Spelling isn’t easy. It’s bad enough we have words that sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings. On top of that, we have words that are spelled differently but mean the same thing! These are known as variant spellings.
What Are Variant Spellings?
Variant spellings occur when a word has more than one accepted spelling. This shouldn’t be confused with regional spellings (such as when the British spell “color” as “colour”). Nor is it quite the same as when a word has an old-fashioned, archaic spelling (such as when “jail” was spelled “gaol”).
A better example is “donut,” which is a modern variation of “doughnut.” The older spelling is still more common in American English, but “donut” has been catching up in recent years (primarily thanks to the success of Dunkin’ Donuts). Importantly, though, both are “correct” spellings of this word.
8 Words with Variant Spellings
Other examples of common words with variant spellings include:
This word has two accepted endings (similar terms include amid/amidst and while/whilst). The “-st” ending is much less common in American English.
The older spelling here is the “ae” one, which is also more common (especially outside America).
There are other words in American English that allow the “ae” variation (e.g., esthetics/aesthetics). But with most similar terms, American English prefers the “e” version (e.g., encyclopedia, not encyclopaedia).
“Axe” is the most common spelling of this word, especially outside North America. But, in American English, “ax” is a common variant.
These spellings are both accepted in American English, but “collectible” is by far the most common.
These are variations of the same word, but “dialog” is more common in relation to computing (e.g., dialog box) and “dialogue” is used when referring to two people talking.
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Similar spelling variations include analog/analogue (with “analog” more common in all contexts) and prolog/prologue (with “prologue” most common).
“Disk” is generally more common than “disc,” but there are some cases where this is reversed. For example, in computing, magnetic storage devices are spelled with a “k” (e.g., floppy disk), but optical storage devices (e.g., a CD or DVD) are “discs.”
“Flyer” is the most common spelling here, but “flier” is also used (especially when referring to something that flies rather than a leaflet advertising something).
“Usable” is by far the most common spelling of this word, but “useable” is also accepted in all regional dialects of English. Nobody is quite sure why.
How to Handle Variant Spellings
The list above isn’t comprehensive, but it should give you an idea of what to look out for with variant spellings. Consistency is key with words like these, so pick one spelling and use it throughout your document.
It’s also vital to proofread your work to make sure everything is consistent (you can use the ‘Find’ function in Microsoft Word to look for variant spellings).
Beyond that, there are two things you can do when confronted with two spellings of the same word:
Check your style guide (if you have one) to see if it specifies a preferred spelling
Use Google’s n-gram viewer to check which spelling is more common
You can then use this to guide your choice about which spelling to use.