3.3 Spelling in quoted material

Canadian editors encounter a particular challenge when it comes to spellings in quoted material.

The major American style guides call for leaving spellings in quoted material as they were in the original document rather than changing them to match the style of the new work in which the quote will appear. However, these rules arise from the publishing context of the United States, in which variations in spelling are relatively rare and the reason for them is usually clear to readers (for example, context frequently alerts the reader of an American text when quoted material is British). In Canada, the problem is encountered much more frequently, and its manifestations tend to be less clear-cut. For example, a Canadian book on the elderly might easily include not only passages from American sources discussing “aging” right beside quotes from British experts expounding on “ageing,” but excerpts from multiple Canadian documents, some of which use one spelling and some the other. Even two quotations from the same author’s work might use different spellings because they were originally published in different journals.

As a result, in some Canadian publishing contexts, editors do restyle the spelling of excerpts and quotations to match the style of the main text. The practice may be justified on the grounds that the decisions on spelling style in the quoted material were in all likelihood made by an editor, not the author. Such changes can also be seen as comparable to the minor alterations to typography, capitalization, and punctuation that are standard in all major English-language styles (such as converting French guillemets around a quote to standard English quotation marks, or changing the initial letter of a quotation from capital to lowercase to fit the context in which the quotation appears). Furthermore, the strictness with which original spellings are to be preserved varies even among American style guides: most suggest silently correcting obvious typographical errors (unless their inclusion is important to the point being made in the text); some condone modernizing archaic spellings to make them comprehensible to modern readers; some accept Americanizing British spellings in, for example, elementary school texts.

There are few published style guides specific to the Canadian context (hence the need for Editing Canadian English). Those that do exist are largely silent on the issue, although The Canadian Press Stylebook treats editing spelling style in quotations as a matter of course: “Make only cosmetic changes to quotations from a text: changing spelling and capitalization to Canadian Press style, for example, or fixing typos and other small errors in spelling and punctuation.”

Some Canadian editors, however, believe it inappropriate to ever alter spelling in quoted material. The topic is one on which reasonable professionals can and do disagree.

As with all editorial issues, context matters: academic publications are likely to have a policy of leaving quoted material untouched, whereas trade and educational publishers are more likely to give their editors leeway to edit for consistency depending on the subject matter, the intended audience, and the quantity of quoted material.

We recommend that if any alterations are made to quoted material, that fact be acknowledged: for example, by including the statement “Material quoted from published sources has been copy edited to conform to the style of the text.” Such a statement could be placed in a preface, at the start of a “Works Cited” list, in a footnote, or between parentheses or brackets immediately following the first altered quotation.