Q&A: Curb vs kerb

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Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we’re kicking it to the kerb…

Q: Hi AWC – you won’t have much trouble curbing your enthusiasm about this week’s dilemma.

A: Do tell.

Q: It’s about whether I use “curb” or “kerb” in my writing.

A: Okay, we’re definitely channelling Larry David on that one.

Q: Well, speaking of Americans, I’m pretty sure they spell it one way and we do the other. But I can never remember which is which.

A: Allow us to put you out of your misery then. “Curb” as in the Larry David show Curb Your Enthusiasm means to check or restrain (verb). It can also be a noun – a check or restraint, e.g. “I’m going to put a curb on your spending.”

Q: That’s exactly what my mother said to me.

A: Parents need to be tough when you’re growing up.

Q: Growing up? This was last Friday.

A: Right, okay.

Q: So does everyone spell this definition as “curb”?

A: Yes.

Q: So, who uses “kerb” then?

A: If you’re outside of North America, you’d use “curb” for the definitions above. But you’d then use “kerb” for what the Macquarie Dictionary defines as: “a line of joined stones, concrete, or the like at the edge of a street, wall, etc”.

Q: So we use “kerb” here in Australia for the side of the road. And I guess USA and Canada use “curb” instead?

A: Yes, they do.

Q: So would it be fair to say that Americans think a word like “kerb” is nonsense?

A: Yes, that’s likely. They love simplifying the language and they use “curb” for everything. Meanwhile, we’re left with the curb/kerb combo.

Q: A kebab combo? Is that like a Halal snack pack?

A: No, we said… Never mind.

Q: So why is there even a “kerb” variation at all?

A: It’s a good question, because in this case the Americans are actually using the original spelling – curb – “where the raised pavement meets the street” from the 1500s. The spelling “kerb” was a variant that arrived on the scene around 1660. And just like chewing gum on a hot pavement, it stuck.

Q: Does this apply to “kerb appeal” in real estate ads too?

A: Well yes, it should. The problem with all of this is that America has such a strong influence on everything, that we see terms like “curb appeal” becoming used everywhere. It returns 22 million Google results to just 500,000 for the variant.

Q: But that’s no reason to stop writing it.

A: Exactly. Here in Australia we recommend “kerb” for the street, “curb” for everything else. (And to use the term “street appeal” to solve the dilemma above.)

Q: Any tip on remembering who uses “kerb”?

A: K for kangaroo, K for kerb?

Q: That’s a good one.

A: Or you could remember it by thinking Larry David might say “let’s get this show on the road!” when referring to Curb Your Enthusiasm – because the edge of the road is also spelt the same way, and all this despite Mr David clearly having middle-of-the-road tastes, which would take the curbs out of the picture…

Q: Yeah nah, I’ll go for the kangaroo one.

A: Fair enough.

Q: Is Larry David paying us for all this promotion?

A: No, but season nine does arrive in October after a six-year break.

Q: Okay, well we’re kicking this one to the kerb, thanks. And we’ll be curbing our usage appropriately in future.

A: Just be sure to keep your mind out of the gutter, and on the kerb.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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