Spelling in Context: Choosing Variants

Nine puppies of various colors are squeezed side by side into a wagon.

Variant spellings take a toll on editors everywhere. The minutes tick away whenever we leave our documents (as we often do) in search of the answer to that age-old question: What’s the preferred spelling of this word?

The problem is compounded by the fact that many spelling variations don’t count as wrong.

For example, let’s say you’re editing a story about a tsar and his imposter that ends with a promise of more in a future instalment and that thanks everyone in the acknowledgements. Because you’ve paid close attention to Word’s spelling and grammar checker—and because none of those words got flagged as wrong—you’re not too worried about them.

The good news is that those four words—though none would be considered Chicago style—are all in the dictionary. The bad news is that the story includes not only a tsar but a czarina. Worse, it gets published like that. And even if everyone manages to do a better job with the second installment (in which the author uses the acknowledgments to thank the editor who replaced you and to explain that an impostor must have written that first story), it’s too late for you.

And there are a lot of these words.

Supplementing Word’s Spell-Check with PerfectIt

Microsoft Word’s spelling and grammar checker is an essential tool, but it won’t find everything. That’s why editors keep track of what they do with style sheets—lists of words that should be treated a certain way. But that kind of style sheet is best for recording exceptions: words that don’t follow your preferred style. They’re not meant simply to remind you that there are only two e’s in “acknowledgments.”

Enter PerfectIt, the proofreading add-in for Word that we introduced to our readers last year. PerfectIt starts by keeping track of consistency.

For example, PerfectIt would have found three of the mismatched pairs in the opening section of this post: imposter/​‌impostor, instalment/​‌installment, and acknowledgements/​‌acknowledgments. But it would have skipped over “tsar” and “czarina,” because those words aren’t similar enough to trigger the check.

Those two words would also be skipped by each of PerfectIt’s built-in spelling checks, which are designed to enforce US, UK, Canadian, or Australian spelling rules. A preference for “czar” over “tsar” (or vice versa) isn’t necessarily regional. But PerfectIt can help with other words.

For example, of the 900 or so spellings that PerfectIt will flag as potential errors when you run its US spelling check, more than 200 would be ignored by Word. This means that for every five words like “behaviour” and “fibre” and “gaol” and “pyjamas” and “storey”—all of which would be caught by the US spelling checks in both Word and PerfectIt—at least one will slip through Word without that program’s telltale red or blue underline to remind you it might be wrong.

These include words like “distil” and “fulfil” and “grey” and “homoeopath”—and “acknowledgements” and “instalment”— that are common in US English but not as common as the first-listed versions of these terms in a US dictionary like Merriam-Webster (Chicago’s preferred source for spellings).

Even if you use one of these variants consistently, PerfectIt’s US spelling check will step in where Word does not and suggest what is generally considered to be the preferred variant in US English:

Screenshot from PerfectIt showing “Preferred style: distill”; the alternate spelling “distil [found 1 time]”; and a snippet of text from the document (“words like ‘distil’ and ‘fulfil’ and ‘grey’…”), with an option to fix the potential error.

But PerfectIt’s spelling checks aren’t meant to enforce a particular style. That’s where The Chicago Manual of Style for PerfectIt comes in.

Chicago Style for PerfectIt: A Bigger, More Targeted List

When you choose the “Chicago Manual of Style” option in PerfectIt, you get some of the advantages of PerfectIt’s spelling lists but tailored to Chicago style and expanded to include more words.

CMOS recommends using a single dictionary for spelling; this helps ensure a consistent style. Its primary recommendation is the dictionary at Merriam-Webster.com (see CMOS 7.1). Accordingly, each term in Chicago Style for PerfectIt has been checked against Merriam-Webster. For example, if “tsarina” occurs in your document, PerfectIt will suggest “czarina”:

Screenshot from Chicago Style for PerfectIt. “Spelling Variations: Check carefully. Chicago usually prefers the first-listed term in Merriam-Webster.” Includes an option to change “tsarina” to the preferred spelling “czarina.”

