American and British English spelling differences
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American and British English spelling differences are one aspect of American and British English differences. In the early 18th century, English spelling was not standardised. Different standards became noticeable after the publishing of influential dictionaries. Current British English spellings follow, for the most part, those of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755). Many of the now characteristic American English spellings were introduced, although often not created, by Noah Webster (An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828)).
Webster was a strong proponent of spelling reform for reasons both philological and nationalistic. Many spelling changes proposed in the U.S. by Webster himself, and in the early 20th century by the Simplified Spelling Board, never caught on. Among the advocates of spelling reform in England, the influences of those who preferred the Norman (or Anglo-French) spellings of certain words proved decisive. Subsequent spelling adjustments in Britain had little effect on present-day U.S. spelling, and vice versa. While in many cases American English deviated in the 19th century from mainstream British spelling, on the other hand it has also often retained older forms.
The spelling systems of Commonwealth countries closely resemble the British system. In Canada, many "American" spellings are also used, often alongside "British" spellings. Detailed information on Canadian and Australian spelling is provided throughout the article.
Spelling and pronunciation
In a few cases, essentially the same word has a different spelling which reflects a different pronunciation. Commonwealth as Britain except where noted.
-our / -or
Most words ending in unstressed -our in Britain (e.g. colour, flavour, honour) end in -or in the U.S. (e.g. color, flavor, honor). Most words of this category derive from Latin non-agent nouns having nominative -or; the first such borrowings into English were from early Old French and the ending was -or or -ur. After the Norman Conquest, the termination became -our in Anglo-French in an attempt to represent the Old French pronunciation of words ending in -or. The -our ending was not only retained in English borrowings from Anglo-French, but also applied to earlier French borrowings. After the Renaissance, some such borrowings from Latin were taken up with their original -or termination; many words once ending in -our (for example, chancellour and governour) now end in -or everywhere. Many words of the -our/-or group do not have a Latin counterpart; for example, armo(u)r, behavio(u)r, harbo(u)r, neighbo(u)r; also arbo(u)r in sense "bower"; senses "tree" and "tool" are always arbor, a false cognate of the other word. Some 16th and early 17th century British scholars indeed insisted that -or be used for words of Latin origin and -our for French loans; but in many cases the etymology was not completely clear, and therefore some scholars advocated -or only and others -our only.
As early as 1755 Dr Johnson settled on -our, while Webster's 1828 dictionary featured only -or and is generally given much of the credit for the adoption of this form in the U.S. By contrast, Johnson, unlike Webster, was not an advocate of spelling reform and for the most part simply recorded what he found. For example, documents  from the Old Bailey, the foremost court in London, support the view of the OED that by the 17th century "colour" was the settled spelling. Those English speakers who began to move across the Atlantic would have taken these habits with them and H L Mencken makes the point that, "honor appears in the Declaration of Independence, but it seems to have got there rather by accident than by design. In Jefferson’s original draft it is spelled honour. "  Examples such as color, flavor, behavior, harbor, or neighbor scarcely appear in the Old Bailey's court records from the 17th and 18th century, whereas examples of their -our counterparts are generally numbered in hundreds. One notable exception is honor: honor and honour were equally frequent down to the 17th century, and Honor still is in Britain the normal spelling for a person's name.
Derivatives and inflected forms. In derivatives and inflected forms of the -our/or words, in British usage the u is kept before English suffixes that are freely attachable to English words (neighbourhood, humourless, savoury) and suffixes of Greek or Latin origin that have been naturalised (favourite, honourable, behaviourism); before Latin suffixes that are not freely attachable to English words, the u can be dropped (honorific, honorist, vigorous, humorous, laborious, invigorate), can be either dropped or retained (colo(u)ration, colo(u)rise), or can be retained (colourist). In American usage, derivatives and inflected forms are built by simply adding the suffix in all environments (favorite, savory, etc.) since the u is absent to begin with.
