Dictionary spellings and variants

Preferred spellingsWhen the dictionary lists more than one spelling of a word, which one should you use? I like to use the preferred spelling.

Do you know which of these common words is preferred? I know only because I’ve had to look them up for books I’ve edited over the past few years that the favored spellings are barbecue, doughnut, and drive-through. If you look these up in the dictionary, you will find, for instance, “barbecue also barbeque.” What does that also mean? Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary: Eleventh Edition, says, “When another spelling is joined to the main entry by the word also, the spelling after also occurs appreciably less often and thus is considered a secondary variant.”

Sometimes, though, you’ll find two words listed and joined by or, not also. The dictionary notes, “When a main entry is followed by the word or and another spelling, the two spellings occur with equal or nearly equal frequency and can be considered equal variants. Both are standard, and either one may be used according to personal inclination.” An example from the color world? “Ocher or ochre.” Either is fine, and my “personal inclination” is to use ochre.

Do you use preferred spellings? Did you know there was such a thing?

Why I 💗 the dictionary

As a writer and editor, I have learned that the dictionary is one of my best friends. Unfortunately, I had for many years let our friendship slide, but when I started editing fiction, I realized I needed to get back in touch. The dictionary and I have been BFFs ever since.

Is it a “red brick” building or a “redbrick” building? Should I write that “construction of the new road is underway” or “construction of the new road is under way”? I thought I knew the correct answers, but for many years, I did not. Now I turn to my all-knowing friend, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and lo and behold, there are the answers.

Perhaps I’m fortunate since I was a spelling bee champion from an early age, having earned one of the few social rewards for being a young bookworm. Today, I can spot some errors rather easily. Each Christmas, it kills me (figuratively, not literally) that so many books and magazine articles mention hanging stockings on the “mantle.” A mantle is a sleeveless garment worn over other clothes, a cloak. Why are people hanging their stockings on their cloaks? That shelf above the fireplace is a “mantel.” The dictionary explains all this to those who take the time to look. Good writers look.

But even good writers—and don’t we all aim to be in that category?—aren’t perfect. I shared something recently on my personal Facebook page and mentioned “the books in my Kindle cue.” I vaguely recall looking at the sentence for a half second and thinking, “Cue? Did I spell cue correctly?” And yes, I did spell “cue” correctly. But the next time I glanced at my page, I immediately realized that “cue” was the wrong word. I meant to say “the books in my Kindle queue.” (“Cue” and “queue” are homophones, which will be a topic for another blog post.) So thank goodness we can edit Facebook posts! And thanks to my friend the dictionary, I have the correct words, and the spellings of those words, at my fingertips.