Orthography: accepted standards for writing a language and spelling words
As English evolved from its Germanic roots over centuries of development, it spread across the globe to become the most-spoken (or the third-most-spoken) language in the world—depending on whom you ask. As the language traveled from continent to continent, however, spellings (and sometimes meanings) began to diverge from their roots, changing the orthography for their dialects.
This isn’t surprising when you realize that standardized spelling didn’t begin until the English writer Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. Noah Webster followed with An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. The two camps have been hopelessly divided by their common language ever since. Today, England and her Commonwealth countries (e.g., Australia, Canada, New Zealand) tend to follow standard British spelling, which is based on Dr. Johnson’s dictionary, although each has incorporated some deviations. None, however, have strayed as far as the Americans, whose spelling was permanently changed by Webster.
Alternative Spelling Examples
Let’s look at some examples of this linguistic divide below. The American standard is on the right.
—ence / —ense
licence, pretence / license, pretense
—re / —er
centre, theatre / center, theater
—lled / —led
channelled, travelled / channeled, traveled
Ligatures vs single vowels
aeroplane, orthopaedic / airplane, orthopedic
—ogue / —og
analogue, catalogue / analog, catalog
—se / —ze
analyse, organise / analyze, organize
There are also spelling variations that don’t follow a pattern. Once again, the American spelling is on the right.
- cheque / check
- grey / gray
- liquorice / licorice
- sceptic / skeptic
- tyre / tire
How can you know which is correct?
Whenever you have a question about spelling, check the dictionary. Like many publications, TCK’s standard is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition. We also use Merriam-Webster.com, an updated and expanded online version of the eleventh edition.
You’ll notice that Webster’s often lists alternate spellings of a single word as acceptable. The first one is the preferred format. If you wanted to know whether “channeled” or “channelled” was correct, you’d choose the former, since it’s listed first.
In other cases, Webster’s indicates that one version of the different spelling choices is clearly more accepted than another.
Note: This article presumes you’re writing for an American audience. For British, Canadian, and other Commonwealth readers, consult a dictionary from that country.
Please share your thoughts or ask a question in the comment section below.
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