Q&A: Roofs or rooves? Hoofs or hooves?

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 raising the roofs (or is it rooves?)…

Q: Hi AWC, I was arguing with a friend the other day.

A: That's risky — you don't have too many.

Q: Oh ha ha. Anyway, they said that the plural for “roof” was “rooves” but I said it was “roofs”. But now that I think about hoofs and hooves, I'm a bit confused. Can you help?

A: Yes. And you're right with “roofs” – it is definitely the accepted plural form, without doubt.

Q: Was “rooves” ever a thing?

A: It was. But it's now considered archaic usage.

Q: I must admit, it kind of SOUNDS right though.

A: Well that's very true. In fact, while Macquarie Dictionary only lists “roofs” as the plural, they do note two types of pronunciation – one that's a V sound even though you still spell it “roofs”.

Q: Other dictionaries?

A: The Oxford English Dictionary lists “rooves” as an alternative, yet outdated version of “roofs”.

Q: So that's that then. Only ever use “roofs”?

A: Correct.

Q: So, I guess the same applies to “hoof” and “hoofs”…?

A: Not so fast. This is English we're talking about, and no two words are ever the same.

Q: Ugh, of course they aren't.

A: Just like roof, “hoof” also started with two plural forms – “hoofs” and “hooves”. And just like roof, “hoofs” WAS the dominant one. But “hooves” woke up in the 20th century and by about 1970, it overtook “hoofs” in usage, and that's where it has stayed.

Q: Wait, so you're saying that for hoof, “hooves” is not only acceptable, but it's the preferred usage?

A: That's right. In this case, BOTH “hoofs” and “hooves” are accepted, and in the past 40 years or so, “hooves” has led the way. Today it's around three times more common than “hoofs”.

Q: English sure likes to keep us on our toes.

A: Or our hooves.

Q: What about a word like “proof” – you can have proofs and proves, yeah?

A: Well, that's a little different. Proofs are nouns, such as photographic or printing proofs. Whereas “proves” is a verb, such as in: “this proves how annoying English can be”.

Q: Actually, “proof” can be a verb too. For example, can you proof my manuscript?

A: True, although that shortened form of proofreading is quite recent – about 1950.

Q: What does all this mean?

A: Well, there is an interesting relationship between “f” and “v” sounds in many English words – consider also belief/believe, relief/relieve etc. Many came about in the 13th century as words backformed from Old French or Germanic and Norse languages. “Roof” and “hoof” are certainly both this old.

Q: So, how can I remember to use “hooves” but not “rooves”?

A: Hmmm. Well, the V in “hooves” looks just like a hoof. But the V in “rooves” is an upside-down roof – therefore not correct.

Q: Nice! Well, I'm glad we could cover these two words under the one roof.

A: Indeed.

Q: Just one final question. If something has “grooves”, then why is it not one “groof”?

A: Because English.

Q: Ugh.

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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