We should adopt US spelling

A COUPLE of weeks ago I was saved by a sub-editor from committing an egregious error of history in this column.

No, I am not going to tell you what it was. We scribes get enough ribbing when errors get into print without owning up to the saved ones.

Sub-editors have a difficult job. They have to attend to minor as well as major things. The human mind does not like doing that: being both architect and builder, both financial planner and book-keeper. Usually people are good at the minutia and poor at the big picture or vice versa.

Worse, the sub-editor works to vicious deadlines. So many try to attend to the big picture and the minutia at the same time. Not many brains are good that that. They are likely to seize immediately upon a split infinitive or an errant homophones, but they might miss the obvious defamation, illogicality or error of obvious fact.

As it happens, university classes start next week and one of the courses I teach contains a lot of instruction in editing. I tell students that sub-editors should first read the article with their hands off the keyboard – to read for sense, logicality, taste, legality, completeness and newsworthiness and leave spelling, grammar and style for the second trawl through.

But often sub-editors cannot help themselves. Their fingers itch to fix style points, which should be the least of their worries.

Style is where you have a choice of two spellings or words, neither of which is wrong. Do you write “neighbour” or “neighbor”? Do you write “analyse” or “analyze”? Do you use honorifics like Mr? Do you write “the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Stephen Smith, announced” or do you write “Foreign Minister Stephen Smith announced”?

In a way, these options do not matter a fig, provided your publication is consistent. But I am not sure even about the need for consistency in style in the internet age.

“Heresy,” I hear the purists say.

These days people read material sourced from the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and elsewhere without the slightest jar being caused by different spellings. I even saw on The Age website an article with the word “favor” in the headline and two articles down the word appeared again, but spelt (or should that be “spelled”?) “favour”.

Do readers care? In some decades of journalism I cannot recall a complaint about spelling style, other than, perhaps, the occasional one about “license” or “practise” as nouns. But why spell the noun with a “c” and the verb with an “s” other than to make life unnecessarily difficult or to prove you are a smarty pants.

I used to rile against American spellings, condemning them as part of the MacDonaldsisation (or should that be McDonaldization) of the world. No longer. Most of the American spellings are more phonetic and logical than the English ones. “Center, meter and theater” are more logical than “centre, metre and theatre”. We don’t say “cent-re” or “theat-re” so why spell it like that?

In the past few years, I have relented on my opposition to American spellings because of my experience with the University of Canberra School of Journalism’s online newspaper, www.nowuc.com.au. It comprises news and feature articles by second- and third-year students, to give them a feel for the real thing.

We have a style guide – very similar to most broadsheet and ABC style guides – which dictates English and Australian spellings. But nearly all the students use Word and its spell-checker. Many students do not select British English. Indeed, most universities do not allow students to change options in programs, so they can’t.

Moreover, outside computers often have auto-corrects on them, so that if you type “analyse” it auto-corrects it to “analyze”.

I found myself spending a lot of time “correcting” “-or” to “-our” and “-er” to “-re”. Surely, teaching time could be better spent.

I abandoned “correcting” American spellings.

I suggest Australian newspapers do the same thing. They use a lot of US-sourced material full of American spellings. They will never adopt our spellings; we should adopt theirs. Newspapers are under a lot of pressure, so why waste resources on changing American spellings when a one-off edict to all their local writers will give them consistency with a lot less work.

This would be an easier spelling reform (and it is a reform – for the better) than trying to standardise vowels or getting rid of “ough” and “ph” spellings, for example.

Another reason for adopting American spellings is because they are the purer form. Samuel Johnson’s 1755 dictionary set the “-our” and “-re” spellings. Johnson’s dictionary became the standard more for superiority of its definitions and etymology than its spellings. Webster in the US kept the more logical phonetic spellings.

The American “jewelry”, “draft” and “pajamas” and cutting the “-ue” from catalogue and analogue all make more sense.

A further reason is that these days youngsters learning to read and write are exposed to more American-sourced material than a generation ago. If they see different spellings it might make then think that spelling does not matter, or worse that language standards like grammar and punctuation do not matter.

English spelling is hard enough without adding this unnecessary confusion.

But if we adopt American spelling there is no need to adopt some of their ghastly back formations. “Expiry date” is better than “expiration date”. “Transport” is better than “transportation”.

Other style points (where you can choose between two equally correct alternatives) are more important – using simple rather than pompous words. “Begin” is better than “commence”, “before” better than “prior to”, and “help” better than “assist”. Drowning people do not cry “Assist me. Assist me.” because “Help” is more effective.

