Spelling: Fluidity and Style

As an editor, spelling variations and mistakes are an everyday occurrence. It’s part of the life of an editor to make sure that everything is standardised as much as possible and that a document is legible and in the correct format. We can toggle between American English, Canadian English and British English… all with their own nuances and preferences.

As a writer, sometimes I break hard and fast rules but more often than not standardised spelling is adhered to (see… standardised, I hate the z’s in words like these, but standardised with an s is what I prefer, not standardized, so that’s what I will use).

As an historian though, I often smile at spelling conventions and those who are quick to point out mistakes (and yes, sometimes I do point out mistakes when not working, although more often I inwardly cringe and try to get past it). Even the last sentence will have some people cringing… you see “an historian” is now seen as old fashioned (as are double quotation marks).

old fashioned dictionary page

One thing my genealogy work has taught me is that spelling is an evolving beast. From the old French and Latin, through Old and Middle English to the times of the printing press and mass marketed books, the written word has been in constant flux. During the transition from Old to Middle English it even looks as though language was different the further away from London you got… the provinces were slower to change than the bustling metropolis and language flowed like a wave through the country.

Early printed books were full of what we would see as errors – printers being paid per line and paper being expensive contributed to misspellings and omissions. Printers from the Continent helped to confuse things further, and by the C16th spelling was less important than being understood. Those who were literate managed to get away with spelling words how they thought they should be written, and names were rarely spelled the same way twice. Often on the same page you will find words spelt in a variety of ways (see what I did there?). It makes genealogy work so much fun, trying to prove that Mr Peterson was also Mr Petresen, Mr Peyterson and Mr Peiyttersonn.

(Oh, and when you glimpse Ye Olde Black Bull on the pub sign you are seeing what was once a shorthand system, commonly used, being misinterpreted down the centuries. The Y sign was shorthand for Th… Ye should be The. The Old Black Bull).

Shakespeare's first folio

It wasn’t until the 1700s that spelling started to be standardised, Johnson’s dictionary of 1755 being perhaps the most famous early attempt to standardise the English language. But although things were getting better even throughout the C19th spelling was often fluid.

By the C20th spelling seems to have settled down but now, with the evolution of text speak and fast and furious fingers on a keyboard, spelling seems to be in flux once again. A lot of it is unintentional – we live in an age where life is lived at a quick pace and attention spans are small.

As an historian I accept that nothing lasts forever and changes will happen.

As a writer I stand firm that if I know the accepted basics I can change language as I feel.

But as an editor I understand the need for style sheets and ground rules. If you intend to produce your writing for mass consumption a style sheet will allow you (and your editor should you choose to use one) to stick by certain conventions and stay consistent. If you use American English, your style sheet will highlight this and make sure your spelling follows suit. If you prefer to standardize words rather than standardise them, well your style sheet will show you that too. When you start off writing make yourself a second document and, as you work, decide on which spellings you prefer to use and this will help you stick to them. Should you find yourself 30,000 words into your novel and can’t remember which variation you decided on, a quick look will confirm things for you. It will also help with the tone of your piece… I write on my blog mainly as I talk, with idiosyncrasies and all, but if I were to be more formal the fluidity would change, as would my voice. Put all this into your style sheet and you will make life so much easier for yourself.

A style sheet can:

  • Be a constant reminder of how you decide to write, whether it is for one document or a large number.
  • Help you remember which spellings you prefer throughout your work.
  • Help you remember format (spaces before and after words, abbreviations, margins etc.).
  • Be used throughout a company, allowing all employee documents to maintain consistency.
  • Save you money – if you hire an editor or proofreader a ready made style sheet can speed up the final processes, meaning you could pay less.

There’s a lot more to a style sheet, but if you create a simple one for yourself it can be an invaluable tool for your writing. Of course, if you do not have the time to create one for yourself or your business, I or another editor, can help you. Just contact me and we can talk.

And if you are preparing for NaNoWriMo, get your ideas on paper now, write out a character sheet as well as a style sheet… and good luck!

5 Comments on “Spelling: Fluidity and Style

  1. Really interesting! It astounds me that BBC books use Americanized (see what I did there?!) English *snorts*

    • lol!

      There is very likely to be a BBC style sheet out there in internetland. But the z’s have moved over and are used over here now though. I’m just a dinosaur who likes the s’s

      • But surely a dinosaur would prefer -ize (where there’s an option) on the grounds that it’s the older form. When I first started editing, Hart’s Rules was in use (first published 1904) and my 1978 edition (38th) was clear: “Use -ize in preference to -ise as a verbal ending in cases where both spellings are in use.” p85

        Realize, for example, can be dated back to 1611, but realise only put in an appearance in 1755.

        Useful blog post: http://blog.oxforddictionaries.com/2011/03/ize-or-ise/

      • True! When I was at school/Uni the British variant was -ise, now either seem to be appropriate as long as you are consistent. The ODWE now uses -ize as the standard variant, although it is acknowledged that -ise is the standard form used in British English.

        Personally I love these types of words as they show how spelling can change, then change again, and again.

        BTW…don’t you love the Oxford dictionaries blog! 🙂

      • Absolutely, love it – but have to ration it. Could spend all day there and similar places. A shame that work keeps intruding.

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