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The Word Guy: Cancel the urge to double the 'L' in canceled

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By Rob Kyff
Friday, April 5, 2013, 8:57 p.m.
 

Question: Is it proper to use “canceled” or “cancelled”?

— Barry Zadworny, Robbinsville, N.J.

Answer: This very question almost led to a feud in my family. Many years ago, my mom decided to cancel a yard sale that we already had advertised in the newspaper. So, my sister Pam made a large sign to put in front of the house. It read, “Yard Sale Canceled.”

When I suggested the last word should be spelled “cancelled,” Pam stuck to her guns. She was right. (I still keep that sign in my cellar to remind me of my smarty-pants arrogance.)

Here's the rule that she knew and I didn't: When adding a suffix beginning with a vowel to a two-syllable verb ending in a single consonant, double the consonant only if the accent falls on the last syllable of the verb.

So, because “conTROL,” “forGET” and “beGIN,” for instance, are stressed on the second syllable, they become “controlled,” “forgettable” and “beginning,” respectively.

But if the accent falls on the first syllable of the two-syllable verb, don't double the consonant. Thus “CANcel,” “FILter” and “TRAVel” become “canceled,” “filterable” and “traveled,” respectively.

And, yes, I realize the Brits double the consonants regardless of the accent. They also probably call yard sales “Estate Depossessions.”

Q: I notice writers using the phrase “more important,” as in, “More important, his writing skills are just what we're looking for,” when I thought they should have written “more importantly.” Can you clarify this?

— Mike Burke, Andover, Conn.

A: Glad to.

Either “more important” or “more importantly” is correct. Traditionally, grammarians have insisted on “more important,” which they construe as a shortened form of “What is more important.” But, as Bryan Garner points out in “Modern American Usage,” this edict is silly for two reasons:

1. No one objects to the sentence-modifying adverb “importantly” (as in, “Importantly, this is a grass-roots movement”), so why prohibit “more importantly”?

2. We use the adverb form for similar modifiers, as in “More notably, he hit two home runs,” or “More interestingly, they were inside-the-park home runs.” We wouldn't use “more notable” or “more interesting” in either sentence.

Most importantly, until a couple of years ago, I — always the smarty-pants — was one of those traditionalists who vigorously flailed “most importantly.”

Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via email to Wordguy@aol.com or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 Third St., Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

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