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Frances Peck

Vocation, Avocation: Margery Fee and Canadian Usage

book cover of Guide to Canadian English Usage
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We editors have our own celebrities. At the March meeting of Editors BC, which featured Stefan Dollinger, editor-in-chief of the DCHP-2 (A Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, second edition), a name on the guest list caught my eye. Could it be? Really?

It was.

In the audience was Margery Fee, associate editor of the DCHP-2 and — hence my trembling — author, with Janice McAlpine, of the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage.

Kindly, Fee took my starstruck babble in stride and agreed to meet for an interview. Here are the highlights.


roots, routes

Fee is an emeritus professor of English at The University of British Columbia, where she has taught since 1993. But her roots are in Ontario; her PhD is from the University of Toronto.

As for Fee’s route to usage fame, she was, in the words of a friend, “let into the academy by the fire escape.” In the mid-’80s tenure-stream positions were rare, so Fee decided to teach English in Japan. Step 1 was an applied linguistics diploma at the University of Victoria. “One of my profs there said, ‘There’s this funny little outfit at Queen’s doing something with Canadian English. They might have a job. Why don’t you apply?’”

The catch? The hiring committee wanted a linguist. “What they didn’t realize,” Fee said, “is that linguists don’t like usage. It’s an embarrassment to them. Back then there were no databases. Linguists saw usage as subjective, the product of ideological hate sessions.”

Linguists did not line up for the job. Fee got it, and in 1987 headed back east.

enervation, innovation

Surprisingly, the usage project at the Strathy Language Unit at Queen’s turned out to involve data. Fee’s predecessor had begun compiling a digital corpus — this at the dawn of the digital age.

“When I arrived, we had two million words,” Fee said. Deciding how to store and search that much data was a head-scratcher. Fortunately, as Fee explains in a blog post on the usage guide, the task became an exercise in innovation, not enervation. Thanks to the unit’s ingenious use of basic software and hardware, including “a $40,000 scanner so expensive they kept it hidden away,” the corpus swelled to 12 million words by 1997, when the first edition of the guide came out.

everyone, everybody (their)

The guide also broke ground with its progressive rulings. Take the singular their. The discussion, under “everyone, everybody,” points out that this usage enjoyed a long, uncriticized history until “18th-century grammarians decided that it was incorrect.” The entry notes: “Eventually, one hopes, ‘everyone…their’ will regain its good standing in all levels of writing, and evasive tactics such as these [using his/her or making the antecedent plural] will be unnecessary” (quoted from the second edition, 2007).

What led Fee, a dozen years ago, to such a prescient position? She shrugged. “I’m a feminist. So is Janice McAlpine, who worked for me and later took over as the unit’s director. Is that why? I don’t know. It just seemed like the right approach.”

disinterested, uninterested

Fee’s response to the singular they was not the impassioned creed I had expected. In fact, the more we discussed usage, the more I was struck by her detachment. “Who really cares about fewer and less?” she asked at one point. “There are more important things to spend your time on.”

What? Doesn’t every usage writer harbour a bone-deep fervour for words and correctness?

“I had always wanted to write a reference book,” Fee conceded. (As an MA student, she produced Canadian Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography.) “But really, I took the job at Queen’s because it was tenure stream. My work on usage was kind of accidental.” Fee’s true vocation runs toward Canadian and Indigenous literatures, which she has focused on at UBC.

This casualness was not what I expected. Yet on reflection, I wonder if Fee’s disinterested (but not uninterested) approach to usage is precisely what makes the Oxford Guide to Canadian English Usage so balanced. Perhaps having limited personal stake in a topic that so often inspires peevishness and indignation is what catapulted the book, and its author, to editorial stardom.


Previous post from Frances Peck: Freedom to Read, Willingness to Edit.

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About the author

Frances Peck

Frances Peck is an editor, writer and instructor who now lives on Canada’s West Coast.


6 Comments on “Vocation, Avocation: Margery Fee and Canadian Usage”

  • This was fun to read! The personalities of both interviewer and interviewee shone through.

    • Frances Peck


      Thanks, Nancy. Margery is wonderfully sardonic and was a lot of fun to interview. There could easily have been an entry on “irreverent” in this piece, except I’d have to pair it with something like “irrelevant,” which for this topic would be, um, not relevant.

  • Anita Jenkins


    Bravo, Frances. My heart leaps up when I see your name as author on an Editors’ Weekly post. Not often enough.

    I was getting nervous at the beginning, with the reference to linguists and their “idealogical hate sessions,” since I am on the side of the linguists. But it all turned out fine! I am so glad that Fee is disinterested but not uninterested.

    • Frances Peck


      Glad your nerves have calmed down, Anita. I’m curious to see if other editors feel the same way you do. Those of us who do lots of copy editing and proofreading rely, to some extent, on the so-called hate sessions to give us a sense of where words fall on the standard/non-standard spectrum.

      But there’s no question, the minute usage lines are drawn, language users risk falling into a pattern of antagonism vs. defensiveness, with editors often on the defensiveness side of the line. Better to think of ourselves (editors) as referees, maybe, than as players hewing to one side.

  • “Who really cares about fewer and less.”

    I’d put that on a T-shirt or a mug!

    Thanks, Frances, for introducing us to an author we should all know well. Karen Virag would often bring Fee’s book on usage to the Grammar Gals’ CBC radio studio just in case we needed to look things up. I’m a member of the fan club.

    • Frances Peck


      Aha, Virginia! I see a new business venture in your future: tongue-in-cheek T’s and curmudgeon mugs. Sign me up.

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