Looking askance at "-ence" and "-ance"

A few weeks ago I wrote about the trickiness of English words that end in "-ible" and "-able." Another pair of English suffixes that, in my opinion, appears equally troublesome is "-ence" and "-ance" or "-ent" vs. "-ant." For instance, English has the word "independence." It may be traced back to Latin "independens," but it entered English from French, which spells the word "indépendance." To complicate matters, why is "independence (and "independent") spelled the way it is "while the related word "pendant" is spelled "pendant"?

Looking for an explanation of this irregularity, I found the following:

The suffixes are usually applied to verbs that have survived the journey from Latin through Old French, Norman French, and Middle English into Modern English. In addition, there are several words derived directly from Latin which have been recently added to English as scientific and technical terms. Frequently, the verbs themselves didn't survive, but the nouns and adjectives formed from them did.

As some of you may know (and somewhat fewer care), Latin verbs fall into four basic classes describing their conjugation. In one of these classes of verbs (in fact called the "first conjugation"), the infinitive forms end in -are. In another class, infinitives end in -ere. This forms the basis of the suffix rules for most verbs: words derived from first conjugation verbs usually get -ant and -ance, the rest get -ent and -ence. But there are exceptions, even to this!

To add to the confusion, there is a class of words (which we will not list here) which end in -ment.

In the long run, we will have to throw up our arms and proclaim "there are no rules here!"
Indeed, as with "-ible" and "-able," this is essentially a question of "Well, you should know how the original Latin verbs are categorized and then be aware of the exceptions." This isn't terribly helpful.

To complicate matters, sometimes both "-ant" and "-ent" possibilities are acceptable, and others are not:

Spellings with in words such as independence (Latin dependere) are due to later qualms by English scholars. But etymological respectability did not always weigh heavily with the public, and so the dictionary makers have had to allow both spellings in some common words, notably dependent, dependant, dependence, dependance. To allow free variation like this in some particular words only serves to confuse spellers still further. These relaxations are not, however, very consistent: *independent, unlike dependant, is not permitted. The speller may feel entitled to ask: if I am allowed in dependent/dependant, why is this choice not allowed in independent, resplendent, and abundant? An out and out free thinker might even wonder: if a Romance language such as French, regulated as it is by a fearsomely conservative Academy of scholars, can fix the spelling in French as , , , , very conveniently but quite unetymologically, why cannot it be done for English?

(taken from A Survey of English Spelling by Edward Carney (1994), p. 422)
Indeed, why cannot it be done for English?

(Posted by language fan and friend Silas McCracken.)

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