29

I am not an American English native (I'm actually a German native speaker) but, when I write, I use the American style of words predominantly. However, I always use aluminium instead of aluminum, following the nomenclature that is used by all the rest of the world save for the US and Canada. It is also was the only valid IUPAC name between 1990 and 1993, since when aluminum is allowed as an acceptable variant1, but IUPAC publications strive to use the official aluminium variant.

Is it ok to break with AE and choose the BE/international version with this one word only (in a non-scientific text)?

Non-scientific means in this context any text that is not a scientific publication, among others fiction or blog posts.


Footnotes

1 - Connelly, Neil G.; Damhus, Ture, eds. (2005): Nomenclature of Inorganic Chemistry: IUPAC recommendations 2005, p249: Table I Names, symbols and atomic numbers of the elements (see also Section IR-3.1)

Name           Symbol  Atomic Number
aluminiuma       Al               13

In said table's footnotes:

a: the alternative spelling aluminum is commonly used


This is not British / American language mishmash as this one just aims at one specific instance of one specific term and not a general "mix and match". This one case also is not looked at in the other question.

  • Is your text following the other sources where "aluminium" is predominately used? – Alexander Jan 21 at 21:30
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    FWIW, this is a very hard difference to spot in written text - your readers might not even notice unless you draw attention to it. (I speak BrE, and when reading the Mistborn trilogy by AmE writer Brandon Sanderson, in which the word aluminium is used a lot, I got as far as book 3 before even noticing the "aluminum" spelling - and when I did notice, I assumed it was a typo until noticing even later that it was consistently spelled that way.) – Rand al'Thor Jan 22 at 9:21
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    @Randal'Thor For a Canadian perspective, I didn't even realize that there were two spellings until I was much older than I would care to admit. I always just thought there as a weird pronunciation tick when some people called it "aluminium". That "i" doesn't really stand out to me. When I see either word I immediately just think of the element regardless. – JMac Jan 22 at 17:26
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    99% of your readers won't notice one way or anohter – Azor Ahai Jan 22 at 17:42
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    Despite the standard existing, isn't Aluminum the one that came first, and first coined after criticism of a previous version and in not in the US? Thus IUPAC claiming Aluminium being the "more right" one is just pointless gate-keeping? – opa Jan 22 at 21:09
6

(Academic Copyeditor here)

I see no problems; you have a good justification. If this is your text (your blog, a self-published book), you're done, though you might want to add a footnote etc. to explain why you're using that spelling.

If someone else will publish the text, you should talk to your editor AND make a note in the text. Talk to the editor because they may or may not have liberty with house style, and if it's a multi-author volume or a journal, they will want to keep things consistent. Make a note because the copyeditor may or may not notice that this is deliberate, and may or may not change it – once you flag it as deliberate, they're likely to leave it alone, respectively you can change it back if you have the editor's backing.

  • Interestingly, Tolkien had to do something very similar for his spelling 'elven' instead of the then-common 'elfin' (as well as several other similar examples). Being a professor of philology, he knew better how the word should be spelled, and stood his ground. The form stuck. – Galastel Jan 21 at 22:01
29

Since you have a real-world justification, why not use that same justification in your fictional setting?

If you want to make it a thing, have a character say "aluminum" and the other characters can eyeroll or correct as per their personalities.

You could also have your infodump characters be from an international organization, and thereby set the standard for communication.

You can also have the individual characters use the word they would be most comfortable with. I doubt readers would be confused any more than if you used "metre" or "colour". (I realize it is actually more than just a variant spelling, but there is little chance the meaning would be mistaken.)

My answer is the same for your narrator/narrative voice. Use what you feel is natural, or use the version that empathizes with the MC.

