Canadian English

A study of variation in Canadian English spelling and the spelling policies of Canadian newspapers

Bachelor Thesis, 2013

48 Pages, Grade: 14/20


Table of contents

1. Introduction

2. The origins of Canadian English

3. Canadian English as a unique mixture

4. Variation in Canadian English spelling: A bi-modal spelling system

5. Two competing models
5.1 Words ending in -our/-or
5.2 Words ending in -re/-er
5.3 Words ending in - ce/-se
5.4 Words ending in -ise/-ize/-yse/-yze
5.5 ae and oe diagraphs versus e
5.6 Doubling of final consonant before suffixes
5.7 -l or -ll in uninflected verbs
5.8 Miscellaneous

6. Attitudes to the notion of ‘standard’ in Canadian English spelling

7. Spelling variation in Canadian newspapers
7.1 Methodology
7.2 Results
7.3 Conclusions
7.4 Limitations of the study

8. Conclusions

Reference list



This paper addresses the issue of variation in Canadian English spelling, which is a blend of British and American spelling conventions. The study combines theoretical and practical work. The theoretical part briefly defines the concept of Canadian English in general, that is, its historical background and characteristics. Moreover, it describes some major spelling phenomena in Canadian English and examines the ways in which several Canadian style guides deal with the variation in Canadian English spelling. In turn, the practical part of the present paper deals with the actual spelling practices. Based on the investigation of the spelling practices of Canadian journalists, the research attempts to identify whether the newspapers follow any prescriptive spelling norms. The corpus for the analysis was extracted from a sample of articles taken from the online editions of three national Canadian dailies: (1) The Globe and Mail (2) Metro and (3) National Post. The research gathered 277 tokens of words, where spelling varies between British and American English.

1. Introduction

Variation in Canadian English spelling is said to be a by-product of Canada’s history (Heffernan, Borden, Erath, & Yang, 2010, p. 3). This paper examines the hybrid nature of Canadian English spelling, which is a blend of British and American spelling conventions because of Canada’s geographical proximity to the United States and historical ties to the United Kingdom. The paper attempts to answer the following two questions: (1) Are there uniform and well-established spelling norms in Canadian English? and (2) To what extend are norms followed by national Canadian newspapers? In order to answer the research questions, the paper investigates prescriptive spelling norms as well as the actual spelling practices. The prescriptive variation in Canadian English spelling is represented by a data gathered from four Canadian style guides. After investigating what is being prescribed, the paper will focus on the actual spelling practices within the written medium of national newspapers. In addition, the paper argues that the spelling system in Canadian English is far from uniform. While certain characteristics of Canadian English spelling are closer to British English, others are closer to American English. As Pratt (1993) points out, “[t]here is disagreement, however, on the exact formula for the resulting mix” (p. 59).

2. The origins of Canadian English

The term Canadian English first emerged only in 1857. In a speech delivered to the Canadian Institute, the Reverend A. Constable Geikie, a new Canadian who emigrated with his family from Scotland, introduced the term Canadian English and disparaged it as “a corrupt dialect” (Geikie, 1857/2010, p. 52). According to the linguist Jack Chambers (1998a), Geikie considered the English spoken by those already settled in Canada upon his arrival to be a form of “low English” in contrast to the British English spoken in the mother land, which he believed to be “proper English” (p. xi). This negative attitude towards Canadian English was not idiosyncratic but rather a general perspective shared by Geikie’s generation of immigrants. Consequently, Chambers (1993) regarded Geikie’s address as “an invaluable Victorian perspective on Canadian English” (p. 2). British travellers who came to Upper Canada were astounded and often horrified with the number of differences between the language of Canadians and that of the mother country. They put the blame on various features which they recognised as Americanisms - unwanted, anti-British encroachments. Geikie (1857/2010) referred to those linguistic features as “lawless and vulgar innovations” on the Queen’s English (p. 44).

