Tag Archives: spelling

Global English?

This article originally appeared on the blog of ACES: The Society for Editing.

English is not one language and never has been. Even Old English had different dialects. Global English is a family of varieties, mostly mutually comprehensible but loaded with traps and surprises. And even when you can easily understand English from another part of the world, you will most likely recognize that it’s from somewhere you aren’t… and you’ll eventually get confused by something.

All of that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but some people seem to think it’s possible to produce a neutral, non-regional, truly global English. I will grant that it’s possible to produce an English that seems at least slightly foreign to anyone anywhere – the famous “mid-Atlantic” English you hear in some movies is a spoken version – but it is not possible to produce a variety of English that is taken as unremarkably local by every English speaker everywhere. There are several reasons for this.


The most obvious difference is in pronunciation. Get someone from Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, someone from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and someone from Newcastle upon Tyne, England, to have a pleasant chat and see if they can understand each other at all. 

Pronunciation is less of an issue when dealing with the written word – you probably won’t have a person from Buffalo writing “hot” and a person from Toronto thinking it’s “hat,” as you may when it’s spoken. But text is, in fundamental ways, a representation of the spoken word, and it often relies on reference to the spoken word. 

Not just jokes but advertisements and catchphrases rely on rhymes and wordplays that are particular to just some varieties of English – “caught” and “court” sounding the same, or “quarter” and “border” rhyming for instance. These differences also help ensure the impossibility of English spelling reform: you can’t make a phonetic spelling of one variety of English that won’t be incomprehensible to users of many other varieties.


Not that English spelling is the same everywhere of course. Canadians are used to American-style spellings but can be very patriotic about colour and centre in some contexts; if a Canadian book expects a largely American audience, however, you can count on those Canadian spellings to alienate them. And on the other hand, if you just go with British-style spellings in Canada, you’ll soon realise it doesn’t always suit. And there are more striking differences, such as gaol versus jail, oestrogen versus estrogen, and arse versus ass – though that last case is arguably a difference of which word is used, not just which spelling.

Same thing, different word

There are many, many things that have different names in different countries. It’s well known that British cars have boots and bonnets instead of trunks and hoods and that a British lorry is an American truck (of a specific kind); it’s generally famous that what Americans call a barbecue Australians call a barbie. Fewer people will know that South Africans call the same thing a braai, or that instead of saying bro or buddy they say boet (which sounds like “boot”) – while in India, they say yaar.

For that matter, there are regional differences even in America, some of them quite celebrated. Is a Pepsi a pop, a soda, or a Coke (used in defiance of trademarks)? Do children on playgrounds ride see-saws or teeter-totters? Such regional differences – which don’t always divide on the same lines – are what linguists call isoglosses, and maps showing the isoglosses are some of linguists’ favorite things.

Same word, different thing

Americans occasionally run up against the fact that pants and fanny mean less publicly acceptable things in British English, and Americans are likely to know that in England and Australia mate refers to a friend rather than a romantic partner.

They’re less likely to know that hotel can mean a restaurant in India; that South Africans call a traffic light a robot; that in India you don’t graduate, you pass out; that tea can be a full meal in England; that a torchlight in Nigeria is a torch in England and a flashlight in the US; that I understand you in the US is I hear you in Nigeria; or that South Africans say shame when they are shown a cute baby or told of happy news such as an engagement.

Americans may not even know what someone from a different part of the US means by boulevard (a grassy strip between sidewalk and street or a wide avenue with a green strip in the middle?).

Turns of phrase

The lexical differences also extend to idiomatic turns of phrase. Where an American might write Main Street on Friday is different from a suburb on the weekend, a Brit would have The High Street on Friday is different to a suburb at the weekend.

A person from England might say I’ll knock you up to mean I’ll drop by and might tell you to keep your chin up by saying Keep your pecker up, but if the hearer is from North America, the results could be… awkward.

Some differences are points of pride: New Yorkers make waiting on line rather than waiting in line a kind of local shibboleth, and for New Zealanders, a phrase like Kiwi as (as in This food is Kiwi as) is, well, as Kiwi as… as what? They expect you to fill in the blank.

Grammatical niceties

There is also the matter of things that are correct usage in one variety but terrible errors in another. I dreamed I dove into a lake may be fine in the US, but I dreamt I dived into a lake is necessary in England. I casted my vote yesterday is terrible in some countries but absolutely correct in Nigeria. I’ll call you when I reach is normal in India rather than I’ll call you when I arrive.