  • 5
    I'd be less confused by "aluminium" than I would by "metre" or "colour". "Aluminium" is pronounced differently from "aluminum" so it's easy to understand why that word was used (the character--or at least the author--speaks that way). If "metre" was used in an otherwise American-English text, I'd have no idea why that spelling was chosen since the words are pronounced exactly the same way. – Daniel Jan 22 at 15:35
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    Of course, if it is fiction, and your American main character insists on saying "aluminium foil", you should be prepared for readers to eyeroll at the irritating character trait. (It would be slightly less weird if your main character is a chemist who's actually referring to the element rather than a beer can or other everyday item, and completely un-weird for a German writing a blog in their own voice.) – 1006a Jan 22 at 20:18
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    Similar to Daniel, I would find "aluminium" less jarring than "metre" - I don't read every letter of every word and likely wouldn't even notice the extra "i" in aluminium, whereas "metre" screams British to me. – Peter Olson Jan 22 at 21:06
  • This may be hard to pull off. I always read aluminum as alumnium. It took many seconds of eyeballing to figure out which one was which. I think you'd have to resort to something like aloo-min-um and al-u-min-e-um if the difference was narratively relevant. – Nathan Cooper Jan 23 at 12:07
17

In a non-scientific text (or in a scientific text, for that matter,) you should really keep it consistent. If you're otherwise using British English, then 'Aluminium' will look perfectly normal, just like 'colour' or 'metre.' However, if you're writing in American English, it will look weird, just as 'colour' or 'metre' would in an otherwise-American text.

Unless you have some reason why the use of this spelling should actually be important to your story, using a spelling that is not consistent with the rest of your text will look jarring and will distract your reader from the story.

Of course, if you actually want the distinction to be important in your story, then that's another matter. In that case, you can have your characters draw attention to the difference and have them discuss the use of one variety over the other.


As a side note, mentioning that this spelling is 'only' used in the USA and Canada really doesn't help the argument much, as the same argument could be made for all of American English. And, even if being used against all of AmE, it's still a poor argument in light of the fact that around 40% of all English speakers and over two thirds of all native English speakers worldwide speak the American variety. Both the American spellings and the British ones are used by very large percentages of English speakers, so trying to dismiss either one is kind of silly. Just pick one or the other and then be consistent unless there's a good reason for the spelling to deviate from the accepted one in the dialect of your text.

  • 5
    It's true that "over two thirds of all native English speakers worldwide speak the American variety", but this is disingenuous, as there are plenty who speak fluent English as their second language. The total number of English speakers globally is 1.18 billion, with (in order) 283 million in the USA, 259 million within the European Union, 125 million in India, 92 million in the Philippines and 79 million in Nigeria. There are more English speakers in Germany (45 million) than in Canada (30 million)! – Chappo Jan 22 at 1:28
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    @Chappo I wasn't saying that over half of all total English speakers speak AmE. I was just saying that it's kind of silly to say 'just' the U.S. and Canada use a particular spelling when that's over two thirds of all native speakers. – reirab Jan 22 at 4:53
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    @Chappo This isn't exactly the strongest data point, but I'm Canadian and I would spell and pronounce "aluminum" the AmE way. In general, I'd say our pronunciation matches AmE, and our spelling is split somewhat inconsistently between the English variants. – camerondm9 Jan 22 at 5:20
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    @Chappo We would generally think of ourselves as using Canadian English. In some contexts/industries it will be closer to British English, and in others it will be closer to American English, but we have enough unique words, slang, and exceptions to the rules (from mashing the other English variants together) that our English is different from the other variants. See Wikipedia for a list of some of our uniquenesses. – camerondm9 Jan 22 at 6:22
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    @camerondm9 Canadian generally uses the British spelling rules (or at least that's how they were teaching it like 10 years ago); but aluminum is a bit of the odd one out. We use the "American" spelling for aluminum for some reason. I'm totally okay with that though, since aluminum saves us a syllable while the usual spelling rules have no bearing on that. – JMac Jan 22 at 17:31
8

Yes. It's your story, so it's okay. And I can't be the only American who wasn't all that aware of the difference and whose eyes gloss over the two (I can only see them as different now that you've pointed it out to me, though I was dimly aware before, and now I understand why Brits pronounce it so strangely).

