English evolution, from rooves to roofs

Originally posted January 2012

Disclaimer: I’m not an etymologist, word historian or linguist; just a curious wordsmith with a pedantic streak and I willingness to trawl the net for a couple of hours when things bug me. This blog post is simply the result of my journey to prove that I really was taught that rooves is the plural of roof. 

rooftopsMost people agree that English is an evolving language, normally in reference to the definition and usage of words. What though of spelling and pronunciation? When I was at school rooves not roofs was the plural for building tops!

The original basis of this blog post was a rant about the absurdity of English (and my favourite whinge – Americans are destroying the language). My argument was simple: rooves is consistent with hooves, leaves, loaves and elves, to change it to roofs was just illogical. (No, don’t bring chiefs, beliefs, proofs and gulfs into the argument.)

Imagine my shock then to discover that the world’s leading dictionaries, both British and American English, contradicted the grammar drilled into me at primary school, listing the plural as roofs.

  1. Of course I immediately checked hoof. And here is where my interest was really piqued. Bear with me as I present some of my findings, roughly in the order I unveiled them.
  2. The Oxford (British), Merriam Webster (American) and Macquarie* (Australian) dictionaries all list roof, quite definitively, as the plural.
  3. The Oxford however concedes in its “spelling help” footnotes, “The most usual plural of roof is roofs, although rooves is sometimes used.”
  4. All three tomes provide hoofs and hooves as alternatives for the plural of a horse’s foot. What came as a surprise is that the American dictionary gave hooves first while the British and Australian offerings favoured hoofs. (When alternatives are provided in a dictionary it is common practice to accept the first offering as the preferred spelling.)
  5. The Macmillan – which I consulted to collaborate US preferences** –  gives both roofs and rooves as possibilities and follows suit with hoofs and hooves. (Note: click on “word forms” directly under the main entry to find plural forms.)
  6. The Guardian style guide is definite that roofs is the only acceptable plural but admits rooves has appeared in the paper.
  7. Wiktionary (which I consider to be a popular resource rather than an authoritative one) http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/roof states in its “usage notes”, “The plural rooves is uncommon and is usually considered incorrect in American English.”
  8. A further popular belief, cited across discussion forums, is that rooves is the (mis)pronunciation of roofs. Or in other words, write roofs but say rooves. A bit like the lieutenant situation I suppose.
  9. Every reference I consulted gave the plural of loaf as loaves, leaf as leaves and elf as elves.

What does all this mean? My research is not extensive enough to really draw any conclusions, but I will anyway.

While auto fill everywhere automatically replaces rooves with roofs, as if the former never existed, rooves does in fact have a place in English history. And based on today’s acceptance of hoofs and hooves as alternatives, it’s probable that roofs and rooves existed side by side for some time before the decision was taken (by who?) to ditch the – ves ending.

Perhaps this is a case of English evolving to eliminate exceptions; to bring grammar in line; for words to follow a single rule – form the plural by adding s. If that’s the case it shouldn’t be long before leafs, elfs and loafs are acceptable.

*Access to The Macquarie Dictionary online is by subscription only hence I haven’t provided a link

**The Macmillan Dictionary online provides both American and British English definitions. I checked both.

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