According to The Longman Student Grammar of English (Biber et al., 2002 Pearson Education ESL), “orthographic words” are words

that we are familiar with in written language, where they are separated by spaces

The authors then give an example:

They wrote us a letter.

which contains five orthographic words.

What about words that have the same meaning yet different spelling? Are the examples provided in the title of this question, color and colour, therefore two different orthographic words?

  • 1
    They are poorer examples of 'different orthographic words' than 'bow' as in arrows and 'bow' as in genuflection. Many would say they're 'spelling variants of the same word'. But the word 'word' is ill-defined. Probably, David Crystal would say that 'color' and 'colour' are not different lexemes. Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 16:52
  • @EdwinAshworth Would that apply to skate (blade under a foot) and skate (flatfish) which have the same spelling and pronunciation but have different meanings and etymology? These seem to be different orthographic words but look and sound identical.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 20:06
  • I'd say so. But if you look up duck[1] and duck[2] at AHDEL, it is arguable that the etymologies are close enough to argue for homonymy rather than polysemy – yet AHDEL gives them as different headwords. // 'Orthographic words' is usually used to disambiguate between say 'ink well' (a compound noun written as two orthographic words) and the solid variant 'inkwell'; they're the same lexeme. Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 20:19
  • I deliberately chose skate because both meanings are nouns. I would think that words which appear to be orthographic but are different parts of speech are not orthographic by definition.
    – BoldBen
    Commented Sep 25, 2016 at 22:23
  • Please, why would you confuse such a simple question even by introducing BrE and AmE , let alone orthographics? Your initial research should have shown you that neither “color” nor “colour” is strictly a neologism, Anglicism or Americanism. Webster’s and Oxford, for two, acknowledge that both were acceptable; perhaps equally common, in Britain at the time of the American colonisation. Why each became more popular on one side of the Atlantic is hardly relevant… they are the same word and have always been optional spellings. Commented Oct 8, 2016 at 21:27

1 Answer 1


Tom McArthur, editor of The Oxford Companion to the English Language, says the two variants represent the same orthographic word:

On occasion, the orthographic word has canonical forms for different varieties within English: BrE colour and AmE color ('the same word' in two visual forms).

--(Living Words: Languages, Leicography, and the Knowledge Revolution, Tom McArthur, University of Exeter Press, 1998, pg. 45)

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