20 Words with More Than One Spelling

By Mark Nichol

When the dictionary lists two alternate spellings of a word, should you use your judgment (or is that judgement?), or is there some other criterion for selection? Most dictionaries describe what is, rather than prescribe what should be — hence the alternatives — but they usually favor one form over the other. For both convenience and consistency, follow the dictionary’s indirect dictates.

In printed dictionaries, the preferred form will have the full definition, while the runner-up will be cross-referenced to the winner. Online, the spelling in the Web page’s heading indicates the preference, though the other choice will likely also be listed. Here are some common entries with more than one orthography:

1. Acknowledgment/acknowledgement: Acknowledgment, though it looks awkward because the spelling implies that the g is pronounced hard, rather than (correctly) soft, is the preferred spelling, at least in American English.

2. Adviser/advisor: Adviser is the preferred spelling, though it is inconsistent with the spelling of the adjectival form advisory.

3. Aesthetic/esthetic: Aesthetic is the preferred spelling, a rare case of the digraph retained in American English in favor of a single-vowel spelling. (See also amoeba/ameba and archaeology/archeology.)

4. Ameba/amoeba: Amoeba is the preferred spelling. It also has variant plural forms: Amoebas is acceptable in all but the most strictly scientific contexts, where amoebae is preferred.

5. Amok/amuck: Amok is the traditional spelling, preferred to amuck.

6. Among/amongst: The -st extension is, in both American English and British English, widely considered an unnecessary appendage. (The same preference applies for amid/amidst and while/whilst; whilst is, at any rate, rare in American English.)

7. Analog/analogue: Analog is one of fourteen words in which the original -ue ending is clipped. Whether one form or the other is preferred varies depending on not only the word but also, occasionally, on which part of speech it represents. Most one- and two-syllable words ending in -ue have no truncated variant; prologue is the exception.

8. Archaeology/archeology: The version with the ae digraph is preferred over the single-vowel form.

9. Ax/axe: Ax is the preferred spelling, alone and in compounds (axman, battle-ax).

10. Collectable/collectible: Collectible is the preferred variant.

11. Barbecue/Barbeque: Barbeque is a variant of barbecue influenced by the truncation BBQ.

12. Disc/disk: Disc is a variant of disk, though it has valid status in the “phrase compact disc” and references to similar media.

13. Donut/doughnut: Donut is an informal variant of doughnut.

14. Enquire/inquire: Inquire is the preferred American English spelling, but in British English, enquire prevails.

15. Flier/flyer: Spelling depends on meaning. See this post, in which I conclude that pilots and passengers are fliers, and posted papers are flyers.

16. Gray/grey: Gray is the preferred spelling in American English; British English favors grey.

17. Nite/night: Nite is an informal variant of night.

18. Theater/theatre: The former spelling is preferred in American English, though the latter form sometimes appears in proper names.

19. Toward/towards: In American English, towards and other similar words are considered informal variants of the forms in which the s is omitted.

20. Whiskey/whisky: The former spelling is more common in the United States (as well as in Ireland), though usage in labeling varies.

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33 Responses to “20 Words with More Than One Spelling”

  • Tim

    No 20; you realize they are both spelled the same…….

  • Graham Charles

    Looks like you got spell-checked on that last one, as both variants you propose are identical. Surely you meant to write “whiskey/whisky”?

  • Richard J Lester

    Probably the one word in advertising that drives me nuts, is the stupid use of the word SKOOL, normally with the letter K reversed, instead of SCHOOL. Of course the new ‘Texting’ craze, with many 8 year old owning mobile phones, does wonders for future generations of illiterate graduates?

  • opsimath

    Another example, I suppose, of ‘Two countries separated by a common language’.

    One you didn’t mention, out of a good many I suspect, was programme/program and I’m sure a little research could turn up many more.

    Just as a matter of interest, gray is used in UK English but is confined to the colour – there is yet another one! – of horse.

    English, in all its forms and subsets, never cease to fascinate me; perhaps you could write us a piece on knickers, suspenders, vests and jumpers.

