Each week, we take a look at a common confusions and ambiguities in the English language (that gives us about a century’s worth of material!) – making things easier through the power of friendly conversation. This week, does “practise” or “practice” make perfect?
Q: Hi there Australian Writers’ Centre, I have a fairly open-and-shut case this week. It’s one that I’m never sure about. Can you help?
A: We certainly hope so. What seems to be the trouble?
Q: It’s the word “practice”. Or is it “practise”? I can’t work it out. Do Americans use one option and do we use the other? Help!
A: You’ll be pleased to know that this is one that confuses a lot of people.
Q: Why would that please me? That’s terrible. In fact, I’m thinking of taking out a restraining order on the English language. It’s starting to mess with my head.
A: Okay, well before you start filling out forms and putting up closed circuit cameras, allow us to explain how this one works.
Q: Yes please.
A: There is an American component, but that’s simply that they ONLY use “practice” – no exception. Show them “practise” and it would be like talking in celsius or the metric system.
Q: That’s right, they’ve got the quarter pounder. They wouldn’t know what the metric system is.
A: Exactly. (Nice Pulp Fiction reference too by the way.) However, for the rest of us, we use BOTH and it’s a question of usage. You can “practise” playing the saxophone or you can visit a doctor’s “practice”. One is a verb and the other a noun.
Q: All the saxophones were taken when I wanted to learn an instrument at school, so I had to learn the clarinet.
A: Okay then, so you would have “practised” the clarinet at school.
Q: Well, I didn’t really practise. Was too busy skipping class with my mates.
A: That doesn’t surprise us in the slightest. So, anyway, despite the fact you won’t be playing for an orchestra any time soon, that’s how the whole verb/noun combo works with “practise” and “practice”.
Q: Seems easy enough. But also easy to confuse – especially when Mr Red Squigglyline is bypassing both options because they’re both actually correct spellings.
A: That is true. So maybe think of C for clinic. You practiSe your tennis swing. But if you got tennis elbow, you’d go to a medical practice.
Q: And if the doctor accidentally removed your spleen instead of treating your elbow, you’d probably end up at a legal practice?
A: Yes, sure.
Q: Well I don’t play tennis. Can it work for Angry Birds?
A: What do you think? In fact, anything you can practise (verb) is the S. Anything that is a thing (noun) is the C. So you would attend cricket practice and while there, you’d practise your batting.
Q: I don’t play cricket either.
A: Of course you don’t…
Q: So what if you said to someone “I’m a little out of practise/practice”? Which one is it?
A: Actually a good question. In this context, it’s a noun – the concept of practice. So you’d say “practice makes perfect” or “I’m out of practice”.
Q: So does the word license/licence work the same way? Please tell me it does. Please tell me it does. Please tell me it does…
A: It does! Well for us anyway, noun = C, verb = S. Oddly, the Americans (who you may remember only use “practice”) have flipped sides and this time only use “license” – the S version – for both nouns and verbs.
Q: So in America I’m “licensed to drive with my license”, but outside US I’m “licensed to drive with my licence”?
A: That’s it!
Q: So, what about 007 James Bond? What kind of licence/license does he have to kill?
A: He’s British, so the name of the 1989 film was officially “Licence to Kill”. However, in general writing Americans have no choice but to give him a “license” to kill.
Q: Timothy Dalton. Ugh. So, any other words like these?
A: Another is advise/advice – however the soft “z” sound on “advise” means they’re never confused. But, if you need another way to remember which is the C and which is the S on those other words that DO sound alike, think of “advice” (noun) and “advise” (verb) and you can’t go wrong.
Q: Great advice! Well, thanks for the explanation. I’ve gotta run; I’m late for my flashmob practice. This week we’re practising how to walk off afterwards like nothing happened, instantly killing any applause people are trying to give us.
A: Yes, quite. And we’re off to find somewhere that’s fully licensed.