By Lana Christian
English is such a weird language.
I didn’t realize how weird until I started teaching writing classes in the mid-1990s. They were meant to be simple four-hour “enrichment” classes for employees at the hospital where I worked. I never dreamed that MDs who were non-native speakers of English would attend my class then pull me aside privately afterwards, saying, “Please, I don’t understand English. I can read it, but I can’t help my fifth-grade daughter with her English homework.”
That’s how weird English is.
But English is hard even when it is our first language. As authors, we need to be acutely aware of that so we can write with precision and keep our readers in the story.
For example, think about words ending in -ogue: catalogue, monologue. (Thank the French for those silent vowels on the end.)
Although other English-speaking countries still spell the word as “catalogue,” America dropped the “-ue” in favor of “catalog.” You’d think America would do the same for other words ending in “-ue.” Nope, that would be too logical.
On this side of the pond, the preferred spelling of “monologue” is still (you guessed it) “monologue.” Merriam-Webster gives a nod to the shorter version as an alternative spelling, so you can write “monolog” if you want.
Our texting society keeps shortening words, so I’m sure “monolog” will eventually creep into common usage … whenever Merriam-Webster decides. (It actually has a committee for that.)
So what happens when you use “catalog” and “monologue” in the same story? I did, and it looked like I was being inconsistent. I sweated bullets over what an agent would think.
“Pedagogue,” “decalogue,” and “synagogue” haven’t even stepped onto the evolutionary escalator. Given the religious significance of the latter two words, don’t hold your breath for those to change.
What to do? Short answer: what your editor tells you to do. If you don’t have an editor yet or are at the querying stage, simply be consistent.
Additionally, if you’re writing for a British audience, heed all the British spellings (examples: “colour,” “encyclopaedia”). Spellzone (written by a U.K. teacher) offers simple charts that compare British with American spellings. If you’re writing historical fiction and your main character is from a British-speaking country, that’s a tougher call. See how other historical fiction writers balance historical accuracy with the mantra “reader first.”
Beyond spelling conundrums: misused words
English is replete with conundrums regardless of what genre you write. For example, when do you use “historic” versus “historical”? Does it matter? Yes.
“Historical” means something that we know happened in the past (as opposed to myth or legend)—like historical medieval literature of the twelfth century. “Historic” means famous, important, or pivotal in history—like the historic Gettysburg address and the historic sites of the Normandy landings on D-Day.
Who can keep all of that straight? Probably only Merriam and Webster. My advice? Never assume. Always look it up. Even if you’re pretty sure of it.
It’s the only way to ensure your writing is squeaky clean and practically perfect in every way for agents, editors, and publishers.
You lavish many months on developing relatable characters and gripping plots. Think of the potential for that work to go sideways if you misspell or misuse words. Affect vs effect. Because vs since. Comprise vs compose. Eminent vs imminent. Farther vs further. (And so many more.) In each case, either word is legitimate—but maybe not for the context in which you place it. MS Word isn’t smart enough to flag such misspelled or misused words.
Several websites offer advice on unsnarling such word problems, but my go-to is Merriam-Webster’s Online Unabridged Dictionary. It includes thorough explanations and examples of those pesky word pairings that could submarine you if you chose poorly. It also shows primary versus alternative spellings, has a thesaurus, lists the first known usage of each word, and much more.
Einstein said, “Never memorize something that you can look up.” I’m with him when it comes to making sure I write right despite how weird English is!
Lana Christian is the author of the biblical fiction series The Magi’s Encounters. It answers the question, “What happened to the Wise Men?” She’s won several ACFW awards for the first book, which she is now querying. She’s convinced that hiking or sipping steaming chai tea can solve most problems—but she knows God can solve every problem. Find her on Chistianwriters.com and follow her blog at lanachristian.com/blog. You can also find her on Twitter @LanaCwrites.
This post is part of the Writers’ Room, a collaborative writing advice column by Christian writers.