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Enquire versus inquire

Q From Barry Shandling, Toronto: In your issue of 23 April you wrote ‘Earnest enquirers wish to know.’ The Latin for ‘he said’ is inquit. Hence it always seems correct to me to use the English inquired rather than enquired. How say you?

A As you might guess, I rather disagree.

Arguments from etymology are always hard to justify, because there are many thousands of examples of words that have shifted sense or spelling since they arrived in English. Language is as language does: if native speakers choose to change words or the way they use them, that’s something we just have to accept. Then there’s the difficulty of defining what you mean by “correct”, since usage can vary a lot between various communities of speakers, each of which will firmly assert that their own way of doing things is right.

This one’s particularly awkward, for both these reasons. The Latin origin is the verb inquirere (based on quaerere, to ask or seek, which is also the source of query). However, the first examples of the English verb — in the thirteenth century — began with en-, or even sometimes an-. This is because the prefix became changed in its passage into English; it arrived via Old French, in which the word was enquerre (modern French has enquérir). Educated people in the fifteenth century began to be persuaded under the influence of Latin that it really ought to be spelled inquire, not enquire. But educated opinion didn’t prevail, and the two forms have continued in use in parallel in British English, roughly in equal frequencies, down to the present day.

However, in recent times British people have developed a difference of meaning between the two forms. Enquire tends to be used for general senses of “ask” (I might enquire after your health, or enquire about some fact or other), while inquire implies a formal investigation (as in the legal forum called a public inquiry). But this isn’t absolute by any means, and British English is being influenced by American English, in which inquire and inquiry have long been the standard forms (though the en- forms are not entirely unknown even there, albeit in rather formal situations; also enquiry is relatively more common than enquire). Australian English stands in much the same position as British English and is subject to the same forces. Canadian English, as so often, is split between American and British styles, though tending towards the former.

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Page created 21 May 2005

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Last modified: 21 May 2005.