A Word, Please: The distinctive mood a word creates

I don’t know how to spell ambience, which is unfortunate because it comes up a lot in the articles I edit. Perhaps half the articles I edit that use this word write it “ambiance,” and the other half spell it “ambience.” It’s my job to know which one is right. Until recently, I thought I did.

I’ve looked it up quite a few times. When I’m editing for a newspaper, I usually check the online version of “Webster’s New World College Dictionary.” That’s the “Associated Press Stylebook’s” “designated Webster’s” — the source for all matters not covered in the style book itself.

For example, for the choice between “health care” and “healthcare,” AP lists its advice right under the letter H. Go for the two-word version, AP’s 1992 edition says. But AP has no listing for “child care” or “childcare.” So you have to check “Webster’s New World,” which has no listing for the one-word “childcare.” You form the term yourself using words that are in the dictionary: “child care.” (This Webster’s does have a listing for “child-care,” but only as an adjective: child-care center.)

So when I’m editing newspaper articles and can’t remember how to spell ambience/ambiance, I check the style guide. Nothin’ there. So click over to “Webster’s New World,” which has entries for both spellings.

Under “ambiance” it says: “ambiance, also ambience. Noun. The special atmosphere or mood created by a particular environment.’”

But there’s also a listing for “ambience,” which says “ambience. Noun. A particular setting or its distinctive atmosphere.”

The first time I read that, I put a lot of stock in the word “also.” I took it as: “Oh, and here’s the other way it can be spelled,” though it’s not our preference. It seemed the dictionary was advocating the spelling “ambiance.” So I spelled it that way.

But that was when I was editing for a newspaper. I also do work for a magazine, which follows the “Chicago Manual of Style,” which has a different designated dictionary: “Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate.”

“Merriam-Webster’s” doesn’t mince words: “Ambiance” is the variant spelling, this dictionary says. The preferred spelling is “ambience.”

Starting to see why I’ve had to look this up more than once? For a gal who loses her car keys about once a month and sometimes finds her cell phone lying in her driveway, keeping track of this is a challenge. Eventually, I got it down to memory: At the newspaper it’s ambiance, at the magazine it’s ambience.

It was all going smoothly until recently when I was talking with one of the editors I work for at the paper. I was standing at her desk telling her how I arrived at my spelling of “ambiance” and referred her to “Webster’s New World.” But instead of punching up the website on her computer as I do, she reached for the physical edition of the dictionary. Flipping through the A’s, she landed at the page where “ambience” was and where, I thought, “ambiance” should be too. But it wasn’t.

Unlike the online dictionary, which has separate entries for both, the physical dictionary’s only entry is under “ambience.” And only under the E spelling does it mention the A spelling, listing it as an “also spelled.” All the time I thought the online version wanted me to spell it “ambiance” the hard copy was bucking for “ambience.”

There’s an important lesson here. It has to do with technology and research and the importance of being thorough. Too bad it’ll probably be years before I learn it.

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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