Tag Archives: style guides

Mining for competence

From time to time I ask you to indulge my curiosity about a matter of language, especially when I’m stumped.

Recently, you helped me with “one of the more” versus “one of the most,” though no one cited an authoritative source as I had hoped. It seems many of us know how an idea should be expressed in words, but we don’t always know why. I like to know why.

Here’s another one that has had me stumped for years, decades actually; I just never bothered to drill into it.

It was nearly 20 years ago that I began to wonder what the difference was between nouns ending in “ence” and those ending in “ency.”

A leadership phrase swept the corporate world decades ago: “core competency.” All through the ’80s and ’90s, the company for which I worked kept tens of thousands of employees busy perfecting and touting our core competencies. I wondered then what the difference was between competency and competence.

Lately, I’ve wondered about the other “ence” nouns: resilience, dependence, independence, even interdependence. They all have “ency” alternatives.

The question of the day is: Are there specific instances in which “ence” is correct but “ency” is not and vice versa?

Generally speaking, the answer isn’t easy to find, not for me, anyway. When you consult a dictionary, the answer is no.

My first sweep through a dictionary revealed that, in most cases, one is an alternate use, or more or less common use, of the other. In other words, they mean the same thing.

I wasn’t going to take that at face value. There had to be nuances beneath.

Not surprisingly, there are esoteric distinctions. For example, dependence is a term specific to the fields of mathematics and science.

As I often do when I go a-hunting for the truth and don’t find it in the dictionaries or stylebooks, I poke my head into an online chat. After a long night of peeking and poking, I came closer to gleaning the differences.

The “ence” noun pertains to a state of being: of being competent, dependent, independent, resilient. The “ency” form suggests a degree of that state, based on specific attributes.

For example, competence is the ability to perform a task, while competency is the knowledge, skills and abilities that distinguish superior performer from an average one.

Resilience is the ability of something to return to its original condition after being stretched or compressed, while resiliency is the physical (or mental) property that enables something or someone to return to its original condition.

Am I drawing an accurate conclusion or just searching for absolute truth where none exists?

Once again, your opinion is welcome, and your sources even more so.

Perhaps I just need a crash course in mining.

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A[n] honorary language convention

A few days ago, a reader asked me to address the subject of indefinite articles preceding words beginning with the letter “h.”

I reviewed my understanding of the rules pertaining to the subject and set it aside pending consultation of a few sources. At the same time, I suspected this might be one of those rules that vary by region and knew I’d have to take that into account as I addressed it.

The timing is apt, as we already have a rousing international debate going, following my comments yesterday about whether periods and commas go inside or outside quotation marks, another issue lacking global agreement.

I was tickled to hear from readers yesterday, who wrote in from such exotic places as Belo Horizonte, Brisbane, Canberra, Jakarta, Lima, Manila, Ontario, Oxford, Vancouver and Tucson on the matter of inside-versus-outside-the-quotes issue, even if they didn’t agree with me. Especially if they didn’t agree with me.

So let’s look at indefinite articles and see if we can keep this global dialogue going.

The question before us: Which indefinite article, “a” or “an,” precedes a word beginning with “h?”

The consensus I glean from U.S. and international sources is that “a” is used before words beginning with “h” unless the “h” is silent, in which case “an” is used.

Many have noticed, as have I, that “an” has come to precede words in which the “h” is pronounced; for example, historic, as “an historic event.”

I’d be inclined to give a little latitude where regional pronunciations vary with regard to the “h.” In the United States, we’d likely say, “an herb,” though Martha Stewart and select others opt for the European pronunciation and, therefore, would use a different indefinite article: “a herb.”

I’d welcome comments by my fellow wordies from around the globe. Better yet, wouldn’t it be fun to convene a global summit on language differences? Unlike the World Trade Organization or the World Health Organization or the International Standards Organization, which strive for international standardization, the goal of the GSLD could be  to understand and celebrate regional approaches to language.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not for linguistic anarchy. While there are more than one authoritative style guide, I prefer to choose one and stick to it. Moreover, where style guides agree, I advocate for consistent adherence, at least within U.S. borders. But if we Yankees prefer to keep our punctuation tucked neatly within our quotation marks, and use “an” preceding an “h,” and you English speakers abroad adhere to your own national standards, then I applaud you. I’d also like to sit across a table from you and continue the conversation, maybe sink our teeth in to the Oxford comma, because we obviously share a passion for words.

Does Geneva have room for one more international organization? Is there an honorific (or a honorific?) who’s willing to serve as chair?


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