The Unorthodox Website Blog

Spelling

03 Jun

This is the first blog I’ve done on this subject, but regular readers in the UK will probably have noticed I use what is often considered as ‘American’ spelling. It is true that many of the spellings I use are more common in the USA, but I actually pick and choose how I spell words from the many variations permitted in the English language as spoken in the USA, UK, etc..

There are some instances where I use the spellings either more commonly used in the UK, or which were once commonly used in the UK. Examples of the former are: skilful, enrolment, instalment, fullfil as opposed to the US versions: skillful, enrollment, installment, fulfill. Examples of the latter (no longer commonly used in UK and virtually unknown in USA): connexion, reflexion.

There are some spellings commonly used in the USA which have gone out of fashion in the UK, and I always use these. Examples: -ize and -ized  instead of -ise/-ised as in organize/organized. These -ize/-ized suffixes are preferred by the Oxford English Dictionary, and commonly used in certain British broadsheet newspapers.

However there are many spellings thought of in UK as being entirely American which were not only commonly used in the UK in former times and now rarely are, but are actually preferred by the Oxford English Dictionary and Fowler’s Modern English Usage (also published by the Oxford University Press).

Fowler’s Modern English Usage  points out, for instance, that there are far more words even in the UK ending in -or than in the British -our suffix, and that the latter doesn’t serve any useful purpose, other than distinguishing the spellings from those used in America.

In past times spellings like labor were commonly used in Britain and this form also shows the Latin root of such words. Fowler’s also points out that -our suffixes are even in UK gradually being replaced by -or as witnessed by the now defunct spellings like governour.

Fowler’s also points out that the Oxford English Dictionary denies any value to the quaint British -our suffix in words like honour, odour, favour, glamour, etc. The fact that even in Britain many of these words drop the superfluous ‘u’ in their longer forms just proves how inconsistent our spelling is. Examples: deodorant, coloration, colorific, honorary, honorific, glamorous, glamorize/glamorise.

Two more categories where spellings are commonly different in USA and UK are the -er/-re endings of words like center/centre, theatre/theater and the double or single l  in words like traveling/travelling, traveler/travelling. With the former, I prefer the more phonetic spelling common in the USA, and as regards adding an l to words like travel, this serves no useful purpose and, in fact, suggests the accented syllable is the second one rather than the first, which of course is incorrect.

Another category of words spelt differently on either side of the Atlantic are the -og/ogue suffixes of words like analog/analogue, catalog/catalogue, monolog/monologue. Needless to say I always use the shorter and more phonetic spelling.

Another word on its own spelt differently in USA and UK is analyze/analyse. Again I use the more phonetic spelling more common in USA.

There are many words which are usually spelt differently in USA and UK which don’t fall into these main categories, some examples being: check/cheque, aluminum/aluminium, furor/furore, sulfur/sulphur, gray/grey. Some of these have different pronunciations in the two countries. Where the pronunciation is the same, I use the version more common in the USA if it is more phonetic. The argument that it is useful to see the distinction between check as in the pattern and cheque as in an order for payment falls down when you realize such a distinction cannot be made in speech, but we fully understand which word is being used by the context.

There are also a host of other words where shorter or more phonetic spellings are commonly used in the USA but are almost unknown in UK and which have come about in America since Noah Webster’s time by usage in stores, newspapers, etc. These include spellings such as sox and cigaret instead of socks and cigarette. I have also adopted these shorter spellings.

In short I believe in this age of the Internet when international variations in the spelling of English have become more widespread, we should have the widest choice in how we spell words. My guide would be the Official Scrabble Dictionary which includes all accepted spellings for proper words, though discounting abbreviations like za for pizza. Similarly short forms adopted in first Telex and now Texting language should not be used in more formal English: therefore forms such as c u soon or gr8 for see you soon/great are not acceptable in books, letters and official/semi-official documents.

As to spelling reform in the future, to go too far would make existing books unreadable. George Bernard Shaw, a strong advocate of spelling reform, proposed an entirely new alphabet to make English phonetic, which seems rather extreme. However modest reforms can be made gradually, and to avoid the controversy sparked by some suggestions I made in a previous article on spelling reform (on my old Unorthodox Website, click on the link above left and check the article if you’re interested) I won’t propose any new spellings here.