    Thank you for a fascinating and always entertaining blog.

    opsimath

  • Stephen

    You spelled ‘whiskey’ the same both times. If the second variant was supposed to be ‘whisky’, then that’s the term overwhelmingly preferred to refer to Scottish whisky. Using the other spelling for drinks from Scotland is considered incorrect, sometimes even insulting.

  • Laiki

    “Most one- and two-syllable words ending in -ue have no truncated variant; prologue is the exception.”

    Don’t you mean the opposite…most of these words DO have a truncated variant? (I’ve never seen the spelling “prolog” used anywhere.)

    Not to nitpick* — I really enjoy these articles — but here is another typo. The open quote mark should occur before ‘compact’, not before ‘phrase’.

    “…though it has valid status in the “phrase compact disc” …”

    *I mention it because, hey, this IS Daily WRITING Tips, after all. It appears you have several regular contributors…why not institute some kind of peer review or proofreading swap before you publish?

  • Chuck Hustmyre

    As Stephen said, Scotch is “whisky,” while the American and Irish libations are spelled “whiskey.”

  • Rob Tuscani

    So I’ve wondered lately…
    ok or okay…. are either okay?

  • Cygnifier

    “For both convenience and consistency, follow the dictionary’s indirect dictates.” — Or be BOLD. Just because it is noted in the dictionary as preferred indirectly doesn’t mean we should impoverish our language choices. We just need to be consistent within the particular document at hand. Sometimes I use UK variants to tweak my American colleagues who seem to think theirs is the only correct firm of English (or American forms to tweak my British colleagues for the same reasons). Sometimes I pick a variant because I just like it better (to me, grey is a more attractive word graphically than gray; templet does it for me while template leaves me flat and cold) . As long as it is listed as a legitimate option and it won’t obscure my meaning, I feel quite free to do so. Language is for using creatively within all its wide bounds of correctness!

  • Chihuahua Zero

    I think “The Write Practice” was talking about the differences between the words “toward” and “towards” last week.

  • Steve M

    It might be good to point out that the variation you use may depend on the type of writing you are doing. If you are using the AP Stylebook, they defininetly have preferences on some of these words.

    Steve
    Maurer Copywriting

  • hz from Australia

    In regards to ‘theater/theatre’, in British English most words that end in ‘ter’ in American usage are spelled ‘tre’ in British. Not just in formal names either. Another example is ‘center/centre’.

  • Vincent

    These threads tend to run amok-amok- amok, but they always make me laugh!
    Thank you for your insight!

  • Helen

    Ax is preferred to axe? Not in British English! We definitely refer to an axe murderer, an old battle-axe and so on. I have NEVER seen ax in British English!

  • Allen

    Both forms of disk/disc is used in computer terms.

    Disc is used as mentioned in the article, Compact Disc (CD) and even in Digital Versatile Disc (DVD).

    Whenever you talk about Hard drives, they are Hard Drive Disk, and then there is the Floppy Disk.

    This is the way i learned it for my computer training and certification exams.

  • Allen

    *Sorry, that should say are not is in the first line

  • David Logan

    “…When the dictionary lists two alternate spellings of a word, …”

    this wording suggests there are three spellings… one ‘regular’ and two ‘alternates’…?

  • Jon

    Ameba? Nite? Esthetic? Really?! It’s worse than I thought….

    And axes always have e’s in British and Australian English.

    @Cygnifier – thank you for introducing me to the spelling ‘templet’… I’ve never seen that variant in the British and Australian English speaking worlds. Google Books ngram viewer puts “template” as predating “templet” by thirty years or more.

  • Jon

    Whatever happened to the ability to subscribe to comment threads on this otherwise great site? I miss that little checkbox…

  • Michelle

    I have to agree with Helen regarding axe as opposed to ax. It is more common to use “axe” in Canadian English – especially on the coast where we still have tons of logging terms! Cheers to a fantastic site.

