If you’ve ever wondered why Americans think British English is weird, look no further than the words ‘practice’ and ‘practise’. Despite being pronounced identically, one is a noun and the other is a verb (our transatlantic cousins, meanwhile, use ‘practice’ for both).
But which word is which? And why do we keep the spelling distinction?
The noun ‘practice’ is used when describing the applied use of an idea or theory:
In practice, the recommended approach exceeded expectations.
This sense of ‘practice’ can also describe carrying out a profession (e.g. ‘legal practice’) or even the premises at which such a ‘practice’ takes place (e.g. ‘a doctor’s practice’).
A related definition is the use of ‘practice’ to mean ‘a customary or established way of doing something’:
Modern teaching practice shuns the rote learning favoured in the past.
In all cases, the key factor is that ‘practice’ refers to a thing, such as a method or way of doing something, rather than describing the performance of an action.
‘Practise’ is a verb, so specifically refers to performing an activity or exercising a skill, usually to improve or maintain proficiency:
If I want to play at the concert, I need to practise the oboe!
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It can also refer to carrying out an established way of doing something, especially in a profession:
As a practising doctor, I consider the oboe a major health threat.
The vital thing is that ‘practise’ is only used when someone is actively doing something, not when referring to the idea of an activity or the established methods by which it is enacted.
Practice or Practise?
Why do we stick with this distinction, rather than joining our friends in the US and adopting ‘practice’ for both? The short answer is stubborn habit, but it does allow us to avoid ambiguity in situations where it isn’t clear whether we’re referring to a thing (‘practice’) or an action (‘practise’).
If you have trouble remembering which is which, compare them with ‘advice’ (a noun) and ‘advise’ (a verb). As you can see, ‘advice’ and ‘advise’ share the same spelling difference as ‘practice’ and ‘practise’, but ‘advice’ is also pronounced differently to ‘advise’.
This makes it easier to distinguish the words, and thus remember the spelling difference:
Practice/advice (spelled with a ‘c’) = Noun
Practise/advise (spelled with an ‘s’) = Verb
Thus, if you’re describing the way in which something is done (i.e. a thing), the term to use is ‘practice’. Alternatively, if you’re describing doing something (i.e. an action), you should use the word ‘practise’.