Cultural references

Words and grammar aren’t the only things that vary from place to place though. English-speaking culture is obviously far from uniform, and some baseline assumptions just don’t work the moment you cross a border. Food is different, and passing references can quickly be opaque: not everywhere has food trucks or pretzel carts or chaiwallahs; not everyone can order poutine or grinders or bangers.

And while any Canadian will know what another Canadian means by toque and parka, most other people in the world won’t.

Americanizing and Canadianizing texts is a large and expensive business, and the spellings are the least of the issue. I remember one time a Canadian colleague working on a converted document discovered a number of instances of underprovinciald in a document; it turned out that someone had done a replace-all from state to provincial without checking. But when a guide to a health care topic starts talking about insurance, no amount of word replacement will fix the disparity between the US and Canada – or, really, between the US and anywhere else.

Houses and other buildings can be different, including what’s called the first floor (ground floor in the US and Canada, the floor above ground in most of the rest of the world).

There are also regional differences. In Canada, for instance, if you talk about a condo in Ontario, you probably mean a high-rise apartment; in Alberta, a condo is more likely to mean a townhouse, possibly a vacation property. What you mean by the word bungalow can vary quite a bit depending on where you are in the US. And in some cities, a duplex is typically side-by-side residences with one common wall, while in others, it’s a house with one residence on the upper level and the other on the lower – meaning that a reference to the people in the other half banging on the wall may be confusing.

Global varieties

How many kinds of English are there? Hmm, get a book of paint colors from a hardware store and tell me how many kinds of white, or blue, or black there are. Get another book and count again. English has national standard varieties, regional varieties within countries, local variants, socially divided varieties (often people from the same social group in different cities will sound more like each other than like people from other social groups in their respective cities). 

And don’t forget that the status of English is not the same in every country where it’s spoken – it’s the historical main language in some, the language of a colonizing class in others, and a lingua franca in still others. 

But in every country where texts are published in English, someone needs to make sure that that English doesn’t seem strange. And that someone may be you. The one thing you can be sure of is that while one variety of English may be comprehensible to speakers of another, it may alienate them – and may give rise to significant misunderstandings.

No exceptions?

Do I see a hand in the back? …Yes? …Labels on boxes? And short warnings and things like that? Yes, it’s true that you can produce some short passages that look local to anyone anywhere. But that’s not a global variety of English; it’s a snippet, and many other similar snippets will not seem so universal. 

It’s like going up to a rail ticket office in a European country and knowing enough of the local language to buy a ticket without their noticing that you’re not a native speaker: it doesn’t mean you’re fluent. You couldn’t carry on a conversation without being smoked out. You sure couldn’t write an article – let alone a book – that would be smoothly idiomatic. 

The same is true with using English from one part of the world in another part of the world. Oh, they’ll understand you, probably. But they’ll know you’re not from there, and there will be extra friction and effort in the communication and comprehension. You may not realise it, but the little differences to what you’re expecting colour your reception. And editing means understanding, appreciating, and working with these subtleties.

In effect, localizing English is like translating from one language into another, just subtler. You should only localize into a variety you have native fluency in – if you try to adapt a text into the English of a country you’re not from, you will eventually make an embarrassing mistake. But you also need to know the variety you’re converting from well enough to understand the local points of usage and cultural assumptions, so you don’t think a Canadian’s toque is a chef’s hat, don’t believe that a South African at a robot is watching an android, or don’t get what the big deal is about jumping out a first-floor window.

Which, in my view, seems like an excellent excuse to do some international traveling… when you can.

Are accented characters über-cool or passé?

My latest article for The Week is on accented characters, like ü and é. They’re not officially part of English spelling, but they just don’t go away. And in spite of some people’s uncoöperativeness, I don’t think they’re going to go away, either.

In the future, will the English language be full of accented characters?


English spelling is a mess because people are greedy, lazy snobs

The BBC has commissioned another article from me, and it’s just gone live today. It’s on BBC.com:

How the English language became such a mess

(It’s specifically about spelling, but the headline doesn’t say so.)

