Q&A: Double or single L?

Each week, our Australian Writers’ Centre Q&A chats about the quirks and anomalies of the English language. This week, are we seeing double or is it the Americans?

Q: I have some exciting news. Want to hear it?
A: Sure do.

Q: I’m traveling to America! I thought I’d enroll in a marvelous jewelry-making and modeling school – it’s going to make me very skillful. My counselor said I should think about canceling and just doing the courses in installments, so we quarreled for a record-equaling three hours. It’s just that I refuse to be labeled.
A: We see what you’ve just done. Twelve examples of American spelling.

Q: Clever, right? I call it my “yankee doodle dozen”. I thought I’d ask a question about the ‘double-L vs single-L’ rule. I’m sure it has something to do with geography, but it doesn’t seem very consistent.
A: Well, you must have the right language then!

Q: Oh guffaw!
A: English has no shame.

Q: You know it!
A: Preach! Okay, ummm… what was the question again?

Q: So, is there any making sense of this double L thing? Does rapper “LL Cool J” also get known as just “L Cool J” somewhere in the world?
A: Yes, and no.

Q: From the top then please.
A: It’s actually a fairly straightforward rule for the most part. American English likes to take words that end in L and keep it that way. So travel becomes traveler or traveling. Marvel becomes marvelous. Jewel becomes Jewelry. Model to modeling, quarrel to quarreling and counsel to counselor.

Q: Finished?
A: Nope. Label becomes labeling, dial becomes dialing, and equal becomes equaling. Signal to signaled, wool to woolen and cancel to canceling. (In all these cases, British English would have used double-L.)

Q: Hmm, you’d think the Americans simply hate double letters.
A: Until you visit Mississippi, Massachusetts or Tennessee.

Q: Good point. But that single-L thing does make a lot of sense I suppose. Are there exceptions?
A: Bahahaa – of COURSE there are! For starters, cancel suddenly doubles up with “cancellation” – two Ls just like British English. And then there are the base words which put the stress on that final syllable – they get the double-L treatment universally. Things like propel becoming propelling or compel to compelling.

Q: And what about “enroll”? That seems the opposite…
A: Yes, thanks to the evolution of American English, the double-L remained on the base words enroll, install, distill, enthrall and fulfill – whereas UK English went with enrol, instal, distil, enthral and fulfil.

Q: So with those, the tables get turned?
A: Not quite flipped. But at the very least, the tablecloth is whisked out from underneath what was looking like a tasty dish of consistency.

Q: Loving that imagery today.
A: Thanks. So now suddenly it’s the Americans seeing double and going with enrollment, installment and fulfillment – as well as skillful and willful. In all these cases, the rest of the world prefers a single-L instead of double. But just THESE specific “–ment” and “–ful” examples though – other things like “enrolling”, “enrolled’, “fulfilled” or “skilled” remain universal.

Q: So summing up then… the general rule is single-L for US, double for everyone else. Yes?
A: Yes.

Q: But with a handful of words (e.g. enrollment, installment, skillful), things go all ‘Opposite Day’.
A: Correct again.

Q: I’m glad you levelled with me; I’ll be revelling for hours thanks to this new knowledge.
A: Excellent non-American usage there. And as with everything, observe consistency and respect any style guides – and if pain persists, see your orthographic professional.

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