Wordwatch Towers

A plain language guide to punctuation, grammar and writing well.

License or licence?

with 4 comments

The front side of a German-issue European driv...
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In the UK ‘licence’ is a noun (the name of something) and ‘license’ is a verb (a word that describes doing something).

So, a licence is a certificate or piece of paper that proves you have the permission to do something. For example, a driving licence, a TV licence or a licence to sell alcohol.

‘To license’ means to give that permission. For example:

I license you to sell alcohol and here is your licence to display on the wall.

He is licensed to drive and keeps his driving licence in his wallet.

Nothing’s ever straightforward…

I was surprised to see ‘licence’ listed as an acceptable alternative to ‘license’ in the Oxford Dictionary of English. (Perhaps I don’t get out enough.) Oxford Dictionaries also lists both as acceptable. You pays your money and you takes your choice. (Although be aware that some people who think they know their onions but don’t frequent their dictionaries too often will think you are wrong to use the noun ‘licence’ as a verb.)

The American way

Americans, of course, don’t have to worry about any of this as they use ‘license’ as both a noun and a verb.

Commonly confused words and phrases

More on nouns, verbs and adjectives

Spelling tips and tricks


4 Responses

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  1. I am so relieved that you have given me licence to use ‘licence’ as a verb. After a bit of grazing in the OED and elsewhere I find the following. ‘Licence’ (verb) has been used since the fifteenth century, and was occasionally used in the 18th century. The usage for the last century in GB has been to restrict the spelling of the verb to ‘license’. However recent examples of the use if ‘c’ in the verb seem to be few and far between, but increasing. I like it as way of obviating an unnecessary anomaly. Despite current genaral usage, it’s not ‘wrong’.

    You didn’t mention the non-legal meaning, perhaps more moralistic, of ‘licence’:
    “The fact you are an accomplished journalist and good with words doesn’t give you licence to brow-beat me with a string long, hurtful adjectives.”

    Thanks for this Wordwatch entry. I take it as white card to use any spelling I want


    24/03/2010 at 11:16 am

    • Thanks for that research, Dai. It’s interesting, isn’t it? I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve heard people being told that they are wrong to use ‘licence’ as a verb. Also, thanks for the additional example of how ‘licence’ can be used.


      24/03/2010 at 11:26 am

  2. Oh, I wish people would get this “right” or at least to our style. When I have CVs from people wanting to be journalists, the first thing I look at is whether they can spell driving licence the British way.

    Someone once told me they had a mnemonic that if you could “see” it as a physical thing (noun), like a licence, it was a “c”…

    You might also lump in practise and practice…

    Keep up the good work.


    24/03/2010 at 6:21 pm

    • Hi, there — yes, I know exactly what you mean! Practise and practice is coming up shortly. Thanks for your encouraging words.


      24/03/2010 at 6:28 pm

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