I’m told that people in Britain don’t have access to this BBC site because it’s intended for international audiences! But I’ve also been told that if you view it through Google Translate (tell it to translate from, I don’t know, Chinese or Russian or something like that; it will just show you the English as though it’s being quoted by Chinese or Russians), it will let you see it even if you’re in Britain.

Proof that English spelling is an evil trap

My latest article for The Week looks at 10 words that are further evidence of the malicious character of English spelling. They look like they should be easy to pronounce, and many of us pronounce them as they look… but they’re really supposed to be pronounced quite differently:

10 words we’ve forgotten how to pronounce


What’s wrong with “anyways,” anyway?

One word that gets some people in a lather is anyways with an s. It’s illogical! Senseless! Illiterate! Etc. But none of them ever seem to bother looking up its origins and history. So, for those who want to know, I’ve given the details in my latest article for TheWeek.com:

In defense of ‘anyways’



To say or spell indict
or, even worse, indictment
could lead to much excictment
but not so much insict…
If spelling’s your delict,
you know that dereliction
could lead to interdiction
if you don’t keep it tict.
If out loud you indite,
pay close heed to the diction
lest you pronounce a fiction
due to an eye-tongue fict.
But if you will recict
and wrict as indicated,
you will be vindicated –
not derelict but delict.
Pay heed to my invict
and you’ll be an invictus,
your face a grinning rictus
because you did it rict.

Ah, isn’t English spelling a treasure? Sure, like a treasure-hunt in a sandbox – one that’s in current use as a kitty litter box.

But actually the offending nuggets are not so fresh. Most of the worst booby-traps in English orthography came about during and after the English Renaissance (i.e., the time of Shakespeare and thereafter), when various scholars felt that English words that were descended from Latin ought to wear their fine ancestry on their sleeves. (See “What’s up with English spelling?”) The idea that spelling should simply reflect sound was too plebeian; orthography offers such a panoply of finery, why not come out in full dress, unburdened by quotidian chores? 太好了! 你學吧!

So we had a word endyte or endite coming from Old French enditer, which in turn came from Latin in plus dictare ‘say, declare’, and the scholarly pedants of the time felt that it should therefore claim its nobility and sit on the page as indict. The same fellows gave us the o in people (because of Latin populum) and the b in debt (because of Latin debitum).

I do not think we owe a det of gratitude to these peple. I would rather see them indicted.

But not indited. You see, the unaltered spelling indite also persisted, with a slightly different sense: ‘dictate; enjoin; compose; put in words; recite’. It’s a word of literature now, and a rather high-toned precious one. Meanwhile, indict is a word known to the basest members of society. Oh, the irony.

Thanks to Iva Cheung for reminding me that I wanted to taste this one.

Of ilands, dets, and spelling reforms

My latest article for TheWeek.com is on English spelling reform – a few people who have tried it, some who succeeded, some who failed, some who succeeded but should have failed:

6 quests to fix English’s messed-up spelling

English isn’t the only language with messed-up spelling

Today: my latest article for TheWeek.com, on other languages with weird spelling, and how they get that way.

English spelling is terrible. Other languages are worse.

Many languages use an alphabet borrowed from a different language. It’s like building a dining room set using an IKEA kit for a dresser.

One little correction, a typo I spotted too late: in the Irish Gaelic, shuiamhneas should be shuaimhneas. Of course.

Hyphe-nation? Hyphen-ation?

Several years ago I was working on a newsletter that had French and English versions. Our client contact spoke English but was a native Francophone. She complained that the hyphenation in the English was wrong.

Now, I was laying this newsletter out in InDesign, using its automatic hyphenation. It has a thorough hyphenation dictionary. I am a very, very fluent native Anglophone. I knew the hyphenation was right. But she was quite certain that it was not.

What did she think was wrong with it? Well, you see, it’s this: not everyone who speaks English realizes it, but we, like the French and speakers of many other languages, will as a habit say a consonant at the beginning of a syllable rather than at the end of the previous one if we can. For instance, we actually say the word breaking as [bɹe kɪŋ] (like “bray king”). Of course, there are some consonant pairs we won’t put together at the start of a syllable; we don’t say “da-mnation,” for example. Now, as it happens, in French, hyphenation occurs between syllables as they are actually said. By this rule, you would hyphenate at brea-king. That’s what she wanted

Does that look a little off? Would you say it should be break-ing? You’d be right.

