• 3-minute read
  • 29th June 2016

Word Choice: Programme vs. Program

A few years ago, the then Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, caused some controversy when he used the spelling ‘programmes’ rather than ‘programs’ in a media statement. Admittedly, there are some other controversial things Mr Abbott did while in office, but we’ll focus on spelling for now.

The smile of a career politician. [Photo: www.dfat.gov.au]
The problem here is that British English still makes a distinction between the two spellings of ‘program’ and ‘programme’. American English, meanwhile, uses ‘program’ for all sense of the word. Cue vicious debates between roving gangs of rival grammarians.

But where does Australian English stand in all this? And how should you be spelling program/programme in your written work?

Programme

Using the British distinction, ‘programme’ is a general term used to refer to a scheduled course of events, performances or activities:

The festival’s programme included dance, music and exhibitions.

It can also be used to refer to something scheduled for broadcast on TV or radio:

Did you catch the new cooking programme on ABC last night?

As a verb, ‘programme’ refers to the act of composing or scheduling a programme.

Program

Sticking with the British distinction for now, ‘program’ is reserved for a set of encoded instructions used by a computer:

I couldn’t print out my essay because the program crashed.

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It is also used for the act of ‘programming’ a computer:

If you want to program, you need to be able to type accurately.

In US English, however, this spelling of ‘program’ encompasses every sense of the word. Used this way, you can also drop the double ‘m’ in its verb form:

Programing a computer is easy when you know how.

However, the double ‘m’ spelling of ‘programming’ and ‘programmed’ is more common, even in US English.

Programme or Program?

So, which version is right in Australian English? Annoyingly, there’s no simple answer; ‘program’ (like the US spelling) has become more common over the years, but many still prefer the old-fashioned ‘programme’ spelling.

To make matters even more confusing, our nearest neighbour, New Zealand, still uses the British program/programme distinction. But most other English-speaking countries, such as the USA and Canada, use ‘program’ for all senses of the term.

However, as a general rule, in Australian English it’s better to use ‘program’ for all senses of the word. Not only does this fit with many official guidelines, it also saves you having to remember the difference between the two spellings!

The only problem is that you might get Tony Abbott coming after you with a red pen, ready to impose his preferred spelling on you with extreme prejudice. The man is relentless.

