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Combatting or Combating: Grammatical Rules for Proper Usage

There are subtle yet significant differences in the spelling of certain words in American English, and spelling the same words in British English. The words combating and combatting are examples of this distinct difference. 

In American English, the correct spelling is “combating.” When writing with the British English spelling, the correct form is “combatting.” Choosing between “combatting” and “combating” is a style choice based on either British or American English.

Neither form is entirely incorrect, but the right choice depends on which spelling convention you are using.

Read on to learn more about the grammatical rules that dictate the spelling of the root word “combat” and its variations.

Combatting/Combating: What Does it Mean?

The word “combat” means to fight or battle, and we can use it in that sense as either a noun or a verb.

Noun: Krav maga is one of the most popular forms of unarmed combat.

Verb: I have to combat the urge to procrastinate instead of doing my homework.

If you read these sentences aloud, you may notice two different ways of pronouncing the word “combat,” emphasizing either the first or the last syllable.

Noun: Krav maga is one of the most popular forms of unarmed combat.

Verb: I have to combat the urge to procrastinate instead of doing my homework.

We pronounce the noun with the emphasis on the first syllable (combat), whereas we pronounce the verb with the emphasis on the second syllable (combat) (source).

The word “combat” is not unique in this sense. Other English words perform double duty as both nouns and verbs, and the difference is indicated through emphasis. Consider these examples:

NounVerb
Conduct conduct
Increase increase
Pervertpervert
Remitremit

A Quick Lesson in Grammar

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Now that you know what the word combat means, let’s look at using it in different contexts. When it comes to using the words “combating” or “combatting,” two particular grammatical rules apply — the present participle and the gerund.

Present Participle

The letters -ing are known as a suffix, a group of letters added to the end of a root word. Suffixes change the meaning and grammatical function of words. 

For example, we use the suffix -ing to indicate the present participle and the suffix -ed to indicate the past participle of a verb (source):

Root verbboilPlease boil some water.
Present participleboilingThe water is boiling.
Past participleboiledThe water has boiled.

In the examples shown above, you can identify that combatting and combating are each a present participle of the word combat.

I have to combat the urge to procrastinate. →  I am combating the urge to procrastinate.

I have to combat the urge to procrastinate. →  I am combatting the urge to procrastinate.

Whether you choose to spell this present participle with a single or a double “t” depends on whether you are using the British or American English spelling. We’ll explain this in further detail later on in this article.

To learn more about how to form different tenses, you can read “Has Been or Have Been: Present Perfect Continuous Tense.”

Gerunds

Sometimes, adding the suffix -ing to the end of a verb transforms the verb to a gerund. A gerund is a verb that is performing as a noun (source). For example:

I like to swim in the sea. → I like swimming in the sea.

I love to cook. → Cooking makes me happy.

In the examples above, the words “swimming” and “cooking” are gerunds. The verbs in these sentences are the words “like” and “love.” These are the “doing” words in these examples. You can use the word “combating” as a gerund as follows:

Combating inefficiency is one of the primary goals of our plan for the new year.

Combatting inefficiency is one of the primary goals of our plan for the new year.

Whether you spell “combating” with a single “t” or a double “t” depends largely on whether you are using American or British spelling. First, let’s take a look at the grammatical rules for adding a suffix onto a root verb.

Adding a Suffix to a Root Verb

When adding a suffix to a root verb, the root verb’s spelling determines the spelling of the new form. In general, if the root verb ends with a short vowel sound and a single consonant, we double the final consonant when adding a suffix. For example:

Root verbPresent participle (add -ing)Past participle (add -ed)
begbeggingbegged
slapslappingslapped

Doubling the final consonant preserves the short vowel sound of the last syllable of the word.

In some cases, a single or double consonant can distinguish between two words with completely different meanings. Consider the difference between these words:

Single consonantDouble consonant
Robed — clothed in a robe or ceremonial garment.Robbed — took property unlawfully, by force.
Slimed — covered in slime.Slimmed — made thinner, especially by dieting.

Note that the words robed and slimed are formed from the root verbs robe and slime. The final -e on both words creates the long vowel sounds on the “o” and the “i.” When we add a suffix to words with a long vowel sound that end in -e, we first omit the final -e.

When the root verb ends in multiple consonants or a long vowel sound, we do not double the final consonant:

EndingRoot verbPresent participlePast participle
The root verb ends in multiple consonants.callcallingcalled
The root verb ends in a long vowel sound.hatehatinghated

This all sounds fairly straightforward, but it gets complicated when we look at the spelling differences between American and British English.

American or British?

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Several hundred years ago, all English speakers originated from what is now Great Britain, the kingdom that comprises England, Wales, Scotland, and their islands (source).

