How We Love Spelling

IMG_0138The illustration at left is from my local walk-in medical clinic, where I finally went after the New Year’s Cold persisted for two weeks. (I’m better now, thanks.) It interests me not only because of the continuing debate about doubled consonants, but also because of its implied narrative.

First, the debate (which isn’t much of a debate). Generally speaking, doubling or not doubling the consonant at the ended of a two-syllable word with the accent on the first syllable is regarded as one of those British versus American style questions. The Brits double; the Americans don’t; and the Brits may stop doubling soon if the Internet has its way. So, for Americans, it’s traveling, canceled, and focuses; for Brits, travelling, cancelled, and focusses. Then we have a word like bus, to which some of us have trouble adding a suffix without doubling the consonant. People complain that busing, for instance, rhymes with abusing. (Others counter that busses would refer to more than one kiss.) My own quibble here is that verbs like rat, mar, and thin double their consonants before most suffixes. Perhaps short vowel + s proves the exception. When I went looking for a one-syllable word that rhymes with bus, the only one I found with a single s was pus, which always doubles the s before suffixes, at least according to Ngrams. (Readers, can you come up with another example?)

The New Yorker, always looking to stand out from the rest of America while insisting on its Americanness (or is that Americaness?), continues to double the consonants regardless, as Mary Norris has hilariously pointed out. And like any so-called rule of spelling, exceptions abound. Kidnap and suntan, for instance, follow an accent pattern similar to cancel, but you don’t find much kidnaping or suntaning going on.

But the debate, may it rage, is not really what drew me to snap the picture of this little sign in the exam room at the clinic. Rather, I think of the others who waited there before me to have their sprains, fevers, and cuts examined. One person saw the word traveled and thought she would help the benighted poster by correcting the spelling. The next person came along, saw the penciled correction, and one-upped the first correcter by pointing out contemporary usage.

I have been reading the gargantuan fiction of William T. Vollman, who, in his quest for authenticity, uses all the variant spellings he can find when he refers, say, to the Iroquois Indians (Yroquois, Irocois, Irikhoiw). The journals and letters he’s researched, after all, unguided by dictionaries or style manuals, spell not only that name but dozens of other words according to the writer’s accent or whim. Not any longer. John Q. Citizen may love or hate spelling, but he usually has very firm ideas about it. Updating those ideas, or allowing that it could go either way, does not sit well with most of us. Talk to anyone who really, really prefers grey over gray, or bussing over busing, and you’ll find that even when we understand variable spellings, our preferences remain consistent and strong. How many times have those of you who teach about language had acquaintances or strangers ask you to validate their view of a “proper” spelling or spelling rule? And how many have found that, regardless of what you say, your interlocutor’s view reasserts itself?

I know this observation has as its corollary certain widespread misunderstandings of spelling, as there are wide misunderstandings of grammar. At the same time, I found the emendations on the sign in the exam room refreshing. They mean people are still focusing — focussing — well, anyhow, they still care about this stuff.


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