Exceptions. American usage most often retains the u in the word glamour, which comes from Scots, not Latin or French; saviour is a common variant of savior in the U.S.; the name of the herb savory is thus spelled everywhere (although the probably related adjective savo(u)ry does have a u in Britain).
Commonwealth usage. Commonwealth countries normally follow British usage. In Canada -or endings are not uncommon, particularly in the Prairie Provinces, though they are rarer in Eastern Canada. In Australia, -or terminations enjoyed some use in the 19th century, and now are sporadically found in some regions, though -our is almost universal.
-re / -er
In British usage, some words of French, Latin, or Greek origin end with a consonant followed by -re, with the -re unstressed and pronounced [ə(ɹ)]. Most of these words have the ending -er in the U.S. This is especially true of endings -bre and -tre: fibre/fiber, sabre/saber, centre/center (though some places in the United States have "Centre" in their names, named both before and after spelling reform, and there are very occasional uses of "Center" in England), spectre/specter (though spectre is acceptable in the U.S.). Although theater is the American spelling, theatre has always been used alongside it, particularly with respect to the names of either cinematic or live-performance venues. There has also been a recent American tendency to revert to British spellings of "theater" and "center." Macabre is an exception, perhaps because in the U.S., the word is regarded as French, and is even pronounced as a French word, if the final syllable is pronounced at all. The ending -cre is retained in the U.S.: acre, massacre, and so on; this prevents the c losing its hard k sound (however it should be noted that acre was spelled æcer in Old English and aker in Middle English, compare Icelandic akr, Gothic Aker(s), Old High German ackar, German aker, Latin ager.)
There are not many other -re endings, even in British English: louvre, manoeuvre, meagre, ochre, ogre, sepulchre, and euchre. In the U.S., ogre and euchre are standard, manoeuvre and sepulchre are usually maneuver and sepulcher, and the other -re forms listed are variants of the equivalent -er form.
Of course the above relates to root words; -er rather than -re is universal as a suffix for agentive (reader, winner) and comparative (louder, nicer) forms. One consequence is the British distinction of meter for a measuring instrument from metre for the unit of measurement. However, while poetic metre is often -re, pentameter, hexameter, etc. are always -er.
The e preceding the r is retained in U.S. derived forms of nouns and verbs, for example, fibers, reconnoitered, centering, which are, naturally, fibres, reconnoitred and centring respectively in British usage. It is dropped for other inflections, for example, central, fibrous, spectral. However such dropping cannot be regarded as proof of an -re British spelling: for example, entry derives from enter, which is never spelled entre.
Commonwealth usage. The -re endings are standard throughout the Commonwealth. The -er spellings are recognised, as minor variants, only in Canada.
-ce / -se
Nouns ending in -ce with -se verb forms: American English retains the noun/verb distinction in advice / advise and device / devise (pronouncing them differently), but has lost the same distinction with licence / license and practice / practise that British spelling retains. American English uses practice and license for both meanings. Also, American English has kept the Anglo-French spelling for defense and offense, which are usually defence and offence in British English; similarly there are the American pretense and British pretence; but derivatives such as defensive, offensive, pretension, pretentious are always thus spelled in both systems.
Commonwealth usage. Canadian English generally follows British usage for licence/license, defence, and offence and American usage for practice; both pretence and pretense are found. Rest of the Commonwealth as UK.
-xion / -ction
The spellings connexion, inflexion, deflexion, reflexion are now somewhat rare in everyday usage, perhaps understandably as their stems are connect, inflect, deflect, and reflect and there are many such words in English that result in a -tion ending. The more common connection, inflection, deflection, reflection have almost become the standard internationally. However, the Oxford English Dictionary lists the older spellings as the etymological form, since these four words actually derive from the Latin root -xio.
Connexion is still used in legal texts. British Methodism retains the eighteenth century spelling connexion to describe its national organisation, for historical reasons, and this spelling has also found favour amongst recent government initiatives such as Connexions (the national careers and training scheme for school early leavers). Until the mid-1980s, The Times of London also used connexion as part of its house style.