When British people colonized North America, they brought their language with them, and it became the primary language of what is now the United States of America.

At the time of America’s colonization, English spelling and pronunciation were not standardized.

Over the intervening centuries, they have drifted further apart. In some cases, American linguists deliberately changed their language to differentiate it from the “mother tongue” (source). 

There are various general rules distinguishing American English spelling from British English spelling. For example:

RuleBritish spellingAmerican spelling
Replace -re with -er at the end of a wordcentrecenter
Replace soft c with slicencelicense
Replace -ise with -izeorganiseorganize
Remove silent letterscataloguecatalog

There are also many notable differences in vocabulary between American and British English, such as the word for the storage space in a car (British: boot; American: trunk), or for the season between summer and winter (British: autumn; American: fall).

Consonant Doubling: Single or Double Consonant?

There is an important difference between American and British spelling when it comes to doubling the final consonant on words when we add a suffix. The pronunciation of the root verb dictates this difference.

In general, both American and British English double the final consonant when the emphasis is on the final syllable of the root verb and a suffix is added. For example:

I always forget to bring my lunch to work. → I keep forgetting to bring my lunch to work.

I prefer to work from home. →  In the past, I preferred to work from home.

In these examples, the emphasis is on the last syllable of the root verb. 

Generally, when the emphasis does not fall on the root verb’s final consonant, and a suffix is added, the final consonant is not doubled. For example:

She gathers flowers in the garden. →  Yesterday, she gathered flowers in the garden.

However, in British English, there are many examples in which the final consonant is doubled, regardless of where the emphasis falls. For example:

I travel overseas often. → I am travelling overseas for the summer.

The lighthouse signals to the ships. →  The lighthouse signalled to the ships.

Note that in both of the examples above, the final consonant is doubled when adding a suffix, even though the emphasis does not fall on the final syllable of the root verb. These exceptions in British English are often words ending in the letter L.

In contrast, American English is more consistent. Correct American spelling generally does not double the final consonant when the emphasis is not on the final syllable. Consider these examples:

I travel overseas often. → I am traveling overseas for the summer.

The lighthouse signals to the ships. →  The lighthouse signaled to the ships.

This difference extends beyond the addition of the suffixes -ing and -ed to indicate present or past participles. Consider these examples:

1. American English: She counsels her peers. → She is a good counselor.

2. British English: She counsels her peers. → She is a good counselor.

In this example, the suffix -or indicates “a person who…” (source).

1. American English: He is cruel. →  He is the cruelest boy.

2. British English: He is cruel. →  He is the cruellest boy.

In these examples, the suffix -est indicates the superlative.

There’s Always an Exception

Unfortunately, English grammar, whether it is American or British, is never without exception, and there are exceptions to this rule as well. 

Two exceptions that are often pointed out are the words “format” and “kidnap.” In both cases, the emphasis is on the first syllable, but the consonant is doubled when adding a suffix in both British and American English.

Bruce formats the document. →  Bruce is formatting the document.

Criminals sometimes kidnap children. →  Kidnapping is a form of criminal activity.

On the other hand, when adding a suffix to the word “develop,” we do not double the final consonant in either American or British English:

Will you develop a plan for the new year? →  I developed a plan for the new year.

As always, the general rule will help you to get your spelling right in most cases, but sometimes you’ll have to learn spelling, grammar, and formation word by word.

So, Is It Combating or Combatting?

Let’s get back to our original question. Which is the correct spelling: “combating” or “combatting”? 

Now that you know more about grammar rules that dictate spelling, you may notice that it is possible to change the spelling of combatting or combating based on the word’s pronunciation. 

If the doubling of the final consonant depends on the emphasis, you could argue that the verb “combatting” should be spelled with a double “t,” while the gerund “combating” should be spelled with a single “t.”

Many people agree that the difference between the two is a style choice and do not insist on one form or the other.

However, the easiest answer to this question is that if you are using British English spelling, the correct form is “combatting.”

To a British eye, the spelling “combating” looks like it should be pronounced with a long vowel sound, “combayting,” in the same way as the word “debating.” In American spelling, the correct form is “combating.”

Final Thoughts

Most often, it does not matter whether you choose to use British English spelling or American English spelling. Both are widely recognized and accepted. 

However, it is important to be consistent. Switching between British and American spelling within a single email or essay will simply look incorrect and awkward to the reader. If you have a choice, pick one form and stick to it. 

Remember, too, some employers or institutions will have a writing style guide and prefer one form or the other. It can help to be aware of the various spelling rules in both forms so you can switch between them with ease. 

In many cases, what seems to be a hard and fast rule is often a style choice. Don’t be afraid to experiment and ask native English speakers around you for help. You may show them a new way of thinking about their own language!