If it’s a proper word, the pronunciation is the same and it is in the Official Scrabble Dictionary and commonly used on computers and on the Internet, I would say any such spelling is acceptable for most written use of English. The only exception would be in very formal documents where unofficial spellings commonly used in USA such as sox/cigaret are not acceptable even in America.

  1. Nick Cobban posted the following on June 21, 2011 at 7:10 pm.

    I kind of sympathise with the thrust of your argument Tony, but as a bit of a pedant I think I will stick with UK spelling. It’s something that still sets us apart from our American cousins after all!

    Reply to Nick Cobban
  2. Tony posted the following on June 22, 2011 at 12:00 am.

    You’ve got it, Nick, that’s what I was arguing, that spelling is a matter of free choice. You can choose spellings more common in UK, I can choose many spellings more common in USA and certain other countries (Philippines for instance). Neither of us is wrong, and teachers should refrain from telling pupils spellings in English dictionaries around the world are incorrect and shouldn’t be used. It’s a matter of free choice.

    Reply to Tony
  3. Tony Papard posted the following on October 16, 2011 at 11:41 am.

    JH wrote, commenting on the article: The British Don’t Know How To Spell on my old website, The Unorthodox Website (see link above).

    Doesn’t your comment above of ‘All spellings used anywhere in the English-speaking world are valid spellings as far as I’m concerned’ completely undermine your entire argument in this article, particularly its title?

    And you regularly mention the Australian Labor Party; this name change (from the ‘Labour Party’) came about around one hundred years ago, but this was largely symptomatic of a lack of standardised spelling. In fact, contrary to your article, Australia has gone the other way since; as late at the late 1990s, the Australian newspaper ‘The Age’ abandoned American spellings in favour of British ones. This is indicative of a wider trend in the country.

    Finally, you seem to be under the misbelief that Britain just invented the -our endings sometime in the last few hundred years. In fact, they existed a long time side-by-side with -or endings as there was no standardised spelling. So, you could read one Shakespeare play and see ‘labor’, but then again read another and see ‘labour’.

    Also, the American Declaration of Independence has ‘honour’ in the draft, and ‘honor’ in the final version. These differences would not have been noticed by the authors, they’d have just spelt it as they fancied that day as either was valid. In the same declaration, ‘defence’ is the spelling used in the final version, despite America’s having adopted ‘defense’ since it was written.

    Which is the main point; these spelling differences existed side-by-side for hundreds of years (though in many cases, such as the -re in ‘centre’ or the ‘-ue in ‘catalogue’, there was only that one, ‘British’ version) until they were standardised in Johnson’s dictionary of 1755; spellings that Americans adopted also.

    So your argument that US spellings are correct and British ones are not is based on a misunderstanding. Until Webster arbitrarily changed words he did not like the spelling of, such as centre, or dialogue, they would have been unheard of. This is probably why the majority of your argument rests on -or endings, since they are the spellings that existed side-by-side for the longest. However, the British standardised them first, and went for -our. It’s a Romance language development, from the French -eur. If the Latin version you favour is right, why should the French be wrong? They’re neither of them English! Signed: JH

    Reply to Tony Papard
  4. Tony Papard posted the following on October 16, 2011 at 11:43 am.

    The articles on my old website are now so old, and for some reason I can’t seem to now update or add to them, so I’ve put JH’s comment and my reply below on this website/blog. Tony

    Just to clarify, I believe, especially in this age of the Internet, that all spellings used in the English-speaking world should be regarded as being correct. True this contradicts the title of my original article above, or does it? If schoolchildren and others are consistently told spellings thought of as American are wrong, then it rather proves the point that ‘the British don’t know how to spell’ doesn’t it? Because to know ‘how to spell’ surely you need to know all variations, and people should not be told certain spellings are wrong if they are legitimate ones in the English language. So all you say above just support this notion that in all English-speaking countries there has at various times been a variety of spellings, and I believe this should continue. the Official Scrabble Dictionary has all variations, and with the exception of unofficial abbreviations like ‘za’ for ‘pizza’, I think all proper words with various spellings in the English-speaking world should be listed in all dictionaries so people have a choice, and they should not be told certain spellings are wrong because they are thought of as ‘American’ or ‘British’

    Reply to Tony Papard

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