One of the things that makes English such a great language is how versatile it is.
As an example, it’s possible to turn many nouns or verbs into adjectives by adding a -y on the end.
Things get complicated when the word ends in an “e,” though. As an example of which, people often ask if “cringey” or “cringy” is correct.
Let’s find out!
Is “cringy” or “cringey” the correct spelling?
Technically, when you form adjectives by adding a “y” to the end of a noun or verb, you are supposed to drop the “e” at the end of the word. However, perhaps because “cring” looks like it should be pronounced “king,” this word is more frequently spelled as “cringey,” and “cringey” is the version most commonly listed in dictionaries.
The final verdict is that both spellings are acceptable, although “cringey” is less likely to get flagged as misspelled in formal writing like a school paper.
Rules for turning words into adjectives
One way to turn English words into adjectives is to append a “y” to the end of them.
Is there ice on the path? The path can be icy.
Is the pond hard to see through? Let’s turn “murk” into “murky”!
And so on.
As seen from our first example here, the rule for words that end in “e” is that you drop the “e” before you add the “y.”
That means “ice” becomes “icy,” and, at least in theory, “cringe” becomes “cringy.”
The reality, though, is not that simple.
Why “cringy” looks wrong
The problem with English is that the same combination of letters can make different sounds in different contexts.
That means, although “cringy” is technically the way you turn “cringe” into an adjective, some people will say it just doesn’t look right.
When spoken, for instance, “ing” is usually pronounced like the end of the word “king.” It’s the “e” in “cringe” that changes its sound, so when some people see “cringy” they think it’s wrong.
After all, if someone clings too much you’d call them “clingy,” (cling-ee) right?
Of course, there are also counter-examples like stingy (pronounced stinn-jee) AND dingy (din-jee).
All the same, the spelling “cringey” is the one most commonly included in dictionaries as the head word (or “main” spelling), with “cringy” delegated to an alternate spelling.
Usage and descriptivism
Contrary to popular belief, the job of a dictionary is actually not to list a “correct” spelling, but rather to describe actual usage.
Dictionaries shouldn’t be used to prove arguments about “proper” language use. Instead, they are descriptive tools.
In linguistics, descriptivism is the word used for an approach to language that is based in how people actually use it in real life.
The alternative, where people try to tell you what “should” be done, is prescriptivism.
In other words, dictionaries are closer to reflections of what people actually say than they are to explanations of “correct” spelling and grammar.
This also, more or less, means that it doesn’t matter what’s “correct” so much as it matters what people are used to seeing and using.
The tool that linguists use to determine usage over time is called an n-gram.
The technical details aren’t important here, but basically an n-gram is just a chart showing how many times a word was recorded in writing in a specific year for a certain set of texts.
Google Books has a nifty n-gram tool that uses all of Google Books (that’s a lot of words, with a large portion of published books included from 1800 to today), and we can compare the n-grams for cringy and cringey there to see which is more widely used.
Cringy does well enough, with a decent bulge of use in the mid-1800s and a smaller uptick post-2000.
The n-gram for cringey, though, shows that this spelling enjoys considerably more popularity.
In fact, “cringey” is more than 2 times more likely to be used than “cringy,” at least in all the writing that’s recorded in Google Books.
It’s not quite a total K.O., but at least according to dictionaries and the Google Books n-gram, “cringey” is the winner of this fight.”
That said, remember that these are descriptive tools. They don’t really exist to force people to use a specific, supposedly “correct” spelling.
That means that if you are used to “cringy” and think “cringey” looks really strange, you can suit yourself and keep using it.
Just don’t be surprised if you’re told it’s misspelled by your e-including friends.
(Interestingly, my browser’s spell-checker doesn’t think either is a correctly-spelled word!)
Cringe-worthy: A less cringey (or cringy) alternative
If you hate the fact that there’s no right answer here, don’t give up hope.
The next time you need to say something’s embarrassing or awkward, why not try the word “cringe-worthy” instead?
It means exactly the same thing, but has the benefit of not ending in a “y,” so you don’t need to worry about whether “cringey” or “cringy” is the correct spelling.
Hey fellow Linguaholics! It’s me, Marcel. I am the proud owner of linguaholic.com. Languages have always been my passion and I have studied Linguistics, Computational Linguistics and Sinology at the University of Zurich. It is my utmost pleasure to share with all of you guys what I know about languages and linguistics in general.