Variant Spellings

I need some further information on my current project before I’m able to continue with the copyedit, so I actually have time to blog. :-)

Something that’s been on my mind lately is the issue of variant spellings, and how copyeditors decide which ones to allow.

First, I think a lot of people believe that all spellings given in the dictionary are equally acceptable, and that’s not really true. In order to decide whether a particular variant is favored, the first thing an author should do is look to see whether it’s joined to the main entry by or or by also. Those joined by or are considered to be equal variants, even if out of alphabetical order, in which case the first spelling is slightly more common than the second.

However, a lot of variants joined by or are favored in British or Candian English rather than American, and most American publishers want copyeditors to use American spelling. Thus, the copyeditor is going to be required to change theatre to theater, despite the fact that the dictionary considers them equal variants. The publisher may want levelled changed to leveled for the same reason.

So not even all the primary variants are really considered equal in any given situation, and then you come to the secondary variants–those joined by also. Secondary variants occur appreciably less often in the language than the primaries do. Although the current edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (the standard in the industry) notes that “secondary variants belong to standard usage and may be used according to personal inclination,” editors often feel otherwise. Some publishers require that copyeditors correct all secondary variants.

Sometimes, though, I feel an author is using a secondary variant for a very valid and particular reason, and I’ll note that variant on the style sheet as the preferred choice. For instance, if an author has a strongly Christian character uttering the word geez, I’m likely to allow that spelling over jeez as a way of further distancing the character from the original Jesus expression, which the character might never even consider saying.

So the whole issue of variants is a little more complex than it would seem at first glance, and copyeditors who change your spelling are quite likely following the publisher’s guidelines when they do so. Try not to get annoyed at them for it. :-) If you know that you intend a particular variant for some purpose, let your editor know; they’ll pass that information along to the copyeditor.

30 thoughts on “Variant Spellings”

  1. You should have seen the knock-down, drag-out fight I had at work once over the word “boccie,” which one of the reporters I work with kept insisting on spelling “bocci.” Her point was that that’s how all the old Italians up in Leominster and Fitchburg spell it, so that’s how it’s spelled. My point was that our policy is to use first spelling in the dictionary, and that’s that. Same problem with Jewish holidays — I’ve had so many reporters scream at me because of how AP spells “Hanukkah.” (And I’m not even sure offhand if that’s the right spelling. I look it up every time.)

    I don’t even have the leeway you do in fiction. This is journalism, where style is largely black and white. And yet, the fights continue.

  2. Do the preferences for variants also change over time? I don’t have examples in mind, but that’s how people tend to behave.

  3. As a first-time novel writer, I’m curious–is it usual for authors to flag words that they don’t want changed? ’cause there are a few words that I’m using whose spelling is historically correct, but one or two letters off of the contemporary spelling, and I don’t want those words to be corrected. (Putting the cart waaay before the horse, I know).

  4. The thing that leaps immediately to mind in this regard is the group of American authors who insist there is a visual distinction between grey and gray, and so insist on ‘grey’ throughout a ms that otherwise contains American spelling, or will even use the two. But most of them don’t seem to actually define that distinction, just assume that the reader is going to see grey as misty and silvery, and gray as cement and ugly sky–or the other way around. About the only similarity I’ve been able to see is that protagonists tend to have grey attributes, and bad guys gray. But that’s not always true either.

  5. Are such words altered for overseas markets when the book is published? I know that I personally have a preference for the ‘British’ style of spelling eg. colour, favour, etc. as do most Australians.

  6. It depends. Sometimes books aren’t copyedited again when published overseas, and sometimes they are. When they are, the copyeditor will usually (though not always) be expected to adhere to the spelling conventions of the new market.

  7. Yeah, I think I’ve copyedited someone who insisted on a color difference between “gray” and “grey.”

    I would be leery of making that kind of personal distinction, because my feeling is that the majority of readers who notice it are going to think it’s an inconsistency unless it’s explained. I go with what I’m asked to do, though.

  8. grey as misty and silvery, and gray as cement and ugly sky


    (I can see that being copyeditor/reader hell, though. Never thought about that before.)

  9. Variants (even if they begin as misspellings) often become more acceptable over time, just because they creep into the language more. You can find supercede in the dictionary now, and I’m not sure you could have twenty years ago. (Though oddly enough, while the current edition of my dictionary notes that it’s often considered an error, the previous edition listed it without a usage note.)

  10. Yeah, we do have more leeway. I’ve worked for editors who wanted me to use only the first spelling given in the dictionary, but I think that rule annoys authors so often that I’m glad I seldom have to use it.

  11. Also, if two variants are separated by “or” but are in reverse alphabetical order, this indicates that the first one is somewhat more prevalent than the second, but not enough to require an “also”.

  12. I said that! :-) According to Web11’s phrasing, they’re still “equal variants” then.

    I didn’t get into the variants that appear completely separate from the main entry, though….

  13. Having just gotten through proofreading a book that was a kind of battleground between copy editor and author, this is much on my mind. This was an author who wrote “resume” numerous times for the noun that means roughly “curriculum vitae.” The copyed naturally changed them all to “résumé”; then the author went through and changed most of them to “resumé” (which is in Web11 as an alternate spelling). Since the author had stetted so much stuff that he really shouldn’t have, I went with this too, of course, grumbling all the way.

