A Word, Please: Is it really the right word?

Cruises are a great vacation value. The food, transportation and entertainment are all included in the price. Better yet, the cruise doesn’t have to end when you get off the boat.

Days after disembarking the five-night Celebrity cruise I took with friends last month, I was still rocking and swaying as if the chair below me was the Caribbean sea and my computer was a sloshing soup tureen on a rocking buffet. It’s like nine nights for the price of five.

This bizarre effect on my equilibrium would be great fun if it weren’t for my job. As any editor or proofreader can tell you, catching typos and misspellings on a good day can be tough. But when you’re jerking around like Martin Lawrence in drag, it can be next to impossible.

Just my luck — my first day back to work after my cruise packed in enough tricky typos and bizarre misspellings to mess up even an unswerving proofreader. Consider this sentence: Warm shades of gold and red create a cozy esthetic perfect for an autumn celebration.

See a typo? Well, technically there isn’t one. But in my job, there is. It’s “esthetic,” and it reveals an interesting fact about dictionaries.

Look up “esthetic” in “Webster’s New World College Dictionary” and you will find a listing for this word, which means this spelling is allowed. But in publishing, that’s not good enough. Though a lot of people don’t realize it, many words have more than one accepted spelling.

But dictionaries usually have a preference. For many publishers who need to ensure consistency throughout their works, the dictionary’s preferred spelling is the only correct choice.

How do you know which spelling is preferred? Well, it can be indicated any number of ways. The word “variant” can do the job.

For example, open “Webster’s New World” to “accoutrement,” another word that recently appeared in my proofreading work, and you’ll see “variant of accouterment,” meaning the “re” spelling is the oddball and the “er” spelling is standard.

The words “or” and “also” are sometimes used to indicate that a spelling is not the dictionary’s first preference. And if you open up a dictionary to one spelling of a word and see that its definition is just a different spelling of the word, then you know you’re looking at the unfavored one.

For example, when I look up “esthetic,” I see its first definition is “aesthetic,” and that’s how I knew to change it.

Not every typo I spotted on the rolling waves of my computer screen was as subtle, but even errors like the following could have slipped right past my sea-addled eyes: “Vintage clothing, jewelry and automobiles have been the rage for ions.”

If you noticed that “ions” should have been “eons,” that puts you ahead of both the writer and the editor who read this before I finally caught it, and I’m a little surprised I did.

On the cruise, the fellow passengers at our dinner table included a lovely Colombian couple, with whom I had very little in common besides knowing how to spell Colombian.

Americans, I told them, often replace that second O with a U. And, sure enough, my very first day back I saw in print a reference to “Columbian” people.

The worst typo I came back to was “Black Eyed Pees” instead of “Peas.” Another editor had already caught that one, but barely.

“Never leave us again,” he said. “Look what almost got into print.”

The implication, of course, was that such a horrible near-miss never could have happened with me on the job. I let him think it.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is 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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