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September 26, 2003

Another cherished vernacular gaffe is about to be legitimized, if I am correctly reading all the usual signs. This is painful to me because I have virtually given my life to the correction and eradication of misspelled words, or at least those that are accidentally misused. It may be all right with some folks, but somehow it is not acceptable to me. By no means do I claim to be an authority. My bookcase is full of reference works to rely on in this cause, and it is humbling sometimes, in perusing those volumes, to find that some of my own misconceptions have taken root in what I can only describe as fertile soil.

The case in point today is this simple, everyday word judgment. We all are familiar with it from frequent uses, in both writing and oral discourses. It has a special meaning to me because I learned, early in my career, from a reliable authority that "judgment" did not have a middle "e" (i.e., judgement). Let me tell you how this happened to come up in the first place.

Think 1941. I had just gone to work for The Perry Daily Journal as a raw cub reporter. Others in the news department at that time were older folks, all college-trained and self-assured as they went about their daily tasks of writing and editing. I felt challenged to learn everything they could teach. My immediate superior in this endeavor was the Managing Editor, Francis Thetford, whose instructions were always given in good humor. I considered him to be like the Superman of the News Room.

One day a local minister brought in his weekly church notice for use on the church page the next day. He placed it on Francis' desk, exchanged a few pleasantries with others in the office, and went on his way. When Mr. Thetford picked up the church page article, he noticed that the preacher had typed the word "judgment" with the forbidden "e" in the middle. So, he struck it out with an editor's pencil and sent the copy to the composing room to be converted into type for the next day's paper.

When that edition was delivered, the preacher looked up his notice and found the change in spelling. Later that day he was in The Journal office and remarked to Francis that the word had been misspelled when it appeared in the paper. Francis picked up a copy and said, "No, the spelling was incorrect as you had it, but I deleted the extra letter 'e,' and that's why it was changed. Judgment does not have a middle e. The preacher, feigning offense, continued his good-natured complaining and Francis finally told him they would settle the matter in accordance with our office dictionary. That was a heavyweight Webster's industrial strength reference work, and it had been used for several decades to settle just such arguments.

Lo and behold, when they found the page containing the word in question Francis could hardly believe his eyes. There, starkly printed, was "judgement" with that middle "e" just as the preacher had written it. To Mr. Thetford's consternation, he realized that it was the right way to spell the word years ago, but the modern (and correct) use that he had chosen did not even appear in that dictionary. He pointed this out to the preacher, who, while chortling at his victory, felt thoroughly vindicated. That was more than sixty years ago, friend, but I must tell you that the incident remains fresh in my mind, and I still find two spellings of the word "judgment" in virtually all dictionaries. My personal Webster's does show "judgement" as an alternative, but not the preferred version.

But in several articles lately I have noticed the alternative, old-fashioned spelling of "judgment" is being used more and more. That's how "preferred usages" are determined and I cannot help feeling that Francis Thetford, who is now deceased, would be chagrined, to say the least.