    In matters of this sort, I too of course follow the editor’s instructions. I have more than once been instructed to Americanize spelling, and if that’s what I’m supposed to do, I will not leave “worshipper” or “theatre.”

    One of my mottoes has always been Wolcott Gibbs’s instructions back in the day at The New Yorker: “Try to preserve the author’s style, if he has one.” If an author has a consistent pattern of using double consonants with certain verbs and -ed, he or she has a much better chance of my preserving that style than someone who tosses such forms in inconsistently. Ditto for other British-style spellings by an American writer, or other more unusual spellings in general. If the writer actually is from Britain or the commonwealth countries, then I would probably ask for guidance.

    I certainly do have my preferences: misspellings that have become accepted over time still grate on me.

  14. I have friends down in South Australia. Not only is the spelling often changed but covers and titles can be different. Several times I have had books recommended to me and I spun my wheels trying to get a copy here until I realized that the title was different. I read an interview with JK Rowling about the differences between the US and English editions of her books. They want the books to sound English even for the American audience, so they only change words that will not be understood or have different meanings in the two places. I am in the middle of a book by someone who lives in New Zealand. The edition was edited to American English except for one word they missed in the first few pages. It amazed me how it stood out and distracted me. With technical books I don’t see much difference and I haven’t seen different editions.

  15. Yes! One thing I always pondered about was the changing of J.K. Rowling’s book title from The Philosopher’s Stone to The Sorcerer’s Stone for the US market. It quite amused me :) I must admit , being a rather insular Aussie, I do find different spelling distracting when i am reading.

  16. From a POV totally outside the industry–I like variant spellings, I think they add flavor. I especially like British spellings from British authors. They make me feel like I’m reading something British, ya know? I like “theatre” and “colour” and stuff like that. Just me, I guess . . .

  17. That was part of the discussion. If I remember correctly, the title was changed because the connotation of the word “philosopher” is different in England and the US.

  18. How do you tackle the problem of a word whose connotation makes the word a poor choice? Where do you go for a words connotation?

  19. This comment reminds me of an unusual choice of wording in Broken Angels by Richard K. Morgan. The book was originally published in the UK, but was re-typeset. I don’t know if that automatically means that it was re-copyedited or not. The thing is, they did take the trouble to change all the single quotes to double quotes like we Americans like, but they left “archaeologist” as “archaeologue,” which I presume is the British way of saying archaeologist. It seemed a very odd thing to leave in there to me, since most Americans probably never even heard that variant before.

    This doesn’t make any sense to me; why would you bother to change the *quotes* which certainly don’t matter, but leave an odd word choice like that in there?

  20. Oh, I hate that. “Gray” vs. “grey” is just American vs. English spellings, right? But it does annoy me to see American manuscripts use grey. No, I don’t know why this is, but it’s true.

    Also, correct me if I’m wrong on this one, but in American English, “toward” is always “toward” and never “towards,” correct? And in British English, the opposite is true, right? I’m not sure if the same is true of other “-ward” words, such as backward, forward, etc.

  21. You can instruct the comp to change the quotes without copyediting the book over again, which may have happened….

    But with archaeologue, I would bet that the word would have withstood copyediting anyway; it isn’t common in British usage either and adds antiquarian to the interpretation, so it sounds like a very deliberate authorial choice to me. (I haven’t read the book, but the word immediately sets my copyeditor senses tingling that way. :-))

  22. Many publishers consider towards, backwards, etc. to be British English. Those words are very common in American English, though, and I hear them all the time in the South.

  23. Yeah, when the words give a different “feel” to a book, I sometimes think it’s better to leave the British spelling; we’ve left it for the last few of China’s books, for example.

  24. He was one of the authors I was thinking about when I wrote that comment. I love those differences . . .

  25. My name is Fiona Avery and I’m a writer guilty of loving “grey” over “gray.” (Hi, Fiona!)

    But it’s because I grew up knowing Canadian / British spelling over American. To the poster who said they really hate that – I’m sorry, I’m so sorry. Don’t kill us!

    But when you hear “gray” pronounced in your mind, doesn’t it sound different compared to “grey?” Like: graaaieeeyyyy. But if you see “grey” doesn’t it feel more understated, perhaps more distinguished? So, say I’m writing a European period piece, sometimes “grey” just seems more appropriate even though I know the American dictionary says differently and I will ask if it’s all right for the editors to leave it as “grey.”

    And while I know that today I live in America, I just … I can’t do it! I can’t go “gray” … it’s a failing on my part. But there you have it. If I can help it, I try to make my manuscripts use “grey” when I can. I also know other “grey”-lovers and we meet secretly. I also love “honour” and “colour” more than our u-less varieties. And I love “theatre” over “theater” anyday. But I’d never get to put that in print over here so I don’t even ask. I just secretly practice writing those in the dark.

  26. I remember when first moving to America that I was completely frustrated with the spellchecker for a full half an hour… until I thought to look up an American dictionary. I *knew* I was spelling travelled correctly, but it kept insisting I was spelling it wrong. So many knew ways to learn to spell words. I’d known about the o – ou, and re – er differences, but not the ll – l. Learn something new everyday!

    Took me a good five years after first reading the word to realise what bangs meant the same thing as fringe.

    Language is fun!

    Thanks for the thoughts, Deanna, glad to know it’s not just us poor immigrants that have problems with the language. ;)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *