Which Language Do You Write?

I hadn’t realised it, but when I was skeptical, I was wrong.

Instead of skeptical, I really wanted to be sceptical. Yeah, that’s right. As a Canadian who strives for Canadian English, I should have used C instead of K. But as far as I remember, I had never spelt the word this way before. But then again, maybe I did while in school.

Sometimes the greatest influence on our English language in Nova Scotia is from the United States. It doesn’t help that some English teachers are ignorant to our Canadian spellings. We grow up hearing one spelling or another or both and by the time we’re my age we’re totally confused by the way certain words are spelt.

Personally, discovering Canadian spellings has lifted a crippling burden from my editing process. All my life I had spelt words a certain way. With pen and pencil on paper, I had no computer device to underline my words in red if spelt incorrectly. So I wrote pages upon pages of stories and journals, never doubting my spelling ability.

Along came the computer with automatic correction and red highlights and all of a sudden I couldn’t spell words such as amongst, archaeology, armour, burnt, catalogue, jewellery, offence, plough, pyjamas, sulphur, towards, yogourt and a host of others. I began to think I was a terrible speller.

I asked myself, “How could anyone who doesn’t know how to spell be a writer?”

Doubt set in. If I had been this terrible at spelling without know it, was I equally horrible at writing and be oblivious to it?

Between the help of computers and friends pointing out spelling errors, I edited my writing. More and more I depended on the advice of both because I was obviously a terrible speller.

Then one day, a curtain was drawn and I looked in to find words spelt the way I had always spelt them. They used spelt instead of spelled (which I can’t wrap my tongue around to pronounce correctly anyway), travelling instead of traveling and skilful instead of skillful. I was happy to see T instead of ED on the end of words such as burnt, spoilt, spilt, smelt, learnt and dwelt. My heart leapt with joy because this was the way I pronounced the words, so it only made sense to spell them that way. This was the spelling world I had known when I was a student in school.

The burden of being a terrible speller lifted and I began editing out the spellings preferred by the United States and editing in my old Canadian spelling. Once again, my words had wings. Each time I saw a uniquely spelt Canadian word, I smiled. I pointed to it and said, “That’s Canadian.”

Language is always changing and I’ve come to realise it’s not so important of how words are spelt, just that their meanings are clearly understood.

Would it matter if all the words in this sentence were spelt correctly: “I luv Momy beecus she reeds to me.” As long as the message is clear, it really doesn’t matter because two hundred years ago, words were spelt differently and two hundred years from now, they’ll still be spelt differently than they are today.

Personally, I like to keep connected with my roots and that includes the spellings I used as a child and those my parents and grandparents may have used. My older family members also had unique words that can’t be found in current dictionaries. I add those to my stories, too, when I can. All of this makes my writing unique and clearly Canadian.

What do you think? Do you strive to use Canadian spelling? Or British? Or do you tend to spell the way American publishers prefer to prove to them you can spell their way? Or do you use a mixture such as colour (Canadian) and center (US)? Or do you spell the way you want to and ignore the standards of any given country?

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16 thoughts on “Which Language Do You Write?

  1. Apart from personal preference, there is the intended audience to consider. And if you are a professional writer, that audience could mean your livelihood. I think of Rowlings and the Harry Potter books where “torch” in the British version was “flashlight” in the books released in the USA (there were many such alterations for specific markets). Sadly such copious international editing is not likely done for low-market writers.

    Tolerance and obvious meaning is one thing. “Smelt” is a sticky one. Smelt is a kind of fish. How is one to say that these fish were left on the kitchen counter too long? The smelt smelt; or, the smelt smelled? Context, familiarity, pickiness all come into play.

    From my American perspective, many of the spellings you mention are British.

    Punctuation is a different matter, particularly with quotes. I like the American over the British simply because the apostrophe is already used in possessives and contractions so I like the first level of quotes to be the double apostrophe and internal quotes to then be a single apostrophe. But that is merely a matter of local taste.

    In the end, one can always fall on The Rule of Common Usage. I learned that one in a rather wicked class called “Modern English Syntax”. Basically it insists that if everyone is commonly using something then it is officially part of the language and correct to use.

    YMMV. Wurd.

    • Thank you for your comments, Jim. I agree with you that it is personal preference, and as a self-published author, I do get to choose. I clearly state in the front of all my books that I use Canadian spelling. Of course, we have British roots, so many of the spellings used in the United Kingdom are used here. In the 1970s, when I first learnt how to spell, I was taught spelt, smelt, neighbourhood, colour, etc. These spellings are ingrained in my brain. They were (and still are) correct. My mother spelt that way, as did all my brothers and sisters.

      If smelly smelts was found on the counter, I would simply write the sentence to avoid the confusion, just as I would in any other case, such as “She led the way to the lead mine.” to “We followed her to the lead mine.”

      When I began using a computer, I began to think my spelling was horrible even though I had written (on paper) most of my life. What had happened to my spelling? American software. Word processing programs flagged Canadian spelling. It took me a while to realise this. Others weren’t so lucky and fell for the software that stated the proper way to spell this word was…

      Here in Nova Scotia we have learnt to be tolerant of American spelling. We have many years worth of books that ‘misspell’ harbour, neighbourhood and colour. I still enjoy them even if I see the spelling variation. And I still chuckle when someone refers to Halifax Harbour as Halifax Harbor. Mind you, I spell New York Harbor as New York Harbour. It seems to me that Canadians are always the ones bending over backwards to accommodate the spellings of the United States. We accept their alternate spellings and read their books anyway. Why can’t Americans be just as open to spelling variations? After all, words are spelt differently all over the world, from one century to the next. The English language is always evolving; there’s no need to think that something is wrong simply because it’s not done that way where you live.

