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Pricey or Pricy: Differences and Usage

There are currently more than 171,146 words in English, a language that is continuously changing and evolving. Since the development of Old English among the 5th-century Anglo-Saxons, the globalization of English has resulted in influences from an abundance of languages and cultures. This worldliness has left its mark in many ways, including variations in word spelling. 

When it comes to spelling “pricey” compared to “pricy,” both forms are actually correct. The New Oxford English Dictionary and countless others list “pricy” as a less-common variant of “pricey.” Both the American National Corpus and British National Corpus also show that a majority of people use “pricey” over “pricy.” 

In English, word spelling often differs depending on the level of American or British influence. American and British English have many variations in their spelling, which other countries have adopted. Some variations follow particular rules, while others seem completely arbitrary — and this may be the case with “pricey.”

Pricey or Pricy: Which Is Grammatically Correct?

According to English Grammar rules, the grammatically correct spelling of the word may indeed be “pricy” due to the nature of the silent “e.” However, as is the case with the English language, nearly everything is up for debate or has exceptions to the rule.

When to Drop the E

Grammatically, we drop the silent “e” when we add an ending to a word that starts with a vowel suffix. There are many vowel suffixes in English, but they include  -ing, -ed, -er, -able, -ous (source). 

The action of dropping the “e” either changes the word’s tense or alters a part of speech, such as nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Importantly, linguists consider the letter “y” in English as a vowel suffix.

SuffixWordModification
-ingNoteNoting
-edAdmireAdmired
-oryCelebrateCelebratory
-ableLiveLivable
-erDriveDriver
-yIceIcy
-ageMileMilage
-ousAdvantageAdvantageous
-estTrueTruest
-mentArgueArgument
-acyPrivatePrivacy
-ityInactiveInactivity

The above table illustrated how the suffix modifies the words. In this example, the word “ice,” when modified by the suffix “y,” loses the “e” and becomes “icy.” This is true in several cases:

Haste – Hasty
Race – Racy
Stone – Stony
Spice – Spicy

Exceptions to the Rule

Yet, clearly, not all words lose their “e” when modified by the suffix -y. In these examples, only one spelling of the word is acceptable:

Dice – Dicey
Wife – Wifey

The acceptance of “pricey” as the most common spelling appears as another exception to the general rule, and there are several exceptions to the drop-the-e rule.

Exception 1: Words Ending in -ce or -ge

When we have a word ending in the letters -ce or -ge, we often, but not always, keep the letter “e.” 

Examples:
Service – Serviceable
Replace – Replaceable
Notice – Noticeable
Manage – Manageable
Change – Changeable
Knowledge – Knowledgeable

Still, we can see that dropping the “e” before using the suffix -able is optional. When using the suffix -able in these cases, you do not need to lose the “e.”

Examples:
Love: Loveable/Lovable
Move: Moveable/Movable
Like: Likeable/Likable

There are several rules and exceptions when adding a suffix to a word. How they are modified differs depending on the structure of that word. 

Exception 2: Words Ending in -ee, -oe, -ye

When a word ends in -ee, -oe, or -ye, we do not drop the “e.”

Examples:
Agree – Agreeing
Canoe – Canoeist
Dye – Dyeing

Even here, we have an exception as “dyeing,” meaning to use dye, is distinguished from “dying,” the process of death.

Exception 3: When a Suffix Begins with a Consonant

When suffixes begin with consonants, for example, -ly, -ful, or -ness, we most often do not drop the “e.” 

Examples:
Time – timely
Love – Lovely

However, there are exceptions to this rule.

Examples:
Due – Duly
True – Truly
Argue – Argument

After examining the grammar rules, it is not clear how “pricey” won out over “pricy” as the preferred spelling. It would appear that writers selected it rather arbitrarily, and it simply became the version most individuals were exposed to over time.

Why People Choose “Pricey”

Even though both “pricey” and “pricy” are technically correct, most individuals prefer to use the spelling “pricey.” Why this is the case is worth exploring, whether we can obtain a clear answer or not.

Historically, these two words have been around since the early 1920s. The American newspaper columnist Franklin P. Adams coined the term “High-pricey” in a 1923 poem (source).

He intended the word “pricey” to rhyme with “spicy,” making his choice of spelling all the more difficult to explain.

With the Great Depression’s arrival in America in the 1930s, a word such as “pricey” would have been relevant and keenly adopted, helping to explain the word’s rapid rise in popularity.

Furthermore, Adam’s spelling of “pricey” with the “e” would have been the standard form, with the variant form “pricy” coming after. 

Changes in Word Usage over Time

It is not uncommon for words to fall in and out of use. Linguists are among the language professionals who will monitor the rise and fall of words to understand better why some words are more popular than others. 

The cultural, social, and political context of a certain time can easily influence word usage. When you consider that grammarians add a new word to the dictionary every two hours, it puts into perspective how many words are available for us to use.

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) is one of the most popular corpora in English. Their goal is to provide insight into the many variations of that language.

How they do this is quite amazing. From the year 1990 to today, the COCA has added 25 million words annually.

They work on eight genres: names, spoken word, fiction, popular newspapers, magazines, academic texts, movie and TV subtitle blogs, and web pages (source).

Currently, the COCA has more than one billion words in its database, which helps one search for how common one spelling variant is over another. It also allows one to monitor how spelling has evolved and changed over time.