  • Cygnifier

    @ Jon — You’re welcome. The Google ngrams can sometimes be deceiving. My research on templet (done b/c some colleagues have given me grief about using a “non-word”) suggests that templet was the original form of the word. Oxford Dictionary of English dates templet to late 17th century, with the ending change to template in the late 19th century. The Google ngrams seem to show the changeover, with use of template almost nonexistent prior to 1870, but with templet used occasionally from 1800 on, with a peak from about 1910 to 1950 from which it drops back down to only occasional use, replaced almost completely by template. Some dictionaries no longer include templet; some mark it as archaic (which makes it more fun for me to use :-).

  • venqax

    Cygnifier: Or be BOLD…Sometimes I use UK variants to tweak my American colleagues who seem to think theirs is the only correct firm of English (or American forms to tweak my British colleagues for the same reasons). Sometimes I pick a variant because I just like it better.
    Stop it! This is precisely the type of linguistic effluvium that causes problems to begin with. The English language does not belong to you, or to any other misguided or semi-literate individual named Siouxzii or Egsavyer. If you are British, use British English. Full stop. If you are American, then write in American. Period. If you want to tweak someone, do it with a little more wit and cleverness than misspelling words and creating more confusion for people who really want to do things correctly. If you want to use “what you like better” then stick to finger painting or making your own clothes. English is not a summer camp arts and crafs project.

    David Logan: “…When the dictionary lists two alternate spellings of a word, …”
    this wording suggests there are three spellings… one ‘regular’ and two ‘alternates’…?

    No, this suggests that there are 2 spellings of the word that alternate, like a sign that spins with one spelling on one side, another spelling on the other. The word actually called for would be alternative spellings.

  • venqax

    I’m not sure who prefers *adviser* over *advisor* except for the AP. And it is always suspect. I’ve worked in quite a few positions and places where that has been part of my title and it’s always been spelled OR. Just anecdotal, of course.

    I think except for some archeologists themselves, archEOlogy is the preferable American spelling. Just like encyclopedia, pedophie, fetus, maneuver, etc. For the most part, SAE doesn’t use those ancient digraphs and their use says either British or Old. So maybe with archeology there is kind of a built-in chuckle, but it’s not worth unneeded inconsistency.

    Theater– likewise. In SAE, words in end in ER, not RE. Making an exception for theater simply smells of commerial-ese. Same thing with glamour instead of glamor. Reeks of Ye Olde Towne Shoppe Centre nonsense.

  • Jon

    At the risk of goading venqax further (who rather seems to have had his (or her) raw nerve touched by this discussion) I think:

    If you are British, use British English. Full stop. If you are American, then write in American. Period.

    is more appropriately

    If you are writing for a predominantly British audience, use British English. Full stop. If you are writing for a predominantly American audience, then write in American. Period.

    When in Rome, and all that… (I know, I know… When in Rome, use Italian…. Or Latin…)

  • Cygnifier

    Oh, please, @ venqax. Find a sense of humour/humor. The notion of standardization/standardisation in spelling is a fairly new concept. And there is a whole globe out there where Englishes mix themselves up freely and where Americans/ English/ Australians/ Indians/ Canadians, etc. are all working and living together and using a lovely olio of words. Language is not a rigid construct — and it is for fun as well as for communication. Alternate spellings are not misspellings and I (and others) can indeed be quite witty playing with them (although I generally avoid ad hominem attacks of others who have a different definition of witty than I). Jokes across dialects of languages as well as across semantic and orthographic barriers between languages are also lots of fun. Living languages are characterized/characterised by such playfulness. Be BOLD. Enjoy language.

  • Joe Cron

    Have to agree with Cygnifier on the playful use of variant spellings in a living language. It used to bother me a great deal to deviate from rigid adherence to American English rules, but I finally got (mostly) over it. Now, when I see something like “the former spelling is preferred,” I naturally think, “By whom?” If not by me, I don’t use it.

    “The English language does not belong to you…”

    Um , actually, venqax, yes it does, the same as notes belong to a musician and color belongs to a painter. The very idea that there are rules to a language is an illusion. There are conventions that provide for enough consistency for people speaking the same language to understand each other, but there are no more “right” and “wrong” ways to write English than there are to compose a song. There are only ways that are either common or uncommon, conform to convention or do not, and are pleasing to read or not.

