Posted: 16 April 2009, 12:15

Some of you who’ve read anything I’ve written online—in a non-work-related context—have noticed my propensity toward spelling in a manner alien to American English palettes. I’ll get notes and tweets from people saying I used a U when spelling colour, or that a word is not spelled with an S—it’s a Z, damn you! Today, a friend wrote on her Twitter account that she was bothered by Americans that spell in this manner; we’re not English, for Pete’s sake!

While I know the post wasn’t meant to start an argument, it got me thinking about the perception that spelling colour with a U, etc., is a uniquely British thing, and more abrasively, that it’s a tool of pretentious hipsters wanting to feel more sophisticated. After all, it is called Queen’s English, right?

Well, while you can call it Queen’s English (QE), one needs to realise that the British empire once covered a sizable portion of the earth. Can I get an amen from the (current and former) Commonwealth folks? These “bizarre” spelling quirks are standard for more than just “English” people—and a word of warning, middle-america, don’t call Brits English unless they actually reside in England, or you might find yourself in an argument with an enraged Welsh, Scottish, Cornish or N. Irish person.

Of course, QE isn’t just limited to the British Isle. As mentioned, Commonwealth nations—those that used to, or still do, refer to the Queen as “head of state“—use QE, albeit with some of their own flavouring. For instance, Canadian English is something of a hybrid between QE and American English, as Joe Clark recounts in his book Organizing Our Marvellous Neighbours: How to Feel Good About Canadian English. If I were to follow me friend’s example, and mocked someone in the States for spelling colour the QE way, I could very well be openly mocking a Canadian who simply drove 2-3 hours south to visit Seattle. Suddenly, I’d be the pretentious one.

Allow me a moment to tackle the pretence issue, at least in my case. As mentioned, I’ve been questioned and mocked due to my spelling, not due to glaring errors, or grammatical mix-ups, but because I spell—and set my computer spell check to run—like an Aussie. I’ve had friends call me pretentious because of it, when of course they should have been labelling me thus for my verbosity, rather than spelling.

My case is that of a young man, finding himself living for a few years in Australia. I have a very adaptive speech pattern (leave me around Texans long enough, I sound sort of Texan, etc), so I was quickly thought of as an Aussie when I met new people. I grew to love the place, and have long considered Melbourne to be my real hometown. After about a year, I found myself doing a lot of office work, organising housing contracts and the like. Soon after, I realised that people dealt with me in a different manner when I came across—in writing—as homegrown Aussie. Sticking to American spelling was holding me back, so I switched over, doing my damnest to learn the ins and outs.

My visa expired and I found myself in Utah, being teased by family members due to the lingering accent. That soon faded, and when I started writing papers at my university, I found myself in a dilema: writing colour as “color” suddenly didn’t feel right. I still called my phone my mobile and parked my car in a car park, so why should I have to change this? It wasn’t incorrect, after all, and no one at a real university would mark a student down for using correct spelling of a different nation, so I decided to stick with it.

Now that I work in the world of user experience, and often find myself writing copy meant for clear user education to largely American audiences, I put on my work hat and write with American English spelling, but only when in that role. It’s just as with writing usable CSS: as much as you may hate it, it was defined using American spelling, so you can’t change a colour without writing color:.

Therefore, when I’m working, I spell as the needs require, just as you might write a blurb of marketing text for something you’d never personally buy—for instance, I did marketing for high end motorcycles at one time. You adjust your preferences to get your job done.

When I’m done wearing the work hat, I take it off and spell the way I feel, the way that ingrained itself deep in my head. I remain thoughtful and follow the rules of comprehension and grammar, as best my understanding, but I spell as though I were still an Aussie.

In a world of the dumbed-down Internet English, where a person enamoured of another might tweet “@exampleperson your teh sex” and never receive flack for it, how is it that it’s acceptable to mock technically correct, albeit foreign, spelling?