Q&A: Curb vs kerb

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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