A column by Stephen Henighan about a subject I’ve always wondered about: how do Canadians spell? Inconsistently, it would seem:

Standard Canadian spelling follows British spelling in many, though not all, cases. (The British drive on “tyres,” use “aluminium” siding and “realise” that they can be sent to “gaol.”) Like other aspects of Canadian culture, our spelling, in spite of its second-hand appearance, is unique. Part of our inheritance is a system for distinguishing between related nouns and verbs. The laminated card that authorizes you to get behind the wheel of a car is a “licence,” but the bar from which you take a cab home is “licensed.” Your son “practises” a sport, but you drive him to “practice.”
My students at the University of Guelph—and even some of my colleagues—are unable to master this system. Many of them write “colour” and “favour” and sometimes “centre,” as a basic declaration of identity, but after that they throw up their hands. Their confusions mirror the inconsistencies of the signs we see around us, where dissonant spellings mingle. Our newspapers offer little guidance. For years Canadian newspapers used U.S. spelling. In the early 1990s the Globe and Mail, in theory, changed to Canadian spelling. Major Southam papers such as the Montreal Gazette switched to an impoverished version of Canadian spelling, adopting “centre” but not “colour”; under Conrad Black’s ownership of Southam, the “-our” forms came into use, though some American spellings (“traveler,” “two-story house”) were retained. Quill & Quire, another editing anomaly, brandishes a house style that juxtaposes the Canadian “offence” with the U.S. “defense.”…

Most younger Canadian writers, even the best ones, spell inconsistently. Michael Redhill, in Fidelity, shuffles between “moulded” and “molded”; Ann-Marie MacDonald, in The Way the Crow Flies, alternates the U.S. “crenelated” with the Canadian “panelled.” While these writers’ lapses are rare, the inconsistencies run rampant in many who are less accomplished. Almost no Canadian writer—not even Leo McKay, Jr., who is a high school teacher in Truro, Nova Scotia, and one of the few Canadian authors who continues to write “snowplough” rather than “snowplow”—can resist the insidious spread of “license” as a noun. Any spelling adopted by high school teachers in Truro, Nova Scotia has become the Canadian standard.
The case of “licence/license” and “practice/practise” shows how inconsistency (also exemplified by hyper-corrections such as a “licenced” bar or an “honourary” consul) is the hallmark of cultural erosion. In the Ottawa Valley village where I grew up, grade four girls from families with modest formal schooling would chant, “‘Ice’ is a noun so when ‘practice’ is a noun you write it with ‘ice.’” This dictum enabled them to disentangle “licence” from “license” and spell “defence” correctly. Such seemingly trivial ditties are the bricks and mortar of a culture…
To state the spelling question in terms of British versus American is to misunderstand it. Canadian writers long ago forged distinctive spelling conventions. The question is why—without any of the passion that swirls around spelling wars in countries like Germany or Romania—these conventions are fraying even as they have been consolidated by the publication of volumes such as the Oxford Canadian Dictionary (1998). My summer reading turned up a “theatre” here, an “odour” there, with other spellings intermittently Americanized; where the authors stumbled, the editors were incapable of picking up the slack. This is not a conscious decision, nor is it trivial: it is evidence in microcosm of a culture that is being forgotten.

(Via wood s lot.)
Be sure to chase Henighan’s essay down with this little rant by Ronald de Sousa; remember:


  1. Mike the Canadian says

    Colour, honour, armour…
    Licence looks much more right to me than license.
    Licensing, though, yes. Strange, that…
    It’s the Department of National Defence.
    I live a couple of miles from Centre Island, it’s in Toronto Harbour.
    Tires and aluminum and jail…
    But I like using ‘s’ in ‘-ising’ verbs a lot more than z, z seems really harsh to me. I think that’s the rule of thumb I tend to use more than any, if it looks like one would read it very American and harsh-sounding, it’s probably not right. Of course that’s entirely subjective.
    And I’m in kind of a rebellion against ‘-ising’ verbs, lately, anyway. I find people who write about linguistics, perhaps more than people who write about any other field I’ve ever encountered, really really really like word inventionizing. And very often with ‘-izing’ at the end (specifically the z).
    I’ve never done any research into it formally, but it sure seems rampant.
    In summary: yes, we’re inconsistent as hell.

