Why words have multiple acceptable spellings

More on the new edition of Webster's New World College Dictionary

Last week, we talked about the new, fifth edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary, and some things in it that changed or stayed the same.

Mark Allen, a freelance editor who writes frequently for Copyediting magazine, commented that “My biggest surprise was almost all the entries in the AP Stylebook that note an ‘exception to Webster’s New World’ still are exceptions to Webster’s New World.” (Full disclosure: Allen is a fellow board member for the American Copy Editors Society.)

Those exceptions include “bloodbath,” “knuckleball,” and “sweatshirt,” which The Associated Press wants as one word when the dictionary wants them as two; “sports writer,” which AP wants as two words where WNW5 wants as one; “Macau,” which is still “Macao” in WNW5; and “offline,” not hyphenated in AP but still hyphenated in WNW5.

All of these examples point out how non-unilateral our usage of English can be, though for different reasons.

For example, Allen noted that AP wants “crawfish” while WNW5 wants “crayfish.” The AP Stylebook says its preference is “based on the dominant spelling in Louisiana, where it is a popular delicacy.” WNW5 has an entry for “crawfish,” as a “variant” of “crayfish.” It also lists “crawdad” as a “dialectical” of “crayfish,” a usage that seems to be common in parts of the South outside of Louisiana.

So which versions are “right”? All are, in different contexts, and that’s one reason stylebooks exist. When a dictionary gives a choice of how to render a word, a stylebook can decide which it prefers. That decision can seem to be arbitrary (“sweatshirt” vs. “sweat shirt”), based on popular usage vs. formal usage (“offline” vs. “off-line”), or dependent on translation, transliteration, or tradition (“Macao” vs. “Macau”).

A stylebook provides consistency of its own, which adds to the tone of a publication. “Three thousand, five hundred and twenty dollars” has a very different tone from “$3,520”; spelling out large numbers slows reading and seems more formal. A reader can be distracted by seeing “cancelled” in one article and “canceled” in another. Since both are accepted spellings in many dictionaries, a stylebook can act as arbiter.

Dictionaries are catchalls, listing words that are used in as many iterations as rise to the level of “variant” or “disputed,” WNW5’s characterization of less-than-fully-acceptable alternatives. Stylebooks merely pick one, or decide, for example, that the US president is well-enough known to be called just “President Obama” instead of “President Barack Obama.” (Or that “US” should be “U.S.” to prevent a reader from misreading “US” as just an all-cap “us.”)

In most newsrooms, the stylebook trumps the house dictionary, which trumps the generic spelling checkers that come with applications like Word. Many newsrooms are using more sophisticated tools to ensure consistency (in too many cases in the mistaken belief that the tools can replace the copy editors who used to perform those tasks). An AP program, StyleGuard, incorporates the Stylebook into a Word add-in that can flag style errors. Tansa Systems sells a more complex grammar, style, and spelling checker for publishing systems like CCI that is more context-based and customizable than most checkers, and its Lingofy product has Web browser and Word plug-ins that can do the same for individuals or on blogging and social media platforms.

These can be updated to reflect the new dictionary or any style changes. They’re useful tools, though, of course, none can replace the human brain.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at The New York Times, where she worked for 25 years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.