In Einsohn’s chapter on “Spelling and Hyphenation” from The Copyeditor’s Handbook, she first encourages copyeditors to improve their spelling by “star[ing] at lists of hard words.” Whether she means this as a comical commentary or not, her recommendation does seem to touch on two unfortunate aspects of English spelling: there are indeed “hard words,” and sometimes all you can do is stare at them in order to remember them. No amount of mnemonic devices can help you remember that “idiosyncrasy” is spelled with an ending “s” instead of a “c” while “aristocracy,” “democracy,” and “bureaucracy” each end in the suffix “-cracy.” Even an extensive study of etymology may still leave you puzzling over the blatant anti-phonetic spelling of “colonel” and “corps.” But at least these words have a right-or-wrong answer. Equal variants, much to the copyeditor’s dismay, can be spelled in more than one way. Regarding these, Einsohn offers two guiding principles: follow your style guide and ensure consistency. However, should the burden ever be laid upon a copyeditor to develop their own style guide, are there resources that can help copyeditors make the “right” choices between equally “right” spellings? Dictionaries offer little help, since many of them affirm several spellings of a word as equally correct. However, I would argue that dictionaries ought to help settle more of these debates by reflecting common speech and writing practices and in turn abandoning out-of-date spellings that only further confuse the already-mystifying nature of American English spelling.
After all, early dictionary writers had no qualms about guiding American spelling in its early stages of orthography. Noah Webster, in his Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806), sought to find common ground between the conservative British spellings and the more radical revisions of a few of his contemporaries. He adopted some of the current practices of his day by eliminating several double consonants and double vowels and aiming for brevity when possible. In doing so, Webster solidified many of the American standard spellings we recognize today, and his American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) established itself as authoritative, primarily because of his “ability to select spellings that American printers already favored….” In the absence of a national “academy” for American English, dictionaries have been the primary influence in spelling reforms to date. The precedent set by Webster commissioned dictionaries to strive for a careful balance of descriptivism and standardization in order to remain cogent. While I value the descriptive nature of the dictionary, if it is to remain inherently democratic, it must continue to listen to the voices of the people and adjust itself accordingly.
This is perhaps why several of the equal variants listed by Einsohn became so troubling to me. As I perused the list, I noted that a majority of the variants had asterisks, indicating that “many book publishers have unshakable preferences among these pairs.” If these “industrywide preferences” do exist, then what is it that keeps a word on the equal variant list rather than moving toward the preferred/secondary variant list that Einsohn describes later? And further, why have a preferred/secondary variant list at all unless these variants are reinforced by the industry and common writing practices? In an effort to explore a method for fellow copyeditors to select a preferred equal variant and to illuminate the discrepancies between dictionaries and industry preferences, I chose three variants from Einsohn’s list and consulted both Google Ngram and three dictionaries: the Oxford English Dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and the default dictionary for Google, Dictionary.com. For my searches in Google Ngram, I searched within the “English” corpus. Google Ngram does allow you to select other corpuses, such as “British English,” “American English,” or “English fiction,” however my primary interest was to determine the widest usage of the term, and thus I set “English” as my search criteria.
The first variant paring I chose was “Shakespearean” versus “Shakespearian.” Having never seen the latter in print, I was surprised by the OED’s preference. When searching for “Shakespearean” in the search engine, you are automatically re-routed to the entry for “Shakespearian,” and a note follows which indicates that the variant spelling “Shakespearean” is acceptable. The opposite is true for Dictionary.com: “Shakespearian” is routed to “Shakespearean” with a similar note. The M-W Collegiate shows four spellings in the same entry that are all acceptable: “Shakespearean or Shakespearian also Shaksperean or Shaksperian.”According to Google Ngram, a preference for “Shakespearean” was established at the beginning of the twentieth century, and the divide between these two has grown since then.
Figure 1. Spellings of “Shakespearean” versus “Shakesperian,” 1800–2000.
As you can see in Figure 1, “Shakespearian” continues to taper toward the end of the century.
The next variant pairing I chose was “excludable” versus “excludible.” According to M-W Collegiate, either spelling is acceptable, and both are included in the same entry. Dictionary.com routes the search “excludible” to the entry “excludable,” with a note that the “-ible” suffix is acceptable. Most interesting is the OED’s treatment of the word; “excludible” is not even listed. The suggested entry is “excludable,” and no reference to a variant is given. According to the Google Ngram graph in Figure 2, this strong preference for “excludable” is also apparent.
Figure 2. Spellings of “excludable” versus “excludible,” 1800–2000.
