Canadian Spelling: It’s Complicated!

May 2023

An editor colleague recently asked in an online editors’ group about how to direct a client to information about Canadian spelling. Like a good number of Canadian editors, I shake my head with frustration: It’s complicated.

Canadian English is sometimes presented as half British, half American, but inconveniently neither. However, the real issue is that Canadian English is a thing of its own, drawing on different traditions, and with its own unique words but without a core reference that is regularly updated.

Here are some sources and commentaries.

While the Canadian Oxford Dictionary and CP’s Caps and Spelling might not be available to clients, clients might appreciate an easy-to-access article about Canadian spelling by a Canadian editor (Virginia St-Denis) in the Language Portal of Canada and this page.

Some editors might turn to an online source such “Dave VE7CNV’s Truly Canadian Dictionary of Canadian Spelling,” but I question if it is current. I prefer to stick to CanOx2 and Caps and Spelling as authoritative sources and then keep a careful style sheet.

And for those wondering why there is no updated dictionary of Canadian English, well, it’s a big question and one that is being worked on. This CBC article from 2022 gets into some of the details.

© Laura Edlund 2010

On Canadian English and Dictionaries: Q&A

Here’s a list of Canadian dictionaries I have on my bookshelf. Question: What stands out? 

Answers: How old they are. How some are adapted.

In an opinion piece in Quill and Quire, Emma Skagen (a fellow Canadian editor) complains about the lack of an updated, homegrown dictionary of Canadian English. I agree with her concern. Writers and editors have complex relationships with dictionaries.

The fact that Oxford University Press published the Canadian Oxford Dictionary under the outstanding editor-in-chief Katherine Barber was a feat, but today CanOx or COD (as Canadian editors call it) needs to be updated, or some other new, homegrown dictionary of Canadian English needs to be developed.

Back before 1998, I heard things like “Use Gage but change to ‘-our’ and see our style guide for other preferences, and note all variations on the style sheet.” Or “use Gage but use ‘–or’ because this is for the Alberta and B.C. market.” Or “Use Nelson and keep a style sheet, of course.” Or “Use the most-recent Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary and check CP Style for anything you can’t find, and keep a style sheet, of course.” And can you imagine teaching spelling in Canadian schools? And what about distinctly Canadian and regional words and their meanings? Keep a style sheet, of course.

The years 1997 and 1998 changed all that. Three different dictionaries of Canadian English were released and CanOx had particular heft (“five years of work by five Canadian lexicographers examining almost twenty million words of Canadian text held in databases representing over 8,000 different Canadian publications” not to mention the regional analysis and the database of citations shared by lexicographers for the Oxford English Dictionary around the world). Canadian editors could look to one source describing Canadian English (and keep a style sheet, of course) as we edited, queried authors, and wrote. We could even compare new dictionaries—word nerd heaven!

The second and last edition of CanOx was published in 2004. So, for a descriptive (not prescriptive) dictionary, that is old. Yes, Oxford University Press (OUP) makes ongoing additions with Canadian English to Oxford Languages. And, yes, a Canadian editor could use a combination of CanOx from 2004 and the Canadian Press Caps and Spelling or specific subject, industry, or government guides. Could Editors Canada collaborate with Canadian publishers to create an up-to-date, homegrown dictionary of Canadian English? Alas, Editors Canada had long negotiations about that, as Emma Skagen recounts in Quill and Quire, but no contract was signed. 

So while editors who edit Canadian English grumble about their patchwork solutions, it isn’t as bad as it once was and yet we still need to find a solution. We can dream.

© Laura Edlund 2010