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There are many words in English that sound the same but are spelled differently. Two of these are ‘enquiry’ and ‘inquiry’, and ‘program’ and ‘programme’. Is there a difference in meaning? Or does it come down to personal preference?

The influence of American English

Variations in English spelling are sometimes due to regional influences. For example, in American English, many words drop the ‘u’ (e.g. color, flavor) and use a ‘z’ rather than an ‘s’ (e.g. organize, recognize), but mean the same as colour, flavour, organise and recognise.

American English spellings came about largely due to the work of the dictionary editor Noah Webster in the late 1700s. Webster recommended simplifying many words (e.g. ‘jail’ rather than ‘gaol’) to make them easier for people to spell.

Enquire versus inquire

‘Enquire’, and the associated noun ‘enquiry’, are more common in British English, while ‘inquire’ and ‘inquiry’ are more common in American English. In Australia, we use either spelling although enquire and enquiry for the general sense of ‘ask’, and inquire and inquiry for a formal investigation, is preferred. 

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, both words derive from the Old French enquerre, from a variant of the Latin inquirere, based on quaerere ‘seek’. Several other modern English words have the same root (e.g. acquire, require, conquer, quest, request, inquest, and question).

Program versus programme

These two spellings can create heated discussion with people becoming firmly entrenched in their view of which is the ‘correct’ spelling.

Some Australians see ‘programme’ as British spelling and ‘program’ as the American spelling. In fact, ‘program’ was the accepted English spelling until the fashion for making words more French took hold in the 19th century when ‘program’ became ‘programme’. The Americans retained the spelling ‘program’. Some would argue the Americans have the most correct spelling of the word because that spelling came first.

The computer program came from America and with it the spelling ‘program’ for all computer-related items. Rather than having two spellings for essentially the same word, many people in Australia adopted the uniform spelling of ‘program’ to mean computer program, fitness program and most other kinds of program. Although, according to the Macquarie Dictionary, we do still often see the spelling ‘programme’ used in the arts with ‘program’ reserved mainly for IT.

Solving the problem

Increasingly, American English spellings and words are being used in Australia due to computer spell checkers defaulting to US spelling. I suspect many Millennials who have gone through the school system with computers rather than pens and paper, don’t realise their laptops are set to American spelling rather than Australian.

Although some American spellings may make more sense than British, the preferred choice in Australia is still generally British spelling. Most important of all is to check your organisation’s writing style guide for preferences. If your organisation prefers ‘program’ and you are an advocate of ‘programme’, you will have to grit your teeth and write ‘program’. If your organisation doesn’t have a preferred style, defer to the Macquarie Dictionary or Australian Oxford Dictionary (not Webster’s Dictionary or any free dictionary you find on the internet).

Once you know what spelling to use, apply it consistently throughout the document. For example, don’t use ‘organise’ in one place and ‘organize’ in another. Finally, don’t forget to change the dictionary on your computer to Australian English.

Have a question about spelling, grammar or style? Contact Concise Writing Consultancy today on 02 9238 6638.