-ible -able

Wilson Gray, posting on ADS-L on the 4th, boldfacing added:

In the on-line catalog is pictured a CD whose title clearly reads:

Rare, Collectable & Soulful

Nevertheless, the catalog captions the picture as:

Rare, Collectible & Soulful

Not just one CD, but a whole series under that title. Here’s the cover for volume 2:

The catalog writers apparently “corrected” what they saw as a “spelling error” on the part of the record company — opting for WF (well-formedness, according to the writers’ lights) over Faith (faithfulness to the source). (There’s a Page on this blog listing postings about Faith vs. WF.) The facts are complex, but what’s undeniable is that most modern dictionaries recognize both collectible and collectable as acceptable spellings, with collectable having the edge for a specialized sense; from Wikipedia:

A collectable (collectible or collector’s item) is any object regarded as being of value or interest to a collector (not necessarily monetarily valuable or antique).

OED2 has the word under the header collectable (with the variant, “now chiefly U.S.”, collectible), with the first cite, which uses that spelling, in 1660; then –ible in 1662, then back and forth. With the uses:

adj. 1. a. That may be collected. b. Of souvenirs, objets d’art, bric-à-brac, etc.: worth collecting, sought after by collectors. Also transf., of the maker (artist, author, etc.) of such objects. [first cite 1888]

n. pl. (orig. U.S.) Things worth collecting, esp. rare, old, or interesting objects (not necessarily valuable or antique). [first cite 1955, with collectible; later examples with both spellings]

NOAD2 agrees on the BrE/AmE thing (note the etymology, which will be significant very soon):

collectible (also chiefly Brit. collectable): adjective 1 (of an item) worth collecting; of interest to a collector; 2 able to be collected: a surplus collectible as rent by the landowner. 

noun (usu. collectibles) an item valued and sought by collectors.

ORIGIN late Middle English: from Old French collecter or medieval Latin collectare, from Latin collect– ‘gathered together,’ from the verb colligere, from col- ‘together’ + legere ‘choose or collect.’

All of this is to establish that both spellings are widely acceptable. however much the catalog captioners might have thought that collectible was the only correct spelling, to the extent that they were willing to alter the clearly intended spelling on the CD.

Two observations. The first, not made explicit by Wilson Gray, though almost surely in his mind, is that it might not be an accident that the CD is about black music and was probably produced by a black company. The idea floats around here that black folks don’t know how to spell, and have to be corrected by their betters. No guarantee, but it’s enough to raise an eyebrow. But maybe the catalog writers are just clueless about the facts of English spelling.

The second came up in a discussion on Usenet years ago (sci.lang, maybe, but it might have been soc.motss or an English usage site), over –able vs.-ible spellings. First, some brute fact, from Michael Quinion’s affixes site on –able:

Able to be. [Originally from the Latin adjectival suffix –bilis.]

The adjectival suffixes -able, -ible, and -uble have several meanings; the main one, and the usual one in new forms today, indicates an ability to do something (calculable, defensible, voluble), but other senses also exist: suitable for some purpose (reversible, edible); due to be (payable); having a quality expressed by the word stem (comfortable, passable, suitable); subject to (taxable); or causing some effect (terrible, horrible). Several hundred words contain these suffixes, of which a very few other examples are allowable, combustible, conceivable, enjoyable, gullible, legible, practicable, seasonable, soluble, visible, and washable.

The -ible and –uble endings are not currently active (and –uble is much less common than the others, with only soluble and voluble being at all common), but –able is frequently used to form new words, such as gluggable, of a wine that is good to drink; kebabable, a meat capable of being kebabed; or in Britain ISAble, of an investment that can be made into an ISA, an individual savings account. Part of the popularity of -able comes from its similarity to the English word able, though the two are not related.

Crucial point here: –able is the default variant, used with stems not previously ability-affixed and for new senses with stems already ability-affixed (which is where the preference for collectables probably comes from).

Notice that Quinion doesn’t tell us how the variants –able, -ible, and –uble arose, and he doesn’t do this because these facts, however fascinating, aren’t relevant to current usage. For current users, what is, is, and it’s their task to figure out how the system works. The tangled stories of how words came to have the meanings, pronunciations, and spellings they do are beside the point.

That brings me to that long-ago poster on –able vs. –ible, who sniffily maintained that no one would have any problem with choosing between the spellings if only they knew Latin, where -ablilis is assocated with 1st-conjugation verb stems and -ibilis with 2nd- and 3rd-conjugation verb stems. So, if only we learned another language, in some considerable detail, we’d know how to spell English. Beyond the general objection to using etymology to determine usage, this is a monstrously stupid idea.

To start with, “Latin” covers a huge range of Latin varieties over a long span of time, and what’s significant for English etymology is the particular variety of Latin, at a particular time, from which English got a word. You would have to know the situation, at the moment of borrowing, in exquisite detail. Look back at the NOAD2 ORIGIN note: the ability adjective was borrowed not in fact from the classical Latin original colligere (3rd conjgation, predicting collectible), but from a medieval Latin verb collectare (1st conjugation), based on the past participle of that 3rd-conjugation verb: so collectable. But apparently speakers aware of the classical Latin verb (at a time when highly educated people knew a good bit about classical Latin) borrowed the adjective based on that verb, not the medieval Latin one, and there’s variation from the early days in the 17th century.

Even if you look to the etymologies, everything is case by case. As far as current usage goes, the spellings –able vs. –ible are just things you have to know, one by one (though guessing –able is always a good strategy, since that spelling vastly outnumbers the –ible spelling and is the one used for innovations).


One Response to “-ible -able”

  1. Michael Vnuk Says:

    Thanks for discussing ‘collectable’ and ‘collectible’ and similar words. I had been going to look up for ages if there was any significance in their endings.
    I wonder, however, if the difference between the records and the catalogues could be just an unconscious error rather than a deliberate change. I know I write certain words in a specific way and if I’m not concentrating, I may write a word my way rather than that of the original.

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