    “This is precisely the type of linguistic effluvium that causes problems to begin with.”

    What problems? It is not a “problem” that anyone uses English differently from you when they write. It irritates you. Nothing more. In all honesty, it often irritates me, also, but I know that it is nothing more than a personal irritation – not some kind of societal concern. Liberate yourself to enjoy the variations and innovations in written language, and voila! No more problem.

  • Jessica

    You know…somehow I thought that collectable and collectible were different. I use collectable as an adjective meaning able to be collected. I use collectible as a noun meaning something “worthy” of being collected; something of value or in demand.

  • venqax

    The language is common property, not your personal domain. Fouling it amounts to fouling the commons. And most misusers of it are not abstract artists or musicians who have mastered the conventions of their medium, but rather ham-handed semi-literates who are thoroughly ignorant of the rules and conventions they defy.

    I have no problem with anyone using English “differently” from me, provided it is a legitimate dialect, etc. I wouldn’t “correct” a Brit for writing colour, but I certainly would an American (as a teacher or editor, not socially, of course). Just like similar words in English and, say, French are spelled differently, if you are writing in English, the English spelling is correct. Don’t write a piece in English spelling it “independance”, then tell me it’s okay because that’s how it’s spelled in French. You are not French. Likewise if you are an American, don’t write centre and think it’s okay because that’s how it’s spelled in British– you are not British– or senter because you think you are witty and it makes you giggle to spell it however you want to. Yes, standardized spelling is relatively new. So are standards of public sanitation. Both of these are good things.

  • Joe Cron

    I’ve spent most of my life being irritated by unconventional spellings, and when it is due to ignorance, that’s the hardest to let go, but I’ve come to terms with both my own deviations and those I see in others. There was a time when I would not have used “grey” instead of “gray” due to an inability to force myself to disregard the convention for American English, but in my mind, “grey” is simply a superior presentation of the word, and I now use it pretty much exclusively. I am unapologetic for it.

    Were I a journalist, I would likely not do that, because I would have my professional reputation to consider, as well as possibly my livelihood. As a fiction writer, I have more leeway, as long as I understand that I am risking putting some readers off.

    All of that, though, still has only to do with my own interests, and how I can benefit from the use of language and spelling. I have not the slightest responsibility to the commons to maintain convention, and neither does anyone else. Like it or not, that’s what goes along with using a living language. When I meet people who appear to value following convention for its own sake, it seems to me they would happily freeze the language forever. Things are colorful and variant enough already; let’s leave well enough alone.

    Really? Eight different ways to pronounce “ough” is a good thing? I presume that I will live to see “thru” become the preferred spelling, and I welcome–well, maybe not that word in particular, but the idea that that can happen.

    We live in an emailing, Facebooking, blogging world, where we see far more writing from both casual acquaintances and total strangers than we could have dreamed of thirty years ago. From my perspective, what that has shown me about the general lack of knowledge of the conventions of our language is nothing short of astonishing.

    What is has also shown me, however, is that Internet shorthand of the ignorant is where the language is moving. Fifty years from now, we will have a significantly more phonetic spelling standard, and it will be because of ignorance and laziness. The majority of changes in a living language are due to ignorance and laziness, and the point I’m working my way around to is that IT’S OKAY. An ignorant person has no responsibility not to foul the commons. If they don’t care how they are perceived by those whose hobby it is (for lack of a better description) to be picky about language, what difference is it to anyone else?

    If I chose to spell a word “independance”, I would never say it’s okay because that’s how it’s spelled in French. I would say it’s okay because I can spell it however I want. In certain contexts, professions, or whatnot, that may reflect poorly on me, and I would have to be prepared for the consequences from my readership, but I can, with any word at any time, spell it however I want, without it being a detriment to others using my language. If I start using “senter” because I think it’s witty and it makes me giggle, but it catches on and becomes the preferred spelling, that’s wonderful. Users of the language saw fit to make that change. And you would have me stick obediently to convention? Thank goodness I do not answer to anyone else about how to write or spell.

