A Word, Please: Check spelling with right authorities

If it were possible to tally up all the moments of my life so far, the top activities would probably be watching "Simpsons" reruns, talking to computers over the telephone, and asking fellow diners, "Are you gonna eat that?"

The activity of "swapping the places of the letter E and the letter R" wouldn't make the top three, yet it would nonetheless rank surprisingly high.

"In theatres now!"

"An exciting night of live theatre."

"The festival will take place in the city centre."

Back when a lot of my work was editing entertainment- and retail-related press releases, I spent an impressive chunk of my week moving the Rs and Es in theatre and centre. When, on occasion, I got to talk to the people behind the spelling choices, I got a glimpse into their reasoning.

Many people think theatre is the correct spelling. Others think the theatre is different from a theater. These folks will tell you that theatre refers to the art of or a venue for live stage performance, but theaters are places where movies are shown.

Still others believe that theatre and centre are simply to be rolled out any time you want to sound fancy.

These reasons fell on deaf ears. I changed the theatres to theaters and the centres to centers anyway — but not because they were wrong, per se.

Both theatre and centre are standard spellings in British English. But they also appear in American dictionaries. Webster's New World College Dictionary gives theatre its own entry, where it defines it as a "variant" of theater. As for centre, Webster's notes that it's "chiefly British."

If you know how to speak dictionary, these entries tell you that you can get away with using theatre and centre. But if you speak editor, you can read between the lines of these dictionaries and know that, though these spellings are justifiable, they're not good.

In language, there's often more than one correct way to say or write something. You can have a doughnut or a donut, go toward or towards something, enjoy ambiance or ambience with an advisor or an adviser who's 44 years old or forty-four years old and puts one comma in red, white and blue or two commas in red, white, and blue. All these options are right.

Think about what that means to publishers. Every page of any newspaper, magazine or book could be all over the map. If the publication allowed every permissible spelling and style choice, it would be one big mess.

That's why a major objective of news editing is consistency. Having your ducks in a row shows that yours is a well-run professional organization that takes the time to dot its I's and cross its Ts. It also shows a respect for the reader: Inconsistent spelling and style can be visually disorienting and, at times, downright confusing.

You can see that objective at work in everything from how a publication writes numbers to how it uses commas to whether it uses "healthcare" or "health care." These decisions are often documented in the publisher's house style guide or more widely used guides like the Associated Press Stylebook.

But when it comes to spelling, there are simply too many options to keep track of. So a lot of publications defer to another authority: They always go with the dictionary's preferred spelling — the one that's listed first and without any disclaimers like "variant" or "chiefly British."

What does that mean for writing theater and center? Well, suffice it to say that at least some of the time I've spent on this planet hasn't been a total waste.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences. She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.

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