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Spell It Right

by D.B. Pacini of www.astarrynightproductions.com, Writer’s Relief Client

I serve as a writing mentor for teens and young adults. Fairly frequently, with the desire to be unique, a young person will intentionally spell a word differently than the generally accepted spelling. This is fine in special cases, but I feel it is unwise in most.  For example, if a character is portrayed as a street thug, I don’t have a problem with him speaking in slang. If a character is portrayed as a country-folk person, “I’m gittin’ ready to fix supper” works.

Recently a young writer wished to spell “skillfully” as “skilfully,” and I advised against it. She provided no reason for the spelling to her reader. She told me that it is an accepted spelling in the dictionary, so she wanted to use it. Although skilfully is indeed an accepted spelling alternate, it is not commonly used in literature, medical, or scholarly text. I believe that most readers will think skilfully is a misspelling and book editors will mark it as a misspelling. Unless this young writer has a specific reason for the unusual spelling, that is obvious to her reader, I think she should use the standard spelling.

When I intentionally use an unusual word, unique expression, or atypical spelling, I make sure that the reason is obvious. An excellent case in point is the current trendy expression: My bad. It is slang and is used to apologize for a mistake. Example: “Sorry, my bad! I forgot to tell you he called and left a message.” This relatively new expression is enjoying huge popularity. Consequently, it is used in a number of TV commercials and TV shows. Actors as young as kindergartners and as old as great-grandparents are saying it to the cameras.

Bottom-line point: We may use any words, expressions, and unusual spellings we wish if we do so wisely and if our readers can easily understand our reasons and our intentions.

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5 Responses to Spell It Right

  1. I agree with all these points of view. Living in Canada, I lean toward the British “skilfully.” However writing to a primarily US audience on my blog and in other publications, I always use US spellings.

  2. Shannon Murphy is right and it would appear more worldly-wise! In this international age of communication it would indeed be wise to take account of variant spellings betwixt/between American English and English English. Best wishes, Rob from the UK

  3. Thanks, Shannon! You bring up an interesting issue.

    Since Writer’s Relief targets American publishers and literary agents, we adhere to US publishing standards (and we advise our clients who target US publishers to do the same).

    "Unusual" is certainly a matter of perspective–"skilfully" is usual in some places but is unusual on this side of the pond!

  4. Just to clarify, skilfully with a single ‘l’ is the traditional English spelling of the word. Skillfully with a double ‘l’ is the more recent American version. Under the circumstances I believe it is odd to refer to the traditional spelling as unusual whilst naming the more recent variation as the standard.

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