Q&A: Canvas vs canvass

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week we wish we're touching on something that can often be a pain in the canvass…

Q: Hi AWC, I've been thinking of getting into painting and wanted your opinion.

A: That sounds great – we were just reading about breaking creative droughts.

Q: Yeah, well I've been asking a few friends what they think. It seemed a good idea to “canvas them about my canvas obsession”! Hahahahaaaaa…

A: Um.

Q: Get it? It's a play on words!

A: More of a one-act play. And not the good kind. The kind you get free tickets to and now can't leave because there's only one other person in the audience.

Q: Okay, what are you talking about?

A: Your gleeful play on words was flawed.

Q: I'm floored that you would think it was flawed. Did I use too many Ss in “obsession”? I can take one out.

A: Nope, that was fine. It's the word “canvas”.

Q: Yes, okay I see. You're probably only familiar with the noun – like what you paint on, but there is also a verb…

A: We're the Australian Writers' Centre – OF COURSE we know there's a verb!

Q: You're in a very strange mood today AWC.

A: Allow us to explain, as it's a common mistake. “Canvas” – with one S – is the noun and can mean a heavy, closely woven fabric that tents and sails are made from. Also it's what you paint on, along with a more figurative backdrop meaning – for example, “the events in Europe are taking place against a canvas of volatility”.

Q: My uncle got me a tent for Christmas. Oh wait, sorry, I meant that my uncle is here right now gifting me a tent.

A: What ARE you talking about?

Q: Present tents. Haha.

A: Oh dear.

Q: Okay anyway. So what about my “canvas” meaning of going around asking for opinions, like politicians and confused artists do? You haven't mentioned that yet.

A: That's because you need an extra S.

Q: Can I take one from “obsession”?

A: Leave obsession alone and just get a new one. The word is “canvass” when used as a verb – the main definition of which is to examine, survey or discuss thoroughly. And it also means to solicit votes, like what politicians do.

Q: Politicians: putting the “ass” into “canvass”. Oh my, I really am hilarious. Wait, hilari-ass!

A: We're just going to wait for you to finish.

Q: Okay, finished now.

A: So that's all there is to it. If you're talking about the noun, use one S. For the verb, use two.

Q: That's such a simple rule. I love it. In fact, I'm going to paint a picture about it. I'm seeing tents and sails and bowls of fruit…

A: Future tents?

Q: I make the jokes around here.

If you have a grammar gripe or punctuation puzzle that you’d like our Q&A to explore, email it to us today!

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