15 Ways English Spelling Is Trying to Hurt You

Admit it: English spelling is evil and wants you to suffer.

It’s not just that the rules are weird and capricious and there’s an exception to everything. That’s the inevitable fallout of centuries of what linguists call “language contact” and most other people call “invasions and trading.” But if it were just that, you could learn or look up all the words and be sure you’re getting them right. No, English also has multiple ways of spelling some words, guaranteeing you will always have a chance of getting them wrong. And if you’re an editor, you know that’s an important detail in your job.

It’s especially bad for editors with clients from several countries: you need to know which spelling system to favour (or favor) and you need to say focused (or focussed). But even if you’re entirely in one country, you don’t get off the hook: some words have more than one way they can be spelled, and you’re expected to think that’s okay (or OK) and just be consistent—and not miss anything.

We all know in our bones that it’s deliberate. This Frankenstein’s monster of a language has gotten up off the lab table and wants to revenge. Here are the top fifteen ways it’s hoping to trip you up and send you straight to… heck.

1. The Theater of Combat

A classic America-versus-everyone-else difference is er versus re: center/centre, fiber/fibre, and so on. And unless you’re straddling both sides of the Atlantic—or are Canadian, which is a similar predicament—you know which side of the divide to stay on (and you know that timber and timbre are two different things). But there’s an exception: the theatre. Or the theater. While theater is considered the “American” spelling, there are many theatres in the US that spell it that way, and theatre scholars and artists, even in the US, often prefer the spelling theatre. You’re not going to win this one. You just have to keep track.

2. No Rest for the Weary Traveller

Combating the caprices of English spelling all day long can be exhausting. Wait, is that combatting? Come on, stay focussed. No, focused. Ah, the wickedness of English spelling is unequalled, except for when it’s unequaled. The rules for whether to double a consonant before -ing, -er, or -ed are at least mostly consistent for those who have benefited (never benefitted) from learning American and British rules, but it can still take some time to distill them and instill a sense of them… or is that distil and instil? Oh dear, you can’t go by the before-a-suffix rules with those ones… how very unfulfilling.

3. Plough Through

It can get rough to tough it out as you go through enough of this stough—ugh, that’s stuff. The weird ough of English ought to be banned, but aside from a controversial attempt with donut (you may have strong feelings about alloughing—cough, coff, sorry, allowing—that spelling), just about the only place it’s been done away with successfully, and only in American style, is plow. Even bough won’t be bowed. Just occasionally, though, you can speed by on a thruway.

4. Do I “OU”?

One of the great points of national pride in spelling differences is the presence or absence of the u in words such as colo(u)r, flavo(u)r, neighbo(u)r, and so on: Americans proudly drop it, Canadians proudly retain it, and Brits (and others) proudly act offended at the very existence of the u-less versions… with certain exceptions, such as squalor and stupor, which are evidently too undignified to qualify for that fancy u. And on the other hand, even Americans keep the fancy u in glamour… but both sides also agree it’s not glamourous, just glamorous.

5. Surprise!

Another common point of difference is the question of s or z in words such as analyze (analyse) and criticize (criticize). For the most part, American spelling goes with z and British spelling goes with s, but—contrary to the -our trend—Canadian spelling as a rule goes with z in these ones. But, as you may have surmized—no, surmised—there are places you are well advized—no, advised—not to compromize—no, compromise—lest you surprize your readers and advertize your lapses.

6. Get with the Programme

Let’s say you’re in a theatre—or perhaps a theater—and you get a booklet that says what the play is and who’s in it. Is that a program? Surely it’s a programme, right? A program is software! Just like a racket is noise but a racquet is a thing you hit balls with, or like catalog is something you do but a catalogue is a nice-looking glossy full-color publication you get in the mail… or are those all just distinctions you made up? Well, what does the style sheet say? And do your reflexes catch every deviation from it? You can’t make an omelette (um, omelet?) without breaking a few eggs, but be careful how you maneuver (manoeuvre?) around these French-style extra letters.

7. Aesthetic Preferences

Some of these choices—theatre or theater, catalogue or catalog—seem to be matters of aesthetic preference. But what if they’re not? What if they’re matters of esthetic preference? You’re probably used to the fancier aesthetic spelling with the a. But if your client or your house style goes with the plainer esthetic spelling, even if it’s not to your taste, you may have to enforce it. Are you up to it? How about anesthetic in place of anaesthetic? Or some other silent partners to e, such as that o in amoeba (ameba)? Will you be running to your encyclopedia (encyclopaedia)?