A search of the words “pricey” and “pricy” on the COCA’s database reveals that “pricey” is used 17 more times than its variant “pricy.”

The British National Corpus (BNC) was established in the 1980s by the Oxford University Press (source). While its database is considerably smaller, offering only 100 million words, the frequency of “pricey” over “pricy” is even higher than that of the COCA.

What the Corpora Reveal about Pricey and Pricy

Both of these corpora help us to establish whether people prefer to use “pricey” or “pricy.” However, when it comes to why people choose one spelling over another, the answer is not so clear.

According to a paper in Frontiers in Psychology (2016) on how many words we know, a native speaker of American English knows “42,000 lemmas and 4,200 non-transparent multiword expressions, derived from 11,100-word families” (source).

A lemma is a term used in morphology, meaning a dictionary form of a set of words. For example,hops,” “hops,” “hopped,” and “hopping” are all forms of the same lexeme.

This paper reveals that native English speakers have a massive vocabulary, and the average native English adult has a range of 20,000 to 35,000 words.

Perhaps it Just Looks Right

Often you may hear native English speakers saying that one spelling “just looks right,” but when they say this, they aren’t just pulling it out of thin air. 

Native English speakers receive instruction on spelling from the age of five or six. Recognizing the correct spelling comes from exposure to the grammar rules, as well as the numerous exceptions, from practicing and from years of learning.

Spelling is often so ingrained that people can eventually decide that one variation of a word looks correct compared to the other. This may be the case with “pricey” and “pricy.”

Phonetically, both spellings are correct, yet something about the former looks right while the latter seems awkward.

Choose your words tiles
Image by Brett Jordan via Unsplash

What Does Pricey or Pricy Mean?

Before we begin to further explore the issue of using “pricey” or “pricy,” it is essential to understand the word’s meaning and the contexts in which we may use either. They’re both adjectives, which means their role is to modify either a noun or a noun phrase.

Synonyms for “pricey/pricy” include “expensive” and “costly.” While we may use “expensive” and “pricey/pricy” interchangeably, “pricey/pricy” is more informal than “expensive” (source).

Formal Examples:
All the men and women were dressed in expensive garments.
Europe can be quite an expensive holiday for some.

Informal Examples:
That shop is too pricey for my budget.
I love those shoes, but they were a little pricy for me.
Why is everything online so pricey?

Why Does English Have So Many Different Ways of Spelling?

Suppose you are trying to master the English language’s spelling, and you wonder why there are so many variations, exceptions, and differences. In that case, you can largely thank American lexicographer Noah Webster.

Before Webster’s contribution, the spelling of British English had been secured by Samuel Johnson. In 1755, Webster published A Dictionary of the English Language, which remains one of the world’s most famous publications (source).

Johnson, along with a handful of others, collected over 40,000 words, which would make up the pages of their dictionary.

Meanwhile, in America, Noah Webster was working on his own publications. He first printed A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language in 1806.

This already had variations to the British spelling. British words with “u,” such as “colour,” lost out in favor of more straightforward variations without the “u.”

Webster’s English

A few years later, Noah Webster published The American Dictionary of the English Langauge, in which he included 70,000 words.

In his dictionary, Webster aimed to refine and simplify the English language. He did this by removing superfluous vowels and double consonants.

In addition to his dictionary, Webster wrote three additional texts: The First Part of the Grammatical Institute of the English Language, The American Spelling Book, and The Elementary Spelling Book.

Americans printed these texts and used them as a basis for teaching for over 100 years.

So while Victorian school children were learning how to spell “plough” and “axe,” across the ocean, American children were learning to spell “plow” and “ax.”

These changes meant that the British kept the words they had inherited from other countries, such as France and Germany, while the Americans based their spelling on how the word sounded when spoken.

British vs. American English

There are so many American and British spelling variations that will make you grateful to the person who invented spell-check.

British EnglishAmerican English
AlumininiumAluminum
AeroplaneAirplane
AgeingAging
CentreCenter
ColourColor
JewellryJewelry
TheatreTheater
TyreTire

Noah Webster succeeded in transforming the English language in America, which resulted in the American and English spellings that we use today. However, this was only the beginning.

As English spread across the globe, various local cultures that adopted the language began to alter and change it as they began to speak, read, and write it.

Today, there are over 40 variations of the English language, which include South African English, Scottish English, Canadian English, Indian English, and Hong Kong English.

If you’re interested in reading further on how we all speak and spell the same language differently, you can explore this article on Mom vs. Mum.

So if we can agree that “pricey” was the original word that originated in 1923, then perhaps the variation “pricy” was an attempt to simplify or modernize the word that failed to take hold.

This is only a hypothesis, of course. Why both “pricey” and “pricy” exist may always remain one of the many mysteries of the English Language. This article was written for strategiesforparents.com.

Fortunately, English has an abundance of resources there to help guide native and non-native speakers alike. Resources such as The Oxford New Essential Dictionary and Dreyer’s English are both available on Amazon and are excellent materials to have on hand.

Final Thoughts

While dictionaries and even Scrabble may class “pricey” and “pricy” as equals, this opinion is not shared by most English speakers around the world. Research shows that “pricey” is the favorite spelling.

When learning and using English, it’s important to remember that the language is alive and fluid. Words and their spellings change and move in and out of favor. It’s one of the things that makes the language equally frustrating and quite remarkable.