How Spelling Diverges Between American and British English

By Mark Nichol

As George Bernard Shaw is said to have said, “England and America are two countries separated by the same language.” It’s easy enough to find books and Web sites that provide evidence to back the old boy up, detailing such transoceanic translations as elevator/lift and critical divergences such as the relative meanings of “knocked up” (British English: “called on,” “woke up,” or “worn out”: American English: “impregnated”). What you’ll find here, however, is a discussion of differences not in vocabulary but in spelling between the English language’s two primary variants.

The blame for the ornery orthography of American English (which is even more annoying to its users than to those who speak other variants of the language, because we actually have to, you know, use it) is primary laid at the oft-pedestal-mounted feet of Noah Webster, a nineteenth-century writer, editor, and lexicographer who almost single-handedly created the dialect I will hereafter in this post abbreviate as AE (as opposed to BE, or British English). Webster’s impetus was nationalistic — he desired a distinct language for Americans that they could feel they owned, and one that represented democratic ideals as well.

The problem is, for all his meticulousness, he was maddeningly inconsistent, and the myriad successors who have added to the American word-hoard have followed suit. Here, to do my part to make amends, is a brief guide to the major distinctions in AE and BE spelling (and within AE spelling itself), with one or more examples:

-ae (encyclopaedia, mediaeval)
AE usually deletes the a from the diphthong ae, which is unfortunate, because the words look so cool with it. It is retained, however, in such words as aesthetic (though that word is also spelled esthetic).

-ed (fitted, forecasted, knitted)
AE usually drops the past-tense ending in these words. However, exceptions are made in such usages as “The tailor fitted him for a tuxedo.”

-ed [irregular] (lighted, strived)
AE prefers forms such as lit and strove, though the BE forms are often employed.

-ement (acknowledgement, arguement, judgement)
AE omits the first e from the suffix, though some writers of AE remain unaware as far as the first and third examples are concerned.

-ence (defence, licence, offence)
AE spells these words with an s in place of a c.

-ise/-yse (analyse, criticise, memorise, realise)
AE favors -ize/-yze endings.

-l (enrol, fulfil, skilful)
AE doubles the l that is not part of -ful/ful-; the l in that syllable is never doubled (except in inflected forms of full).

-lled/-lling (cancelled/cancelling, levelled/levelling, travelled/travelling)
AE omits one l in this form; some writers of AE still haven’t received the memo.

-mme (diagramme, programme, telegramme)
AE omits the second m and the e at the end of these words.

-ogue (analogue, catalogue, dialogue, epilogue)
In AE, catalog is clipped, though the full form is preferred for all its analogues. (See?)

-our (colour, favour, honour, labour)
In AE, the u is jettisoned in most words with -our; glamour is an exception.

-oeuvre (manoeuvre)
AE simplifies this ending to -euver (maneuver).

-que (banque, checque)
In AE, the French-influenced -que is replaced by a Germanic k.

-re (centre, litre, metre, theatre)
In AE, the letters in the -re ending are reversed, though the BE spelling for the first and last examples is sometimes employed in proper names for facilities to convey Old World class.

-st (amidst, amongst)
In AE, amid and among are preferred, though many writers of AE, professionals and amateurs alike, retain the -st ending.

-t (dreamt, leapt, learnt)
AE replaces -t with -ed, though some writers of AE, out of ignorance or because they prefer the more poetically pleasing appearances, use the BE form.

-wards (backwards, inwards, upwards)
AE omits the -s, though many writers of AE retain it (often inconsistently from one word to another).

-xion (complexion, connexion)
This suffix is unique to complexion, spelled identically in AE and BE, and connexion, now almost obsolete in the United Kingdom.

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36 Responses to “How Spelling Diverges Between American and British English”

  • Cecily

    Very useful, but perhaps inevitably, there are a few minor errors, which just proves your point about how tricky it is.

    * In BrE, “knocked up” has all the meanings you list, including impregnate.

    * “Forecasted” is not wrong in BrE, but “forecast” is more widely used.

    * BrE spells it “argument” (not arguement, although it is a common error, so you may well have seen it).

    * I’ve never seen “telegramme” in BrE; like you, we spell it “telegram”.

    * “Banque” and “checque” are not BrE spellings, but “bank”, “cheque” (for a bank draft) and “check” (examine accuracy) are.

    (If you prefer to delete my comment and amend the post, I won’t take offence.)

  • dVyper

    An interesting article. I’ve never however seen the words bank and cheque spelled as banque and checque ever…

  • Hazel

    I’ve never seen diagramme either. Also, we do use program for computer programs just not for TV or theatre programmes.

  • Andy Martin

    When I, a speaker and writer of AE, first went to work for Cambridge University Press in NY, we were given a computer which had Microsoft Office loaded on it, including Word. However with the very first document I typed it started correcting my spelling which I “knew” was correct. Then I realized they had given me a BE version of Word. All those squiggly red lines used to drive me bonkers – I mean nuts!

  • Jim

    I had a bit of a laugh over the use of “fitted.”

    In British medical terminology, “fitted” means “had a seizure.”

