The Wartburg Project

August 31st, 2020

62. English Spelling: "Worshipped" or "Worshiped"

The EHV is an American translation that has a policy of using American grammar and spelling. Why then do you use the British spelling worshipped instead of the American spelling worshiped?

Very early in the process of developing the EHV, we learned, to our surprise, that worshipped is the established American spelling for this word. The way that we learned this was through our study of Bryan Garner’s Modern English Usage. We adopted this book as our favorite grammar reference book because it is based on extensive computer surveys of vast quantities of literature, and it is more entertaining than most grammars. One of Garner’s emphases is debunking grammatical myths.

An example of a spelling myth that is rebutted by Garner’s computer studies is reflected in the EHV’s practice of spelling worshipped with the double “p.” Many dictionaries and authorities confidently state that worshiped is the American spelling and worshipped is the British spelling, but an extensive computer survey of actual usage showed that pp is the standard American and British usage by a ratio of 3:1. Garner comments that some American dictionaries state a preference for worshiped with one “p,” but this spelling has never attained a predominance in print. Double “pp” has steadily outranked single “p” in America, and in Britain there has been no competition at all—it’s double “p” consistently. Maybe misguided spell checkers will succeed in changing the American spelling to single “p,” but it is not yet the case.

There is a spelling rule that final consonants are not doubled in inflected forms if they are in unaccented syllables. In his study of this phenomenon in his article Spelling B, Garner demonstrates that the doubling of the final consonant is indeed a British tendency, but here too there are exceptions.

So how did a British tendency become the established usage of America? My guess is that it is because American hymnody and liturgy has adopted very heavily from British sources, and when American Christians wrote about worship, hymnody, and liturgy, they were drawn to the spellings that were familiar from their worship life. In that way, their usage would agree with what their hymnal and lectionary used. But that theory does not explain why kidnapping is the dominant American spelling in violation of the alleged rule. It may be as simple as analogy with nap, napping, or it may be due to the fact that kidnap was formerly accented on the second syllable. Grammar and usage are complicated. Seldom or never does a “rule” cover all the situations and exceptions.

At any rate, this case is an example of the EHV practice that when there is an apparent conflict between a supposed rule and the actual usage as established by objective data, we tend to favor the data. The reason for this is explained a bit in the following.

One of the two most surprising lessons that we learned early in the process of working on the EHV was that we had to unlearn a lot of things that we had spent years in learning. Nowhere was this more true that in the area of English grammar and spelling. It is surprising how much the nature of grammatical study has been revolutionized by the ability to search vast amounts of literature in order to gather objective, “real life” statistics on any specific grammatical construction or on the spelling of a word. With a quick computer search, a grammarian can gather much more data about a grammatical construction than could be gathered in a lifetime of reading. This type of research clearly shows that many of the supposed rules of English grammar are in fact myths. By using Google ngrams one can quickly collect several centuries of grammatical data from Google Books and quickly trace changes of usage over time. One of the first handbooks to make extensive use of this new tool is Garner’s Modern English Usage.

In the past, grammatical rules published in handbooks were much like the tabulated results of a poll. The pollster took a sample and hoped that it accurately reflected reality. In the same way, the grammarian read a lot of literature. He also read other people’s grammar books, and from that sample he extrapolated (took a guess) at what the usage of a construction would be across the total corpus of the language, in order to formulate a rule for everyone to follow. Sometimes he also threw in his opinion of what the rule should be, even as he acknowledged that his “rule” was not in fact the rule but just his opinion. Searching Google Books still provides the grammarian with only a sample, but it is a much bigger sample (big data), so statements about grammatical constructions can now be much more objective, based on real life data, with less guess work. Where there is objective data available, the EHV generally goes with the data, except in those cases where we are following the time-honored practice of trying to create our own rules.

This is such a common issue that we have produced an EHV grammar book about the problem. It is called Biblical Grammar: Mechanics or Meaning, and it is available for free from our Wartburg Project online library.

Someone might say, “You should just pick your favorite authority and go with it, him, her, or them.” We have sort of done that with Garner, though we do not follow him 100%. The problem with this suggested approach is that God, the author of language, has not appointed anyone czar of spelling with the authority to make rules (laws) for everyone to follow. We learned early-on that if a reader warns us that one of our spellings is wrong and that we should correct it on the authority of Authority A, and if we do so, it will not be too long before someone else tells us on the authority of Authority B that our spelling is wrong and we should change it back to what we had in the first place. See our grammar book for many examples of this phenomenon. This problem is especially difficult in respect to the spelling of biblical names. In the realm of biblical spelling, we live in the days of the judges when every speller does whatever is right in his or her own eyes.

See Biblical Grammar: Mechanics or Meaning.