  2. I think the American newspaper spellings came in when spellchecking software was introduced, but not yet available in Canadian versions. People complained; the software improved; we got our spellings back. Canadian publishers positioning books for the international market will change the spellings of Canadian works to American, and when their authors protest, the publishers explain that the Americans would think the words misspelled. How can students learn to spell their native language when so much of what we read is in American?
    For me the -our endings are so ingrained that I have trouble misspelling “color” in HTML. It’s centre and theatre. The measurement is metre and the thing that shows how much electricity I used is a meter. The old floppies were disks but the new CDs are discs. I would never write gaol, and barely undestand it to read it. I consider -ize endings normal but -ise not incorrect.
    Microsoft Word still doesn’t ship with a Canadian English spellchecker, so Canadian spellings all come up in red. It’s cultural imperialism. If you do your study, be sure to control for bad spelling in general, and don’t do it on essays written using word processing software.
    I hope you didn’t miss The Canadian Experience Thursday night on CBC. All about our language, but tantalizing in its lack of depth.

  3. I spell by instinct, if that makes any sort of sense. If it feels right that is the way I spell it.

  4. Just for the record, “-ize” can be just as British as “-ise”. Bastardizing seems to need a z whichever side of the Atlantic you are.

  5. As a Canadian sometimes resident in the U.S., I write “colour,” “honour” and “centre” for precisely those reasons of national identity–but only in informal writing and writing going to other Canadians. And I have no concept of the distinction between “practice” and “practise”; I can never tell which is right, but I never knew that one was a verb and the other was a noun.

  6. Canadian spelling looks a lot like Australian spelling which is also used inconsistently.
    Color is never used except when McDonald’s decides to put out a “coloring book” but “gaol” is unheard of even in a former penal colony. The same sentiments apply to “-ize” (though it’s not incorrect in British spelling either) and “centre” and “licence”.
    MS Word, does have an Australian spell checker but it assumes that Australians spell pretty much like Americans – more cultural imperialism. I only use the British one.

  7. Quelle arrogance!!!
    Nowhere is there mention of what language they’re talking about.

  8. It is difficult being a Canadian. Where do you draw the line? Generally schooled people feel that the British spelling is “better/more sophisticated/nationalistic” but really, as these comments seem to show, there is so much America everywhere. As a child you are made fun of in school for being too proper and in adulthood people think you are snobby or pretentious.

  9. But Word and Excel and Outlook do indeed ship with Canadian English dictionairies. I’m talking the 2000 professional edition here.

  10. I seem to remember as a young girl in Montreal in the 1950’s, that all words that would have an S in them in the States had a Z in them in Canada;ie, Advertizement,Surprize, etc. Now I’ve been in the US since 1955 and lately have been learning that the Z isn’t used in those words.Has Canada gone to the American spellings or am I remembering wrong?

  11. I’m afraid it’s your memory. The general rule is that UK spelling has -ise where US has -ize (civilise/civilize), with Canada in the middle, but the words you mention have s everywhere.

  12. crawford findlay says

    “To state the spelling question in terms of British versus American is to misunderstand it.”
    just saying it doesn’t make it so. examples of words in “canadian-english” that are spelled differently from BOTH british- and american-english need citing if this assertion is to hold any water.
    i’m no lawyer, which is my way of saying i don’t know the answer to this question before asking it (i just think this is what the writer’s argument requires to merit at least some consideration):
    are there any words at all like this in all of “canadian-english”?

  13. findlay crawford says

    i stand corrected

  14. findlay crawford says

    ach, they changed the headline. it used to read “mezmorize” instead of “mesmerize.”

  15. I have to agree and disagree with John Hardy above.
    Canadian English and Australian English do look very similar. The one difference I always remember from my half-year in Canada is that they use American tire where we use British tyre.
    I always painstakingly make sure the locale of all the computers I use is set to “English (Australia)”. I have always noticed that MS Word does do the right thing for Australian English. Maybe it just uses the British dictionary for the en-AU locale but that’s good enough for me. It certainly marks “color” as an error.
    In fact I did some work on AbiWord’s enhanced spellchecker which had an extra layer for “specific errors” which could be given in a customisable XML file. I included many spelling suggestions such as “footpath” for “sidewalk” and “truck” for “lorry” to correct both Americanisms and Britishisms.
    Also “gaol” is seen down under but purely in historical contexts such as bushrangers.
    On the -ise / -ize point, many outside Britain seem intent that only -ise is correct in Britain and only -ize in the US. Many Australians believe the same of both British and Australian spelling. Many more serious sources state that either is acceptable in Britain and it’s only Australia which is fussy about it being always -ise. The Macquarie style guide claims that the -ize spellings are acceptable in Australia. Many including myself alternate between both but when being pedantic or nationalistic we make more effort to use just -ise.
    Another curiosity I came upon in the past year of so is that not all features of “British” or “American” spelling “hang out” together. A bit of Googling found that all of “colorize”, “colourize”, and “colourise” and their inflections & derivations occur often. I don’t think “colorise” has as much currency however.
    Clear? Probably not (:

