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The old moan of the C

Peter King fumes to see 'licence' wrongly endorsed

A visit to Sizewell B in Suffolk is an eye opener. The white dome that rises like a hi-tech St Paul's Cathedral above Dunwich Heath is testimony to the latest fashions of fission. It also gives us a clear reminder that there is more than one way to spell the word "licensed".

When you turn off at the Vulvan Arms pub for the approach road you boldly go towards one of the world's most advanced pressurised water reactor power stations (a setting that would grace the finale of any James Bond movie) and prepare to take a step into the Star Trek age. You are about to learn and be reassured. The emphasis is on clarifying instruction and calming public relations. Photos of youngsters in hard hats adorn the pamphlets and the message is that "learning is fun with interactive touch-sensitive video screens and computer consoles programmed for question and answer sessions you operate yourself."

The courtesy minibus, equipped with an instructional video, waiting to give visitors a ride around the reactor is just one of the instruments that will help to soothe you as you learn that the nuclear power industry contributes less than one thousandth of the radiation we receive from all sources.

While you wonder at the mighty dome you will be informed by a smiling air-hostess-style guide that the structure is so strong it can withstand the shock of being hit by an aircraft in flight and that it can endure the unlikely event of an earthquake.

But as the visiting schoolteacher, who has spent many years drumming in the rules about how to spell "licence" when it is a noun and "license" when it is a verb, comes face to face with this masterpiece of modern technology he is greeted by the words "You are entering a licenced nuclear site."

Then, using the time-honoured teaching technique of repetition, they tell him on a succession of signs along the perimeter fence: "This is a licenced nuclear site." Just in case he has forgotten, after being blinded by a science that can satisfy the electricity needs of a population the size of East Anglia, he is told as a parting shot: "You are now leaving a licenced nuclear site."

At one and the same moment he is confronted by the marvellous possibilities of the human mind and the muddle of the English language. The Oxford Guide to English Usage tells him that advice, device, licence and practice are nouns, while the related verbs are spelt with -se. But the dictionaries do allow variations. It spells confusion for impressionable youngsters.

If the school books have one rule for nouns and another for verbs, it would be helpful if these also applied in the outside world. Coleridge admired the pleasure dome, but he did not call it a "miracle of rare devise". The classroom battle to split the noun and verb will have to continue. Practise, as they sometimes wrongly say, makes perfect.

Peter King teaches English at Wisbech Grammar School in Cambridgeshire

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