In general, words of old English origin, like “help”, “begin” and “before”, are better than later Latin- and Greek-sourced words. That the old-English-sourced word for sexual intercourse is more direct and expressive illustrates the point, but this will have to be an exception to the principle in a family newspaper.

And that shows how editing time is better spent on taste than spelling. And better spent on saving writers from egregious history errors.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times on 6 February 2010.

16 thoughts on “We should adopt US spelling”

  1. The U.S.A. should adopt EVERYONE ELSE’s spelling and logical date order.

    I completely disagree with the title of Mr Hull’s article. The exact opposite should be done. The United States of America should revert to standard spelling and chronological date order. Place Noah Webster in the history books. He is worth remembering, but his departure from standard English spelling is extremely unhelpful.

    Every native-English-speaking country EXCEPT ONE spells “centre”, “colour” (et cetera) correctly. That ONE odd country out (which was unfortunate enough to be miseducated by one eccentric man’s misleading* and unnecessarily divisive spelling alterations) should revert to the standard spelling and end this unnecessary division. It is unwelcome and extremely unhelpful.

    [*For example: Most American residents, quite understandably, now mispronounce the “paed-” (correctly pronounced “peed”; or, at the very least, “paid”) in “paedophilia” and “paedophile” because that gentleman removed the “a”. People can’t be blamed for pronouncing a word the way it looks (especially if they have never heard it pronounced correctly).]

    I don’t want to aggravate international divisions. I want to erase them. (Don’t you?)

    Please join us, American friends.

    I like studying maths. My favourite colour is grey. I am interested in aluminium aeroplanes and travelling to the theatres and cultural centres of the world. I like reading my favourite encyclopaedia and studying paediatric medicine.
    Written on THE Eighteenth of July, Two Thousand AND Thirteen (18/7/2013)

  2. According to Bill’s logic, Australia should abandon metric, and adopt US weights and measures, change to driving on the right, take up baseball and gridiron (sorry, ‘football’!) and not only become a republic, but also adopt a presidential system, with a Congress instead of a Parliament, and state governors being executive positions. Hey, why not dissolve the Commonwealth and let each state and territory apply to join the Union? 😀

    Australia and Canada use a hybrid spelling system, as befits countries with a British-American hybrid culture. Canadians use ‘colour’ and centre’ but they also ‘realize’ – with the letter being pronounced ‘zed’, and English language newspapers have moved away from US spelling. New Zealand is more of a British-Australian hybrid – on radio and TV they have ‘programmes’.

    The orthographical accord between Portuguese-speaking countries is a mess, as it manages to combine the worst aspects of European and Brazilian spelling. Spanish spelling is consistent throughout the Spanish-speaking world, but grammar varies – in Argentina, ‘you are’ is vos sos, not tú eres as in Spain, where it’s considered as strange as ‘thou art’ would be in English . Ironically, the only international agreement on spelling that has been successful is that for writing Indonesian and Malay, which are considered separate languages.

    Just as Latin degenerated into Vulgar Latin, and then into separate languages, perhaps English should go the same way. Since the breakup of Yugoslavia, people no longer speak ‘Serbo-Croat’, they speak Serbian, Croatian and Bosnian, not only with distinct spelling (Serbian has always used a form of Cyrillic script) but vocabulary, with Croatian and Bosnian adopting ‘purisms’.

    In fact, I would advocate something far more radical and efficient than adopting US spelling in Australia – why not replace English with a form of Melanesian Pidgin, like Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea, Pijin in the Solomon Islands, or Bislama in Vanuatu? The spelling is phonetic and the grammar is easy. When Lionel Bowen died, Radio Australia’s Tok Pisin service ran the headline ‘Olpela Deputi Praim Minista blong Australia i dai’. Classic!

  3. Australia and the UK have grown apart over the decades. These days, Australia media have a close relationship with Amercan not British counterparts and source much material from them. American culture has replaced British influence to a large extent. Australian PMs follow American leads in foreign affairs. Aussies replaced Pounds with Dollars. Aussies built freeways not motorways. The use of American spelling and expressions will be another aspect of the Americanization of Australia. Retaining non-American spelling is increasingly quaint.

  4. As a resident to this country for 3 years, I would be inclined to suggest there is no excuse for errors when the amount found on a daily basis far exceeds any I have experienced in the UK or Europe. By all means, downgrade to American spelling if it means an improvement.
    As for style, pick one and use it consistently!

  5. Hmm I see some of these posts missing the entire reason for language. It’s there for communication. The easier it is to express our ideas to others, the more complex we are able to make the content. My language and spelling is currently lazy, but it is hard to know where I should put effort into learning it.