Comments (7)
Garry Smith
5th January 2019 at 06:14
I was very pleased to note that my submission Program v Programme that was online for some time since being submitted late last year has disappeared and ask was it removed or has there been a malfunction? I also get a blue box with the wording 'Error. A fatal exception has occurred!' - does that mean anything?
Garry Smith
5th January 2019 at 07:23
I am somewhat disappointed with your responses. I am a mostly retired environmental planning -legal consultant and historian with long standing professional consultancy experience in the field, including major consultancy. My qualifications include a bachelor of laws, master of environmental law, bachelor of arts (Australian History), diploma of local history, at overall distinction average.
    Proofed
    5th January 2019 at 11:40
    There may be an issue with comments on the site at the moment, Garry. Hopefully your previous comments will reappear when it is sorted.
Garry Smith
8th January 2019 at 20:19
‘Program’ v ‘Programme’ – an Australian overview. I respond concerning the spellings ‘program’ and ‘programme’. As explained below, it should be considered at all times that the spelling ‘programme’ did not develop naturally but was an artificial spelling contrived by a minority pseudo-intellectual group. It was little more than a hoax that somehow prevailed. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . The spelling ‘program’ has always been the officially preferred spelling in Australia and is one of the few examples where we have not followed the British lead. In this regard we could note that the Australian states moved away from the British educational system during the early twentieth century. My earliest and somewhat vague memory of the word ‘program’ is my father and his visitor expressing concerns in 1949 that the recently seen spelling ‘programme’ was contrary to their education at Fort Street High School in the 1930s. My recollections of my school years in the late1950s are clear. We were instructed when preparing for our NSW matriculation exams to use the Australian preferred spelling ‘program’. We were not to use ‘programme’ but would not be penalised if we did because it had British use at the time. It is apparent that the spelling ‘programme’ was relatively unknown in Australia until the period of post war immigration. The position since then has not changed. There has been continuing support for ‘programme’ from Britain but ‘program’ has remained the official and preferred spelling in Australia in all situations and at all levels. While there would initially appear to be no disadvantage in using ‘programme’, it creates the impression of being unduly conservative. In addition, ‘program’ is now considered to be the more appropriate spelling for electronic use in Britain to the point where many consider it to be the more appropriate spelling for general use. A major matter that requires correction is that ‘program’ was introduced by U.S. use and, by inference, that it reflects lower quality standard English. This is incorrect. Although finding examples in original eighteenth and nineteenth century British material is difficult, the examples found show that that ‘program’ was initially the correct and preferred spelling in Britain. For example, the Dictionary of the English Language, Samuel Johnson and John Walker, published by William Pickering, Chancery Lane, London, 1828, lists ‘PROGRAM’ as the first spelling, followed by ‘PROGRAMMA’ (pronounced pro-gram-ma) as the second spelling. The spelling ‘programme’ was not listed. It is apparent from historical scrutiny that the spelling ‘programme’ was advocated by those who considered it to be intellectual and derived from classical Greek, a pseudo-intellectual claim that had little merit but eventually prevailed. In these unusual circumstances the spelling ‘programme’ became the accepted spelling in Britain - but only in Britain! It is obvious that ‘programme’ was a false, contrived spelling and that we should use the preferred Australian spelling ‘program’ unless quoting directly from a specific source that used the dated, artificial spelling. Garry Smith
    Proofed
    9th January 2019 at 11:06
    Hi again, Garry. Thanks for resubmitting your comment. As before, we do mention in our post that 'program' is standard in Australian English. But 'programme' is still used in British and New Zealand English (due to that spelling being favoured in the 19th century), and some Australians prefer that spelling, so we wrote this post to clarify that they are different spellings of the same word (not different words). Hope that helps.
    Odent
    14th June 2019 at 03:12
    Garry, an interesting read. The word “program” comes from Latin and Greek “programma” – meaning “public notice in writing”. It first appeared in English during the very early 1600's, and it was spelled “program” – in fact you’ll find such luminaries as Shakespeare use the form “program” but only just as he died in April 1616. The fact you find Shakespeare using "program" and not "programme" might have a lot to do with the fact it wasn’t until some time during the 1800's, well after Mr Shakespeare died, the Brits started a love affair with, of all people given their collective histories, the French so switched its spelling to “programme” to match the French but the Brits do tend to use "program" exclusively in the context of a 'computer program'. The Kiwis followed the Brits but, because the USA loved shortening words more than they loved the French, they retained “program” for everything. Officially, and because kiwis can’t fly so aren’t able to bring their weird ways to Australia, Australian modern usage style requires use of “program” for everything but there is yet another "however" and, because there are pockets of extreme anti-American feelings in Australia (heaven forbid!!), some Aussies insist on the British, or should it be French, “programme”. As for me, “program” represents fewer letters so fewer chances of making a typing mistake so I use it - I type and spell perfectly, I just have sydlexic fingers. It might also be because I have a dislike of the French which is only just a little stronger than my dislike of the USA. Allow me to go one step further though and this is an observation not a criticism. I observe use of the superfluous word 'that' in your discussion. To a large degree it is an overused word which, when deleted or better yet replaced with alternatives, makes little to no difference to the intent of the statement. In fact, if the word is ignored when reading documents, you will find the readability of the text improves greatly. Try reading your own text and ignore the word 'that' and you'll see what I mean. I now make it a matter of course when writing to try to eliminate the word entirely.
Byron David
16th July 2020 at 22:51
I work in both Information Technology and Planning so I hope that the largely British spelling of words is continued within Australia. Otherwise I will have to change how I spell words like ageing, analyse, behaviour, centre, colour, defence, dialogue, emphasise, fibre, flavour, humour, jewellery, judgement, labour, litre, moustache, paralyse, plough, pretence, theatre, travelled and most importantly programme. It could also become confusing when describing a programme program as there are significant and crucial differences between the two.




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