Beyond its obvious British roots through colonisation, Canadian English was shaped to its current form with the great input from immigrants. Chambers (1998a) distinguishes four major waves of immigration and argues that the first two were of greater importance because “they took place when the character of Canadian English was not yet formed, and thus they had a formative influence” (p. xi). The first of these waves was the influx of political refugees from the American Revolution - the United Empire Loyalists, who supported the British Crown. They entered Canada in the late 18th century, fleeting mainly from the middle Atlantic states, and brought with them their distinctive linguistic patterns (Chambers, 1998a, p. xii). They established public schools based on the American curriculum. Their teaching practices were based on American school books such as Noah Webster’s spelling book - where simplified American spelling prevailed (Chambers, 1998b, p. 263). This dominance of American linguistic patterns strongly affected Canadian English and, as a matter of fact, constituted its foundation. The language condemned by Geikie and his fellow British immigrants was a direct linguistic legacy of the Loyalist and their children who “formed almost 80 percent of the population of Upper Canada by 1813” (Brinton & Fee, 2001, p. 425).

The growing power of the United States and the pro-American sentiments among the settlers inclined the British governors of the colony to recruit thousands of settlers from England, Ireland and Scotland in the period between 1815 and 1850 to counter American influences and to change the linguistic practices of Canadians (Chambers, 1998b, p. 261). Although great in number, - according to Chambers (1998a), they “more than doubled the population” (p. xii) - the British recruits were not able to change the strong loyalist base of Canadian English, except for the regions where they became the founding population (Chambers, 1993, p. 5). However, as reported by Chambers (1998b, p. 263), the settlers did have significant influences on Canadian English. First, they “made a direct and indisputable impression on Canadian speech” (Chambers, 1998b, p. 263). Second, they succeeded in instilling in Canadians the conviction of British superiority - both political and linguistic (Chambers, 1998b, p. 264). British culture was perceived to be distinctively prestigious so “many genteel Canadians affected British speech and manners” (Chambers, 1998b, p. 264). This attitude prevailed until the 1950s (Chambers, 1998b, p. 264). Third important legacy of British recruits as well as Loyalists is the double standard. As Chambers (1998a) observed, “[t]he most abiding result for Canadian English, as we have seen, is the double standard. Wherever British and North American practices differ from one another in vocabulary, pronunciation or spelling, Canadians usually tolerate both” (p. xii).

The third and the fourth waves of immigration reached their peak in 1910 and 1960, respectively (Chambers, 1998b, p. 264). The former brought European immigrants from English-speaking as well as non-English-speaking countries. The latter brought immigrants from all over the globe and made Canada a multicultural country. Hence, Canada is often metaphorically called a ‘cultural mosaic’ (Chambers, 1998b, p. 266). Both waves influenced Canada ethnically. However, as Chambers (1998a) observes, “linguistically they have had only a mild influence” (p. xii).

3. Canadian English as a unique mixture

Canadian English contains a number of features which are distinctly Canadian. Those items, classified as Canadianisms, are defined by Avis (as cited in Hamilton, 1997) as “any linguistic feature[s], as of pronunciation, morphology, syntax, vocabulary, orthography, that [are] characteristic of Canadian English” (p. 18).

On the other hand, linguistic influences from the United Kingdom and from the United States as well as Canadian tolerance towards both standards caused the mixture of British and American English practices to become a fundamental feature of Canadian English.

The combination of features that are typically Canadian (i.e., Canadianisms) and divided usage within Canadian English is what really constitutes the uniqueness of the English language in Canada. Therefore, Canadian English is more often defined in terms of this mixture. As Bailey (1982) noted, “[w]hat is distinctly Canadian about Canadian English is not its unique linguistic features (of which there are a handful) but its combination of tendencies that are uniquely distributed” (p. 161). Avis (1973) seems to have a similar view when he writes the following: “Canadian English is a fairly recent hybrid which resembles American English in some respects and British English in others, while exhibiting much that is singularly Canadian. It is, in fact, the composite of these characteristics which gives CanE its unique identity” (p. 43).

