What's the Deal with Canadian Spelling?

by Nina Hoeschele

Published at 2013-06-27


I have a good friend who's a copy editor, just like me — except that she does it about 700 kilometres southeast of here. Or, in her estimation, about 450 miles. And therein lies a world of difference.


Usually our professions bond us. We routinely update each other with the many awful spelling mistakes that we spot out in the world. But then sometimes we encounter a strange chasm between us.


On her last visit to Toronto, my friend absently picked up a book, then shoved it into my face and pointed at a word on the back: wilful. Sure she had found another error to share, she said, "Look at this!"


Well-versed in my country's spelling, I rained on her parade: "That's a Canadian variant."


She could not have looked any less impressed. "Seriously?"


Yes, seriously. But, with three dictionaries and three stylebooks currently cluttering up my desk, I often find myself sharing her sentiment. Why does it have to be this way?


Like a nervous kid caught between trying to obey its mother and trying to be as cool as its edgier next-door neighbo(u)r, Canadian spelling occupies a strange space between American and British conventions. We're not wholly either one, yet we're informed by both.


So, how did we get this way?



Related: Worried about your spelling? Let us take care of it.



History Makes It So


The British influence on our spelling has obvious roots. At the end of the day, Canada is a British colony whose politics were long informed by the motherland, and many of our early settlers travelled from there, too, bringing colour to the centre of Canada with ... you get my point. But then what happened?


Well, according to the Government of Canada — in a neat rundown of Canadian spelling's history aptly titled "Why Is Canadian Spelling So Weird?" — it was that meddling Webster down in America who decided that English just had too many useless letters in it. And so, with the publication of Webster's Dictionary in 1828, he attempted to economize. Why colour when color makes just as much sense? Why would you have travelled when you could have just traveled? And why in god's name is there an o in foetus, Britain? What is that even about?


In many ways, this approach must have made sense to our nineteenth-century forebears. (Seriously, foetus?) On the other hand, we're nothing without our history, and there's some national pride to be had in retaining our British flavour (see what I did there?). So, judging from the hybrid state of our dictionary today, we did what Canadians are known to do.


We compromised.



Let's All Just Get Along


These days, our dictionary is peppered with British influences as well as American adaptations. We still prefer -our over -or, like colour, flavour, and so on, and we like our -re endings as in centre and theatre. (This TEC blog post from the archives gives you the fuller picture of all the ways we differ from American spelling.)


And yet it seems we adapt more and more to the influence of the good old USA. This is especially clear at TEC when we use the Canadian Press Stylebook, the guide for newspapers and magazines that is probably more concerned than most spelling style guides about being current and economical. For example, though the Canadian Oxford Dictionary holds on to British-isms like jewellery, the Canadian Press Stylebook pushes for jewelry, the sleeker American counterpart.


For another great illustration of how Canada straddles the spelling border, check out this ever-growing list of differences between Canadian, American, and British spelling compiled by an English teacher. Particularly notable in this list: sometimes there's more than one right answer for a single country — and sometimes all three countries have the same list of variants!


So how are you supposed to be correct in this minefield of spellings? Well, the best lesson we can learn here is that it's not really possible to be universally correct. You can only try to be correct for the very particular place you happen to be in.



Questions? Other spelling and grammatical issues you'd like us to investigate? Let us know in a comment, in a tweet, or on Facebook.



Learn More About Canadian Spelling


British, Canadian and American Spelling — A useful side-by-side comparison of spelling variations by country.


Canadian Versus American English: Surprising Differences — A comprehensive rundown from our blog archives.


Why Is Canadian Spelling So Weird? — The Government of Canada explains our spelling history.


Test Yourself — After teaching you all about our spelling history, the Government of Canada also offers you the chance to test your knowledge with a number of Canadian spelling quizzes.