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A Word, Please: Is it really the right word?

December 03, 2011|By June Casagrande

Cruises are a great vacation value. The food, transportation and entertainment are all included in the price. Better yet, the cruise doesn’t have to end when you get off the boat.

Days after disembarking the five-night Celebrity cruise I took with friends last month, I was still rocking and swaying as if the chair below me was the Caribbean sea and my computer was a sloshing soup tureen on a rocking buffet. It’s like nine nights for the price of five.

This bizarre effect on my equilibrium would be great fun if it weren’t for my job. As any editor or proofreader can tell you, catching typos and misspellings on a good day can be tough. But when you’re jerking around like Martin Lawrence in drag, it can be next to impossible.

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Just my luck — my first day back to work after my cruise packed in enough tricky typos and bizarre misspellings to mess up even an unswerving proofreader. Consider this sentence: Warm shades of gold and red create a cozy esthetic perfect for an autumn celebration.

See a typo? Well, technically there isn’t one. But in my job, there is. It’s “esthetic,” and it reveals an interesting fact about dictionaries.

Look up “esthetic” in “Webster’s New World College Dictionary” and you will find a listing for this word, which means this spelling is allowed. But in publishing, that’s not good enough. Though a lot of people don’t realize it, many words have more than one accepted spelling.

But dictionaries usually have a preference. For many publishers who need to ensure consistency throughout their works, the dictionary’s preferred spelling is the only correct choice.

How do you know which spelling is preferred? Well, it can be indicated any number of ways. The word “variant” can do the job.

For example, open “Webster’s New World” to “accoutrement,” another word that recently appeared in my proofreading work, and you’ll see “variant of accouterment,” meaning the “re” spelling is the oddball and the “er” spelling is standard.

The words “or” and “also” are sometimes used to indicate that a spelling is not the dictionary’s first preference. And if you open up a dictionary to one spelling of a word and see that its definition is just a different spelling of the word, then you know you’re looking at the unfavored one.

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