Chesterfields, Boundaries, and Colours oh my!

An international existence can be messy. I’m Canadian, but at work American English is the language of our documentation. However, I work for a German company so there are European standards everywhere in our systems. On this blog I’ll mix things up depending on my mood, but the rest of the time, things can get oh so very confusing.

Canada is officially metric, but if you go to the grocery store, the fresh produce is often labeled in pounds, and when you go to the cashier and the machine might calculate the kilogram price, despite the label. Ask a Canadian their height, and they’ll likely give you feet and inches (few people know their height in centimeters) but ask for distance, and you’ll get an answer in kilometers not miles.

When it comes to writing, there are differences in spelling. Commonly, you see the -our words, like colour (Canada) vs color (US). There are also the -re words, for example theatre (CANADA) vs theater (US). Let’s not forget the -s instead of -z words, for example realise (Canada) vs realize (US) – Thanks Maimoona for reminding me about this last one!

There are also words completely different in use. Here’s a short list of examples:

Canada USA
runners sneakers / tennis shoes
pop soda / pop
chesterfield (rarely used now) sofa / couch
boundary border
railway railroad
pencil crayons colored pencils
queue lineup

What about European standards? This drives me a little batty every time I see it:

1,543,124.00 (North America)  vs. 1.543.124,00 (Europe)

The first time I had to enter my time sheet, I couldn’t figure out why the computer kept rejecting my decimal points. Now I know better, but it still feels weird to use a comma instead of a dot.

When it comes to writing fiction, I find make a choice up front between Canadian or American spellings. Not every submission market cares, though most are located in the US. I fight with my computer language settings constantly as I switch between the two by necessity, and sometimes I think its easier just to shut spell check off.

Another thing that crops up is when writing fantasy is the question of weight and measurement systems. Do I use metric, imperial, or make up some arbitrary distance measure? I have to stop my brain from going to the default, which involves the inconsistent switching between the two systems.

I’m sure there are also regional differences in common word choice.  As much as they are a challenge, these kinds of things fascinate me. Can you think of any examples from where you are?


  1. To be fair to the US on the great soda/pop debate, both those terms are in use colloquially to mean the same thing in different parts of the US. Other options include “Coke” and “Cola” to mean the same thing, even though “Coke” is brand-specific and “Cola” is a subtype of soda/pop. Additionally, I was initially raised on “soda-pop”… though I default these days to “soda” as the generic term for carbonated beverages.

    The -or vs. -our and -er vs. -re goes to the split between British English and American (i.e. US, in this instance) English. Although Canada is on the American Continent, you apparently still use British English. I suppose this is probably because Canada gained independence (do you consider yourself independent?) from Britain relatively much later than the US did.

    Many things would be easier if we here in the US would just adopt the metric system and be done with it. (Fewer probes would crash on Mars as a result of such a change, no doubt.) They told me in every science and math class as a kid that this was coming some day… Now that I’m grown I’m still waiting.

    Still, I will never understand the insistence on using a full-stop in a place where a comma is quite evidently much more appropriate. A full-stop between thousands? That’s a bit of a strong statement. Better to use a comma. A comma between parts and wholes? Don’t you think you need a stronger punctuation mark? Say, a full-stop?

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      Yes, the pop-soda thing seems to also be a regional thing,in the states, though I’ve never heard anyone call it soda in Canada.

      As for spellings, it is more in line with British spellings, though there are differences (hence the separate Canadian English language settings in most operating systems) between British, and Canadian spellings and terminology also. As for independence, no, we never gained independence, never fought a war against Britain to separate from the empire, but were instead granted autonomy. Queen Elizabeth is still our queen, and she appears on our coins, though politically the role is mostly ceremonial. Hence, we do not celebrate an independence day, but simply “Canada Day” or officially “Dominion Day”.

      I agree about the punctuation!

  2. I grew up on British English, and frankly, I wish I didn’t. a) People don’t always understand what I say :O b) Strange pronunciations (aluminium, daughter, important, bought). c) Stranger slang (whinger). d) My computer’s inability to recognise British spellings and words (whinger, realise, and like you said, theatre). Though I switch to English UK while writing, I get confused with the quotation marks and pound sign keys. e) Words like ‘dude’ and ‘awesome’ sound strange when I say them. f) Betty Botter bought a bit of bitter butter sounds like a telepathic trip to the Tower of Babel when I say them because I don’t pronounce postvocalic Rs..

    I never knew Canadians still used British spellings and units of measurements, though I did know that Queen Elizabeth is still their queen.

    I must say, the Canadian accent is rather interesting.

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      It’s funny you say that about the accent, because I can’t hear it at all LOL I often wonder how it sounds to other people.

      The fighting with the computer over spellings can get very annoying. I’ve given up on the web browser auto correct, and force myself into American spellings or else everything comes up red.

      Thanks Maimoona! I forgot about the -s words like realise. I bet there are others I’m neglecting at the moment.

      1. Here’s the “Canadian accent” test: When you say “Out,” do you say “Ow-t” (as in “Ow! Charlie!) or do you say “Oot?” The latter will definitely determine your accent. 🙂 (I’ve been to Canada and I must agree with Maimoona…what an intriguing diction y’all have up there!!)

    2. There are also regions in the US that don’t pronounce post-vocalic Rs. (Rhotic versus Non-rhotic accents.) I understand there are regions of Great Britain that do pronounce them, as well. In addition, we have at least one accent here that doesn’t pronounce post-vocalic Rs, but inserts Rs into the word codas of many words that lack an R (the Bostonian accent). So you have “pahk” and “cah” for “park” and “car”, but instead of “soda” or “pop” you’d have “soder”. It’s kind of a mishmash.

