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Spelling, hyphenating, and acronyms

Canadian spelling is funny, sometimes we use -our at the end of words like the British do, and sometimes we end words with -izes like the Americans do. Spelling is another of our careless-or-clueless trio, and requires special attention in Canada.

Historically of course, English came from Great Britain and the British Empire that at one time covered roughly one quarter of the earth. From around 1600, the English colonization of North America resulted in the creation of a distinct variety of English. As English continued to change in Great Britain, it remained static in the colonies. This is why, for example, that we use trash and the British use rubbish. At the time of colonization, French had already influenced English, including introducing the -our endings (which looked like the French -eur endings) and -re endings. While some of these began changing in Britain, they remained here.

After the forming of the United States in 1776, Noah Webster spent decades writing the Compendious Dictionary of the English Language, the first dictionary of English for the United States. In this publication he introduced American spellings of words like center rather than centre, honor rather than honour, and program rather than programme. He intentionally distinguished his new country’s language from that of Great Britain. Canadians, in an attempt to remain distinct from our neighbours to the south, firmly adopted many of the British spellings. Sir John A. Macdonald, for example, in 1890 issued an Order in Council that “the English practice be uniformly followed” in official documents. This resulted in our continued use of honour, colour, theatre and centre instead of using the -or and -er forms.

Among the best resources to figure out how we in Canada should spell, are the following:

  • The CP Style Guide, which states that it uses “the spelling most commonly found across the country.”
  • The Canadian Oxford Dictionary.
  • The Canadian Style, the Canadian government’s guide to good English.

The CP Style Guide promotes “the spelling most commonly found across the country,” and offers these general guidelines.

1. We prefer -ize/yze over -ise/yse, with a few exceptions analyse and advertise.

agonize, amortize, apologize, apprize, anodize, antagonize, brutalize, characterize, centralize, criticize, departmentalize, economize, emphasize, familiarize, finalize, formalize, generalize, harmonize, hospitalize, industrialize, jeopardize, localize, materialize, rationalize

2. We prefer -ce endings over -se endings.

defence, licence (noun, verb is license), offence, practice (noun, verb is practise)

3. We double the -l at the end of words when adding a suffix.

cancelled, fuelling, modelled, rivalled, totalled, travelled

4. We prefer -our over –or.

colour, endeavour, favour, harbour, honour, labour, neighbour, rumour

As a principle, the CP spelling follows the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, and where it gives alternative spellings, the CP style is the first spelling used, unless shown otherwise in CP Caps and Spelling.


Hyphenating words to some seems like a dark art, but in reality the rules are fairly simple. You should however keep a dictionary close to help decide when the non-hyphenated form is commonly accepted.

a. We hyphenated compound nouns

This is of course unless the dictionary shows that the combined word compound is now acceptable. If the compound word is not found in the dictionary, then treat them as two separate words.

honky-tonk, humdrum, Hydro-Quebec, hydroelectric, interaction interdependence

b. We hyphenate compound adjectives

Words that function together as an adjective should be hyphenated, provided that they come before the noun. If they come after the noun, do not hyphenate them. But, do not hyphenate words ending in -ly.

… add a new double-circuit line …, … line 1043L is a double circuit.

c. We hyphenate to prefix a proper noun

anti-Trudeau, French-Canadian


Acronyms are a words formed from the letters of other words, and they are everywhere in our language. They come in three forms:

Acronyms can be formed from only the first letter of each word are capitalized.

NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), NERC (North American Electric Reliability Corporation)

Acronyms can be formed from initial and other letters in each word are mixed case.

Dofasco (Dominion Foundries and Steel Corp),

Acronyms can become common words that are not capitalized:

laser (light amplification by stimulated emission of radiation), radar (radio detection and ranging)

Here are some rules on usage.

a. First mention

Most of us know the accepted form for first mention of an acronym, spell it our first time and then in parentheses show the acronym. There is no need to capitalize the spelled out form, unless you normally would. Once you have introduced an acronym, do not reintroduce it later in the publication, you will confuse your readers making them think this is a new acronym.

… the average daily volume (ADV) of water flowing through the turbine …

However, we never follow this rule when texting; we would look too foolish.

b. Avoid using redundant words with acronyms

We should be able to use the expanded form of the acronym without changing the sentence. For example, the following statement is incorrect: “There is growing concern about the rapid spread of the HIV virus.”

Since HIV stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus, this statement really states is: “This is a growing concern about the rapid spread of the human immunodeficiency virus virus.

c. Plural, possessive, and plural possessive forms

The plural form of an acronym to add -s, not -‘s, the possessive for of an acronym is -‘s, and the plural, possessive form is -s’.

Recordable DVDs are now more widely available.

A recordable DVD’s compatibility with different types of players may vary.

Most DVDs’ recording times are between four and six hours.


Acronyms are pronounced as if they are real words, such as AESO, NIMBY, and WECC. Initialisms on the other hand can’t (or shouldn’t) be pronounced as if they are real words. Instead we say each letter.

FYI is pronounced F-Y-I, PR is pronounced P-R, RSVP is pronounced R-S-V-P

last updated: August 15, 2013
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