In English, we have two different ways of hyphenating. In the British style, we aim to break at morpheme boundaries. What that means is that if a word is made up of a root and some prefixes and/or suffixes, you break at the boundary between the parts. So when you have break plus ing you break between them. And when you have hyphen plus ation you break it as hyphen-ation even though you actually say it like hyphe-nation.

We break those two words the same by the American system, but for a different reason. There is another very important fact in English that affects not just how we hyphenate words but how we read them and think of them generally. When you read a word, the quality of the vowel can be affected by the consonants, if any, that come after it – so we break at bus-ing rather than bu-sing – and the quality of a consonant can be affected by the vowels or consonants that come after it, so we will hyphenate Angli-cism rather than Anglic-ism because that c would look like a [k] sound. The American approach aims to make sure that when you read the first part of a word before the line break, you don’t have to rethink it once you see the second part. So it has to look as though it sounds like it actually does sound.

We just don’t write words exactly as they sound. English spelling is so perverse as to be almost ideographic at times. We have to recognize whole syllables or even whole morphemes, like break and breaking (as opposed to bread and breading, for instance – you only know what the vowel sound is when you see the letter after it). This results in some further traditions that couldn’t possibly make any sense from a strictly phonetic perspective.

Take a word like hotter. We actually say it with the /t/ at the beginning of the second syllable. But we have to think of the first syllable as ending with a consonant. If we spelled it as hoter, that would mean the syllables were ho ter, and that would make the o into a “long” o. So we write it with a double t to make it clear that the first syllable is a closed syllable, meaning its vowel is “short” – even though the syllable isn’t actually closed when you say it. It’s how you think you’re saying it that matters. Welcome to the wonderful world of phonemics!

But we also don’t break it as hott-er. As everyone learns in elementary school, we split it between the double letters: hot-ter. Never mind that there is no second [t] sound; that extra t isn’t part of the first syllable. But it’s not that we always break up consonant letters when the second one is unspoken: it’s dumb-er and smack-ing, not dum-ber (which could read as though you say the [b]) and smac-king.

There’s actually a little more to all this even than what I’ve already said. A favourite “gotcha!” in intro linguistics courses is to ask students where the syllable break is in Christmas. Now, we know right away that we don’t actually say a [t] in there. But we also know it’s a compound with a clearly identifiable first part, Christ, and we know that we would never start a syllable with [stm], so not only would we always hyphenate it as Christ-mas, it just makes sense that we must actually be breaking the syllable right before the [m]. Otherwise the i might stand for a different sound, as it would in an open syllable.

But nope! Gotcha, says the professor: the real break is [krɪ sməs] – that is, “Chri-s’mas.”

Except… Try this. Shout “Clover!” emphasizing each syllable, as though to a person hard of hearing and some distance away or in a noisy club. You hear what you do: “Clo! Ver!” OK, now try “Christmas!”

Is it “Chris! Mas!” or is it “Chri! Smas!”? Or is it more like “Chri! ss, Mas!”? Your results may vary, but for at least some people the [s] will fall squarely in the middle, a phenomenon called ambisyllabicity – something not all linguists agree exists. Try some other words such as breaking and dumber and hotter and see where you put the consonant in the middle. The natural tendency is for it to attach to the following syllable, but we think of it as part of the previous syllable, and it affects how we pronounce the word too, so it may not entirely let go of the previous syllable.

In English, we just don’t read one letter at a time. We just can’t! Consider the effect of breaking according to when we actually start saying the next syllable, separating vowels or consonants from the consonants that affect them:









and so on.

How did I resolve the issue with the newsletter? I just turned off hyphenation, which made the right edge of the text more ragged (don’t do it if you have full-justified text, especially in narrow columns) but quite readable and not susceptible to imposition of inappropriate hyphenation standards.

What’s up with English spelling?

Presented at the 30th annual Editors’ Association of Canada conference, Toronto, June 6, 2009

Handout: Why is it spelled that way? A ghotiun expedition (PDF, 156 KB)

Last week, the annual Scripps Spelling Bee was held. Everyone was so impressed at how smart these kids were, at how they could spell all these words.

Remember that song, A-B-C, easy as 1-2-3…? So what the heck is so easy about ABC, at least in English? It gets to be like a bad marriage. Or a boxing match. Continue reading