Anyone trying to learn English will agree that it is a more challenging language to master than they first imagined. In fact, many argue that English is one of the most difficult languages to learn, particularly if your native language has little in common with the English language.
Native Chinese speakers, for example, might find it more challenging to learn English than, say, German native speakers as the English language is closely related to German and the languages share many common features. The same cannot be said for any Chinese dialect.
Some English language students complain about strange forms of pronunciation, incoherent and inconsistent grammatical rules, words that sound the same but have alternative definitions, and words that are spelled the same but which have unusual meanings determined only by the context in which they appear.
Of course, they have a point; learning English certainly does throw up some challenges. Indeed, even English teachers struggle at times to explain the many complexities, contradictions and exceptions to the rules.
Today, let’s take a look at just one such English usage conundrum: understanding the difference between the words enquiry and inquiry.
First, I will give you an explanation as to the basic differences between these two words, with simple examples of proper usage. Then I will offer further, more advanced, considerations for deciding which variant to use.
The Simple Difference Between the Word Enquiry and Inquiry
Essentially, enquiry and inquiry have the same meaning – they both mean to request information about something or to carry out a formal investigation. The main difference lies between their common usage in British English and American English.
The British tend to use the word enquiry for ordinary requests for information and the word inquiry for formal investigations.
Examples ~ (Typically) British English:
- There has been a dramatic increase in enquiries (people requesting information) about Mandarin Chinese programs at Q Language lately.
- A judicial inquiry (a formal investigation) has been launched into whether Hong Kong’s Education Secretary and other officials have interfered in the academic freedom of a teacher training institute. (Example taken from this article.)
Conversely, many American English speakers would find the use of the ‘e‘ or ‘enquiry‘ variant strange or even view it as a misspelling. Indeed, most American English dictionaries list enquiry as a chiefly British variant of inquiry and it is rare to see it in written form in American English. I believe it would be safe to say that American English uses inquiry for both requests for information and formal investigations.
Examples – (Typically) American English:
- I currently live in New York but will be coming to Hong Kong for for 3 months from the beginning of June, 2013. I would like to inquire about your Intensive English Courses this summer.
- There is to be a public inquiry into the killing of former Russian spy.
In American English, you can’t go wrong to ignore enquiry completely and just use inquiry. Remember, though, if you do see enquiry written anywhere, it is NOT incorrect – it is just likely written by a person educated within the British system or on behalf of a company with distinctly British influences.
Ultimately, it really does not matter which form you use as long as you use the word correctly, and the same form consistently. Even when used in the American form, a British reader will know exactly what is meant, and vice versa. That said, do bear in mind your audience.
Further Considerations When Deciding to use Inquiry or Enquiry
When you are trying to decide which form of the word to use you should first ask yourself to whom or for whom you are writing.
If you are writing to a chiefly American audience then you would be better of sticking to the inquiry variant and ignoring the enquiry variant completely.
On the other hand, if you are writing to a chiefly British audience you should perhaps adhere to the commonly recognised and widely accepted variants (enquiry for requests for information and inquiry for formal investigation.)
Note, too, that if you are writing on behalf of a company, say, a press release, an advertisement, or even an email, it is always worth enquiring about the preferred common usage of certain ‘confusing’ words such as inquiry and enquiry.
Some organisations (even British ones) might actually prefer you to use just the inquiry variant. For example, The Guardian and The Telegraph, both respected British newspapers, request that their writers use inquiry. For example, The Telegraph writes in their style book:
Why have a house style? We need one to provide conformity not just in our newspapers but on our website, and to ensure that we are all speaking the same language.
And for inquire and enquire they state:
inquire/enquire: our style is inquire, inquiry.
Smaller British organisations, on the other hand, might prefer it if you stick to what is commonly accepted and widely used for a British audience – again, an enquiry for requesting information and an inquiry when talking about formal investigations.
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the differences between the word enquiry and inquiry, as well as their proper use.
Finally, try to remember that knowing every single nuance of the English language is nice but certainly not necessary. Your main focus, particularly for low to upper-intermediate learners, should be on fluency, staying motivated and, most of all, enjoying the learning process.
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