4. Variation in Canadian English spelling: A bi-modal spelling system

Canadian English spelling is said to be the legacy of two lexicographers: Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster (Orkin, 1971, p. 145). While people in Britain, and in most Commonwealth countries, followed the spelling established by Samuel Johnson’s 1755

Dictionary of the English Language, the United States was undergoing a spelling reform propagated by Noah Webster. In his 1783 American Spelling Book, which was followed by his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, Webster advocated a simplified spelling (e.g., - or for - our, - er for - re) that would break with British spelling tradition and therefore cut the US linguistic ties to the United Kingdom. The publication of these two influential dictionaries marked the moment when two competing spelling conventions became noticeable.

As Boberg (2010) noted, “[i]n the past, Canadian schools made use of both British and American educational materials” (p. 40). In addition, he argues that “British and American English dictionaries continue to be used for reference by many Canadians” (p. 40). This can be explained by the fact that there were no truly Canadian dictionaries available until the 1960s. The Canadian dictionary movement began in 1954 with the formation of the Canadian Linguistic Association. A few years later, in the 1960s, the first native Canadian dictionary series, the Gage, created entirely by Canadian lexicographers appeared (Boberg, 2010, p. 40). However, Canadian English, like all other colonial Englishes, with the exception of American English, has not contributed anything to the rules of English spelling. Hence, there are no spelling practices that are specifically Canadian.

Bearing in mind Canada’s historical ties to Britain, it should not surprise anyone that Canadians uphold the British spelling tradition. According to the Language Portal of Canada (2012), “[m]any of the political and bureaucratic leaders, jurists, journalists and educators came from the British Isles.” The preference for the British spelling of words such as centre, cheque or favour could therefore be explained by Canada’s ties to the mother country.

On the other hand, Canada’s close geographical proximity to the United States and the enormous impact of neighbouring American English have caused Canadians to lean towards some American spelling practices. American spelling is constantly penetrating Canadian English through the media. Especially young generation of Canadians tend to favour the American spelling (Görlach, 1991, p. 115).

As a result of the factors mentioned above both spelling variants continue to be used by Canadians. For example, it is not uncommon in Canada to find a text in which both British and American spelling is used. In other words, Canada is the country that uses a bi-modal spelling system rooted in the influences from both British and American English. An example that best illustrates the hybrid nature of Canadian English spelling is the noun compound “tire centre” - a typical Canadian combination of two opposing tendencies, the American spelling of tire (as opposed to the British spelling tyre) along with the British spelling of centre (as opposed to the American spelling center) (Bailey, 1991, p. 20).

As a matter of fact, the preference for one spelling system over the other changes through time, that is, diachronic changes (Dollinger, 2008, p.125) and might also be linked to region (Pratt, 1993, p. 55) or attitudes of the English-speaking Canadians (Heffernan, Borden, Erath, & Yang, 2010). A study by Heffernan, Borden, Erath and Yang (2010), which examined the role of ideology in diachronic changes of spelling variant usage in Canadian English, suggested that spelling in Canadian English correlates with attitudes towards the United States. The results of the study supported the hypothesis that the use of American spelling variant usage “decreased during historical periods in which the United States was engaged in military conflict to which the Canadian population was opposed, such as Vietnam War” (Heffernan, Borden, Erath, & Yang, 2010, p. 17). Therefore, spelling in Canadian English is also an indicator of attitudes. Furthermore, scholars argue that there is a regional bias within Canada in terms of spelling. Brinton and Fee (2001), who claimed that “spelling varies from province to province” (p. 433), divided Canada according to the preferences, with “British Columbia, Newfoundland and Ontario tending toward British spelling and Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan toward American ones” (p. 433).

However, this paper will not deal with those varieties but rather with spelling variations in so-called Standard Canadian English, defined by Boberg (2010) as a uniform variety “whose geographic range hypothetically extends from Victoria, British Columbia, in the west to Halifax, Nova Scotia, in the east, and whose social range hypothetically includes the country’s social majority, from upper working class to upper middle class” (p. 107).

