Spelling Rules Only a Canadian Can Love

girl in a red Canada sweatshirt

Frustrated by your spell-checker? Learn to laugh at those squiggly red lines under our Canadianisms.

Whether you’re a Canadian writer or someone who comes-from-away writing about us, you need to know these spellings and vocabulary unique to canucks (the people, not the hockey team).

We start with a combination of British and American spellings. Then we mix in our own quirks and a heavy dose of Québécois French and Indigenous languages. We welcome newcomers and their languages. No wonder spell-check is confused!

a maple leaf of mixed fall colours on a boardwalk
Fredericton, NB

Canadian school kids enjoy these built-in excuses for mistakes on spelling tests – for you it may be a double-double load of extra work. 

Read on to lighten that load.

The basics: British or American spelling?

We consume American books and online information like a two-four at a bonspiel and never shifted fully to the metric system. Our english language roots are distinctly British though. I mean, I live in a city called London, with a Thames river running through it.

We differentiate ourselves from our neighbours to the south by writing cheques from our chequing accounts and doubling our ll’s in constructions like travelling or cancelled. The most common difference from the US (aside from an imperfect-but-functioning-democracy) is that we include “u” in words like colour, favourite and neighbour.

Not to appear too tight with the British, however, we use the American z in words like analyze and proselytize. We also have programs not programmes and if forced to choose US or British English in a spell-checker, we do better with the US.

But what is correct?

It depends. Both American and British spellings are commonly accepted. You can spell grey or gray, pyjamas or pajamas, and meter or metre. (Not center, though. We cling to our centres.) Large organizations have their own Canadian style guides, as do the press and the government. The Oxford Canadian Dictionary1 features highly in most guides, but it doesn’t have all the answers. If it’s vital that you get it right, hire a Canadian copy editor.

Unique to Canada

The Loony Bin

We have the queen on our money, but our system is dollars and cents not pounds and pence. They’re not American dollars though, the actual bills are a rainbow of Canadian pride.

We are (very!) fond of our one- and two-dollar coins called loonies and toonies. The loonies were named for our national bird, the loon, pictured on the coins. We spent beaucoup de time talking about what to call the two-dollar coin. I voted for doublooney, and the twooney faction put on a good campaign, but we landed on toonie. YES, the singular is spelled toonie. The singular of loonies is loony. Of course. In the interests of national unity, I will avoid ranting about this. Oh, the word rant specifically refers to a famous Newfie, Rick Mercer, wandering through an alleyway speaking truth.

“More Than Meets the Eh” 

(that’s the clever subtitle of Editing Canadian English2)

Our quaint inflection is spelled, eh, and pronounced ay as in hay. It’s not to be confused with aye which you’ll hear in the Maritimes, rhyming with b’y (bye) and meaning yes. B’y (plural, b’ys) means a whole raft of things, often used as “boy” or “guy” but also used in place of eh at times in Newfoundland. Bit of a kerfuffle, eh?

two wooden chairs shaped like fish
Witless Bay, NL

Words about booze have their own category

two-four is a case of 24 beers (some of us pluralize beer), while a twenty-sixer is a bottle of liquor that’s about 26 ounces (typically 750 mL now but the word stuck from our pre-metric days). A twenty-sixer is the same as a fifth in the U.S.A. We also love to sneak a mickey into a hockey game or curling bonspiel – it’s a small flask that fits into the inside pocket of our parkas.

a turquoise lake with trees and hills
Kalamalka Lake, BC

More beverages and food

Mmm coffee is almost as popular as booze. Timmies is what we call the ubiquitous Tim Hortons (there’s no apostrophe in it) coffee and doughnut shops (no donuts here). It’s where we’re likely to order a double-double, a coffee with two sugars and two creams. It’s not where we’d usually go to get poutine, a delicious mix of fries (chips to our British friends), cheese curds and gravy. For the good stuff, we might go to Vieux Montréal, though to be honest, most cities will have a fabulous version – ask the locals, I promise they’re friendly, eh.

Montréal, QC

Who knew?

If you’re a Canadian, don’t use the items below in your content unless you’re flaunting your nationality, which to be honest isn’t very Canadian of you. I was in my fifties and well-travelled before I learned that the rest of the world doesn’t know what a kerfuffle is, so who knows who I confused with it. If you’re not Canadian, enjoy this little cultural exchange, b’ys.

the CN tower and a lamppost
The 6ix
  • The 6ix
    Our famous b’y Drake made the term 6ix equally famous. It refers to Toronto (pronounced Chrawna – that’s a whole other post), the only part of Canada you’re allowed to say bad things about. You can spell it #TheSix but it will seem like you come-from-away – which is okay, we welcome newcomers with open arms.
  • Toque
    Bob and Doug had excellent toques. It rhymes with Luke and is our national hat. 
  • Stagette
    Not sure who came up with this spelling, but it refers to a stag (or bachelor) party, for women. A bachelorette or hen party.
  • Toboggan
    I once unknowingly put a mansplaining European in his place by using this word, forcing him to say he didn’t know what it was. Let me tell you, I SAVOURED spelling it out slowly. I didn’t know then, but it has roots as Canadian as maple syrup, from French and Mi’kmaq origin. It means a sled.
boy on a toboggan
Northern Ontario
  • This isn’t a spelling rule so much as just odd. We call coloured pencils pencil crayons, I don’t know why.
  • Serviette
    I personally love the spelling of this word for napkin. The -ette ending gives it a bit of sass by pretending to be full of class.

What else?

What quirks of Canadian spelling did I miss? What are your favourites? Comment below.

If you’re looking for a local editor, send me a message or read about my services. Take care, eh!

people in a swinging carnival ride against a sky with clouds
Western Fair, London, ON

1 Barber, K. (2001). The Canadian Oxford dictionary / edited by Katherine Barber. Oxford University Press.

Virag, K. (2015). Editing Canadian English: a guide for editors, writers, and everyone who works with words / editor-in-chief: Karen Virag. (Third edition.). Editors’ Association of Canada.

Photo Credits: All by Karen Lowry

2 thoughts on “Spelling Rules Only a Canadian Can Love

  1. Hi Karen. Good friends of ours visited Canada a few years ago. They’d heard poutine was a local delicacy but didn’t know what it was. They decided to order it in a restaurant on their first evening. When the waitress asked if they’d like a side dish with it, they replied “we’ll have some fries, please”. She looked more than a little surprised – obviously they didn’t know why until their order arrived. We still laugh about it.

    1. That’s hilarious, Julie! I’ve even had misunderstandings when travelling in the US – same language… but not quite 😂 Take care 😊

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