In both forms, complexion (which comes from the stem complex) is standard and complection is not. However, the adjective complected (as in "dark complected"), although sometimes objected to, can be used as an alternative to complexioned in the U.S., but is quite unknown in Britain. (Note, however, that crucifiction is simply an error in either form of English; crucifixion is the correct spelling.)
-ise / -ize
American spelling accepts only -ize endings in most cases, such as organize, recognize, and realize. British usage accepts both -ize and the more French-looking -ise (organise, recognise, realise). However, the -ize spelling is now rarely used in the UK in the mass media and newspapers, and is hence often incorrectly regarded as an Americanism, despite being preferred by some authoritative British sources, including Fowler's Modern English Usage and the Oxford English Dictionary, which until recently did not list the -ise form of many individual words, even as an alternative. Indeed, it firmly deprecates this usage, stating, "The suffix, whatever the element to which it is added, is in its origin the Greek... (or) Latin -izare; and, as the pronunciation is also with z, there is no reason why in English the special French spelling in -iser should be followed, in opposition to that which is at once etymological and phonetic."
But the OED might be fighting a losing battle. The -ise form is used by the British government and is more prevalent in common usage within the UK today; the ratio between -ise and -ize stands at 3:2 in the British National Corpus. The OED spelling (which can be indicated by the registered IANA language tag en-GB-oed), and thus -ize, is used in many British-based academic publications, such as Nature, the Biochemical Journal and The Times Literary Supplement. In Australia and New Zealand -ise spellings strongly prevail; the Australian Macquarie Dictionary, among other sources, gives the -ise spelling first. Conversely, Canadian usage is essentially like American, although -ise is occasionally found in Canada. Worldwide, -ize endings prevail in scientific writing and are commonly used by many international organizations.
The same pattern applies to derivatives and inflections such as colonisation/colonization.
Endings in -yze are now found only in the U.S. and Canada. Thus, Commonwealth (including sometimes Canada) analyse, catalyse, hydrolyse, paralyse; North American analyze, catalyze, hydrolyze, paralyze. It is worth noting, however, that analyse was commonly spelled analyze from the first — a spelling also accepted by Samuel Johnson; the word, which came probably from French analyser, on Greek analogy would have been analysize, from French analysiser, from which analyser was formed by haplology.
Note that not all spellings are interchangeable; some verbs take the -z- form exclusively, for instance capsize, seize (except in the legal phrase to be seised of/to stand seised to), size and prize (only in the "appraise" sense), whereas others take only -s-: advertise, advise, apprise, arise, chastise, circumcise, comprise, compromise, demise, despise, devise, disguise, excise, exercise, franchise, improvise, incise, revise, supervise, surmise, surprise, and televise. Finally, the verb prise (meaning to force or lever) is spelled prize in the U.S. and prise everywhere else, including Canada, although in North American English pry (a back-formation from or alteration of prise) is often used in its place.
-ogue / -og
Some words of Greek origin, a few of which derive from Greek λογος, can end either in -ogue or in -og: analog(ue), catalog(ue), dialog(ue), demagog(ue), pedagog(ue), monolog(ue), homolog(ue), etc. In Britain (and generally in the Commonwealth), the -gue endings are the standard. In the U.S., catalog has a slight edge over catalogue (note the inflected forms, cataloged and cataloging vs. catalogued and cataloguing); analog is standard for the adjective, but both analogue and analog are current for the noun; in all other cases the -gue endings strongly prevail, except for such expressions as dialog box in computing, which are also used in Britain. Finally, in Canada and Australia as well as the U.S. analog has currency as a technical term (e.g. in electronics, as in "analog computer" and many video game consoles might have an analog stick).
Simplification of ae (æ) and oe (œ)
Many words are written with ae or oe in British English, but a single e in American English. The sound in question is [i] or [ɛ] (or unstressed [ə]). Examples (with non-American letter in bold): anaemia, anaesthesia, caesium, diarrhoea, gynaecology, haemophilia, leukaemia, oesophagus, oestrogen, orthopaedic, paediatric. Words where British usage varies include encyclopaedia, foetus (though the British medical community deems this variant unacceptable for the purposes of journal articles and the like, since the Latin spelling is actually fetus), homoeopathy, mediaeval. In American usage, aesthetics and archaeology prevail over esthetics and archeology, while oenology is a minor variant of enology.
