Q&A: Program vs programme

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's time to get with the program…

Q: Hi AWC, I just checked the mailbox and Caitlin H. is having a bit of an office tussle with “program” vs “programme”. She wants their modern company to universally use “program” but is meeting resistance from a few people.

A: They want to keep the extra “me” on the end…

Q: Yes.

A: But as they say in business, there’s no “me” in programme.

Q: I have literally never heard anyone say that. Isn’t it “there’s no I in team”?

A: Okay, sure, that works too. So, Caitlin’s looking for a definitive ruling on this one, yeah?

Q: Yes. Can we help?

A: We’ll do our best. After all, there’s no “me” in worst.

Q: Can you stop doing that please?

A: Sure. First let’s get some context. The word “program” comes from Latin and Greek “programma” – meaning “public notice in writing”. And when it first debuted in English during the 1600s, everyone was spelling it “program”. It wasn’t until the 1800s that the UK started its love affair with French words and switched its spelling to “programme” to match their spelling.

Q: My Uncle Colin started a love affair in France once. He went there to work on his novel, and one day all the pages blew into the eel-filled lake and he and the house maid dived in to collect them.

A: Aren’t you just describing Colin Firth’s character from the film Love Actually?

Q: Oh yes, sorry, you’re right. My Uncle Colin works in a bank. My bad. Carry on.

A: So anyway… the US loved shortening words more than they loved the French, so they retained “program” for everything. Meanwhile, UK used “programme” for everything except when talking about a computer program.

Q: So everyone uses “program” for computers?

A: Yes. The noun or the verb “to program something”…

Q: Okay, so does Australia follow the UK rule then?

A: Well, New Zealand does – over there it’s the same programme/program distinction as the British. But just like the flightless kiwi, it hasn’t really taken off anywhere else. Other English-speaking countries outside UK opt to follow the Americans.

Q: Including Australia?

A: Including Australia. The official modern usage style for Australia is to use “program” for everything. From your favourite TV show to a list of events, theatre playbill or computer application. All “program” – easy!

Q: This all seems too easy. I sense a trap.

A: Well, not a trap as such, but a caveat.

Q: Let the buyer of programs beware?

A: Indeed. Because despite going all-American, many Australians are still very much Queen-and-country and prefer to use “programme” to distinguish the non-computer things, especially when referring to a physical document.

Q: It sounds like a few of these people work with Caitlin.

A: That’s right. Former prime minister Tony Abbott was also a big fan of the longer spelling – much to the consternation of those who had to keep altering the government documents.

Q: But the official ruling?

A: There may be a “me” in “prime minister” but there are none in “evolving English language”. Spelling everything as “program” in Australia is definitely here to stay.

Q: Good to know.

A: But remember, while the official Australian English rule is to use “program” for all senses of the word, you may still meet some opposition along the way.

Q: But a modern company should definitely adopt the rule of the day.

A: Exactly – it’s time to get with the program!

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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