What do Alicia Silverstone and Jaleel White have in common? The birthday of Alicia Silverstone, best known for playing the vapid but good-hearted teenager Cher in the film Clueless, falls on October 4. Jaleel White played the infamous nerd Steve Urkel on the television series Family Matters. His birthday is November 27. How old will they be this year? They are both turning the big 4-0! But how do you spell that number? Forty or fourty?

If you look up forty at Dictionary.com, you will find five definitions. What you won’t find is a note indicating an alternate spelling. Who are these people who use fourty instead of forty? And is it an error? The answer is yes and no. If you had a time machine to take you back several centuries, fourty would be a perfectly acceptable spelling, as it was in this quote from The British Mercury Or Annals of History, Politics, Manners, Literature, Arts Etc. of the British Empire, Volume 3:

He was eminently useful to mankind in his profession, in which it may be affirmed he maintained a superiority for upwards of fourty years, during which time he devoted a part of every day to the service of the poor.

However, a lot has changed since the publication of that book. For instance, the way the lowercase S was written looks very similar to our modern-day lowercase F. Another change is that the U in fourty fell out of favor, and the spelling of other words evolved and standardized. Notice this example from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales:

He was, I trowe, a twenty winter old,
And I was fourty, if I shal seye sooth;
But yet I hadde alwey a coltes tooth.
Gat-tothed I was, and that bicam me weel;

As you can see, the language has changed quite a bit since 1478, the year of the publication of The Canterbury Tales. Now, the only acceptable spelling is forty. If you see fourty today, it’s either a mistake or an intentional attempt to seem dated. In Totowa, New Jersey, a company that specializes in vintage couture and dolls capitalized on the old-timey spelling by naming their estate sale business Fourty Fifty Sixty. A Vienna-based company called Sail Support Service has fourty among other typos in their legal terms and conditions:

In the event that the vessel is not available for Charterer by 11am on the first day of charter periode, this agreement shall be pro rated for the period of the delay at a rate of 40 (fourty) Euro by every full hour starting from 11am that day ending by 6pm that day.

Here’s a tip:

  • The number 40 is spelled forty.
  • Should you spell it out? Check your style guide!
  • AP style is to spell out whole numbers between 0 and 9. (That means you should write 40 rather than forty, unless the number is the first word of a sentence.)
  • Chicago style is to spell out whole numbers between zero and one hundred, but it does allow for an “alternate” system of spelling out only zero through nine. Whichever method you choose, be consistent.
  • MLA style is to spell out numbers that can be written in one or two words (i.e., forty) and to use numerals for other numbers.
  • Most style guides recommend using numerals with percentages (i.e., 40 percent).

In Clueless, Alicia Silverstone’s character, Cher, proves that there are many things she needs to learn. For instance, people from Haiti are Haitians, not Hait-i-ans. And Jaleel White’s character, Steve Urkel, is a gifted student, but he’s lacking in tact. But despite playing naive souls, these two actors have never publicly misspelled forty. What about you? Are you turning forty this year? Have you always spelled forty correctly? In either case, you can tell your friends that you have something in common with these two talented actors!

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