Synchronised spelling

  • The word synchronise is often shortened to a single syllable which sounds like sink, but whose spelling varies between <sync> and <synch>. This variability introduces us to a simple question: what information should a spelling contain?
Figure 1. The spelling ‘sync’ (in blue) is more common than ‘synch’ (in red)
  • Figure 1 shows that the spelling <sync> has been more common over the last fifty years but <synch> lingers on as  a minority variant with roughly the same proportion of usage.

Spellings should represent the sound of a word

  • Most obviously, a spelling should represent the sound of the word, /sɪŋk/. This narrows it down to the following possibilities: <sink>, a word which already exists, <sinc>, <sinck>, <sinq>, <sincq>, <sinch>, <synk>, <sync>, <synch>, and perhaps <cink>, <cinq>, <cync> etc. Other spellings would not give us enough of a clue about how to read the word. If it were spelt, say, <snk>, we should not know if it sounded like sank or sink, or sunk, etc. And if it were spelt, like, <xkcd>, then we could never reconstruct /sɪŋk/ from those letters.

Spellings should represent the meaning of a word

  • The next criterion is that a word should be spelt like words it is related to. This narrows the list down to just <sync> and <synch>, as both of these spellings can be found by truncating the parent form <synchronise>. The net effect of this pattern is that words with similar meanings end up having similar spellings.

Which spelling is better?

  • We can now compare these two possible forms. At first it seems obvious that <sync> is better than <synch> because the latter form might be rhymed with pinch or Grinch. But why does the spelling with <h> linger on as a minority variant? The answer seems to lie in the spelling demands of the inflected forms, {ing} and {ed}
The spelling ‘synced’ (in blue) cannot shake off competition from ‘synched’ (in red).
  • The spellings <synced> and <syncing> run into to problem that they could be rhymed with minced and mincing, because the letter <c> is pronounced as /s/ when followed by <e> or <i> (compare noticed and noticing). The spellings <synched> and <synching> are thus used a lot more than the base form <sync>, as can be seen from the graphs below. Even though they could be rhymed with pinched and pinching, they at least have the benefit of not introducing any new ambiguities.
The spelling ‘syncing’ (in blue) s a little more popular than its ‘aitched’ counterpart (in red).
  • There are very few words (that I know of) which show a distribution like this. One example is the American spelling <catalog> which sometimes has the British <u> in its {ing} and {ed} forms. Hence <catalog(u)ed> and <catalog(u)ing>. And another example is miked, miking, short for microphone. Again, the base form mic is more common than mike but the spellings <miced> and <micing> are clearly unacceptable.
  • Anyone know more examples?


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