If you need more information, you can click “See more from CMOS 7.1” to get an excerpt directly from CMOS:

Screenshot from Chicago Style for PerfectIt. The word “tsarina” is highlighted in a snippet from the document. Above that, the PerfectIt pane shows an excerpt from CMOS paragraph 7.1.

You can follow any of the red links to find out more. Click through to Merriam-Webster.com and you can look up “czarina” for yourself:

Screenshot showing the first few lines of Merriam-Webster's entry for the word "czarina."

But again, normally you won’t have to check the dictionary for yourself; the terms in PerfectIt’s lists have been checked against the latest entries in Merriam-Webster. This includes the more than 2,000 terms that Chicago Style for PerfectIt currently checks for spelling. That should save time and help you keep your focus on your document rather than on the dictionary.

Checking for Chicago Style but UK Spelling

Sometimes you may be working for an author or publisher who follows The Chicago Manual of Style in most things but not spelling, as a number of UK publications do. But even with UK spelling preferences, you’ll still get help from PerfectIt. That’s because many terms that count as spelling variations in Chicago Style for PerfectIt would need attention whether you’re writing in US or UK or another variety of English.

Here’s a small sample of the words it would flag:

coup d’états (should be coups d’état)
curriculums (should be curricula)
expresso (should be espresso)
gingko (should be ginkgo)
restauranteur (should be restaurateur)
seraphs (should be seraphim)
shwa (should be schwa)
thesauruses (should be thesauri)

Some of those words are plurals that can be formed in more than one way. In most such cases, the preference will be the same in US and UK English. When you’re finished running the checks for Chicago style, run PerfectIt a second time but checking only for UK spelling.

If you disagree with any of PerfectIt’s suggestions, click “Next” to skip it and move to the next item. Or maybe your publisher (or an author whose work you’re editing) prefers “tsar” over “czar.” Then you can use PerfectIt to create a new style based on Chicago but edited to reflect those preferences. Many of PerfectIt’s power users keep not just a house style sheet but a style sheet for each project.

You could create a custom dictionary in Word, but it’s generally easier to work with PerfectIt’s lists.

When “Ax” Gained an e: Moving at the Speed of Dictionaries

The world doesn’t stand still and neither do dictionaries. One reason CMOS recommends Merriam-Webster is that it’s frequently updated to reflect the latest usage. But PerfectIt isn’t directly synced to Merriam-Webster, so there’s a chance that one or more of its recommendations will fall out of date.

In the six months following the release of The Chicago Manual of Style for PerfectIt, we’ve been made aware of one such occurrence. Since well before the publication of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary in 1961, Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries have listed “ax” before “axe.” They’ve always been equal variants—and therefore about equally common—but editors who follow Chicago know to pick the first-listed term.

Chicago Style for PerfectIt was therefore configured to look for “axe” and suggest “ax.”

In the latter half of 2021, things changed. Merriam-Webster.com now lists “axe or ax,” the newly ordered entry having appeared sometime after September 14. (We looked at the Wayback Machine to figure this out. Compare this entry from September 14 with this one from November 1.)

Thanks to a PerfectIt user on social media who reported the “ax/axe” problem, PerfectIt has now updated its software to prefer “axe”—a change that will be reflected in a forthcoming PerfectIt update.

Learn More

Most editors have come to depend on spell-check as a kind of safety net, like the ones used by acrobats. But spell-checks are designed for the average user and can’t be edited to enforce a specific style without a lot of work. The Chicago Manual of Style for PerfectIt won’t catch everything, but it is designed for a professional audience that applies Chicago style and needs more than spell-check.

To learn more about Chicago Style for PerfectIt or to apply it on your next document, click for details.

Puppies in wagon by chrt2hrt / Adobe Stock.

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