Q&A: Impostor or imposter?

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, there's an impostor in our midst…

Q: Hey AWC – you know how lots of writers suffer from “impostor syndrome”?

A: The feeling of not being a real writer? Yes, that’s common.

Q: My Uncle Dan suffered from it. He would sneak into famous authors’ homes late at night and type stories on their typewriters, but never felt that he could pass them off as his own.

A: Okay, that’s a LOT less common. More of an impostor home invasion.

Q: He ended up writing enough stories and got published. But then he got caught.

A: What happened?

Q: They threw the book at him.

A: Oh dear. So, did you actually have a question?

Q: Yes. And it came from an email Lera O. sent originally, wanting to clarify whether it’s spelt “impostor” or “imposter”… Can you help?

A: It’s a great question. But you may not like the answer.

Q: Oh no, English strikes again?

A: Yep. Both words seem happy to coexist in this part of the world.

Q: Please explain.

A: Well, historically “impostor” was always the far more common of the two. That gap closed in the 20th century, as Britain, Australia and New Zealand embraced the “imposter” spelling. Today however, with the American domination online etc, “impostor” has widened the gap and is most common everywhere once more – except, curiously, in Australia and New Zealand.

Q: Well that IS curious. If I were a monkey, I’d be called George. So what does the Macquarie Dictionary have to say about all this?

A: Well, here’s where things get fun. Despite both spellings being common here, they list only ONE version: “impostor” – defined as “someone who imposes fraudulently on others”

Q: Well, I suppose that settles it then.

A: We do recommend spelling it “impostor”. But plenty of readers may be in shock right now, having used “imposter” their whole life – only to find out that it was, in fact, the impostor.

Q: Nice.

A: Thanks. And yet, many other dictionaries around the world recognise both words (albeit with “impostor” listed first). Just not ours.

Q: That’s very un-Australian.

A: Fair dinkum.

Q: I think my Uncle Derek is an impostor – any food scraps go in, plus hay and he’s got a good worm farm too.

A: Um. We think your Uncle Derek may in fact be a composter.

Q: So that’s not the same thing?

A: Very different.

Q: So an impostor won’t accept my tea bags and egg shells?

A: Not unless they’re pretending to be a composter.

Q: That’s funny, because Aunt Jill always says we need to walk on eggshells around him…

A: Shall we move on?

Q: Wait, there’s more?

A: Just a small chat about the word “imposture”…

Q: Mine’s terrible. It’s this silly gas lift chair.

A: No, “imposture” is actually the word that describes the act of imposing yourself fraudulently on others. It has nothing to do with posture.

Q: Nothing to do with it? What an imposition.

A: And “imposition” has nothing to do with ANY of what we’ve been talking about today.

Q: So, to recap – it’s common to see both spellings, especially here in Australia – but the actual official version is “impostor”.

A: Yes. It’s kind of appropriate that so many people use the “imposter” instead of “impostor”. It could have something to do with “adviser” being more common than “advisor” in Australia.

Q: Ah, yes, that could be it. We discussed that another time.

A: Anyway, all we would say for your own writing is BE CONSISTENT with whichever one you choose.

Q: This topic originally seemed impossibly imposing, but you explained it well – thanks. Okay, I’m off to Uncle Derek’s… um… are you finished with that apple?

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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