      The Rule of Common Usage: In Nova Scotia we spell it harbour, colour, neighbour.

      My main audience is Canada, particular Atlantic Canada. By promoting our unique spelling I hope to hold onto something that is quickly fading because of television: our culture.

      I appreciate your comments and if I lived in the United States and was selling to my neighbours, I would spell the way they do, but I don’t live there. I live in Canada where we are proud of our colours and neighbours.

      • You’re (yur) fun. People of the United States are so self centered we call ourselves “Americans” even though there are a good number of countries in North and South America. How self-centered is that? It’s our way or the wrong way.

        Sorry to hear about Americanized dictionaries polluting other English-speaking countries. That’s just wrong.

        • I’ve heard the American discussion before; it always amuses me. I’ve often referred to myself as a North American when talking with folks overseas.

          I believe the English language is always evolving. Perhaps it is senseless to hold tight to the way it used to be because in 100 years it will be very different. I don’t blame the US for their spelling preference slipping into our everyday use; I blame OUR school system and the disregard many individuals have for their education. It is sad to know that many grade 12 graduates can’t even write an interesting paragraph without mistakes. Many don’t even know how to read cursive.

          Thanks again, Jim, for commenting.

  2. Reblogged this on Cubby's Corner and commented:
    I just wanted to share another reblog from Diane Tilbert, because as a Canadian writer, I feel it is important to share this discussion with other writers, particularly Canadian writers. It is in regards to writing in Canadian spelling versus U.S. Have a look and feel free to comment.

  3. Well I was certainly glad to come across this post. As I am going through several revisions on my first book which my editor is waiting for, I ask myself the same questions that Diane is posting about., As a Canadian my writing is done in Canadian English. Every time I come across a word that I know is spelled different in the U.S., I can’t seem to bring myself to change it to any other way. As I go into final revisions on my book I can’t help but wonder if I am going to get flack for my spelling., I have a particular love of the word ‘realize’ with a ‘z’ and I just don’t want to change it. I am wondering if once I publish my ebook, foreign readers will understand that the writing is from a Canadian author, or if they will think my book is full of spelling errors?

    • Hello Debby, I was worried like you about readers thinking I had bad spelling. This was one reason I clearly state in my books that I used Canadian spelling.

      I write for me. That might sound odd, but that’s who I write for. Yes, this is a business, but in twenty years when I sit back and read a book I published now I want to know I stood for what I believed in. It will matter to me; it won’t matter what others have thought. Fortunately, my audience is mostly in Atlantic Canada where many use the same spellings as I do or at least recognise there are two ways to spell a particular word.

      In Nova Scotia we are used to seeing alternate spellings (harbour/harbor; neighbour/neighbour). Our eyes fly over the words without skipping a beat because we have become used to seeing them written both ways. Word spellings are not written in stone. In 50 years, we will have new spellings for the same old words. Still, we can choose to use the spellings we prefer.

      The important thing is to be consistent. If you spell it ‘realise’ on page 5, don’t spell it ‘realize’ on page 15.

      Thanks for commenting, Debby, and thanks for reblogging these posts.

      • You are welcome, thanks for posting such informative information. I like to write for me, as well. It is funny though that all my life I have written with ‘ize’ as opposed to ‘ise’, yet I spell neighbor, colour, honour, etc with ‘ou’, sheesh I am a mixed breed, I hope I don’t get penalized from my editor for using cross languages. 🙂

  4. Diane, good post. I also looked at your spelling tab. It looks like Canadian spelling is identical to how I would spell words in the UK. The USA way of spelling words is creeping into the UK. I notice that many people use program instead of programme. I guess this happens because many MS Word spell checks default to US English rather than UK English.

    • US spelling is creeping into Canada, too. Not only is spell check making us looking illiterate, but many of the young teachers today spell the American way. Some have gone as far as spelling Halifax Harbour as Halifax Harbor. Perhaps it is a losing battle, but I’ll stick with dreamt over dreamed and spelt over spelled. It’s what I say after all.

      Thanks for visiting my blog.

  5. I’m at the point now where I’m not always sure what the Canadian spelling is. Personally there are words that I’m particular about, cheque, plough, are a few, and yet I realize that I spell realize with a “z” instead of an “s.” Reading your post, I also realize I would never use spelt (spelt is a grain), leapt, yet on occasion I would use burnt. Good thing I’m not making the rules. Interesting post.

    • You’re not alone, Laura. We are all in the same boat . . . er country.

      Yes, I use spelt when I’m talking about the way I’ve spelt somethig and in my bread.

      Thanks for visiting.

  6. I do try to use Canadian spelling, but sometimes it is hard to know which is correct because of the US inroads into our language. I think I must use a mixture at times.
    My question has been, do I risk rejection in the publishing world because of using my own nation’s spelling?
    Great post, Diane.

    • I believe, Lynn, that is the major problem: many Canadians are confused by the variety of spelling we see in every media that we don’t know which is which. I, too, am guilty. I have some sorted out, but I’m sure not all. It doesn’t help that our major publications and the very institutes which teach our children don’t know. How are we expected to know?

      As far as your concern of rejection when sending to publishers in United States, you’re not alone. Several writers I know have feared the same thing so opt for American spelling. I tell them the decision is up to them. The most important thing in my eye is to be consistent. If you use colour on page 3, don’t use color on page 10.

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