Oh Canada!

I’ve noticed from reading the comments on my interviews and guest posts that some people are surprised to realize I’m Canadian. It’s true! I’ve lived here (in the city of Toronto), quite happily, my whole life.

You generally won’t be able to tell it from my writing, though. I learned way back when I first started submitting short stories to US magazines that it was much easier to use US spellings than to worry that an editor would think I didn’t know how to spell. These days I switch back and forth almost automatically: when I’m writing prose, or writing for a general audience (like here on the blog), I type “center” instead of “centre” and “color” instead of “colour” automatically.

There are also a bunch of US-isms that are different from Canada, some of which I already knew and some of which my editor and copy-editor caught. A few that come up frequently:

Eh. Yep, Canadians say this all the time. It’s a very handy syllable that turns any sentence into a question, inviting the listener to agree. “Quite the storm, eh?” “Wish you’d thought of that earlier, eh?” I still get the urge to have my characters use this in dialogue.

Money. We haven’t had one dollar bills in Canada since… I can’t even remember when. And our two dollar bills were discontinued back when I was in high school. These days we have coins called loonies and toonies. So when writing a story theoretically set in the States, I have to remember to switch back to bills.

Grades. Here in Canada (at least, any part I’m familiar with) we don’t use freshman/sophomore/junior/senior to divide up the grades in high school. “Freshman” gets used occasionally in university/college but nowhere near as often as in the US. When we say “juniors” and “seniors” it usually refers to a wide segment of the school (e.g., in an elementary school grades 1-3 will be primary students and 4-6 junior students; at my high school students in grades 11 & 12 were all called “senior students”).

I would also say “grade one” or “grade eleven,” whereas I’ve learned from the editing process that apparently you all south of the border would say “first grade” and “eleventh grade.”

Non-class periods. Around here we have “spares” or “spare periods” in high school. If you don’t need a full course load in a given year (usually your last) to graduate, most people would choose to have a spare. During your spare you could go wherever you wanted (in or out of the school) and do whatever you wanted. If it was the last period of the day, you could head home.

Is there an equivalent in the US? From what I understand, the closest is study hall.

You might wonder, why do I bother to go to the trouble of swapping phrases and spelling? Why not just write all my stories set in Canada?

I’ll talk about that tomorrow. 🙂

Second post is now up!


Oh Canada! — 12 Comments

  1. I went to high school in Florida, and at least in our county the older high school students (mostly 11th and 12th grade) could do something called OJT, or On the Job Training. If you had a part-time job, you could take OJT (instead of an elective) for every five hours you worked a week. These OJT periods were basically free periods. You had to prove you were working by turning stuff in (I don’t know what, because I never took it), but you could find the teacher in charge throughout the day. Most students took it first period to sleep in, sixth period to leave early, or fourth period to have lunch off-campus. But other than that, Study Hall was our only equivalent to the spare periods.

    • We have something like OJT there! Except it’s more structured–it’s organized through the school. It’s called co-op: you get two periods together either at the beginning or the end of the day when you go into a workplace and are basically an intern. I never did it myself but knew others who did.

  2. And don’t have your characters wearing a toque unless you want the reader to think your character is wearing a French pastry on their head. By the way a toboggan to people in Texas is what they call a toque! (Can you imagine a Canadian reading that someone pulled their toboggan over their hair?) Seriously! (Thanks to my Texan critique partners for pointing that out in my stories)

  3. Fascinating! I have a lot of friends in CAN (by virtue of my hockey obsession), and they didn’t mention a lot of these differences to me! 🙂 Of course, it helps that I never asked.

    As for the “free period” (or spare, as you indicate it’s called), my cousin just goes home early (she’s a senior in high school here). 🙂

    I look forward to tomorrow’s post!


    • It’s interesting to see the variations even in different parts of the US (some people have said where they live, they don’t have “free” periods at all)!

  4. Hi Megan 🙂
    I do that too!
    I learned to use American English when I first started submitting short stories and my bible at the time (Writers’ Digest) said use it only. (Before Internet or anything like that. I was still in grade school).
    I didn’t know about swapping grade one and first grade.
    All the best,
    Thanks for the fun post,

  5. I went to an American school for one year back in the seventies. I wasn’t aware of so many differences in terminology!

    Most of my books are set in Canada or have a Canadian main character, so I stuck to the Canadian spelling most of the time. American copy editors must have thought I was a bad speller but they got used to it LOL!

    Nowadays I find myself switching to American spelling in my WIPs, if only to avoid those annoying squiggly red lines in Microsoft Word.

    Still, I can be rather stubborn when it comes to Canadian spelling while commenting on blogs!

  6. Fascinating! I love how the English language can differ based on region. I am American, but I often use Canadian/English spelling (centre, theatre, colour, etc.). I don’t know why—it’s just a weird tic, I think.

    As other people have mentioned: free periods = spares in high school.

    I think “eh?” might be a uniquely Canadian tic (although I know some people from the US Midwest who also say “eh?”), but other English-speaking people have similar language quirks. I found a lot of Brits using “innit” in much the same way when I lived there (“Terrible storm, innit?”). Parts of the US also substitute “eh” with their own regional variations; I’ve heard “right?” and “yeah?” stuck to the ends of statements. 🙂

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