I have to confess to being rather OTT about spelling. But then it is my job. It’s my job as an editor to check that all spellings throughout a book are both consistent and correct. Although ‘correct’ is not always clear because sometimes there are variations with how words are spelled. Well, there’s our first example: ‘spelled’ or ‘spelt’? Actually both are correct but as an editor it’s important to make sure the choice of either -ed or -t endings are consistent throughout a book rather than use a mix.
Publishing houses have their own ‘House Style’ and this is always sent to me, and while mostly the same, there are variations. For instance, one publisher I often work for likes to use -ize endings for words like realize, organize, etc., while most UK publishers prefer -ise endings, so realise and organise. But some words can’t interchange – always, for example, advise, advertise, exercise, etc.
Then there is the need to understand the difference between using a word as a verb or noun and this affects the spelling:
- You give advice to someone; but you advise them to do something
- A doctor practises medicine; but you visit their medical practice.
You can see that while we’ve only just started, things are already getting a little tricky. But throw into that the growing influence of US spellings and terms in UK as more and more we read books by US authors and watch US films. And thus spellings like ‘alright’ (always 2 words, ‘all right’, in UK) and words like ‘gotten’ (instead of UK ‘got’) start creeping into UK books. I often proofread American books and usually the US spellings are left unchanged; though – perhaps slightly weirdly – UK publishers usually like to change the punctuation to UK. Yes, that’s different too.
Of course, it may well be that only editors mind about these things. But it brings up the question of how much we allow our language to change. At the extreme end, I like to say to people who think none of it matters, that if we abandon all care of spellings then we’ll end up in a state where we can’t communicate properly. Of course change is inevitable – or we would still be writing and talking like Shakespeare or the Saxons. We also need new words as time goes by. It’s only in fairly recent years we’ve needed words like modem, wireless router, tablet – as in an iPad not a stone tablet from an ancient site or a painkiller – and even smartphone; some of the words added to the 2018 edition of The Oxford English Dictionary include co-parenting, e-address, e-publisher and hangry (being angry and hungry at the same time!). And words change use: when I was a child being ‘gay’ meant being happy and carefree while now we usually think of it as a term for being homosexual (which, of course, can also mean being happy and carefree!).
Mostly the changes come slowly and we’re barely aware of them. So I’m often surprised if I have to work on a old book that is being reissued, written say in the 1950s or 1960s, to find the spelling and punctuation seem very old-fashioned. I find ‘hallo’ or ‘hullo’ instead of ‘hello’; there are usually a lot more commas breaking up sentences than we would use today. I realise that slowly, through many years working as a book editor, I’ve subtly altered the way I edit. I’m fortunate to work for top publishers and that keeps me on my toes and up to date!
On top of our evolving and ever-changing language we must add things like ‘textspeak’. When we first had texts the number of characters used in one text was limited so people invented ‘textspeak’ to keep a text to one instead of paying for two. This is now outdated but people still use ‘tonite’ and abbreviations like ‘ILY’ (I love you). I have to confess that some of these grate on me … tonite … grrrr! And if someone sent a text saying ILY it really wouldn’t have the same nice impact as the words! But I’m willing to admit that with my editorial background, and the fact that words and their correct use and spelling is my job, I’m probably more intolerant than most people.
However, when it comes to working I do have to take account of all these things and apart from using The Concise Oxford Dictionary to check spellings, my absolute ‘bible’, and used by all publishers, is the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers & Editors. When I edit a book, I have to provide a Spellings & Style list of my references and spellings used; whether I’ve used -ed or -t endings etc. So I think my family and friends are going to have to continue to live with me being rather OTT about spelling!