Two weeks ago, I did a joint blog post with Kellee Kranendonk on some basics of grammar and spelling. One of my writer friends from Ireland was quick to point out an error of sorts in my statement that the Merriam-Webster dictionary was the considered authority on spelling and usage. And he’s right: that was an error on my part.
I have corrected the blog post to specify US English spelling and usage, but even that has its problems. Let me clarify. In the original statement my intent was that Merriam-Webster is generally considered to be the authority in the case of disagreements.
Interested readers might want to check out this Wikipedia article on Webster’s Dictionary: HISTORY OF WEBSTER’S DICTIONARY
As my friend pointed out, I was ignoring a large portion of the English-speaking world. Indeed, the Oxford English Dictionary has long been considered THE authority for the English language throughout the world, and much of the time it and Webster’s will agree.
Most of the time, most dictionaries will agree, especially if they are of a similar age with respect to publication date. But not always. The problem, in part, is that the language is changing so rapidly that few can keep up. Further, Merriam-Webster and the Oxford dictionaries are overseen by research teams who consider when and what changes are to be made according to the development of the language. Such is not always the case with all dictionaries, especially some of the online ones. This doesn’t mean that other dictionaries aren’t reliable, only that you can’t be sure if they are.
Now, let me cite a case where Merriam-Webster is incorrect: sweat shirt. Every modern dictionary that I have consulted (including the Oxford English Dictionary) shows this as one word: sweatshirt. I own a copy of Webster’s Third International Dictionary (published in 1961), and it understandably shows “sweat shirt” as two words.
I emailed the Webster’s people and received a reply that basically said they were working to update their online dictionary. Even the “authority” isn’t always correct.
What’s a writer to do when he can’t be sure if the Gold Standard of US English is correct or up to date? The answer is RESEARCH. No single “authority” is going to be right 100% of the time. This is precisely why I use multiple reference sources and question one that feels wrong to me. And this is why it’s so important for a writer–any writer–to know grammar and spelling and to stay up to date.
But let’s get back to the matter of non-US English. As an editor, I try to make myself aware of the differences in other versions of English besides that in the US, particularly spelling and punctuation variations. I also try to remain alert for possible stylistic variations.
One that comes to mind is the use of “was sat” instead of “was sitting”: He was sat at the table. This looks strange to Americans, but it’s common in the UK. The first time I saw it, my first instinct was to change it, but my second thought was to look it up. However, my friend pointed out to me that it’s still regarded as grammatically incorrect and also that it also carries the nuance of “plumped on a set with an air permanence.” Nevertheless, grammatically correct or not, it does represent a vernacular difference in UK informal English over US English and therefore is not to be regarded as error in writing when used to express the voice the characters in fiction, and presumably not unlike the misuse of “who” in place of “whom” in informal speech.
Is the Chicago Manual of Style (CMOS) useless for non-US English? What authority should be used then? First off, the CMOS does make note of grammatical and spelling variants in British English. Here’s a possibly useful article that shows how really minor the basic differences are:
For UK English, the comparable style guide to the CMOS is the Oxford Guide to Style:
A bit of research turned up a couple of style guides for Canadian writers. If you use Google to search “Canadian style guides”. The one I found that seems to be the best candidate, though is The Canadian Press Stylebook. This seems comparable to the Associated Press Stylebook, which is aimed at journalists and does differ from the CMOS.
For a dictionary that’s geared to English in general and not to American English specifically, you can’t one can go wrong with the Oxford English Dictionary. Here’s a link to the free online version:
A yearly subscription is $15 US or $25 US (for the gold version), which is cheaper than the Merriam-Webster that I subscribe to ($30 US). You have the option of subscribing to the UK or US versions. I just renewed my subscription but may consider changing over to Oxford next year if “sweat shirt” isn’t fixed.
But this leads me to one final–and important–point. What do you do when the recognized “authority” (Merriam-Webster in this example) contradicts every other dictionary, including the revered Oxford English Dictionary (even though that’s not considered THE authority for US English)? Well, unless you run into a by-the-book, Merriam-Webster-toting editor, you should go with the majority of trusted sources, particularly if the majority far outweighs the minority as in the sweatshirt case.
We must always recognize that the English language in all its forms is not dictated by some language-legislative committee (as has happened at times in the past), but by how the language is used by its speakers. A good example is the use of who/whom use mentioned above. Here’s an interesting article on this and the state of several longstanding grammar rules that are either already dead or on serious life support.
I hope this clarifies things. I did not intentionally mean to ignore or malign any non-US-English writers, who nevertheless need to be aware of their applicable styles when it comes to submitting their work to editors.