No it didn’t: heighth as a usage problem

Last week, the book Transatlantic Perspectives on Late Modern English came out, edited by Marina Dossena. It includes two papers that are of interest to this project, one by Ulrich Busse, which deals with the usage guides by Alford (1864) and White (1871), and the other one is by myself, on one of the earliest American English usage guides, Five Hundred Mistakes of Daily Occurrence (1856).

Five Hundred Mistakes doesn’t include 500 but 499 errors, or usage problems in our project’s sense of the term: the result of a typesetting error! But there are many additional instances in the introduction, so the actual tally amounts to many more.

It is a curious book, but a usage guide, as I argue in the paper, all the same. And since it is a usage guide, it contains usage problems. One of these is heighth (for height), a curious instance, since some people consider it a spelling error, others a pronunciation mistake. I think it is a feature of grammar (morphology), since as a variant (see the headword in the OED!) it would appear to be formed on the basis of analogy with words like breadth and length.

Anne Curzan refers to heighth in her wonderful new book Fixing English: Prescriptivism and Language History, published last year, and what she says about it is that though its pronunciation (!) “could easily enough be stigmatized as nonstandard, [it] has escaped prescriptive attention” (p. 31). No, it didn’t! It was already criticised in the earliest days of the American usage guide tradition. And it is also listed in Partridge’s Usage and Abusage, who regards it as a misspelling. These were just spot checks, so there may well be many more guides that list it.

The question is why it became a usage problem, since the OED still lists it as a variant, with many printed examples dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries. The OED entry has not as yet been updated, so it’ll be exciting to see what the editors are going to do with it by the time the reach this word.



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4 Responses to No it didn’t: heighth as a usage problem

  1. Paul Nance says:

    The Grammarly Facebook account posted on this “error” just a few days ago: “Height is a word. Heighth is not. Save the English language!”

  2. On a similar note, I’ve often seen towards treated as a spelling error, as if it’s just another way to spell (and pronounce, I suppose) toward. But as with heighth, it’s obviously a morphological difference that is reflected in the spelling and pronunciation.

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