The Double L
April 25, 2013
In this week’s magazine, John McPhee writes
, “In The New Yorker
, ‘travelling’ is spelled with two ‘l’s.” Notice that this is a simple statement of fact; John McPhee does not lament the policy or take issue with it.
To judge by letters from readers, the doubling of consonants in such words as “traveller” and “focussed” is a subject of undying interest. If Noah Webster were alive today, he would probably have written in to complain about our orthography. Webster favored simplifying the spelling of American English, and although we follow him on most points, this is where the founding editors of The New Yorker departed from Webster. Quoth the style book: “When alternatives are possible, use double ‘p’ in words like ‘kidnapped,’ double ‘s’ in words like ‘focussed,’ and double ‘l’ in words like ‘marvellous’ and ‘travelled.’” No kidnapper ever focussed so marvellously on this well-travelled territory. (And no copy editor ever backspaced so assiduously to poke in the second “s” and “l” to override the autocorrect.)
The style book gives no reason for this spelling choice. What would be the point? Nothing makes the eyes glaze over so totally as the effort to codify the rules for doubling consonants when adding suffixes. Even Fowler, in the entry on “spelling points” in Modern English Usage, seems to take a deep breath before launching into a statement of the “main principles”: “Words ending in a single-letter consonant preceded by a short vowel sound, when they have added to them a suffix beginning with a vowel … double the final letter if they either are monosyllables or bear their accent on the last syllable; they keep it single if they have their last syllable unaccented. But …” And there follows a list of exceptions (“A final l
is doubled irrespective of accent, and with a final s
usage varies”), culminating in a well-chosen trio of superlatives: “thinnest, commonest, and cruellest.”
Why must we attach judgment to the decision to use the extra consonant? We have a rule only so that we don’t have to make a decision every time we come to a word with a suffix tacked on to it. It is a style choice that our elders made for reasons that we can only guess at, and it has become a hallmark of New Yorker style. If The New Yorker were a cattle ranch, the brand might be the Double L. Picture two “L”s back to back, one facing left and the other facing right, forever duelling over whether or not to double the consonant.
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When I was just starting out on the copy desk, it fell to me to copy-edit a piece by Nora Ephron titled “Dear Frequent Travelers.” It was a parody of frequent-flier rules, and because it was supposed to be a form letter from an airline, and because corporate writing is famously not beautiful—no extra letters to make the words bouncier—I was hesitant about styling the word “travellers” with the double “l.” I thought the author might object on the ground that “traveler” with just one “l” is more vulgar, better suited to the context. Her fictitious airline would never go to the trouble of making the “traveler” more comfortable by padding the word with extra consonants. This was, after all, a parody. So I left it alone.
“Dear Frequent Travellers,” with the “l” duly doubled, ran in the issue of March 5, 1984. The person who came after me in the editing process—the late Lu Burke
—had styled the word automatically, no doubt while muttering something about “those incompetents” on the copy desk. To her, my scruple was an oversight. I can still see Lu in the doorway of the copy desk, like a gunslinger swinging open the double doors of a saloon in the Old West. “We always double the consonant,” she said.
I have since been completely brainwashed and double the consonant wherever possible, pouncing on opportunities to put that extra “s” in “focussed” (“focused” looks to me as if it should rhyme with “accused”). Lu also informed me, “We spell ‘carrousel’ with two ‘r’s.” This baffled me, because the word does not involve a suffix. Webster offers it as an alternative, though: We’re on a carrousel. A crazy carrousel. And we spell it with two “r”s even if it’s a luggage carrousel.
Construction by Stephen Doyle.
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