This seems logical, in part because the term “excludability” is only spelled as such and does not have a variant spelling of “excludibility.” It makes one wonder why other dictionaries continue to offer the “-ible” variant as an equally acceptable option, when the industry has largely rejected it and the OED does not acknowledge it.
Lastly, I chose a primary/secondary variant, because I think the discrepancies here are just as apparent and distressing as the equal variants. Regarding the two terms “cancellation” versus “cancelation,” the M-W Collegiate treats them as equals, and both the OED and Dictionary.com re-direct you to the “cancellation” entry. But here, Dictionary.com references the alternative acceptable spelling, but the OED does not. Google Ngram also shows an overwhelming preference for “cancellation” in Figure 3.
Figure 3. Spellings of “cancellation” versus “cancelation,” 1800–2000.
Because of the widespread preference for one of the two variants in each example, there is little chance that the less-predominate spelling will ever overtake the more-predominate spelling. As Einsohn points out, these industry-preferred spellings will continue to reinforce themselves: “The lexicographers’ decision to label a spelling as a secondary variant is based on the prevalence of that spelling in publications from which evidence of usage is culled. But once a spelling is labeled as a secondary variant, it is less likely to appear in print.”And similarly for equal variants, the more publishers that adopt a similar preferred variant, the more likely this variant will continue to be accepted and used.
While I admire these dictionaries’ historical regard for variant spellings, at a certain point they need to retire these outdated spellings in order to reflect the choices of the industry, the publisher, the copyeditor, and the common writer. English spelling is confusing enough. Perhaps it is time for these dictionaries to stop waiving the banner of equality for these variants and pick a side. Clearly the masses have already done so.
 Amy Einsohn, The Copyeditor’s Handbook, 123.
 Richard L. Venezky, “Spelling,” 345.
 Einsohn, 125.
 For each of my three variant searches within Google Ngram, the British English, American English, and English fiction corpuses all show a similar disparity of usage. The most notable departure was the consistent usage of both “Shakespearean” and “Shakespearian” between 1940 and 1960 within the British English corpus, whereas the spelling “Shakespearean” in American English had already taken precedence by this time.
 OED Online, s.v. “Shakespearian, adj. and n,” accessed March 5, 2015, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/177324?redirectedFrom=shakespearean.
 Dictionary.com, s.v. “Shakespearean,” accessed March 4, 2015, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/shakespearean.
 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate(R) Dictionary, s.v. “Shakespearean or Shakespearian Also Shaksperean or Shaksperian 1,” accessed March 4, 2015, http://ezproxy.stthomas.edu/login?qurl=http%3A%2F%2Fsearch.credoreference.com.ezproxy.stthomas.edu%2Fcontent%2Fentry%2Fmwcollegiate%2Fshakespearean_or_shakespearian_also_shaksperean_or_shaksperian_1%2F0.
 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate(R) Dictionary, s.v. “Excludable or Excludible,” accessed March 4, 2015, http://ezproxy.stthomas.edu/login?qurl=http%3A%2F%2Fsearch.credoreference.com.ezproxy.stthomas.edu%2Fcontent%2Fentry%2Fmwcollegiate%2Fexcludable_or_excludible%2F0.
 Dictionary.com, s.v. “excludable,” accessed March 4, 2015, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/excludable.
 OED Online, s.v. “excludable, adj.,” accessed March 05, 2015, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/240919?rskey=QgjXt1&result=1
 Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate(R) Dictionary, s.v. “Cancellation Also Cancelation,” accessed March 5, 2015, http://ezproxy.stthomas.edu/login?qurl=http%3A%2F%2Fsearch.credoreference.com.ezproxy.stthomas.edu%2Fcontent%2Fentry%2Fmwcollegiate%2Fcancellation_also_cancelation%2F0; OED Online, s.v. “cancellation, n.,” accessed March 5, 2015, http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/26926?redirectedFrom=cancellation; Dictionary.com “cancellation.,” accessed March 5, 2015, http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/cancellation.
 Einsohn, 126.
Einsohn, Amy. The Copyeditor’s Handbook: A Guide for Book Publishing and Corporate Communications Third Edition (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2011), 123.
Venezky, Richard L. “Spelling” in The Cambridge History of the English Language. Ed. John Algeo. 1st ed. Vol. 6. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001.), 345. Cambridge Histories Online. http://dx.doi.org.ezproxy.stthomas.edu/10.1017/CHOL9780521264792.011 (accessed March 3, 2015).