Canadian, American, and British Spelling

Spelling can be an interesting subject. I like words, and grammar, and language; I like the way that in the spelling of word in Modern English, you can deduce something about its past, its evolution. (Not to mention how it should be pronounced. “Cooperate” doesn’t seem to mean “to work together”. It clearly ought to be “to henhouse-ify”, as in, “Let’s co-operate to cooperate that old shed of yours and start selling eggs.”) Spelling in Modern English used to be a lot more fluid; it has only become set in stone with the advent of mass literacy. Even then, there are variations. One of the more obvious variations is that between British and American spelling. The differences in Canadian spelling are less well known, because, well, we’re Canadian … and who cares?

Certainly not most Canadian publishers. It’s a bit peculiar, in a nation that is so narcissistically-obsessed with identity, that a quiet, easy aspect of cultural identity is routinely and deliberately discarded by those same bodies who are among the loudest to proclaim that they are Preserving Canada’s Cultural Heritage and Fighting the Good Fight for Canadian Identity and Cultural Sovereignty (suckling the while at the great teat of block grants from the Department of Heritage, which is meant to ensure we still have a publishing industry up here, among other things). Most — not all — Canadian publishers insist that their authors use American spelling.

Why? Does a book with an “e” in grey get banned at the border and turned back? Do Americans swoon at the sight of a “u” in colour? Do they, after they recover from their swoons, rush to the bookstore and demand their money back?

Er, not that anyone has noticed. Surely the CBC would have mentioned it. They could have done a documentary on the Fifth Estate, which would then have been rebroadcast on Frontline: “The Canadian Conspiracy: Undermining the American Psyche One “U” at a Time”.

So, why?

Good question. I’m really not sure. It seems a sort of cringing paranoia. “If we don’t do things Their way, They won’t like us.” Or the little sibling effect: jumping up and down, “Look, look, I’m just like you, really.” About the only place one sees Canadian spelling much is in advertisements for beer and the like, it seems.

Anyway, of the Canadian publishers I’ve had books with, half have insisted on American spelling. These were medium-large companies, fully Canadian but selling into the American market as well. (I got away with “Greyrock” but that was only because it was a placename; you might notice that in Warden of Greyrock, Korby rides a gray horse.) The ones that used Canadian spelling were all smaller presses, though one of those actually sells quite a lot of books internationally, including to the US. Now that I have a book coming out with an American publisher, I thought I’d be yet again Americanizing my spelling.

It turns out that’s not the case. Because, the truth is — and this may be shocking to Canadians — Americans don’t find their cultural sovereignty threatened by someone spelling “neighbour” a little differently than they do. My American publisher’s policy is that books set in the modern US have US spelling, ones set in the UK and India and other places using UK spelling have … gosh, UK spelling, and for secondary world fantasy … just make sure the copyeditor knows what you’re using.

Which is so simple, and sensible, and so much less hassle. This means that for Blackdog, all I have to do is make sure I didn’t switch between the US/Canadian -ize and the UK -ise partway through, because I tend to use both, or rather either, without paying much attention. I’ve been using -ise more lately, I’ve noticed. No particular reason for it. The Oxford actually prefers -ize, and generally I go by Oxford, except for Murray’s anti-axe obsession. There are good etymological reasons for -ize, I now realize, so I shall watch that drift to -ise and correct it, I think, in the current Torrie book, where it is coming to predominate. The predominance of -ise in British spelling is actually a fairly recent development, according to Wikipedia. So three cheers for cultural variety, and on with the book ….

Ah, wait. You’re saying, “Er, what is Canadian spelling?” aren’t you?

We’re not entirely certain. (Although there are Guides and Stylesheets — apparently referred to only by advertisers.) No, seriously, there is a subtle difference from both UK and US spelling standards; it is, as you’d expect, a mix of the two, going one way sometimes, t’other t’other. Thus:

colour, grey, honour, neighbour, tire, wagon, theatre, catalogue, realize, travelled, practice (noun) and practise (verb) ….

The Wikipedia article on US/UK spelling is interesting reading. There’s a separate article on Canadian English and the spelling thereof. Read them. There’s lots of food for thought on the history of the English language in them, and the history of language is a fascinating subject. Words are a precision tool, not a sledgehammer, and the more you know about ’em, the better able you’ll be to make them sit up and sing.


About K.V. Johansen

The author of Blackdog, The Leopard, The Lady, and Gods of Nabban, epic fantasies from Pyr, I also write for teens and children, including the "Torrie", "Warlocks of Talverdin", and "Cassandra Virus" series, and the "Pippin and Mabel" picture books, as well as a couple of short story collections and two works of adult literary criticism on the history of children's fantasy literature. I have a Master's degree in Mediaeval Studies, and read a lot of fantasy, science fiction, and history. Blog at
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