The Grammar Factor – December 2011

I would like to thank you all – for reading my newsletters, asking me questions that often make me reach for my reference books, emailing me comments (even if you vehemently disagree with me), and sending me contributions. I could not write these newsletters without your support.


Licence or license?

Reader’s question: Which is correct – software licence or license?

Answer: Licence in Australian spelling, license in American spelling.

NB The correct spelling for the verb (in Australia) is license, but the noun is always licence.

One word, two words or hyphens?

Reader’s question: Should I write under use, underuse or under-use?

Answer: There isn’t a ‘right’ answer – words tend to close up if used frequently together and dictionaries follow usage.

This question reminds me of what Henry Hitchings said about the declining use of hyphens and how we prefer one word or two. If you missed the article, the link is

In this example, I would agree with Henry Hitchings – I would use one word or two rather than a hyphen.

Learnt or learned?

Reader’s question: Do you think learnt and learned are interchangeable?

Answer: Yes, I think learnt and learned are interchangeable, but my preference is learned because it is a regular verb.

Regular verbs end in -ed in the past tense, whereas irregular verbs have a variety of different endings (e.g. grew, chosen, slept). You can read more about irregular verbs at

Singular or plural with expressions of quantity?

Reader’s question: Should you use was or were in the following statements?

Approximately X litres of rubber was/were used in laying the track.
Approximately 230 square metres of reclaimed timber was/were reused as the exterior cladding.
Around 40,000 cubic metres of soil was/were moved to the south.

Answer: I thought this was straightforward until I did some research. My preference is for the plural verb, but the Australian Commonwealth style manual says that, with expressions of quantity, notional rather than formal agreement can be used and gives the example: ‘Fifty tonnes [of rice] is all that is needed.’ (Note it doesn’t say ‘must’!)

This reader decided to go with the singular verb. Which is your preference and why? Email

Resources and linguistic fun

Test your vocabulary
Test your vocabulary with the Merriam-Webster vocabulary quiz at

Does spelling matter in romance?
Read an entertaining opinion piece about spelling and online dating. It starts with: ‘ALLOW me to introdunce myself.’ And ends with: ‘“I am 33 old Polish men looking for a good woman.”

Hurray! One for each night of the month, and a couple left over to take out the garbage.’

Know Your Reader
Know Your Reader: The Scientific Approach to Readability, by George R. Klare and Byron Buck, 1954, is now available as a free download.

This book looks at the research behind readability formulas and is still relevant for writers today.

More amusing headlines

  • Stolen painting found by tree
  • Official: Only rain will cure drought
  • Two Soviet ships collide, one dies
  • Complaints about NBA umpires growing ugly
  • Man eating piranha mistakenly sold as pet fish

Christmas joke

Q. What did Adam say on the day before Christmas?

A. It’s Christmas, Eve.

Best wishes for a restful break.


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