The Ancient Greek diphthongs <αι> and <οι> were transliterated into Latin as <ae> and <oe>. The ligatures æ and œ were introduced when the sounds became monophthongs, and later applied to words not of Greek origin, in both Latin (for example, cœli) and French (for example, œuvre). In English, which has imported words from all three languages, it is now usual to replace Æ/æ with Ae/ae and Œ/œ with Oe/oe. In many cases, the digraph has been reduced to a single e in all varieties of English: for example, oeconomics, praemium, and aenigma. In others, especially names, it is retained in all varieties: for example, phoenix, Caesar, Oedipus. There is no reduction of Latin -ae plurals (e.g. larvae); nor where the digraph <ae>/<oe> does not result from the Greek-style ligature: for example, maelstrom, toe. British aeroplane is an instance (compare other aero- words such as aerosol). The now chiefly North American airplane is not a respelling but a recoining, modelled on airship and aircraft. Airplane dates from 1907, at which time aero- was trisyllabic, often written aëro-.
Commonwealth usage. The spellings with e are generally favoured in Canada and increasingly used in Australia.
Internationally, the American spelling is closer to the way most languages spell such words; for instance, almost all Romance languages (most of which are phonetic) lack the ae and oe spellings (a notable exception is French), as do Swedish, Polish, and others, while Dutch uses them ("ae" is rare and "oe" is the normal representation of the sound IPA: [u] (while written "u" represents either the sound y or ʏ in IPA)). Danish and Norwegian retain the original ligatures. German, through umlauts, retains its equivalent of the ligature, for when written without the umlaut, words resemble the British usage (i.e. ä becomes ae and ö becomes oe).
Compounds and hyphens
British English often favours hyphenated compounds, such as counter-attack, whereas American English discourages the use of hyphens in compounds where there is no compelling reason, so counterattack is much more common. Many dictionaries do not point out such differences. Canadian and Australian usage is mixed, although Commonwealth writers generally hyphenate compounds of the form noun plus phrase (such as editor-in-chief).
British English generally doubles final -l when adding suffixes that begin with a vowel if -l is preceded by a single vowel, whereas American English usually doubles it only on stressed syllables. Thus American spelling treats -l the same as other final consonants, whereas British spelling treats it irregularly. The American spelling rule was apparently created by Noah Webster. The -ll- spellings are nonetheless regarded as acceptable variants by both Merriam-Webster Collegiate and American Heritage dictionaries.
- Therefore, British counsellor, equalling, modelling, quarrelled, signalling, travelled; American usually counselor (but chancellor), equaling, modeling, quarreled, signaling, traveled.
- But compelled, excelling, propelled, rebelling in both dialects (notice the stress difference); revealing, fooling (double vowel before the l); hurling (consonant before the l).
- But British fuelling, woollen; American fueling, woolen.
- Canadian and Australian English generally follow British usage.
Conversely, British writers use a single l before suffixes beginning with a consonant where Americans use a double: British enrolment, fulfilment (but fulfilled), instalment, skilful; American enrollment, fulfillment, installment, skillful. The infinitives of these verbs can also be different: British enrol, fulfil; U.S. enroll, fulfill; in Britain, instal is a less common variant of install.
British English sometimes keeps silent e when adding suffixes where American English does not. British usually ageing, sometimes routeing; American usually aging, routing. Both systems retain the silent e when necessary to preserve a soft c or g, as in traceable, and in the word dyeing, to distinguish it from dying. Both abridgment and the more regular abridgement are current in the U.S., only the latter in the UK; both judgement and judgment can be found everywhere, although the former prevails in Britain and the latter strongly prevails in the U.S.
