Word Choice: Licence vs. License

Spelling is tricky enough without words like ‘licence’ and ‘license’. These terms are only one letter apart, pronounced identically, and related in meaning. So why on earth are they separate words? And what exactly is the difference?

If you’re in the USA, they’re not and there isn’t one (more on that later). But in the UK, there’s a key difference when you use these terms in writing.

Licence (Noun)

In British English, ‘licence’ (spelled with a ‘c’) is a noun and refers to a permit:

James Bond has a licence to kill.

Here, the ‘licence’ is one that allows Mr Bond to use deadly force.

You can also use ‘licence’ to describe having the freedom to do something:

Duchamp had great licence to experiment with various styles.

Including, um, toilet style?

This doesn’t refer to a paper licence, like a driving licence or a fishing licence. But it does draw upon the same idea of having permission to do something.

Whether physical or metaphorical, ‘licence’ is always a noun.

License (Verb)

‘License’ (spelled with an ‘s’), on the other hand, is a verb meaning ‘grant a licence to’:

James Bond is licensed to kill.

In this example, we use ‘licensed’ because we’re referring to an action (i.e. someone giving Mr Bond a licence to kill).

This Bond looks sad because he knows he’s a waxwork.
(Photo: Aashish Rao/wikimedia)

You can also use ‘license’ more generally to mean ‘permit’:

Sheryl felt licensed to do as she pleased.

In this case, ‘licensed’ would mean ‘free to act’, but there is no actual licence involved. This second use of ‘license’ is a little old-fashioned, so usually it refers to officially permitting something.

Licence or License?

If you remember that ‘licence’ is a noun and ‘license’ is a verb, it should be easy to avoid confusion. This distinction is the same as with ‘practice’ (a noun) and ‘practise’ (a verb).

But then there’s America. US English uses ‘license’ for both forms. And while this is simpler, it does mean that many people overlook the distinction between noun and verb in British English.

An ocean apart (literally).

Ultimately, if you’re using American English, you should always use ‘license’. But if you’re using British English, you need to distinguish between the noun and the verb. Remember:

Licence (noun) = A permit or the freedom to do something

License (verb) = Granting a licence or permitting someone to do something

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