Q&A: “Dependent” vs “Dependant”

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, it all depends…

Q: Hi AWC, I was thinking about how coffee-dependent I am. And it led to my question – what’s the difference between “dependent” and “dependant”?

A: That depends.

Q: Oh ha ha ha.

A: No really, it does. On a few things actually.

Q: Please explain.

A: Well, if you live in North America, there basically is no such word as “dependant”. But here in Australia and NZ especially, we use this to mean someone who is dependent on someone else – often classed as a child under 18.

Q: Oh, like “do you have a spouse or dependants”?

A: Yeah exactly that sort of thing. So it’s a noun – and Macquarie Dictionary defines it as “someone who depends on or looks to another for support, favour, etc.”

Q: Got it. And just to clarify – being a depend-ANT makes you depend-ENT on someone, right?

A: That’s right. Because “dependent” is universally the adjective – “to depend on something else for aid, support, etc.”

Q: And that something else might be coffee?

A: Yes, it could be coffee. In which case, you might say you were coffee-dependent.

Q: And if you were 6 years old, you might be a coffee-dependent dependant?

A: Sure. Although, if that were the case, there’d probably be more important questions to be asking…

Q: So, wait. In North America, don't they have a word for children under 18?

A: Oh, they still do. They just simplify things by spelling ALL meanings as “dependent” – the noun and the adjective.

Q: Gah. They like doing that a lot.

A: They sure do. It has taken them years of “practice“.

Q: Nice. Okay, so how did we end up with TWO spellings?

A: Good question. According to Merriam Webster dictionary, it was actually “dependant” as an adjective that turned up first – during the 14th century and meaning to rely for existence on. The French adjective it came from was “dépendant” – literally meaning “to hang down”. It’s where we get “pendant” lights from as well as “pendulums” – to name just a few.

Q: But then why didn’t the adjective stay with the A spelling?

A: The Middle Ages were the Wild West of words. And the most common high-noon duel in the main street was usually between French and Latin.

Q: Please explain.

A: Old French was a common source of words from the 12th century on, and so the spelling “dependant” or even the super-Frenchy looking “dependaunt” was used for a few hundred years. But around the 16th century, spelling shifted to “dependent” to match a resurgence in all things Latin at the time.

Q: It seems like they were thinking a lot about the Roman Empire.

A: It does. Not long after, the noun meaning arrived – coinciding roughly with the British colonisation of the Americas. Britain saw this as an opportunity to retain the French “-ant” spelling for the noun and keep the suddenly popular Latin “-ent” for the adjective. 

Q: And America thought “nah, too tricky”, right?

A: Essentially. They also just preferred many Latin origins to French – such as “theater” or “humor”. With regard to “dependent”, the Century Dictionary in 1897 actually stated that: “as the spelling of this class of words depends solely upon whether they happen to be regarded as derived directly from the French or the Latin, and as usage is divided, there is no good reason for insisting upon a distinction in spelling between the noun and the adjective.”

Q: Wow. Case closed.

A: Indeed. In fact, speaking of cases, some might say the British way makes more sense, considering the noun “defendant” is always spelt with an A – in both Britain AND America.

Q: Guilty as charged!

A: Haha, yeah English is guilty of plenty of crimes over the years.

Q: I know right? There are so many words in dispute that it should get a very long sentence.

A: Very clever. 

Q: So where are we today with usage?

A: America continues to use just “dependent” for both the adjective and noun. And while British English makes the distinction of “dependant” for nouns, American online-influence and just plain laziness means that we’re seeing “dependent” used for all meanings more and more across the globe.

Q: But that’s just anecdotal, not official, right?

A: Not yet, that’s right. So our advice here in Australia is to remember to “think of little ANTs” when thinking of dependANT children. And for the adjective, you’re fine of course with the universally used “dependENT”.

Q: This all reminds me of the coffee I had with my grandpa the other day. He was moaning about how young people are so dependent on technology these days.

A: Ah okay. What did you say?

Q: Not much. I simply asked how he was finding his new pacemaker…

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