8. Take the Mike

Some divides are generational. At a certain point in the 1990s, the short form of microphone slid over from mike to mic, and not everyone noticed at first. If you were around back when everyone agreed it was mike, you may find this vexing, especially when someone’s talking about miking a singer or instrument—they can’t seriously want you to put micing? Or mic-ing? How unpleasant. But if you put mike when your readers expect mic, well, don’t be surprised if someone does a mic drop on you.

9. Are You Okay?

Let’s say you’re going with the most absolutely phonetic (or, as the case may be, most absolutely old-style) version of everything: theater, catalog, program, esthetic… is everything going to be OK? No, everything’s going to be okay. No, wait! What? OK, pretty much everyone agrees that the original version is OK (or O.K. with periods), but the spelled-out version okay has gotten a toehold, and not without reason. Among other things, it’s more phonetic—but is that enough to kayo (KO?) the old version?

10. What You Can “C”

You may find yourself playing defence. No, defense. You may find yourself needing to exercise licence. No, license. But somehow you have to keep in practice. Wait, should that be practise? If you’re in the US, only one of each of those c/s pairs is usually considered correct, but it’s not the same one for every one. If you’re in Canada, on the other hand, for once the rule is easy to follow: if you can see it, it has a “c”—in other words, the noun is with c, the verb with s. But if your clients prefer the American version of one or more, can you “c” which should be where?

11. Have a Shot of Whisky

Some of the worst traps are the ones where you’re up against nerds… especially when they’re nerds who drink. Consider this: you probably know that Johnnie Walker and Jim Beam are both whiskey. Well, if you do, you’re wrong: Johnnie Walker is whisky, no e. Yes, one of the acmes of beverage alcohol geekery is the little detail that when it’s from Scotland or Canada (or Japan), it’s whisky, while when it’s from Ireland or America it’s whiskey. (And when it’s from any of several other countries? You’d better check the bottle.) You’re going to need to keep a close eye on this one—and you’re best doing it stone cold sober.

12. Acknowledgment of Judgment

Some choices are treated by some style guides and clients as obvious, a matter of course, as though you shouldn’t need to make any judgements about them. Well, here’s an acknowledgement that you do. In fact, while the silent e in words such as acknowledgement and judgement might seem like unnecessary baggage, without the e, why would the g be pronounced “j”? And some of your authors may feel the same. They may even waver on the subject… and you’ll need to exercise your editorial judgment.

13. S or no S?

You’ve made it through all these traps and you’re heading towards safety. You think you’re almost there, anyways. Besides, what’s the worst that can happen? Well, we know, don’t we? You can be working on a book where the author has used towards four times out of five and toward the other time, and your house style says they should all be toward, but did you catch them all? Really? Or is there a towards lurking in there that is going to provoke a nasty note from someone? And how about an anyways… could that make everything go backwards?

14. The Opossum in Your Pyjamas

Some traps don’t even follow any sort of pattern. They just present two different versions, and it’s up to you to make inquiries—or enquiries—as to which to use this time. Did you pick up a flier about moustache wax, or a flyer about mustache wax? Is an opossum eating sherbert in your pyjamas, or is a possum eating sherbet in your pajamas? Some of these more or less follow the British/American divide, but for others you have to decide what spelling will better fit the ambiance (or ambience) of the text.

15. Imposter Syndrome

This can all leave the beleaguered editor feeling like an impostor, wishing for an adaptor to plug in or at least a reliable advisor. Or it can leave the beleaguered editor feeling like an imposter, wishing for an adapter or an adviser. Yes, you can—and should—put it all in your style sheet so you know which decision you’ve made. But when you’re used to multiple spellings as being allowable, and perhaps different projects using different spellings, can you really trust your reflexes? Can you be sure of spotting all the instances you need to fix? It’s not like spotting obvious errours (see, that jumped out at you, didn’t it?).

If hunting for mixed spellings in documents is a regular part of your editing life, you could consider using software that excels in doing just this kind of mechanical check, so you can focus your brain power in other directions. PerfectIt, for example, lets you know whether a word is spelled more than one way in your document (if, for instance, you have adviser in some places and advisor in others). It also checks words that have international spelling differences and lets you know if it finds spellings that are inconsistent with the standard preferred spelling of the country you’ve set. It is up to you to decide what to do for each instance. But it serves as a great backup for everything your tired eyes might have missed.

You can test out this feature on a document you’re working on by downloading the 14-day free trial.


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