English spelling can be tricky to learn and even harder to truly master. There are many different rules around spelling and grammar, and, on top of this, every rule has a handful of exceptions that break it. For example, is it “programming” or “programing”?
“Programming” is the most common form of the present participle for British English “programme” and American English “program.” However, while the rules of grammar support the double-m in British English, the spellings rules also support the single-m for the American spelling “program.” Further, British English accepts “programing” only when referring specifically to coded software instructions.
This article will explore the root of the word and its definition, both of which help explain why there is confusion over its present participle. We’ll also look at rules for adding the suffix -ing and how spelling in British and American English has evolved.
Program or Programme?
Often, understanding how we should spell something in English requires something akin to math. We can draw such a parallel because grammar, which defines how we use words, is a set of rules that only apply under certain conditions. You must identify these conditions and apply the required rules when the equation calls for them.
The first step in deducing the correct form of a word is to go back to the root word involved. This allows you to identify the various steps that lead to the final form. In this case, it is the word “program” or “programme,” although, even here, we see differences arise.
In British English, the correct spelling of the word is “programme” for all definitions except for the most recent computer-related term “program” (source). The intention behind the change in spelling for the latter is to differentiate it from the other forms.
However, in American English, the preference is for the spelling “program” for all definitions, although “programme” is still acceptable as an alternative for many of them.
This choice is likely due to the inclination of American lexicographers for shortening words and dropping letters to facilitate easier and cheaper writing out of documents.
It seems the only spelling rule applied to this word that is completely parallel between US English and UK English is when we use it in the context of computers. In this case, it is always the shorter form — program.
Programming or Programing?
To properly conjugate any word, we must apply the necessary grammar rules. Like with many rules in English, there are exceptions involved. Fortunately, both spellings of the word have rules that apply to them directly and facilitate the addition of an “-ing” suffix.
A present participle is a verb form we create by adding -ing to a verb. It functions together with the verb “to be” to create continuous tenses. Continuous tenses occur in the past, present, and future, as we demonstrate below.
- I am programming my computer. (present continuous)
- I was programming my computer. (past continuous)
- I will be programming my computer. (future continuous)
Exploring the Suffix -ing
To turn a word into another word by adding a prefix or suffix to either end requires a set of rules. These rules are specific to each of the popular prefix and suffix options, each relating to the word itself as well.
When we add -ing to words, we change their meaning or tense. By adding -ing, we do one of the following:
- Indicate that something is in progress
- Turn a verb into a gerund (noun)
- Turn a verb into an adjective
Consider the following examples that illustrate these points.
I was programming the television when the power blew. (programming was in progress)
Programming a television is not an easy task. (turning program into a noun or gerund)
We cannot use “programming” as an adjective, but consider words like “startle” or “amaze” that we can transform into adjectives by adding -ing.
Rules for Adding -ing to Words
An -ing ending is one of the most popular suffix options, and there are several rules that apply when adding this suffix. Let’s consider those that apply to “programme” and “program.”
Root Word Ends in E: Programme
When the root word ends with an “e,” we drop the “e” and add -ing to the end (source).
- care + -ing becomes caring.
- desire + -ing becomes desiring.
We can see that if we apply this rule to the British English spelling “programme,” we simply drop the “e.”
- Programme + -ing becomes programming.
We retain the double letter and spell the word with two m’s.
Root Word Ends in Consonant Preceded by Single Vowel: Program
When our root word ends with a consonant preceded by a single vowel, and when the inflection falls on the end syllable of the word, we double the final consonant and add the -ing at the end.
- Beg + -ing becomes begging
- Occur + -ing becomes occurring
However, this rule does not apply to the word “program” because it is a two-syllable word where the inflection is on the first syllable, so we don’t have to double the last consonant.
- Program + -ing becomes programing
As you see, the rules for adding -ing differ for adding the suffix to “programme,” which ends with a vowel, and “program,” which ends on a consonant and the stress falls on the first syllable..
Why Merriam-Webster Lists “Programing”
Because of the variant spellings of “programme” and “program,” we also have the variant spelling “programing,” which comes from American English. The Cambridge dictionary only lists “programming,” while the Merriam-Webster dictionary lists both spellings, with “programing” as a less-common alternative (source).
This is because we pronounce “program” with the inflection on the first syllable, and the spelling rule doesn’t require a doubling of the word’s final consonant.
However, the use of “programing” is rare, and according to the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA), English speakers use “programming” 98 times more than “programing.” The COCA contains more than a billion words of text and shows the frequency of use for all of these words (source).
Oxford University Press created the British National Corpus (BNC), which contains 100 million words of text, and it has only three records of “programing” compared to thousands of mentions of “programming.”
