Spelling matters: programme or program?

Oct 03, 2013

The Editor gives her view

Did you read this morning's article from the Sydney Morning Herald about confusion in government over the spelling of program/programme? [May-15: You can still read the article in The Age]

When we think of grovelling and scraping and general sycophantic behaviour, we see in our mind’s eye a person going out the door backwards while bowing as deeply as possible without falling over. It is a surprise to see sycophancy expressed in spelling choices.

I can believe that Tony Abbott’s personal preference is for ‘programme’ over ‘program’. He is of that generation and he might be expected to follow the rules that he was taught as a child in matters of spelling as he does in matters of morals. That is his right as an individual. But when we come to government documents the preferences of the individual should give way to house style representing the greater good.

The reason for a house style is to remove all the time and energy wasted in thrashing out individual preferences. It also provides a consistency to documents from the government which is appealingly dignified. Once a house style is established it should be changed only when there is a clear and pressing need. Tinkerers should be banned. It simply makes for unnecessary trouble. Somewhere down the line there will be someone who hasn’t registered the change and presents the non-preferred spelling.

In this case we have a choice between ‘programme’ which older Australians see as British spelling, and ‘program’ which older Australians see as American spelling. If you look back into the history of the word you find that ‘program’ was the accepted English spelling until the British love of all things French in the 19th century produced the Frenchified spelling ‘programme’. The Americans were untroubled by all this and retained the spelling ‘program’, so they could be said to have the original and most correct spelling of the word (for those who like the argument that what comes first is best).

Then we derived the computer program from America and with it the spelling ‘program’ for all computer-related items. Rather than have two spellings for what is essentially the same word, some of us switched to ‘program’ for all meanings. There is still a tendency in the Australian community to have concert programmes and computer programs – to allocate one spelling to the arts and the other to IT. Dictionaries give ‘program’ as the first choice and ‘programme’ as a minor alternative in non-computer use. The latest government style manual recommends following Australian dictionaries in spelling choices.

The government should follow its own house style regardless of who is in power and what preferences individual politicians might have. This attempt to curry favour with a –mme is ludicrous and time-wasting.

Find more spelling tips and tricks in our Spelling Matters series.

Want some help with other common confusables? Check out our other comparison blogs

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Jack - March 19, 2015, 3:53 p.m.

Dear editor. You are spot on. While I loathe upcomings, a z where there should be an s and that ugliest of non-words "gotten", buggerising around with the Australian language because a prime minister doesn't agree with the correct spelling is ludicrous. As in most things lately, I'm sure the vast majority of Australians don't agree with him.

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Tim - June 22, 2016, 12:46 p.m.

There is also the government context of program (a body of work, specifically governed using a framework, and with a stop condition) and programme - another body of work, without a stop condition.
Examples are: a Program of work, for capital funded collection of projects.
A programme for the benefit of the public - such as the Border Security program, or the Social Security programme.

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