Conflicted spellings

Of all the writ­ten com­ments I have received on papers through­out my years of post-sec­ondary edu­ca­tion, one of my very favorites is from my col­lege lin­guis­tics course. The pro­fes­sor, a priest from Eng­land, had cir­cled a word — behav­iour — and drawn a line to the mar­gin, where he had penned: “What’s this British spelling lurk­ing here?”

It was not a grade issue, and he nev­er fol­lowed up with his con­cern or curios­i­ty. As it hap­pened, it was the only notice I received in my four years at a mid­west­ern Catholic uni­ver­si­ty that my care­ful eschew­al of stan­dard Amer­i­can Eng­lish in favor of British spelling had caught the eye of any of my pro­fes­sors. And I was pre­ten­tious enough at that point that, even had a pro­fes­sor tak­en issue with it, I would prob­a­bly have polite­ly heard their con­cern, then car­ried on with my affec­ta­tion unchecked.

But why was I con­scious­ly — and con­sci­en­tious­ly — employ­ing British Eng­lish? Well, a lot of fac­tors led me to it. It is cer­tain­ly no secret that my favorite author (then and now) was a Eng­lish­man; Tolkien’s work was prob­a­bly my first expo­sure to British Eng­lish. Per­haps as a result, I devel­oped a keen attrac­tion to the -our and -ise end­ings that stood out to me as the defin­ing dif­fer­ences between the two con­ven­tions. Lat­er in my teens, when my urge to rebel­lion would take the form of a dis­dain for all things Amer­i­can, from pop­u­lar rep­re­sen­ta­tive gov­ern­ment to any lit­er­a­ture penned on these shores, my lit­er­ary diet was drawn sole­ly from authors from across the pond.

I was thrilled to be able to afford, with a sig­nif­i­cant por­tion of the gift mon­ey from my high school grad­u­a­tion, a brand-new copy of the two-vol­ume New Short­er Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary to take off to col­lege with me (although I was try­ing to get used to say­ing that I was “going to uni­ver­si­ty”). It was a deli­cious trea­sure of words, and also includ­ed an unex­pect­ed­ly-help­ful fea­ture: it clear­ly marked the vari­ant US spellings with a damn­ing aster­isk, so I could eas­i­ly spot them and steer well clear. 

When I acquired my first com­put­er, the most impor­tant set­ting for each appli­ca­tion was switch­ing the spelling options to “UK Eng­lish” wher­ev­er pos­si­ble. My osten­ta­tious Anglophil­ia also expand­ed to include time and date con­ven­tions, as well (e.g. 15 May 1999 and 1.17a). I sus­tained all this elab­o­rate counter-cul­tur­al affec­ta­tion through­out four years of col­lege and well beyond. The print issues of The Float­ing Egg are thor­ough­ly British in their spelling, and so was the web ver­sion for a con­sid­er­able time, as a perusal through the archives on this site will confirm.

It was in the first part of 2008, as I was urgent­ly prepar­ing a con­densed ver­sion of my mem­oir project for sub­mis­sion to a com­pe­ti­tion, that it occurred to me that now, per­haps, it was time to con­sid­er return­ing to Amer­i­can spelling. It was a bit of a wrench, but it made sense to do so at least for the con­test draft. In the months that fol­lowed, I con­tin­ued to use the spellings which came most nat­u­ral­ly to me — those offi­cial­ly cur­rent in the UK — but they increas­ing­ly felt less com­fort­able on the page in front of me, forced, con­trived. By the time I start­ed my MFA work­shop in Jan­u­ary of 2009, I made a firm deci­sion: I was going to be an Amer­i­can writer, and that was going to mean writ­ing in Amer­i­can Eng­lish. I was­n’t a pre­ten­tious twen­ty-some­thing twit any­more. I want­ed to use my pre­cious ener­gy craft­ing true words of my own, not wor­ry­ing over keep­ing two dif­fer­ent spelling tra­di­tions cur­rent and dis­tinct in my head. It was lib­er­at­ing to let go of that long-stand­ing habit, and to embrace a new sim­plic­i­ty in my writing.

But then I moved to Cana­da. While noth­ing offi­cial has been said to me on this point, my nat­ur­al impulse is, per­verse­ly, not to stick to my new­ly-acquired Amer­i­can spelling, but to switch every­thing over to Cana­di­an Eng­lish. This is a tricky project, since the divid­ing line is much less clear than the British con­ven­tions I had spent so long cul­ti­vat­ing. At first glance things look British here, too. But it seems that prox­im­i­ty to the US, or per­haps a cer­tain fron­tier weari­ness, has erod­ed the dis­tinct­ly British char­ac­ter of the lan­guage. My old friends -our and -ise are much in evi­dence, but I have yet to encounter tyre or cen­tre.

And so I am more con­fused than ever before. I find myself reflex­ive­ly typ­ing grey and realise again. My thought­ful inten­tion to re-Amer­i­can­ize my usage still stands in my mind as the gen­uine and authen­tic course for me. Yet like a hero­in addict, the old habit comes back far more eas­i­ly than it was shak­en off, and with a new and greater inten­si­ty. The oth­er day I had a strong urge to start using the spelling con­nex­ion, which strikes Amer­i­can eyes as sub-lit­er­ate, some­thing we would expect to see in a text mes­sage or a teen’s Face­book sta­tus, but not in prop­er writ­ing. Shar­ing in this instinct, I had pre­vi­ous­ly resist­ed adopt­ing the -xion end­ing (reflex­ion is anoth­er exam­ple) even in my most pre­ten­tious pro­sa­ic dis­plays. Now, I do not what will become of me.


  1. Thanks the author for arti­cle. The main thing do not for­get about users, and con­tin­ue in the same spirit.

  2. The sub­ject is ful­ly clear but why does the text lack clar­i­ty? But in gen­er­al your blog is great.

  3. Oh, you spam­mers crack me the heck up. I stripped out your URLs, but your delight­ful­ly sub-gram­mat­i­cal attempt at sin­cer­i­ty made my day.

  4. A lit­tle triv­ia chal­lenge for fans: the date and time used as the exam­ple in the fifth para­graph are sig­nif­i­cant. Can any­one guess why?

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