Spelling Variation in This Is How You Lose the Time War (Part 1)

A book, This Is How You Lose the Time War, sitting on a wooden desk with a poster that lists Canadian spellings

Ensuring an author has been consistent with their spelling is a big part of copy editing. We editors are usually told to follow a particular dictionary or a particular style guide’s word list. And, when faced with a word with multiple accepted spellings, the rule is usually “consistency is key” or, more bluntly, “just pick one and stick with it.”

Yet, in This Is How You Lose the Time War by Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone, you’ll come across armor (American) and neighbour (British or Canadian), theater (American) and centre (British or Canadian), and—perhaps even more unique—both color and colour, both harbor and harbouring, and both gray and grey. So what’s going on here?

In this mini case study, I’ll answer that question by examining the use of American, Canadian, and British spellings in El-Mohtar and Gladstone’s award-winning novella and propose some explanations for this departure from a copy editing norm.

Cover of This Is How You Lose the Time War, which shows a fractured image of a red cardinal and a blue bird

Title: This Is How You Lose the Time War
Authors: Amal El-Mohtar & Max Gladstone
ISBN: 1534431004
Publisher: Saga Press

English Spelling

English contains many dialects and has developed differently in different regions. This has resulted in slight variations in English orthography, the most recognized variations being between American and British English.

Most of the differences between American and British spelling come from before standardized spelling was developed. (A “British standard” began to emerge with Samual Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language, which was published in 1755. In the US, an “American standard” grew from Noah Webster’s 1828 publication of An American Dictionary of the English Language.)

Between the two, there are a few common categories of spelling variation:

  • -or/-our
  • -er/-re
  • -ize/-ise and -yze/-yse
  • -l/-ll before endings

Canadians who are used to reading books imported from the US and Britain are often quite aware of these variations, especially because Canadian spelling—thanks to historical ties to Britain and geographical ties to the US—takes cues from both (and in many cases, will accept either spelling).

Other former colonies have their own dictionaries as well (hi, Australia!), but I’m limiting this study to American, British, and Canadian spelling for two reasons: 1. Ease of analysis, and 2. Nationality of the authors (Gladstone is American, and El-Mohtar is Canadian).

Checking Spelling Consistency in This Is How You Lose the Time War

To check the consistency of spelling in This Is How You Lose the Time War, I’ve used the variant spellings tables in Editing Canadian English (3rd edition) to search the novella. I’ve then recorded all instances of each variant and their locations.

The following is a list of words used in Time War for which variant spellings are possible:

acknowledgment/acknowledgement armor/armour
behavior/behaviour
catalog/catalogue
center/centre
color/colour
defense/defence
favor/favour
fiber/fibre
flavor/flavour
gray/grey
harbor/harbour
humor/humour
judgment/judgement
labor/labour
maneuver/manoeuvre marvelous/marvellous
meter/metre (unit)
mold/mould
neighbor/neighbour
odor/odour
plow/plough
pretense/pretence
savor/savour
sizable/sizeable
splendor/splendour
theater/theatre
traveled/travelled traveler/traveller
(Strikethrough text indicates a variant that does not exist within Time War.)


Within Time War, 29 words with possible variants occur. But of these 29, there are 19 cases in which only a single variant is present within the text.

AmericanBritishAmerican/CanadianBritish/Canadian
acknowledgement
armor
behavior
defense
humor
judgement
labor
maneuver
mold
odor
theater
traveler
sizeable











pretense
plow










neighbour
splendour
centre
catalogue








Of these 19 single-variant cases, 12 words use a variant unique to American spelling, 1 word uses a variant unique to British spelling, 2 words use a shared American/Canadian variant, and 4 words use a shared British/Canadian variant.

The 10 remaining words have multiple variants present within Time War. These variants are either American or shared British/Canadian.

color/colour
favor/favour
fiber/fibre
flavor/flavour
gray/grey
harbor/harbour
marvelous/marvellous

meter/metre
savor/savour
traveled/travelled

(Bolded text indicates a solely American variant. Regular type indicates a shared British/Canadian variant.)


It’s clear from including armor and neighbour and theater and centre that Time War isn’t following a single dictionary (or at least not the first spellings in the dictionaries used to construct Editing Canadian English’s variant spelling tables). Nor does the book follow a single rule about -or/-our and -er/-re endings. The 10 multiple variant words complicate matters further. So where is the consistency?

Where These Variants Appear

If we were to look only at the single-variant words in the novella, we might guess at a slight preference for American spelling (especially if we include the shared Canadian/American words). A preference for American spelling with a few odd British or British/Canadian spellings might be attributed to author preference, but what about the 10 multiple-variant words?

Looking at where variants of the same words occur can help answer our consistency question.

The novella is a dual perspective narrative that features two characters, Red and Blue, on opposite sides of a war who fall in love as they cross paths and write letters to one another. Most chapters start with third-person limited narration focused on one of the protagonists and end with a letter written by the other.

In the following tables, I’ve listed every instance of the 10 multiple-variant words and where they occur (chapter number and character perspective). The first table shows the American variants while the second shows the shared British/Canadian variants.

