Friday 15 July 2011

On enquiring about inquiry

A correspondent reports something he was reading in The Times this week:

1356 BST: Jemima Khan has a complaint about the police investigation into phone hacking. 'Not much hope for hacking Inquiry when they can't even spell it... I received "Operation Weeting Enquiry [sic] Questionnaire" last week,' she tweets.

He notices that I often write in my blog about enquiries from correspondents. He concludes: 'What are the rules and/or usage in British English? I know that in American English it is always inquiry.'

Well, not always, actually. The Cambridge Corpus of American English shows a preference of 97% for inquire and 88% for inquiry. That's a dominant usage, certainly, but not a universal one. In Britain, the picture is extremely mixed. The British National Corpus shows almost exactly twice as many enquire as inquire, and twice as many inquiry as enquiry. The world picture, amalgamating different spelling traditions, is mixed too. Google shows inquire five times more common than enquire, and enquiry seven times more common than inquiry. But all four forms are frequent. Not surprisingly, then, most dictionaries throw in the towel and say the i- and e- forms are interchangeable. The OED, for example, simply lists them as alternatives, but adds a note under enquire:

'An alternative form of inquire v. The mod. Dicts. give inquire as the standard form, but enquire is still very frequently used, esp. in the sense "to ask a question".'

Could there be a sense difference? Prescriptive grammarians tried to find one, citing the difference between insure and ensure as justification, and their view did have some influence. The i- forms should refer to impersonal, formal investigations, it was recommended, whereas the e- forms should be used only for personal questions, and doubtless many people tried to make their usage conform to this distinction. The lists of examples in the large corpora, however, show many counter-examples, and it is difficult to resist the conclusion that, for most people, the forms are as interchangeable as judgment and judgement - in other words, influenced by such factors as region, house style, and institutional preference, but not by anything semantic.

The original forms in English were with e- (from French enquerre), but in the late 14th century we see i- spellings appearing, as people tried to reflect the Latin origin of the words (inquirere) - a common practice at the time. Dr Johnson put all his weight behind the i- forms in his dictionary, and doesn't include the e- forms at all. Modern style guides seem to be going the same way. The Cambridge Guide to English Usage (2004), for example, concludes thus:

'Given no consistent ways of differentiating the two spellings, and the fact that differentiation is unnecessary, it makes sense to consolidate the use of one or the other. Inquire and inquiry recommend themselves as the spellings made first among equals by the Oxford Dictionary, and the fact that they are strongly preferred in North America.'

That doesn't make the e- forms wrong, of course, as the quotation from my correspondent suggested. And it's nonsense to suggest there might be a correlation between this choice of spelling and the conduct of a policy enquiry.


Q. Pheevr said...

"The i- forms should refer to impersonal, formal investigations, it was recommended, whereas the e- forms should be used only for personal questions, and doubtless many people tried to make their usage conform to this distinction."

This distinction maps rather nicely onto the difference between two American papers: the National Enquirer is a sensationalist supermarket tabloid, while the Philadelphia Inquirer is a respectable big-city broadsheet. But that particular contrasting pair is probably a historical accident.

The "i=formal" pattern also seems to hold in the fact that we have no e- forms for inquest or inquisition in PDE. Historically, I suppose, these words would have been used in contexts where the connection to Latin was strong, and the French e- spelling might have had less influence.

Jack Windsor Lewis said...

I'm sure it's right to say, as you do, " for most people, the forms are ... influenced by such factors as region, house style, and institutional preference, but not by anything semantic".
I fancy I've noticed a regional contrast in that in the north of England it seems that a notice like INQUIRIES will more likely to so appear whereas it's more likely to be found as ENQUIRIES in the south. I suggest this has a relationship to regional pronunciation patterns at my website Section 7.4.13 at

DC said...

Good point to raise the pronunciation issue. Thjs must be a factor in the AmE preference for inquiry too, with stress commonly on the first syllable.

lpf20 said...

I'm not sure I agree with the assertion that formal investigations should use the i- form. Note that when HM Revenue & Customs raise an enquiry they do so using the e- form and this is how the word is spelt in the relevant legislation.

DC said...

I'm sure most people would also disagree - including me - as there are so many examples to the contrary. As I said, it is a view that originated with prescriptive grammarians.

Terry Collmann said...

Many (or most?) British newspaper stylebooks have tried to maintain a difference between the official inquiry and the casual enquiry, though, as you have demonstrated, with little justification.

cass... said...

If both can be used interchangeably, I beg to ask, what if an individual used both in the same area of text? Would one be marked automatically as incorrect and the other correct? Or would the use of either depend on the context each are written in?

DC said...

Context is crucial. Even if I used enquiryas a rule, I would have to spell the name of the journal Linguistic Inquiry. But context aside, the important thing is stylistic consistency. When we notice both spellings in the same piece of text, and there is no contextual reason for the variation, a common reaction is to consider the writer to be careless or sloppy, which can in turn make readers suspicious about the accuracy of the content. My advise would be: whichever spelling one goes for, use it consistently.

John Cowan said...

I have always used insure in the sense 'make sure', and consider the supposed insure/ensure distinction silly. (I know about the technical BrE distinction between insurance and assurance companies, but as an AmE speaker I don't use it myself.)

Alex said...

To lpf-20 on an HMRC enquiry: it is directed at the tax affairs of one person/organisation, right? So "enquiry" is fine. It's also less accusatory, as if they're just "asking a few questions" about tax compliance.

"Inquiry" is investigative and is more about a wide-reaching, quasi-political issue, e.g. the Leveson inquiry. It implies that something has been done wrong and that's a fairly well established fact.