  16. The “-ize” spellings are really better because the root of this suffix is the common Greek verb ending “-izein.” Add this to the fact that the disputed words are pronounced with \z\, making the Z seem to be best on all accounts. Not only are the Z forms the only ones accepted in America, they are also listed as best in the OED, the reasons stated above being given.
    The reason the “-ise” spellings exist is because these words came into English through the Norman invasions. Organiser, not organizer, is the French verb, and the S developed naturally, the Z being a later correction. As the Z is at once etymological and phonetic, it has been adopted by basically every authority as correct.
    The main thing going for the “-ise” words is common usage in England. Despite what the OED says, “-ise” is more common in casual British writing, and using “-ise” helps because you don’t have to distinguish between the disputed words and those that are always “-ise,” such as “advertise” or “compromise.” I use the “-ise” forms myself in casual writing merely because I prefer the look. Being American, however, I much switch to “-ize” in formal writing.

  17. Dave Thomas says

    As a Canadian of 34 years who grew up in England, I find the Canadian resistance to U.S. spelling sad in its reflection of the anti-American bias shared by many educated Canadians. U.S. spellings represent a modest degree of spelling reform, and why we would not choose to share them with the vastly greater number of people on this continent who use them baffles me!
    Dave Thomas

  18. In Holland, we are taught British English in school. However, my current employer adopted American English for spelling (seldom, I need to write in Dutch). This is really confusing. I tend to prefer the British spelling though, especially in words such as colour, behaviour, modelling, travelling.
    By the way, Dutch spelling will undergo some minor modifications soon. Apparently, Canada does not have a central agency that fixes rules for spelling?

  19. I’m an American but know this website has cofused me spelling certain words.

  20. I’ve made a mistake. Instead of know I meant now.

  21. Instead of “cofused” I meant confuse. ( I think “meant” is right.)

  22. One more thing I meant confuse with the “d” at the end. (confused)

  23. I grew up in America and learned American English, however, I prefer to write like a Canadian. It always seemed so sophisticated much more correct.
    Or does sound different than -our. I write honour, behaviour, and the like. Such words as practise/pratice do change through out my wirting, unless I write to an American, in which case it is practise (practise is more phonetical and I hate my American roots). I have cheques, and my car tends to have tires, but occasionally tyres.
    I’ve even worked with a couple of blokes from England who write and prefer jail, having never written gaol even in school.
    Realize does have a z, though, because that’s how it sounds. But licence is correct.
    Canadian English Kicks Ass!

  24. I had never realised (or realized) that Canadian spelling was as close to UK spelling.
    Here in New Zealand the spelling is becoming American as is the pronunciation (“skedule” instead of “shedule” for schedule and “maul” instead of “mall” for a shopping centre). It all centres around a fascination with dire Hollywood films and the damned MS spell-checker.
    Gaol is still good and has more impact! Use it just to annoy people.

  25. “… but “gaol” is unheard of even in a former penal colony.”
    I was actually marked up in an Essay back in High School for spelling it as gaol, where as a good friend of mine was marked down for spelling it as jail… As far as I am aware gaol is still the correct spelling in Australia.

  26. ‘Gaol’ is definitely the correct spelling in Australia.’Jail’ is always considered to be a spelling error in the school system.

  27. Hello everyone,
    Just going back to the article at the top of this page (penultimate paragraph, in fact). The author writes: ‘In the Ottawa Valley village where I grew up, grade four girls from families with modest formal schooling would chant, “‘Ice’ is a noun so when ‘practice’ is a noun you write it with ‘ice.’” This dictum enabled them to disentangle “licence” from “license” and spell “defence” correctly. Such seemingly trivial ditties are the bricks and mortar of a culture…’
    I was disappointed, but not surprised, by the last comment (‘Such seemingly trivial ditties are the bricks and mortar of a culture…’). Does anyone honestly support this opinion?

  28. Ervin Zurell says

    By what authority is gaol the accepted form of spelling jail in Australia.We now OFFICIALY spell program not programme.Is this wrong or logical.?

