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Those pesky mispellings ... er, misspellings

Despite the diligent tutelage of our Speak and Spells, there are plenty of spellings that continue to elude us.

However, while we sometimes complain about the vagaries of English spelling, would we actually change the spelling of any of the words?

University of Michigan English professor Anne Curzan recently put the question to her students, who decided they would change up “supersede.”

Obviously, since it’s already typed out here on the page, we can’t really ask you how you think “supersede” is spelled.

Be honest though, when you saw it, did it look strange to you?

It’s likely at least a few of you really wanted to put a “c” in the middle instead of that second “s.” We assure you, “supersede” is the correct spelling, according to most standard dictionaries.

However, the “c” spelling is listed in the Merriam-Webster and American Heritage dictionaries as a variant spelling. It’s often accompanied with a usage note that says, “this variant spelling with ‘c’ is common and commonly regarded as a mistake.”

It’s tempting to place the blame for wanting to spell “supersede” with a “c” on words like “proceed” and “exceed.”

Etymologically though, those words go back to the Latin word “cedere” which means to yield or surrender. On the other hand, “supersede”goes back to “sedere” which means to sit.

When “supersede” came into English via French in the 17th century, it was spelled with both a “c” and an “s.”

Yes, you read that right. The “c” spelling has been around for literally hundreds of years.

Perhaps it’s time to stop calling it a non-standard variant and just let it be. What do you think?

Anne Curzan is the Geneva Smitherman Collegiate Professor of English and an Arthur F. Thurnau Professor at the University of Michigan. She also holds faculty appointments in the Department of Linguistics and the School of Education.
Rebecca Kruth is the host of All Things Considered at Michigan Public. She also co-hosts Michigan Public's weekly language podcast That’s What They Say with English professor Anne Curzan.
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