to the logic of Latin, some words that had already entered the language spelled with -ance were altered to –ence.
NOTE: The silent b came into the word debt at this time. In Middle English the word was usually spelled det or dette, rarely debte. The reforming scholars decided that since the word came from Latin debitum, it needed the b.
As for knowing when to write -ence and when to write -ance, I believe that this is a case in which observation and practice offer the best solution. A spell checker can also help.
A website called Everything2 formulates several rules for the –ence/-ance, -ent/-ant spellings, but the multiplicity of rules and exceptions would seem to demand more mental exertion than simply memorizing the words one has trouble with.
I was taught to attach what my teacher called a “spelling pronunciation” to words that do not sound the way they are spelled. For example, I have no trouble spelling chihuahua because I think “/chI hoo-a hoo-a/.” The same goes for words in –ence and –ance, –ent and –ant. I look at the word and emphasize the ending in my head: de fen DANT, prev a LENT. Do this often enough and the correct spelling will enter your long term memory.
CAUTION: Some danger may attach to the use of mental spelling pronunciations: they may slip into your speech. I’ve heard more than one TV lawyer pronounce /de fen dent/ as /de fen DANT/.