Saturday, July 13, 2024

Sweetpotato or sweet potato? Here’s why N.C. group says one word is right

The North Carolina Sweetpotato Commission wants some help in teaching the rest of the world how to spell its sweet-tasting root vegetable. Specifically it says “sweetpotato” is one word and not two, no matter how many dictionaries and writing guide books, including The Associated Press Stylebook, insist differently. 

“Grammatically, when it is two words, ‘sweet’ becomes an adjective describing a noun ‘potato’ – not a specific species of plant/vegetable. Other examples that support this logic and are single words would be eggplant and sweetgrass to name a few,” says Michelle Grainger, executive director of the Benson-based N.C. Sweetpotato Commission, in an email exchange.

This debate especially matters in the Tar Heel state, says Grainger. Since 1971, North Carolina has been the top sweetpotato producer in the nation, now responsible for about two-thirds of all sweetpotato grown nationwide, she says. The value of North Carolina’s sweetpotato crop was $391.9 million in 2021, up 17% from $332 million in 2020, but down 1% from 2019, according to The Packer, a trade publication that has yet to adapt to the one-word form of sweetpotato.

Sweet potatoes
About 88,000 acres of land in North Carolina grew sweetpotato in 2022, according to N.C. State University.

In 2019, the N.C. Sweetpotato Commission lobbied the state legislature to make sweetpotato one word. The bill passed and Gov. Roy Cooper signed it – even though my computer spell check puts a squiggly red line underneath sweetpotato, indicating its utter lack of knowledge.

The Sweetpotato Commission even started an online petition in 2022 at to help correct the spelling to one word. The group is now within 102 signatures of its 1,500 goal. Feel strongly about this? You can help out the cause by clicking here and signing the petition.

Other arguments from the N.C. Sweetpotato Commission:

  • The one-word spelling has been in place since 1989 within research/scientific circles.
  • A sweetpotato is not a potato nor is it a yam, the latter being seemingly more offensive.
  • Sweepotatoes are part of the morning glory plant family and a white (Irish) potato is part of the nightshade plant family – so genetically they are only distantly related
  • Nutritionally, they are entirely different. Most give the nod to the sweetpotato as being more healthy and the potato has a lot of unhealthy preparations – think french fry.
  • Sweetpotato is a root vegetable, potato is considered a tuber.

The sweetpotato is primarily grown on the coastal plain of eastern North Carolina. Here are the top 10 sweetpotato-producing counties in North Carolina: Johnston, Nash, Edgecombe, Sampson, Wilson, Columbus, Cumberland, Greene, Wayne, and Wake. Sampson, Johnston, Wilson and Nash account for about half of the state’s supply.

Getting journalists – and maybe English teachers – to turn their back on writing guides will be no easy task.

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