5. Two competing models

What follows is a list of major categories of words, where spelling varies - generally systematically - between British and American English. In addition, their treatment in three major Canadian-produced English dictionaries has been added for the discussion: (1) the Gage Canadian Dictionary (1998), (2) the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (online version 2012) and (3) the ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary of the English Language (1998). These dictionaries reflect the most common and current Canadian spelling in use at present. When a dictionary provides two spellings for a main-entry word, it is often recommended that the first spelling be used (Cragg, Czarnecki, Phillips, & Vanderlinden, 2000, p. 52). When different spellings of a word appear in separate entries, it is recommended to use the one followed by a definition (Cragg, Czarnecki, Phillips, & Vanderlinden, 2000, p. 52). Moreover, according to Pratt (1993), “dictionary users attach significance to the order in which alternative headwords are presented” (p. 53). For each category, I will, therefore, give an indication of where Canadian preference lies based on the first entry for words as they appear in the above- mentioned dictionaries. In turn, this indication is based on tables presented in Editing Canadian English (Cragg, Czarnecki, Phillips, & Vanderlinden, 2000, pp. 4 - 13) and the online version of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (Barber, 2012). In addition, I will use four key Canadian style guides to see which spelling style they prescribe since they attempt to advise on the Canadian norm.

The first style guide is The Canadian Press Stylebook: A Guide for Writers and Editors (Tasko, 2010) and its companion volume Caps and Spelling (Tasko, 2007). Created for the Canadian Press, which is Canada's national news agency, they are both the leading authorities for Canadian journalism (Pratt, 1993, p. 50). In the introduction, the Canadian Press Stylebook is referred to by its editor as a “comprehensive reference work used in newsrooms and business offices across Canada” (p. 1). The authority for the Canadian Press spelling is the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (Tasko, 2007, p. 8). In addition, Caps and Spelling recommends that “[w]here optional forms are given - moustache, mustache - the first listed is CP style” (Tasko, 2007, p. 8).

The second style guide is The Globe and Mail Style Book: A Guide to Language and Usage (McFarlane & Clements, 2003), which has been created to help the writers and editors of The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national newspaper. The ITP Nelson Canadian Dictionary used to be the spelling authority for this style guide until the guide’s 2003 edition, in which it switched to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (McFarlane & Clements, 2003, p. 2). In case two or more spellings in the main entry are available in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, The Globe and Mail Style Book ’s preference is to use the first spelling (McFarlane & Clements, 2003, p. 388).

The third style guide is the Canadian government’s own editorial style guide, The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing (Canada, 1997). In this style guide, the recommended spelling authority is the Gage Canadian Dictionary since, according to the guide, “it reflects the usage of most federal government departments and agencies more closely than do the Webster's or Oxford dictionaries” (Canada, 1997, p. 52).

The fourth and final style guide used in this paper is Editing Canadian English (2000), created by the Editors’ Association of Canada. Contrary to the other style guides listed above, this guide presents a non-prescriptive approach by simply outlining the possible alternatives (Pratt, p. 59).

Table 1 - based on Pratt1 (1993, p. 47) and enriched with examples from Editing Canadian English (Cragg, Czarnecki, Phillips, & Vanderlinden, 2000) and The Canadian Style: A Guide to Writing and Editing (Canada, 1997) - summarises a few general spelling differences between the two major spelling systems in English, that is, British English and American English.

Table 1. British versus American spelling practice

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten


1 Pratt’s table is taken from Burton et al. (1987, pp. 8-13), which, in turn, is based on Ireland (1979)

Excerpt out of 48 pages


Canadian English
A study of variation in Canadian English spelling and the spelling policies of Canadian newspapers
Variation in Canadian English spelling
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
594 KB
This paper addresses the issue of variation in Canadian English spelling, which is a blend of British and American spelling conventions. The study combines theoretical and practical work. The theoretical part briefly defines the concept of Canadian English in general, that is, its historical background and characteristics. Moreover, it describes some major spelling phenomena in Canadian English and examines the ways in which several Canadian style guides deal with the variation in Canadian English spelling. In turn, the practical part of the present paper deals with the actual spelling practic
canadian, english
Quote paper
Aleksandra Skorupska (Author), 2013, Canadian English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


  • No comments yet.
Read the ebook
Title: Canadian English

Upload papers

Your term paper / thesis:

- Publication as eBook and book
- High royalties for the sales
- Completely free - with ISBN
- It only takes five minutes
- Every paper finds readers

Publish now - it's free