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Reactive spelling
Thursday, December 6, 2007   4:23 PM

I cringe whenever I see the phrase "common misspelling." Not because I'm an orthographic radical (though I suppose I am, in comparison to the general public), but because the misspelling in question is usually a perfectly acceptable-looking variant.

Last week Blogslot spotted a "very common misspelling" in USA Today: an article titled "Typos can lead you to imposter credit sites."

The preferred spelling is (of course?) impostor. And personally, I do prefer impostor, just as I prefer advisor to the uglier, less common, utterly abominable adviser. (Curse you AP!)

While I was able to find some good guidelines for telling -er words from -or words, there's no overriding logic at work here, just memorization and educated guesswork.

In this case we're talking about a very common misspelling indeed: imposter gets about 3/4 of the Google hits that impostor does. The Columbia Guide to Standard American English says, "Impostor is the more common spelling, but imposter is also acceptable." And while my dictionary doesn't acknowledge imposter as a variant spelling, it does use this spelling in one of its entries.

Even if you think that the spelling imposter is "wrong," it's not obviously wrong.

The imposter spelling is less common, but it's nevertheless reasonable and well-attested. There are plenty of variant spellings that are, at worst, credible guesses. Contrast these with a more creative misspelling like impaustor: I don't think Joe Greengrocer should be ridiculed for using it, but it's WTF for me. Not because it's not in the original OED that Moses brought down from the mountain, but because it's so unfamiliar.

However, just to be clear: imposter is an error in that headline. A copy editor has a responsibility to catch nonstandard spellings, for conformity's sake if for no other reason, and the sin here is even greater if it was the copy editor who introduced this error. It's the idea that this is a matter of correct vs. incorrect spelling, rather than preferences and style, that I take issue with.

Regret the Error recently posted a correction that incorporated this irksome One Spelling To Rule Them All mindset. From the Chicago Tribune:

In the editorial "Spelling, 21st-Century style" on Tuesday, the wrong phrases were used to demonstrate how the Oxford University Press updated its dictionary. The phrases should have been "free rein" and the new entry "free reign" — not "rein in" and "reign in." Also, the dictionary includes some misspelled or misused words because they are so common or have a historical precedent, not because they are correct.

I'm no lexicographer, but I'm pretty sure that dictionaries don't include any words because they're correct. Though it'd be interesting to know what the prescriptivist source of objective Correct Spelling is, if even their dictionaries can betray them.

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