  • venqax

    Just because you don’t feel a responsibility does not necessarily mean you don’t have one. Language is social. Social things live by conventions— you wear deodorant and refrain from passing gas on the elevator out of a sense of social propriety. True, there are no penalties in a legal sense for anti-social behavior, and you can of course spell any way you choose without fear of anything but looking oafish in the eyes of others. But the question is why would you want others to think less of you if you “knew better”? Why would you want to spell the word “independance” if the result would be those who noticed thinking you lacked even a grade school education?

    Remember, after all, with spelling we aren’t talking about donnish or pedantic knowledge. We’re talking about things people learn—or don’t—in elementary school. Damage to a professional reputation as a journalist would be the only threat that would cause you to care if anyone took you for functionally illiterate? It is not that in “some circumstances” that would reflect poorly on you. In ALL circumstances, where there is a reflection at all, it would show poorly on you.

    And you would have me stick obediently to convention?

    Of course. And me too. Provided, of course, that those conventions are there for good reason. Or you’re just sticking to poetry. Or are the first and second grades superfluous to education? So, why have any rules at all for spelling, grammar, etc.? I have to assume that is the position you’re advancing, “living language” and all. Clothing styles belong to the public at large, too, and though dress is ever less formal, we still do say that suits, or ties, or “business casual” or somesuch is appropriate for certain venues. Someone who wears dirty coveralls and leaky boots, or who wears new, stylish shorts, sneakers and T-shirts all the time is not going to be taken very seriously when it counts, nor should he be. So why is standard vs non-standard or sub-standard English any different? And the reason one might care is that one probably does want to be taken as something other than a bumpkin, fool, or overgrown child at least some of the time. Even if the person is not a professional writer. Yes, change is sometimes good, sometimes bad, and always inevitable. But in today’s world—that of regular, professional language-users as well as Facebookers, txtrs, and bloggers, the development of language can be managed in ways that weren’t possible in the past. No, multiple ways to pronounce *ough* isn’t a good thing. So adjustments there could be improvements (in America, we’ve been plowing our fields for a long time). Thru doesn’t make it because there are, like it or not, rules to English spelling, but thrue or even throo would be fine (as another post on here discusses, English words just don’t end in U. Menu is the only exception I can think of off the bat). OTOH why would anyone, especially an American who has a valid licenSe not to, want to spell grEy? Bay, day, gay, hay, jay, lay, May, pay, pay, pray, ray, say, stay, way– why do that? It shines of trying to draw attention to oneself in a very adolescent way, like a written version of goth costumery.

    The majority of changes in a living language are due to ignorance and laziness, and the point I’m working my way around to is that IT’S OKAY.

    I agree with the first and strongly disagree with the last. Yes, the vast majority of changes in language are the product of laziness and ignorance. No, that is most definitely, acutely, and loudly, not okay. I’m hard-pressed to think of any situation in which laziness and ignorance are good reasons for change. Recognizing its inevitability is realistic, legitimating it is simply sad. And it probably deserves disqualification at some point (in theory, of course, not in practice). IOW, when arguing the best course of action in any case, the position of “I don’t care” is not qualified for the argument, and “It doesn’t matter” is appropriate for a different argument from the one at hand.

  • Dale A. Wood

    I agree with Venqax:
    “The language is common property, not your personal domain. Fouling it amounts to fouling the commons.”

  • Dale A. Wood

    In American medical terminology:
    anesthesiologist, gynecologist, pediatrician, ameba, amebic, and none of those silly: {ae, oe, aoe}, etc

    A left-out word in the article: “maneuver” in American English, and probably in Canadian, too, and not that silly “manoeuver”, or worse.
    “Maneuvrability”, and not silly ways to spell it with more vowels.

    The novel ALL JUDGEMENT FLED was written by a Northern Irish author, James White.
    How do you spell JUDGMENT AT NUREMBURG, and why?
    A very young William Shatner was in that one as an American military officer, even though he is a Canadian by birth. He was born in Montreal, but among English-speaking Montrealers. (In a Jewish family.)

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Counselor” and “councilor” actually have different meanings, but that is an open door for misuse.

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