  3. Sort of related: I find myself skirting the language issue because I’m writing about Asian culture for a Western audience. But I don’t want the book to be *about* Asian culture; I want that to be the backdrop, something that enriches the story but that you don’t really have to think about. So I’ve made a few conscious decisions to blur the line, sometimes compromising authenticity for story. For example, no one is measuring in “li” — but neither are they using meters or miles. I try to use time instead (which is relatively standard).

    1. Sometimes you have to do that! I’m actually thinking along a similar line right now when it comes to the current novel. I’m not sure if I want to go with li, or something else: finger widths for smaller measures, stones throw, the distance an arrow can fly… but I haven’t decided yet. Time to travel is fairly universal no matter what system of measure is used.

  4. Haha, I’m an American that likes to call her soda “pop,” but I also spell gray “grey.” Theatre is another one I like to use, even though it isn’t the typical American spelling. And would dialogue vs. dialog be another one? I don’t know; I don’t really keep up with these things. All I know is that sometimes the European spellings of some works look better to me, so I use them. (I know, that doesn’t make any sense.)

    I’ve heard “tonic” is used in some parts of the U.S., as well, instead of soda or pop.

    What a crazy world we live in!

    On accents, originally when I was younger I was surrounded by a lot of blacks in the NE U.S. who speak…well, differently than the more general American accent(s?) you might hear on news stations and stuff. But then I moved out Southwest, where there’s generally less blacks, and when I went back to visit the family…they all said I sounded “white.” Haha. Some people thought this was funny while others were almost offended by my new accent and gave me the cold shoulder. “You must be to good to talk like us now.” *attitudinal chin jut followed by slow head turn and roll of eyes*

    I didn’t even realize that my accent had changed until I went back… Talk about reality checks. It’s amazing how one’s accent can color people’s impressions of you before they even get to know you!

    Now, how to play with this kind of stuff in fiction while building cultures…oh, the things you could do. Heheh.

    1. My parents were from the Boston area, and they lived in the NY area from the 1950s on (maybe even the late 1940s), so the accent was long gone. But one day in Massachusetts and my mother’s accent came back like gangbusters. But my father’s didn’t.

      Another regional difference is hero sandwiches. Also called submarine sandwiches (or “subs”) and also “grinders” (and I think there are others that I’m not remembering now).

      I did some research on “dialog,” mostly because a character wanted to complain about it being used as a verb, and I ended up with “dialogging” because it looked less goofy than “dialogueing.” And neither is really a word, so what does it matter?

      Oh, and I spell it “gray” unless I’m talking about Earl Grey, which I’ll be drinking in a few minutes. 🙂

      1. T. S. Bazelli Author

        I wasn’t sure about the ‘hero’ vs. the ‘sub’ until watching a food network show on it. I used to think they were two different kinds of sandwiches somehow. LOL But I think most people call it a sub here?

        And as for dialoging, it’s strange but my spell check doesn’t underline that as wrong spelling! Perhaps it is actually a word.

        Just for aesthetic purposes, the shape of the letters, I prefer ‘grey’ hehe

    2. T. S. Bazelli Author

      Oh the ‘grey’ vs ‘gray’ thing is another one that confuses me constantly (also, ‘jewelry’ vs ‘ jewellery’ both of which are correct according to spell check LOL). Yes on dialogue! Dialogue, catalogue… mostly extra letters.

      Interesting about the accent though! I wouldn’t think it would change that easily, but people adapt quick. Yes you’re right, that would be great to play with in terms of world building!

  5. It’s mostly a “hero” in NY, and a “grinder” in Masschusetts (or at least it used to be).

    Oh, and “toward”/”towards” is another one. “Toward” most often in the U.S., mostly “towards” in the UK.

    My detective character models herself on Nero Wolfe (well, in some ways), so she is strict about some words. No “dialog” as a verb. No “contact” as a verb. “Presently” meaning “in the near future” (not “now). “He” for a person of indeterminate sex. She’s old school.

    I wrote about this some on my blog: http://u-town.com/collins/?p=83 (scroll down to “Some Particular Words”).

  6. Yeah, I always preferred “grey” (and hate that my spellcheckers always underline it) and “dialogue”. They’ve both confused me a bit over the years, because I’ve seen both versions in published works, and never realized what was up with that.

    I’ve heard “towards” frequently in usage on the American side of the pond, though…

      1. I agree, both seem right to me. I’ve never been taught it’s proper use one way or another, but I think I tend to use one or the other differently depending on context, but I can’t really articulate a rule on when I’d use one versus another.

      2. I’ve learned that the way to keep the two in order is that Americans like to take shortcuts, so “Toward” is the American spelling, vs. “Towards” in UK. And I know the distinction has been made already. I Just wanted to share…

      3. And we haven’t even touched on the question of pronounciation. 🙂

        (I thought I was in heaven when I was studying Italian and I learned that once you know the rules, you can pronounce any word you read correctly.)

  7. Just a tip-off for if you’re writing for a US audience: Don’t “Britify” your word usage. I must be honest; I don’t especially like reading books in which kids wear “Nappies,” and ride around in “Prams.” Although as a sidenote confession, I am known to go to the “Loo” every now and then. 😀

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      Hehe though I think it depends on the genre. A writer of steampunk may very well want to Britify. As for me, I’m not always aware which things are British and which are not. I’m sure some things sneak in.

  8. My fun distance localization is Swedish miles (actually mil). They are 10km long. Evidently, the history behind them was the distance one could walk without needing to rest.

    1. T. S. Bazelli Author

      I like that bit of history! It seems strange that a mil would be so long, but I suppose it’s a time+distance measurement all wrapped up together 😉 Thanks for sharing!

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