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Spelling Variation in This Is How You Lose the Time War (Part 2)

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

In part 1 of this case study, we determined that what initially appears as spelling inconsistency in This Is How You Lose The Time War is actually a pattern. Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar employ different spellings depending on point of view: Red sections use American spelling, Blue sections use Canadian.

But so what? Why include this spelling variation, especially when many readers probably won’t notice or care—or worse, will see it as an error?

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

Why Include Spelling Variation?

It’s unlikely that a book that’s gone through multiple rounds of editing would have as much spelling variation as This Is How You Lose the Time War does. It must be there for a reason, so let’s look at why it might be there.


Showing Respect for Authors and Readers

One of the reasons I believe spelling variation may have been included in the novella is that the author. Gladstone, who is American, wrote all the Red letters, and El-Mohtar, a Canadian, wrote Blue’s. Assuming that each author naturally writes with their respective country’s spelling, including both spellings would have ensured neither had to conform to the other. It exemplifies their partnership, and hopefully made writing a bit easier.

I also like to think the spelling variation shows respect for Canadian spelling and Canadian readers. Canadian books often use American spelling to sell better in US markets (where readers may not have as much familiarity with Canadian or British English), so we Canadians don’t always see our own spelling in trade books. This book allows us that, without alienating American readers.

It’s a nice reflection of the cross-border partnership of the authors and the cross-border readership.

Narrative and World Building

Though authorship and readership are valid reasons for including spelling variation, it is perhaps more interesting to know there is an in-book purpose for using both American and Canadian spelling: it reinforces the narrative.

First, switching between the two modes of spelling is another way to differentiate between Red and Blue. It signals the perspective shift while subtly enforcing character identity. Red wears armor, not armour. Blue savours her victories; she doesn’t savor. Red experiences flavor, but Blue experiences flavour.

We could easily leave this examination at this. Spelling is indeed a fun indicator of character difference. But if we think about it a bit more, we can see how these slight differences also play into the word building of Time War.

In part 1 of this case study, I wrote about how British spelling and American spelling became standardized at different times and about how Canadian English is influence by both. Just as Britain, the US, and Canada have developed language differently, so too have the world’s of Red and Blue.

Red’s Agency and Blue’s Garden are different powers. Each has their own style of fighting and their own way of viewing life. It just makes sense these differences would be reflected in their language.

It might even make sense for Red and Blue to have entirely different languages. But a multilingual novel might restrict readership, so varying spelling is a great way to suggest divergent language development without losing readers.

A shared language also suggests that Red and Blue’s respective cultures do have some shared or similar aspects, which makes sense if we consider them alternative realities.

Furthermore, in a novel that has time threads, sumac seed letters, and all kinds of fantastic elements, mirroring real life spelling variations has a grounding effect. It’s similar to the inclusion of real people, things, and events. It reminds us that, yes, we’re dealing with alternative universes, but they are alternatives to our own.

Why It Works

Of course, not every book can or should try to pull off spelling variation. In a novel told from a single perspective, having multiple different spellings within the same chapter might be distracting. It could even be mistaken for error.

It works in Time War for three reasons:

  • Structure
  • Format
  • Consistency


The dual perspectives of Time War provide a structure that allows for easy switching between Canadian and American spelling. Because readers already need to switch between Red and Blue, the spelling variations draw less attention and feel like just another difference between characters.


The epistolary nature of the novella also works well with the inclusion of varied spelling. Spelling is seen more than heard, so showing spelling differences between characters makes particular sense in a story that is partially told via letter writing. (Though not impossible to do, varying spelling in dialogue would make a bit less sense because dialogue is heard rather than seen.)


As I showed in the tables in part 1 of this case study, there is a pattern to Time War’s use of spelling variation. Different variants are used based on character perspective, and they do not appear within the same sections. In other words, spelling in Time War is consistently inconsistent, and that consistency shows purpose.

To further illustrate why purpose and consistency are key for using spelling variation, let’s look at an example.

The following sentence appears in chapter 25:

“But when she’s not in use, the world’s this cell, this box: gray walls meeting overhead; a flat gray floor; rounded corners.”

If the second gray was spelled with an E, it might catch a reader’s eye and cause them to stop and question the different spelling. Is there something about the floor that requires a different spelling than the gray of the walls? No. In this example, the spelling difference wouldn’t aid the story. It would just seem like inconsistency. It would seem like a mistake. Following a pattern and varying spelling only when it makes narrative sense is much more effective.

What You Should Take From Time War’s Use of Spelling Variation

The spelling variation in Gladstone and El-Mohtar’s novella is a small detail with subtle effects, so much so that most of the readers I’ve talked to didn’t notice it. (This could be because they’re all Canadians who are used to adapting to different spellings.) So, why should we take note of it?

Well, I’ve already described how it adds to the story, and that itself is noteworthy. But I’m writing about it not (entirely) because it’s a cool way to differentiate between characters or build a world. I’m writing about it because it subverts a writing norm. And it’s always good to remember that writing “rules” don’t always need to be followed.

It’s also good to remember that even the tiniest of details can affect how your stories are interpreted. The spelling variation in Time War might not mean something to all readers, but it creates an even richer experience for those who notice it. And, an enriched reader is more likely to remember you (and buy your next books!).

So, if you’re taking anything from all this, I hope it’s this: there is value in approaching even small details with purpose.

1 thought on “Spelling Variation in This Is How You Lose the Time War (Part 2)”

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

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