50 Words with Alternative Spellings

By Mark Nichol

What is one to do when one finds a choice of spellings in the dictionary? Most dictionaries specify the preferred variant when two or more spellings of a word are listed, but others aren’t so clear.

According to Merriam-Webster’s website, the former spelling is more common than the latter for the following words and is the preferred alternative:

1. acknowledgment / acknowledgement
2. adapter / adaptor
3. adviser / advisor (but advisory)
4. aeon / eon
5. ambience / ambiance
6. amok / amuck
7. appall / appal
8. around / round
9. ax / axe
10. caliber / calibre
11. counselor / counsellor
12. doughnut / donut
13. enclose / inclose
14. enroll / enrol
15. furor / furore
16. glamour / glamor
17. gray / grey
18. impostor / imposter
19. ingrain / engrain
20. inquire / enquire
21. judgment / judgement
22. lambaste / lambast
23. likable / likeable
24. linchpin / lynchpin
25. meager / meagre
26. mollusk / mollusc
27. movable / moveable
28. ocher / ochre
29. omelet / omelette
30. opossum / possum (but playing possum)
31. pincer / pinchers
32. pixilated / pixillated (distinct from pixelated)
33. pompon / pom-pom
34. racket / racquet (but racquetball)
35. sherbet / sherbert
36. somber / somber
37. specter / spectre
38. sulfur / sulphur
39. T-shirt / tee shirt
40. theater / theatre
41. till / ’til or til
42. timbre / timber
43. vial / phial
44. woolen / woollen
45. woolly / wooly
46. yogurt / yoghurt

Discussion of distinctions in alternative spellings of some other words follows:

47. Bologna is the name of the meat product; baloney is a quaint slang synonym for nonsense.
48. Lasagne is an alternate spelling for the pasta usually referred to as lasagna; the latter spelling predominates for the name of the baked dish.
49. Mic and mike are both acceptable as short versions of microphone.
50. Savannah is spelled as such only as the name of the city in Georgia or the name of a hybrid of the serval, an African cat, and the domestic cat; otherwise, it’s spelled savanna.

This list omits spelling variations that are primarily distinct in usage in American English versus British English (though some, such as gray/grey and specter/spectre, are also variations divided by an ocean). See this discussion on that topic with a list of categories of spelling differences. (But it’s a stick and tricky matter, so check out the comments for input from site visitors as well.)

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13 Responses to “50 Words with Alternative Spellings”

  • D.A.W.

    According to the international organization for chemists, “sulfur” is the official spelling, but in the United States, we have Sulphur, Texas, and White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, and Indian Harbour Beach, Florida.
    Otherwise: Boston Harbor, Newport Harbor, New York Harbor, Baltimore Harbor, Savannah Harbor, Long Beach Harbor, San Pedro Harbor, Bremerton Harbor, Pearl Harbor, Valdez Harbor.

  • D.A.W.

    “Oedipus” and “Edipus”; “oedipal” and “edipal”.
    “Odysseus” and “Ulysses”.
    “Hercules” and “Heracles”
    “Chad”, “Tchad”, and “Tschad”.
    “Vienna” and “Wien”; “Vienner” and “Wiener”.
    “Wagoner”, “Wagner”, and “Waggoner”.
    “Weiner”, “wiener”, and “Wiener”.

  • D.A.W.

    An essential word in physics that has to do with electromagnetic waves, Special Relativity, and the way that the whole Universe operates, is spelled two ways: “ether” or “aether”.
    These lead to the adjectives “ethereal” and “aethereal”.
    “Ether” is considered to be more American, and “aether” is considered to be more British/Irish, but both spellings are used worldwide.

    There is also an organic chemical called “ether”, but that is a completely different subject. Actually, there is a whole family of organic chemicals called “ethers”.

  • D.A.W.

    In modern warships, the barrels are longer. On the USN “Ticonderoga” class cruisers and “Arleigh Burke” class destroyers, their guns are still 5-inchers, but with calibres of either 54 or 62.
    This means that the barrels are either (5″)x54 = 270″ = 22 feet, 6 inches,
    or (5″)x62 = 310″ = 25 feet, 10 inches.
    In a well-designed, modern gun, the longer barrel gives a higher muzzle velocity to the shell, yielding longer range and more impact.

    For compatibility with our allies, the U.S. Army and Marine Corps have long, long had artillery produced according to the metric system, and with bores like 60 mm, 75 mm, 81 mm, 90 mm, 105 mm, 120 mm, 155 mm, and 175 mm. On the other hand, the Army’s 203 mm gun has exactly the same bore as a naval 8-inch cannon (of the old heavy cruisers, which are no longer in existence).
    Yet again, the Navy’s new warship USS “Zumwalt” has two guns with 155 mm bores, just like the Army’s and the Marine’s, and that works out to be about 6.10 inches.

  • D.A.W.

    In the world of artillery and cannons, and especially those on warships, the words “caliber” and “calibre” are distinct ones with different meanings. “Caliber” is a measure in fractions of an inch, such as .44 caliber.
    The other one is best illustrated by an example. There was a notable dual-purpose weapon on U.S. Navy ships of World War II, and for decades afterwards, that was designated as 5-inch, 38 calibre. This means that the barrel of the gun is (5″)x(38) = 190 inches = 15 feet, 10 inches long. “Dual-purpose” meant that it was designed for use for both antiaircraft use and for hitting surface targets on the sea or land.
    The 5-inch, 38 calibre gun was of ubiquitous that that it was mounted on destroyers, light cruisers, the antiaircraft cruisers of the “Atlanta” class, heavy cruisers, battleships, aircraft carriers, destroyer escorts, frigates, attack transports, the “large cruisers” of the “Alaska” class, and some submarines (mostly for shore bombardments in the latter case). The American battleships and antiaircraft cruisers carried either 12 or 16 of these weapons, and the other cruisers and the aircraft carriers had 8 to 12 apiece.
    Thus, naval scrapyards and weapons depots have had LOTs of these to melt down or otherwise deal with since 1950 or so.