Variant
(American)
InstancesChapterPerspective
color91
7
10
13
17
17
19
21
21
Red (narration)
Red (narration)
Red (letter)
Red (narration)
Red (narration)
Red (narration)
Red (narration)
Red (narration)
Red (narration)
favor1Readers GuideNot applicable
fiber17Red (narration)
flavor114Red (narration)
gray81
5
17
17
24
25
25
25
Red (narration)
Red (narration)
Red (narration)
Red (narration)
Red (narration)
Red (narration)
Red (narration)
Red (narration)
harbor14Red (letter)
marvelous12Red (letter)
meter13Red (narration)
savor26
6
Red (letter)
Red (letter)
traveled19Red (narration)
Variant
(British/Canadian)
InstancesChapterPerspective
colours106
7
11
12
12
12
13
16
18
18
Blue (narration)
Blue (letter)
Blue (letter)
Blue (narration)
Blue (narration)
Blue (narration)
Blue (letter)
Blue (narration)
Blue (narration)
Blue (narration)
favour28
18
Blue (narration)
Blue (narration)
fibre48
11
13
20
Blue (narration)
Blue (letter)
Blue (letter)
Blue (narration)
flavour120Blue (narration)
grey38
12
20
Blue (narration)
Blue (narration)
Blue (narration)
harbour13Blue (letter)
marvellous27
22
Blue (letter)
Blue (narration)
metre24
4
Blue (narration)
Blue (narration)
savour22
7
Blue (narration)
Blue (letter)
travelled23
15
Blue (letter)
Blue (letter)

This is where a pattern emerges: The American spellings appear in Red’s sections and British/Canadian spellings appear in Blue’s sections.

There’s one exception: a single use of the double-L marvellous in a Red section. It reads: “Chatterton, that Marvellous Boy.” And it’s in italics because it isn’t regular narration; it’s Red remembering Blue’s letter from chapter 7, which contains that same line. This may explain the presence of marvellous in a Red section.

Let’s look at the locations for the single-variant words to see if the pattern holds.

Variant (AmericanInstancesChapterPerspective
armor51
11
14
24
24
Red (narration)
Blue (letter)
Red (letter)
Red (narration)
Red (narration)
acknowledgment2Acknowledgements
Acknowledgements
Not applicable
Not applicable
behavior117Red (narration)
defense217
24
Blue (letter)
Red (narration)
humor33
6
Acknowledgement
Red (narration)
Red (letter)
Not applicable
judgment13Red (narration)
labor119Red (narration)
maneuver113Blue (letter)
mold214
23
Blue (narration)
Red (narration)
odor117Red (narration)
theatre113Red (narration)
traveler35
10
19
Red (narration)
Red (letter)
Red (narration)
Variant (British)InstancesChapterPerspective
sizeable112Blue (narration)
Variant (American/Canadian)InstancesChapterPerspective
pretense213
13
Blue (letter)
Blue (letter)
plow17Red (narration)
Variant (British/Canadian)InstancesChapterPerspective
catalogue120Blue (narration)
centre34
4
4
Blue (narration)
Blue (narration)
Blue (narration)
neighbour213
25
Blue (letter)
Blue (letter)
splendour17Blue (letter)

The pattern of Red sections following American spelling seems to holds with the single-variant words. However, Blue sections get a bit more complicated.

There are a few notable instances of Blue sections using American spelling as appose to a British or Canadian spelling:

  • Armor in chapter 11
  • Defense in chapter 17
  • Maneuver in chapter 13
  • Mold in chapter 14

One might consider the use of sizeable in chapter 12 (in a Blue section) an outlier as well because it is the only instance of a British variant rather than a shared British/Canadian variant. In Editing Canadian English, sizable is the preferred Canadian variant (matching the American variant).

These outliers might be preference (especially since no alternative spellings appear within the text itself). They could be mistakes (we all make them). But there’s something they all share: they all appear in the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, just not as the first accepted spelling. Armor, defense, maneuver, and sizeable are all listed as alternatives, and mold has its own entry that lists it as a variation of mould.

One might argue that armor, defense, maneuver, and mold are also in the British Concise Oxford Dictionary, so they could be considered British. And that’s true, but they are listed there as “US spellings,” which doesn’t show as much acceptance as simply listing them as alternative spellings or variations in my opinion. The same goes for the American/Canadian variants pretense and plow, the former of which is also used in a Blue section in chapter 13. They are there, but listed as American.

Conclusions

By looking at the location of spelling variants in This Is How You Lose the Time War, we see that among the multiple-variant words, there is a clear pattern of sections from Red’s perspective using American spelling and sections from Blue’s perspective using British/Canadian spelling.

Among the single-variant words, there is a mix of American, British, shared American/Canadian, and shared British/Canadian spellings. With a few outliers, the pattern identified among the multiple-variant words holds true for the single-variant words: Red tends to use American spelling and Blue, British/Canadian.

However, the outliers are all alternative Canadian spellings. These, paired with the use of the shared American/Canadian spelling of pretense in Blue’s letter in chapter 13, allow for refining our original pattern: Red sections use American Spelling and Blue sections use Canadian spelling.

Thus, what might appear as spelling inconsistency in Time War is actually much more consistent than initial impressions.

But why bother with this pattern at all? In part 2 of this case study, I’ll look at the function of spelling variation in This Is How You Lose the Time War.

1 thought on “Spelling Variation in This Is How You Lose the Time War (Part 1)”

  1. Pingback: Spelling Variation in This Is How You Lose the Time War (Part 2) - Shelf Potential

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