Similar two-syllable words where the stress falls on the first syllable can also cause confusion. For more on this, read the article on “worshiped” or “worshipped.”
If in doubt, it’s always helpful to refer to the pronunciation spellings of quality resources such as The Oxford New Essential Dictionary or Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
Examining the Word “Program”
To understand the context of programing vs. programming, it’s helpful to explore the base word and how it evolved in English.
Origin of the Word
“Program” and “programme” originate from Latin and Greek root words, as with many modern English words. The original Greek and Latin term was programma, meaning proclamation or edict (source). It referred to a written public notice used to announce rulings or events at the time.
The Latin word stems from prographein, with the prefix “pro-” meaning “forth,” as in “to go forth,” and graphein meaning “to write.” Combined, these still hold the base meaning of the word “programma” — to present in written form — which Webster included in his 1828 Dictionary (source).
As you can see, the root word, programma, has two m’s in it. This spelling persisted as the word evolved over the centuries and is still preserved in the British word “programme,” which the British adopted from French in the early 1800s.
This use of the word referred to the listed structure of a concert, a use it retains to this day. In 1877, the American English variation “program” emerged in the context of “program music.”
Definition of “Program” as a Noun
As the use of the word has evolved, there are now various definitions for “program” depending on the context and also whether it is a verb or a noun.
Let us first consider the noun “program” or “programme,” which has the following definitions. In these examples, we list the spelling “program” in American English and “programme” in British English, with the exception of the final example.
We follow each definition with examples that illustrate the nuances of meaning.
The structure of a concert or play:
- Here is the concert program, which shows who is performing tonight.
- The usher seated us and handed out the concert’s programme.
A radio or television performance:
- I’d like to watch that program later.
- We switched over to another programme after we got bored.
A plan of action:
- The fundraising program was very successful.
- To be fit, you require a good exercise program.
A curriculum or syllabus:
- The freshman program at my school is very demanding.
- The teacher set out the work according to the given programme.
A set of coded instructions for a computer:
When referring to a set of coded instructions for a computer, the spelling is always “program” in either dialect. This use of the word is very modern, dating back to 1945, when computers first entered our vocabulary. It is now the most common use for the word.
- Microsoft Word is a very popular program.
- I’m learning a new program in my computer science class.
Program as a Verb
“Program” can also function as a verb. In this context, it generally refers to providing or creating a sequence of coded instructions for a computer or machine, as in the following examples.
- She can program the computer to calculate interest rates.
- I will program my car radio to play only my favorite music.
We can also use it when we speak metaphorically about predetermined behavior as if by computer, as we demonstrate below.
- Children today are programmed to behave in certain ways.
- Certain cells are programmed to release carbon dioxide.
Which One Is Most Common?
So which one should you use, “programme” or “program”? Despite the historical path, your choice of whether to use “program” or “programme” will depend on where you are and what audience you are writing for.
American and British Spelling
British English tends to maintain the spelling of words the British have absorbed from other languages — mostly French and German. American English, by contrast, bases its spelling on how words sound and is therefore simpler.
Estimates are that more than 10,000 English words came from French, and “programme” is one of those. Many more originate from Latin, which is the root of much of French anyway.
English came to the US via British settlers in the 1600s, but the two dialects have diverged significantly since then. The American settlers brought an older form of English with them, while British English increasingly adopted French spelling conventions (source).
Regardless, it’s always advisable to use the dominant spelling of the audience you are writing for. So, if you’re somewhere that uses British English, then you should write “programme” unless you’re talking about a computer program. If you’re in an area where American English is the norm, then it is always better to use “program.”
Program vs. Programme
While the US spelling choice of using “program” in all cases makes the spelling simpler, it’s not as easy to distinguish the differences in meanings as it is in British English.
According to COCA, American English speakers use “‘program” 46 times more than “programme.” Interestingly, the BNC shows that British English speakers use “programme” only five times more than “program.” This article is written for strategiesforparents.com.
This is in keeping with the usage of both spellings in British English and the dominance of the word in modern times to refer to computer programming.
In both American and British English, the preferred spelling is “programming.” However, for American English, “programing” follows the spelling rules for “program,” while British English “programming” follows the spelling rules for the root word “programme.”
Although many accept “programing” as an alternative, its usage is comparatively rare, so your best option will normally be to choose the spelling “programming.” However, when referring to computer coding, “programing” is accurate in British English and American English.
Modern life will give you many opportunities to use this word, and whether you’re programming your computer, your sound system, or a robot, it’s useful to know where the word came from so you can successfully program yourself to spell it right.