40 Spelling Is One Of The Strange Exceptions To The Rule

40 Spelling- No U In Forty

Have you noticed that 40 spelling is a little weird?

Why is there a U in four and fourteen but no U in forty?

Spelling the number 40 is one of the little oddities of the English language.

So what’s the story behind the spelling of forty or fourty, and is the word fourty still in use?

The history of the words forty and fourty

You might think that the difference in spelling forty and fourty is an American and British English variation such as in color and colour. But the correct spelling is forty in both.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word derives from the Old English words féowertig and féowurtig. These were in use between the 7th and 11th centuries.

Later in Middle English during the 12th and 15th centuries, it changed to fowwerrtig and feortig.

There were other variations, including feouwerti, fuerti, feowrti, fourte, fourti, vourti, vourty, and fourty.

One of the earliest uses of fourty appears in Chaucer’s Canon’s Yeoman’s Tale in 1386. If that thee list it have, Ye shul paye fourty pound.

The word fourty appeared in the latter part of this time and stayed in use between the 15th and 18th centuries.

Merriam-Webster believes that it wasn’t until the 18th century that the word forty came into popular use.

However, it is unclear as to why the U disappeared from the word at that time. No one seems to know.

On a personal note, my favorite number is 42. So, I wonder if Douglas Adams thought about how to spell 42 when he wrote The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

Did he toy with the idea of spelling it fourty-two? He probably did, I’m sure.


Spelling 40 is a common mistake

the number 40

For anyone learning English, the correct spelling of 40 comes as a surprise. Yes, it’s four, fourteen, four hundred, but forty!

It’s even more confusing when you think that for a fraction, the spelling is one-fourth because it relates to the number four.

But for an ordinal number, it is spelled the fortieth because it refers to the number forty.

Why is there no U in forty? All you can do is accept that there is no U, and that’s the rule.

It’s not much different from five and fifty and two and twenty. It’s simply about spelling and ease of pronunciation.


Do writers still use fourty?

It’s not unusual to still find the word fourty occasionally in modern writing.

Nature World News published an article in 2016, and the following quote is still appearing.

Female grey whales are fighting for their life. Fourty-three female whales are breeding in the group in 2015, a big increase from the 27 female whales in 2004.

If you’re interested in astronomy and physics, you might want to read, Fourty Years of Solar Spectroscopy. It was published in 1965 and is still listed on Semantic Scholar.

The National Library of Medicine lists an article titled, One hundred fourty years after the discovery of islets by Paul Langerhans.

It’s hard to know if these instances of spelling the word fourty are intentional or a mistake.

It could just be that there are a few writers who think that the word fourty looks more profound or scholarly with a U.


It pays to check your 40 spelling

I doubt that any writer would have a problem with how to spell 40.

But perhaps you need to be careful when you write it as a fraction or as an ordinal number.

Yes, we all have terrific spell checkers now, and we rarely consult a dictionary.

However, never place your trust in online checking tools.

It’s more fun to investigate our language and try to remember some of the little oddities it throws up from time to time.


Related reading: How Do You Make Do And Don’t Plural In Writing?

Derek Haines

A Cambridge CELTA English teacher and author with a passion for writing and all forms of publishing. My days are spent writing and blogging, as well as testing and taming new technology.

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2 thoughts on “40 Spelling Is One Of The Strange Exceptions To The Rule

  • Avatar for Joelle LeGendre
    December 6, 2020 at 6:48 pm

    When I see forty spelled out, and how the concept of 40 was written centuries before, I wonder how long it is going to be before “I see you forty times a year” is written, “I c u 40x a yr..”

    Language style doesn’t seem to change as quickly as clothing style, but what was once “correct” usage still falls out of favor.

    • Avatar for Derek Haines
      December 6, 2020 at 6:55 pm

      Maybe roman numerals can make a comeback, Joelle. “I c u xxxx a year”. It has a certain ring to it. lol

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