  29. I completely agree with Dave Thomas. Noah Webster was an innovator when it came to English spelling simplification. American culture (be it media or literature) is everywhere in Canada. Every Canadian has been exposed to American spellings in all its categories (-er instead of -re, -or instead of -our, -log instead of -logue). In fact, we share a greater deal of our vocabulary with the Americans than we do with the British. Yet newspapers, consumer products, and even educated Canadians persist in using the more “sophisticated” british spellings in spite of contrasting American spellings in most of our media. Not only is this unnecessary, but it causes confusion for Canadian children and many non-english-speaking immigrants to Canada. English, because of its archaic spelling, is already a hard enough language to learn. As Canadians, we pride ourselves on our integrity and liberalism. This is how we distinguish ourselves from the rest of the world. Why should we give the wrong impression by persisting in the use of more complicated, more unphonetic spellings just because the Americans (of whom we despise some of their principles) use the more simpler, more phonetic alternative spellings?
    1st grade student: Teacher, why do you spell color with a “u” between “o” and “r”? When I’m at home watching TV, they always spell it without the “u” and it is pronounced the exact same.
    Teacher: Oh, it’s because we live in Canada. You should spell color with a superfluous “u” because you are a Canadian, not an American.

  30. Ed Kozlowski says

    I am from the United States, but have relatives spread across most of Canada. They often lament, as do I, the impact that the U.S. is having on on Canadian language (and culture as well). However, I do notice that “theaters” and “centers” are rapidly disappearing in the U.S. at a rate which should leave them all but extinct within the next decade or so. They are being replaced by “theatres” and “centres”!

  31. An American who worked for the US State Dept. once told me a small tale of childhood trauma. He started school in Tasmania, where they were taught to write ‘harbour’. After his family moved back to the States, the very first day in school he got a big red cross for writing ‘harbour’. From that day on, he never used an Australian spelling again.

  32. It can sometimes get confusing to understand which spelling you are supposed to use. Canadian english uses the British spelling more often then American. I recently wrote a post on tips and trick to help you remember when to use which.

  33. I think the American newspaper spellings came in when spellchecking software was introduced, but not yet available in Canadian versions.

    Far before that. It’s from the days of Thunderwood typewriters and a cooperative arrangement dating to WWII, and maybe earlier, whereby The Associated Press and the Canadian Press share all their material. The only or/our word that traditionally retained the -our ending in Canadian newspapers was Saviour, although that may be only the capitalized version.

    The story goes that at the (long defunct) Toronto Telegram morgue (look that one up, kiddies), when one searched the index for Jesus Christ, the file card said: See Saviours, Dead.

  34. Saviour, capped, is also the traditional U.S. exception.

  35. David Marjanović says

    The most extreme King James Only nutters assert that spelling Savior with six letters instead of the holy number seven marks you as a tool of Satan.

    …No, I’m not kidding. I just can’t find their website right now.

  36. David Marjanović says

    Of course I can. I just needed to google for asswaged. About halfway down the page it states in no uncertain words that the Saviour is the Christ while the Savior is the Antichrist.

  37. Most younger Canadian writers, even the best ones, spell inconsistently.

    I just read Gawain and the Green Knight. Has a purple-faced pontificator ever complained in earnest about the inconsistency – bordering on reckless whimsy – of Middle English spelling? Because I totally think they should.

  38. Naah. Prescriptivists aren’t going to complain about how things used to be done, even if they think it bad. They focus their bullying on living targets, and disregard all evidence, historical or current.

  39. Oh, and this loon thinks it’s the 1769 edition specifically of the KJV that’s the divinely inspired version.

  40. Whereas any fool knows it’s the second 1611 edition that’s divinely inspired. (Not the first! Beware the He Bible!)

  41. David Marjanović says

    Googling for “he bible” and insisting you didn’t mean the bible finds this. Poor misgendered Ruth.

    This article on the same KJV-only site claims that the printers were not divinely inspired, so all changes between 1611 and 1769 are excused, while the New King James Version (which tried to update the language) is castigated for making changes with theological consequences. Interestingly, at the end, the question of whether the translators of 1611 were inspired is basically shouted over by “praise God”…

  42. David Marjanović says

    …Wow, they “even” cited Origen approvingly. On the site I linked to, Origen – usually spelled Origin there – is called a heretic who relied on the wrong version of the Greek text!

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