Language survey

You can find the current survey, Feedback 37, on Spaces and Numbers, here. Please take the time to fill it out. It shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes, and your responses are very valuable to us in gauging current and changing usage among language professionals in Australia (survey closes December 31, 2020).

The report below, by Australian Style’s Editor Adam Smith, is on the last Feedback survey to be run in Australian Style, in 2012, which looked at spelling variation. There’s a a link to that survey here (for your reference only – new submissions won’t be processed).

The spelling variants we looked at were old chestnuts: –er vs -or, as in adapter/adaptor; –or vs –our, as in color/colour; –able vs –eable, as in likable/likeable; –able vs –ible, as in collectable/collectible; the doubling of consonants in verb inflections, as in focusing/focussing; and digraphs, as in encyclopedia/encyclopaedia. There were 102 responses to this survey. The same survey was run in 1998 (Feedback 10), with a much larger return of 609. To get a broader picture of current usage across different regions, I’ve included figures from GloWbE (Global Web-based English) too, which is a corpus of websites (both official, edited sites and non-edited blogs), also from 2012, containing many millions of words for each variety of English. Of course, these types of data can’t be viewed in exactly the same way as what we think we do (as shown in elicited responses to questionnaires) doesn’t always tally with what we actually do in practice.

Table 1 shows the data for the –or vs –our spellings. The Australian Style audience demonstrated an increasing preference for the traditionally British –our over the American-flavoured –or.[1]

Table 1. -or/-our spellings

Table 1


We could interpret this growth in support of the -our spellings as a reaction against perceived Americanisation, particularly on the web, although the lower number of responses for the later survey makes it hard to draw direct comparisons. Looking at the GloWbE data, the regional preferences are not quite as strongly stated, even in the American texts – although the data consistently show the -or spelling to be entrenched across all 3 words. The word that demonstrates the most ambivalence in the Australian and British data is hono(u)r, in both the recent GloWbE figures and the older Feedback.

The –able/-eable choice appears to be a lot less polarised, with regional preferences not so obvious across the data sources, and more variation across the different examples, as shown in Table 2. Likable and sizable both get around a quarter of the votes in the Feedbacks, and it’s interesting that the American component only marginally prefers likable, while showing a strong preference for sizable. There’s marked support for the simpler spelling usable across all regions in GloWbE; the Feedback responses, while certainly backing this up, appear to be lagging behind the trend here.

Table 2. -able/-eable spellings


There’s more evidence for a tendency towards the American preference for simplified spellings when we look at the doubling of consonants in verb inflections, although again the Feedback response is more conservative (Table 3). Focusing and targeting are both at around a 90% rate for the British and Australian components of GloWbE, whereas they don’t get higher than 60–70% in the Feedback returns. Trial(l)ing shows a very different pattern, with the 1998 Feedback data giving even stronger support for the single ‘l’ form than the Americans, although this preference is overturned in the later Feedback results. It’s possible that the preference for not doubling the consonant in focussing and targetting is because of the way the doubling creates internal words (cussing and getting) that might lead to misreadings. This isn’t the case with trialling, although it is odd that the American data abandon the general American preference for the simpler spelling here.

Table 3. Choice of single/double consonants


An even more mixed set is the digraphs, as you can see from Table 4. Even though they both contain the same ancient Greek root (παιδ-, relating both to children and education), encylopaedia seems to be losing the digraph ae in the broad GloWbE data, while paedophile is retaining it. This might be because people are much more pedantic (which really should be paedantic) about prefixes than suffixes, wanting to distinguish between paed– and ped– (meaning ‘foot’, as in pedicure). And it looks as though our Australian Style audience has much more of a classical education than the general public, as they support the digraph in both words – again more strongly in the more recent survey, indicating a reaction to perceived sloppiness, or a more conservative set of respondents than in the earlier Feedback. This preference for the digraph is also marked more strongly in the Feedbacks than in GloWbE for foetus, which may be starting to go the same way as encyclopaedia.

Table 4. Digraphs