Be sk(c)eptical about Canadian spelling

Canadians never really know which way to go when practising that murky art of American or British usage

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Dana WilsonIt is hard not to be skeptical when spelling in Canada. Our spellings are coloured by our Commonwealth heritage and Canadians are in the unenviable position of never really knowing which way to go when practising that murky art: American or British usage?

One has to admire the sheer efficiency of American spelling; they do not haemorrhage letters all over the place just to be true to the historical antecedents and usages of a bygone era. They spell things the way they sound and if some of the romance colouring the language is lost, then so be it. It does eliminate a lot of confusion.

At least their poor brains are never bruised wondering whether a word is spelled British-style, or is this one of those times a poor Canadian has to use the American spelling? It is hard to practise writing with this terrible orthographical sword of Damocles hanging over your head ready to deliver a cut keener than the most hard-nosed editor’s to your immortal prose.

And the promised deliverance, The Canadian Oxford English Dictionary, is no great help (I am baffled by the fact I purchased two). It mocks you with listings spelled both ways and opts out of the discussion by adding ‘variant’ to the listing without the definition. I tell you what COED, how about making up your mind? Possibly only listing the preferred spelling and relegating all those confusing variants to an appendix leaving only the sanctioned spellings to look up – Canadians everywhere will thank you.

And, forgive this digression, what about word-processing programs? Every one has Canadian English that you can select in preferences, supposedly to use in checking your document, but every time a poor writer uses the actual Canadian spelling, he or she is bedevilled by a squiggly line mocking their efforts and making them question their proficiency and sanity and wondering if that ancient win in that spelling bee of yore was a fluke. It colours one’s perspective; it colors one confused . . .

It makes Canadians very skeptical about spelling – yes, that is the listing in the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary; sceptical is listed as a variant. Here’s the thing, however, in this instance I prefer the variant. I like the history attached to the British spelling, the first usage documented in that lovely, lovely book: the Oxford English Dictionary.

I like the feeling of historicity, chumming around with the towering titans of our immortal language – finding out why we spell things the way we do, is it a Latin derivative or Anglo-Saxon, does it come from the French or from Norse? – efficiency and logic be damned.

Though, bizarrely enough, Canadian (and British) English does have some efficiencies. I like ‘practise’ as a verb and ‘practice’ as a noun. That differentiation makes sense to me; you might say it’s practical.

Is it worth the confusion and head scratching those Canadian communicators have to go through? I think it is a blessing disguised as a proctological nuisance. Canadians are constantly in the position (at least Canadian editors are) of having to look words up to make sure they are getting the idiomatic spellings correct – making them more invested in their prose and clear in their communication – and that can never be a bad thing.

Take one thing away from this little exposition on the joys of spelling in Canada: be very, very skeptical that you got it right – always look the word up if unsure – and then spell it like the variant if you absolutely prefer it and you think it adds a little colour to your prose. Skeptical examination of your work will never go awry . . .

Dana Wilson is an Edmonton-based freelance writer and poet.


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One Response to "Be sk(c)eptical about Canadian spelling"

  1. SticklerEditing   January 28, 2018 at 1:14 pm

    Great column Dana!
    I also really like the distinction of using “practise” as a verb and “practice” as a noun.
    In any case, I’ve always found it comical that the very words used to describe what we do (editing) are also quite contestable: copyeditor, copy editor; copyediting, copy editing. These always have me double-checking all over the place…

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