  • Anne-Marie

    The verdict from Microsoft Word; these words are unacceptable:

    appal
    calibre
    inclose
    enrol
    furore
    mollusc
    omelette
    pixillated
    sherbert
    spectre
    sulphur
    til
    woollen

    (The Grammarly plug-in accepts them all.)

  • venqax

    1. acknowledgment / acknowledgement
    2. adapter / adaptor
    3. adviser / advisor (but advisory)
    4. aeon / eon
    5. ambience / ambiance
    6. amok / amuck
    7. appall / appal
    8. around / round
    9. ax / axe
    10. caliber / calibre
    11. counselor / counsellor
    12. doughnut / donut
    13. enclose / inclose
    14. enroll / enrol
    15. furor / furore
    16. glamour / glamor
    17. gray / grey
    18. impostor / imposter
    19. ingrain / engrain
    20. inquire / enquire
    21. judgment / judgement
    22. lambaste / lambast
    23. likable / likeable
    24. linchpin / lynchpin
    25. meager / meagre
    26. mollusk / mollusc
    27. movable / moveable
    28. ocher / ochre
    29. omelet / omelette
    30. opossum / possum (but playing possum)
    31. pincer / pinchers
    32. pixilated / pixillated (distinct from pixelated)
    33. pompon / pom-pom
    34. racket / racquet (but racquetball)
    35. sherbet / sherbert
    36. somber / somber
    37. specter / spectre
    38. sulfur / sulphur
    39. T-shirt / tee shirt
    40. theater / theatre
    41. till / ’til or til
    42. timbre / timber
    43. vial / phial
    44. woolen / woollen
    45. woolly / wooly
    46. yogurt / yoghurt
    Ouch. Lot’s of problems here. Yes, many of these have to be classified as British vs American distinctions, even if one or the other doesn’t realize it (more often Americans, I’m afraid.) Anything ending in -re instead of -er or -our insted of -or has to be considered such. There is simply no reason for an American to write ochre, caliber, theatre or spectre. Glamour has actually been defended because…I am serioust… it is a more glamorous spelling. By which logic we also have redishes in our salads and it should be fonetick for that very reason. Likeswise sulfur with an F is simply American. So is an H-less yogurt, gray with an A, and sKeptic with a K (though it didn’t make the list.) Aeon must be British if anyone this side of 1910 spells it that way.

    Others are bit odder. Removing the root-final E for words like movable or likable is actually consistent enough with spelling rules. The lost Es after root-terminal Gs is problematic (judgment) but as far as I know the E-less spelling is considered standard in American. The G’s following a D makes it possible, and perhaps passable, since that usually Js the G, but it still just doesn’t sit quite right.

    No, the E-lessness doesn’t make the O in movable any different from its already messed-up sound in move. It’s the spelling of the root word that needs to be fixed (moove is certainly logical.) And as far a likable, the I before a K by itself is still going to be long like like with or without an E on the end. A C before the K and after the I would make it lickable—just like it does. Is anyone really accepting “donut” as standard?

    I join in the condemnation of “sherbert”. Good grief. And, finally, “till” is not a contraction of “until”, it is a word in its own write and speak and has been since the beginning, all opinions aside.

  • Mark Nichol

    Melissa:
    Inclusion of a word in a dictionary represents acknowledgment of existence, not endorsement of use. This post was intended to point out irregular but common variations in the spelling of words and clarify which alternative careful writers should employ.

  • Emma

    Another UK/US difference – we’d say axe & calibre; though I’m interested to note that glamour appears to be favoured over glamor; I’d have expected the other.

  • Brandon

    Does 36 say “somber / somber”?

  • Agua Caliente

    A family member, somewhat to my annoyance, refuses to use “gray” under any circumstances. My spouse, though—who teaches college-level English Composition and who also edits—corrects all instances of “grey.” I mean absolutely no offense/offence to our good friends in the UK and UK-influenced locales, for whom the e-spelling is correct.

  • Curtis Manges

    For the sake of clarity:

    Racket and racquet are distinct things and shouldn’t be considered as alternates of the same thing. A racquet is always a piece of sports equipment, whereas a racket can (and always should, IMO) be used to denote an undesirable or alarming noise.

    Similarly with timbre and timber; not interchangeable.

    Movable looks wrong to me; its structure suggests pronouncing it with a long ‘o’. Likable also looks wrong; it looks as if the ‘i’ should be pronounced short. For both of these words, I prefer leaving the trailing ‘e’ from the root verbs.

    Till is something you do to soil. ‘Til or ’till are contractions, and (IMO) should always include the apostrophe.

    Pixilated is so rare that I don’t think it would do more than cause confusion these days. Forty years ago, everyone would know what it meant; today it refers to electronic displays and would likely be considered a misspelling.

  • Melissa

    Is “sherbert” (#35)–a misspelling caused by a mispronunciation–seriously accepted as an alternate spelling by some authorities? Ugh.

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