Be aware though:

  1. Your publisher may ask you to change it. Fortunately, it's a super quick change to do globally no matter how long your work.

  2. When an American looks at your text inside any program with a spellchecker, it lights up like a Christmas tree.

4

If it is a scientific article, or scientific text, then by all means use the most precise term. In this case that would be either Aluminium or Aluminum. Pick the one that you prefer and be consistent in your text.

If it is for fiction or a vulgarization essay, then unless you have other reasons to do so, use the term that your readers will find most fitting. In this case that would be Aluminum.

PS Note that precision and consistency in scientific writing is not negotiable.

  • 4
    "Aluminum" is perfectly acceptable in a formal scientific context. It is unambiguous and officially accepted by IUPAC (unlike other alternate spellings like "sulphur" and "cesium"), so it is no less precise than "aluminium". Although strictly speaking what's acceptable is up to the journal editor. – eyeballfrog Jan 21 at 16:42
  • Fair enough. I disagree on the last sentence. It is not up to the editor to define nomenclature standards. – NofP Jan 21 at 17:35
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    @NofP The nomenclature Standard is aluminium, any publication by IUPAC reads Aluminium. It is however allowable to use aluminum and not have it rejected by other agencies. – Trish Jan 21 at 20:19
  • @Trish while I was taught to use Aluminium, following eyeballfrog comment I actually checked what are the common uses in the scientific chemistry community. It turns out that acceptable means synonym, and not a lower standard pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/aluminum atsdr.cdc.gov/phs/phs.asp?id=1076&tid=34 and scholar.google.co.uk gives ~300k results for aluminum in titles and ~180k for aluminium, with good peace for whatever acceptable means. – NofP Jan 21 at 23:03
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    @NofP America was supposed to start using "Aluminium" (the name given to the element in 1812, by the person who discovered it) as part of a deal with the IUPAC in 1990, whereby the rest of the world agreed to call Element 16 "Sulfur" instead of "Sulphur" (from the Latin "Sulpur"). Within 3 years, the USA had already reneged on their end, and the IUPAC basically said "sod it" and listed it as a "variant"... – Chronocidal Jan 22 at 20:30
4

It's a minor difference, so I wouldn't get hung up on it. If it's an issue for a publisher, it's easy to fix. I do a similar thing with the word "gray", because the street I grew up on had the word "grey" included in it, meaning that I always spell it wrong according to American English. Nobody aside from Microsoft Word's spellchecker has ever given me trouble-- or, I suspect, even noticed.

-2

Aluminum comes from the word alumina and is the name chosen by the Humphry Davy in 1812 and published throughout the world. "Aluminium" only exists because Thomas Young misspelled it. It's not a color vs colour issue.

The US and Canada were fighting each other in a bloody war at the time, but they both received the correct spelling from across the Atlantic ocean.

Edit:

Aluminum is the One True Spelling of the word.

  • 3
    So to be clear, your answer to the question is, "no, it's never okay to use 'aluminium'"? Even though that's the spelling promoted by IUPAC? – F1Krazy Jan 21 at 21:53
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    This could be a very relevant comment, but it doesn't actually answer the question. – Galastel Jan 21 at 21:57
  • @F1Krazy - Correct – IKM Jan 21 at 22:09
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    According to my info, Thomas Young did 1812 a deliberate decision to propose the better sound of Aluminium. This spelling caught on better in the US and was used by virtually all US Scientists until the mid-1830s (at wich point aluminum became popular via culture and one dictionary) and was still dominant in science till 1895. IUPAC did explicitly forbid to use aluminum between 1990 and 1993. – Trish Jan 21 at 22:26
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    Check out the wikipedia talk page archives for aluminum, if you want to blow a few hours reading a holy battle. Neither side will ever admit they're wrong... especially the brits :) – kbelder Jan 22 at 0:16

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