Acronyms and abbreviations
Proper names formed as acronyms are often rendered in title case by Commonwealth writers, but usually as upper case by Americans: for example, Nasa / NASA or Unicef / UNICEF. This never applies to certain initialisms, such as USA or HTML.
Contractions, where the final letter is present, are often written in British English without periods (e.g. Mr, Mrs, Dr, St). Abbreviations where the final letter is not present generally do take periods (such as vol., etc., ed.). In American English, abbreviations like St., Mr., Mrs., and Dr. always require periods.
Miscellaneous spelling differences
Some originally American technical meanings of such old words as disk, program, and possibly artifact were adopted in the UK with the American spelling retained, thus creating a written distinction in British English between the old and new meanings which does not exist in American English. Compare also meter, for which an older English written distinction between etymologically related forms with different meanings once existed, but was obviated in the regularisation of American spellings.
Throughout the following table, Canadian and Australian spelling is the same as British except where noted.
- List of British words not widely used in the United States
- List of American words not widely used in the United Kingdom
- List of words having different meanings in British and American English
- American and British English pronunciation differences
- The Chicago Manual of Style
- ^ History & Etymology of Aluminium
- ^ The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition. 
- ^ OED, shivaree
- ^ Oxford English Dictionary, furore.
- ^ Peters, p. 242
- ^ Oxford English Dictionary, mom and mam
- ^ Oxford English Dictionary, persnickety
- ^ Peters, p. 487
- ^ Peters, p. 505
- ^ See, for example, the November 2006 BMA document entitled Selection for Specialty Training
- ^ Peters, p. 510.
- ^ Webster's Third, p. 24a.
- ^ Oxford English Dictionary, colour, color.
- ^ Webster's Third, p. 24a.
- ^ Peters, p. 397.
- ^ Oxford English Dictionary, honour, honor.
- ^ Webster's Third, p. 24a.
- ^ Peters, p. 397.
- ^ Peters, p. 397.
- ^ Peters, p. 461.
- ^ Are spellings like 'privatize' and 'organize' Americanisms?. AskOxford.com (2006).
- ^ Oxford English Dictionary, -ize.
- ^ Peters, p. 298
- ^ Oxford English Dictionary, analyse, analyze
- ^ Peters, p. 441
- ^ Peters, p. 446.
- ^ Both Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary and American Heritage Dictionary have catalog as the main headword and catalogue as an equal variant.
- ^ Peters, p. 236.
- ^ Peters, p. 36.
- ^ Peters, p. 20.
- ^ Webster's Third, p. 23a.
- ^ Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, airplane.
- ^ Peters, p. 20, p. 389
- ^ Peters, p. 258
- ^ Peters, p. 309.
- ^ Cf. Oxford English Dictionary, traveller, traveler.
- ^ Peters, p. 22.
- ^ Peters, p. 480.
- ^ Peters, p. 7
- ^ Peters, p. 303.
- ^ Peters, p. 41.
- ^ Peters, p. 49.
- ^ Peters, p. 104.
- ^ Peters, p. 165.
- ^ Oxford English Dictionary, draught.
- ^ Peters, p. 235
- ^ Peters, p. 449.
- ^ Peters, p. 443.
- ^ Peters, p. 502.
- ^ Peters, p. 553.
- ^ Peters, p. 556.
- ^ Peters, p. 587.
- Peters, Pam (2004). The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-62181-X.
- Oxford English Dictionary, 20 vols. (1989) Oxford University Press.
- Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961; repr. 2002) Merriam-Webster, Inc.
- Burchfield, R. W. (Editor); Fowler, H. W. (1996). The New Fowler's Modern English Usage. Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-869126-2
- Fowler, Henry; Winchester, Simon (introduction) (2003 reprint). A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (Oxford Language Classics Series). Oxford Press. ISBN 0-19-860506-4.
- Hargraves, Orin (2003). Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515704-4
- Nicholson, Margaret; (1957). "A Dictionary of American-English Usage Based on Fowler's Modern English Usage". Signet, by arrangement with Oxford University Press.
- The Chicago Manual of Style
- Hart's Rules
- The Guardian style guide