Alternate Spellings and Heart-Stopping Moments

by Beth McAuley

Published at 2011-06-24

Every editor’s nightmare is this: finding a spelling error in the printed publication of the manuscript you just edited after the fact. It is devastating. Finding an error at this point in the process can undermine your self-worth to the nth degree.
I know this is an occupational hazard: missing things. I know we need to "step away from the book” at some point and accept the inevitable flaws that will appear. But even now, after years of experience, when I spot a misspelling that I overlooked, I find it hard to take.
Well, this happened to me just last week. I spotted a spelling error in a finished manuscript that had already gone back to the project editor and was already at the printer’s.
I was looking for a specific author’s name in the publication. I read the title of her essay and saw the error: "descendents”—as in offspring, those that come after. It was being used as a noun … wait a minute, I thought to myself, shouldn’t this be descendants?
My heart stopped for a nano-second. I was mortified. How could I have not seen this?!
Just about then the editor of the project sent an email. She had spotted an error, too. Had she spotted the same error?
I read her email anxiously. It wasn’t the same error but it was the same word. Somehow, during typesetting, the “n” had been dropped from the descendent in the chapter title. What could she do?
I had a crisis of conscience. Should I admit to her now that the spelling of descendent was wrong, which would make it two errors we had to contend with?
Before I made any admissions of guilt, I did what I should have done at the copyediting stage: I checked a dictionary.
First I checked The Concise Oxford and The Canadian Oxford. Both gave clear choices: descendent is the adjective; descendant is the noun.
Then I sought solace from Merriam-Webster’s. It told me that, yes, descendant is the noun, but it can also be descendent. And vice versa, the adjective can be descendant or descendent.
An alternate spelling! Yes, an American alternate, but it was a valid choice nonetheless. And it was spelled consistently throughout the essay in question. So, as long as it was consistent, and as long as it wasn’t totally wrong, I could live with it.
I have no excuse for not catching this except to say that our spelling continues to embrace both American and British styles. So while it is not the “preferred” Canadian spelling of descendent as a noun, it is, I believe, a widely used spelling. Because when I read it, I didn’t register it as being wrong. This is perhaps why I had not stopped to check it.
So, yes, I felt better. And, yes, it has reminded me to pay closer attention to those deceptive alternates.
As I breathed a sigh of relief, I sent a message to the project editor with some ideas on how to replace the missing “n.”