    For language horror stories, look at internet smilies, I often see them used as a single comment, nothing annoys me more than typing out a long phrase and getting a “=/” back. But still that blank stare smily communicates a lot of information. O.O (shock) o.O (suspicion) are also fun. 🙂 has seen too much use and no longer means happiness to most in my group evolved and now we have :D. Every person of every language with a minimal amount of comprehension can understand those expressions because they are so simple. Maybe one day we’ll have smilies for eating spaghetti, riding a hoverboard, or one to explain that you are currently texting a friend. Big dreams.

    With a simpler medium comes grander expression. Maybe if we simplify our language, a picture will only be able to paint 900 or 800 words, and those visually gifted bastards will stop being so smug.

  6. I just hope you didn’t come to this conclusion since Obama was elected ;).

    If you want phonetic spelling, why American english? Why not an Australian one?

    True, we might say ‘theatre’ the way its spelt in the U.S. but we don’t say ‘mom’ we say ‘mum’.

  7. ^^ Totally agree. Trying to adopt the “American” way of spelling just seems to me a reason to make lazy people even more lazy with their spelling. It’s harder for Australia to determine whether to use UK or US spelling because of the whole “new world” thing, but I think you should stick to one type of spelling. If you change to spelling things phonetically where would it end? I thought we were attempting to stop kids using “u” and “r” in texting, the Americanisation of spelling would just fuel the fire wouldn’t it?

  8. It all seems very unnecessary. We all learnt how to spell correctly, why cant our kids learn it? I grew up watching Sesame-Street and I knew they pronounced ‘Z’ wrong, it didnt confuse me, I just moved on in hopes of seeing the cookie monster. I see no need for change in our spelling. There are many different forms of Spanish and also Portuguese, each with its own spelling and pronunciation. Each country has its own way, and I personally dont see anyone struggling. Lets embrace our heritage and focus on something more important.
    If its not broken, dont fix it.

  9. @Shannon: “the need . . . to protect the English language is significant”.
    Small point but a significant one: the English language and its spelling are two very different kinds of things. I could be using perfect English but writing in Braile or in a form of short hand or, for that matter, textese. Some languages have no writing system and other have many, English has US and UK spellings for pretty much the same language . The former is marginally better but the principle that we can make changes to our spelling system, to benefit learners and users everywhere, needs to be made.

  10. This hurts my heart a little bit… right in the very core… or should I say: the very centre? I was raised in Australia in the 1990’s, and was indeed exposed to a great many ‘Americanisms’, but feel that the need to overcome these and protect the English language is significant. Do we really want to encourage the miniature Sesame-Streeters running around pronouncing the final letter of the alphabet as ‘zee’?
    Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-change or anti-evolution in any way, shape or form. Any language has a natural progression, but I just feel that in order to utilize it correctly, people must understand the true nature and heritage of their language.

  11. I think if you’re aiming at simplicity and logic that’s fine, but it’s not ‘American spelling.’ American spelling has little-known, complex, etymological(?) rules for whether a word ends in ‘-ise’ or ‘-ize.’ And do you really say neighbor Down Under, or are you just being simpering copycats? Be proud, be different – but don’t be American.

  12. Excellent ideas, to accept American spellings and to prefer simpler words. Consistency is also at times unnecessary and pedantic in some points of styl.
    The paper might also hav a colum which gave a further chance to the vast numbers of semi-literat and even illiterat, that went with the Txting and Internet trend to simpler spellings by cutting out surplus letters in words. We alredy cut many of Johnson’s spellings – e.g. publick, authour, oeconomy and controul.
    Surplus letters ar those which add nothing to help with meaning or pronunciation of words, and even mislead, as with minute/minut. See http://home.vicnet.net.au~ozideas/16sp.htm for the difficulties even educators and psycologists hav with where surplus letters go in words. They affect about 8% of letters in words in running text, but are the main cause of ‘spelling demons’ and giv poor readers and spellers much trubl.

  13. Interesting. . . I believe that there is a migration to American spelling in many Indian newspapers and business schools so it is only a matter of time before this gets back to us here in the Motherland. In a similar vein Brazil is the motor force behind a current reform to a few Portuguese spellings. US spelling is something of an improvement, however it is an incomplete 19th century reform, while English english, remaining with its archaisms, is quickly proving unfit for purpose.

    All this may just get bogged down in matters of taste and nationalism but I think adopting some US spelling here in the UK would be a start to the business of making us a more literate (and democratic) society.

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