Variant spelling

The vagaries of variant spelling

posted in: English language | 0

The spelling and pronunciation differences between American English (AmEng) and British English (BritEng) are well-known and documented. From these helpful word lists to words of the famous Fred Astaire song Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off: You like to-may-toes and I like to-mah-toes. However, did you know that spelling differences exist within British English? So, what should you do when the dictionary suggests two different ways of spelling a word?

Equally acceptable

In many cases both variants are equally acceptable, leaving the writer or the editor to make the decision which spelling to use. Sometimes one version might be considered slightly more informal, and the dictionary usually gives you a clue here. For example, I witnessed the spelling of advisor versus adviser hotly debated in an online editing group recently (even in our spare time we can’t give up). The general consensus was that adviser was the preferred spelling, and this seems to be supported by OED, which states that both are correct although adviser may be less formal and advisor suggests an official position. I remember this by thinking o = official.

Tricky spellings just got trickier

Another thing to remember is one of those tricky spellings – dependant. In the context of a person who relies on another (a noun), dependant can also be spelt with an ‘ent’ ending as dependent, and OED tells us that this is just as common as the standard spelling. In British English you have a choice, in AmEng spelling, though, it is only spelt dependent. Check whether you are using the word as a noun or an adjective, because as an adjective dependent is always spelt with an ‘ent’ ending … oops, I can see your eyes glazing over at this point.

So, what to do when you’re faced with two different spellings of the same word? Well, first remember that there may be no right or wrong answer. Check the dictionary and if you’re stuck here are a few tips:

Five tips to choose the correct spelling

1. Follow the style guide you’re using – if you’re writing an article for a journal or a dissertation for submission check the style guide used by the publication or university. This may have advice on the preferred spelling of words.

2. Follow a specific dictionary or style guide – as I mentioned in this post, I generally follow the Oxford Online dictionary and the Oxford Style Guide, New Hart’s Rules, some words are also covered in my favourite Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

3. Check whether there is a specific spelling custom or usage for your particular trade or profession. For example, in BritEng the word judgement is usually spelt with an ‘e’, except when it refers to a court judgment when it has no e.

4. Not quite so helpful, but fascinating to play about with – check out the Google Books N-gram viewer that produces a graph of word usage frequency in books over any period you select between 1500 and 2008.

5. Whatever spelling you decide to use be consistent and make sure the same spelling is used throughout your text.

If you’ve got any personal preferences, like the –ise/ –ize choice then let your copy-editor or proofreader know. I usually send out a default style sheet to new clients so that we can agree any variant spelling choices at the outset. Get in touch if you’d like me to help you with your next writing project.

Variant spelling
Check the dictionary for variant spelling