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A Word, Please: Advisor or adviser? Dictionaries differ on advice

Have you ever noticed that some publications write “advisor” while others write “adviser”?

If so, you’ve noticed that it happens a lot — so much that you’ve probably figured out that neither spelling is a mistake. No way would half the professional publishing world spell a word wrong every time they use it. Indeed, it’s no mistake.

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“‘Adviser’ and ‘advisor’ are both correct,” advises Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. “Some people feel that ‘advisor’ is more formal, and it tends to be found more often when applied to official positions, such as an advisor to a president. When referring to someone who is serving in a military role, especially when using the term as a euphemism (as when claiming that troops are actually military advisers), then ‘adviser’ is somewhat more common.”

People guess that the biggest thorn in an editor’s side is bad grammar. It’s not. Grammar errors are easy to spot and fix. Alternative correct spellings, on the other hand, are a never-ending pain in the neck.

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Spell check doesn’t flag them. You have to spot them yourself. And, although most people faced with a choice between “adviser” and “advisor” can’t go wrong, editors can. Part of the job is ensuring consistency. So we have to pick not just a correct spelling but the one that’s been preselected by whatever style we’re following.

Interestingly, in Associated Press Style, the correct spelling is “adviser.” Why? That’s not clear, but it’s probably because AP’s default dictionary, Webster’s New World, has long preferred “adviser.” And because AP influences a lot of newswriting, you may have noticed the “er” spelling in newspapers.

The Chicago Manual of Style, followed by a lot of book and magazine editors, doesn’t express an opinion. They leave it up to their default dictionary, Merriam-Webster, which as we’ve seen has no express opinion on the subject.

But if you’ve spent enough time with your nose in dictionaries, you can tell that Merriam’s does appear to have a preference.

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The dictionary has a listing for “adviser.” The definition: a “variant spelling” of advisor. That suggests they consider the “er” spelling a nonstandard alternative to the standard “advisor.”

Look up advisor, and you get further evidence Merriam’s prefers the “or” spelling. There is no separate listing for “advisor.” Instead, the noun is listed under the main verb that forms its root: advise.

It’s the same treatment they give “thinker,” “dancer” and “squealer.” They’re listed under “think,” “dance” and “squeal,” respectively. Not all noun forms derived from verbs are listed this way. But plenty are, meaning this is a standard way of indicating how to write certain nouns.

Of course, “adviser” and “advisor” are just one pair of correct spellings that editors must either commit to memory or look up in a style guide or dictionary.

Others include “amuck” and “amok,” “ambience” and “ambiance,” “tureen” and “terrine,” “breeches” and “britches,” “brooch” and “broach” (yes, “broach” is really a correct option for a lapel pin) and, of course, the famously confounding choice of “health care” and “healthcare.”

For the record, AP Style has long preferred “health care.” That’s in defiance of their own preferred dictionary, which likes “healthcare.” But it’s in sync with Merriam’s, which prefers “health care.” Use whichever you want. And if you use the two-word form in front of a noun and you think a hyphen makes it clearer, that’s acceptable: “health-care policy.”

For my money, the most interesting both-are-correct pair is probably “predominantly” and “predominately.” It seems a no-brainer to me that “predominately” would be a botched attempt to write “predominantly.” After all, -ly adverbs are often formed based on adjectives: nice, nicely; quick, quickly; clever, cleverly. Predominant is an adjective. The idea of forming an adverb from the verb “predominate” seems bizarre.

Yet “predominately” is acceptable. It just goes to show you why this whole business of multiple correct spellings is a serious annoyance for editors.

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JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Joy of Syntax: A Simple Guide to All the Grammar You Know You Should Know.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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