  • Mark Nichol

    Obviously, I am not fluent in British English. I realize that it is more flexible than I may have implied in my post, and I appreciate the corrections from native speakers.

  • D. I. G.

    “Inflexion” is also spelled with that ending in British English (as opposed to the American “inflection.”)

  • Cecily

    D.I.G. Although you may occasionally see “inflexion” in BrE, it is not the usual spelling: BrE dictionaries list it as a variant of “inflection”, rather than giving it its own entry. Similarly, we invariably write “connection”, although “connexion” is an occasionally used variant.

  • Peter

    -ed [irregular] (lighted, strived)
    AE prefers forms such as lit and strove, though the BE forms are often employed.

    So does BrE.

    -ement (acknowledgement, arguement, judgement)
    AE omits the first e from the suffix, though some writers of AE remain unaware as far as the first and third examples are concerned.

    The e isn’t part of the suffix…and argument doesn’t have one in BrE, either.

    -ence (defence, licence, offence)
    AE spells these words with an s in place of a c.

    So does BrE when they’re verbs.

    -ise/-yse (analyse, criticise, memorise, realise)
    AE favors -ize/-yze endings.

    AE usually spells it “analyze”, but allows “analyse”, in BrE only “analyse” is correct (retaining the ‘s’ of the Greek root: λυω -> λυσ-, lys-). In the other cases above (productive suffix), while -ise is common in Britain today, standard BrE usage has historically been -ize, still is in most English-speaking countries outside the British Isles, and that’s the preferred spelling in the Oxford English Dictionary, etc. (again, following the Greek -ιζω)

    -mme (diagramme, programme, telegramme)
    AE omits the second m and the e at the end of these words.

    Diagram and telegram in BrE, too. The unit ‘gram’ used to be spelled ‘gramme’, but that’s obsolete now. The only other word I can think of with that ending is another old-fashioned one: aerogramme for an air-mail letter. I think it’s just ‘gram’ everywhere else.

    -que (banque, checque)
    In AE, the French-influenced -que is replaced by a Germanic k.

    Cheque, no ‘c’; but the place you take them to is a ‘bank’ in BrE, too. I was about to say “banque” isn’t even a word (in English), but Google says it’s “the dominant form of Baccarat played in North America”, so I guess you’re completely backwards on that one 🙂

    -t (dreamt, leapt, learnt)
    AE replaces -t with -ed, though some writers of AE, out of ignorance or because they prefer the more poetically pleasing appearances, use the BE form.

    -ed is more common in BrE, too.

  • Writer

    Wikipedia has a lot to do with spreading myths about BrE. A minority of editors there insist -ise is British in many articles, even when you point out to them that -ize, is standard in Oxford dictionaries and in most Commonwealth countries. I’ve never seen banque, and checque being formally used in BrE.

  • df

    There’s also the BE floating s. People read the sport page, but they study maths, which makes me laff.

  • Canadian

    If you think AE and BE are confusing, try CE (Canadian English). Whilst we used to have a great linguistic connexion with the English mother tongue, that connection has been compromised with the influence of American spellings. While it is common to see Britishisms and Americanisms, we also have a large French component to the language because much of our documentation and signage is bilingual. Colour, metre, litre, and bank cheque are preferred. You can check that for yourself. We used to have yard sales, lawn sales, and garage sales, but boot sales are growing increasingly common. Whether we use one “L” or two in various words is arbitrary. Same with adding the “U” to colour, labour, etc. Or should we use a “C” instead of an “S” or an “S” instead of a “Z” (those of us 40 and up still mostly call that letter “zed” while/whilst the younger set tend to call it “zee” – likely from growing up watching U.S. Sesame Street and the like). We don’t get bent out of shape one way or another. We get the drift. We’re ambilextrous(?) or we just make up a word now and then. Criticize this mixed form all you like, but that’s our defence.

  • brett coster

    -ise is the usual form in Australian English, whereas Brit English is like US English in mainly using -ize. Possibly a snapshot of English as it was in the late 18th/early 19th century being transported here and maintained, while it evolved further in both the US and Britain.

    I’ve been told by both US and Brit natives that -whilst- is a form that is rarely heard there, but is very common here in Aus.

    Word divergences is a whole other story; in Aus (always pronounced Oz) we use some Brit (lift, not elevator), some US (truck, not lorry). Knocked up certainly inludes impregnate here, while knock off means to finish work or alternatively to produce a cheap/unlicenced copy.

    Some of these differences go back quite a way; I have a copy of a book given to US servicemen in WW2 about Australia, where words like “bum” were shown to have very different, some would say fundamental, meanings. Fanny, for instance, in Brit/Aus English, is for a completely different piece of anatomy than it is for our American cousins.

    Funny old language English, and still evolving like mad.

  • American Reader

    I’m sorry; I was hoping to find more enlightenment in this article.

    The typical form of the (possibly apocryphal) quote from GB Shaw is “two countries separated by a common language” (as opposed to “the same” language).
    More to the point, I was surprised to read the contention that American English has more “ornery orthography” than other variants. It follows up with many examples of stilted, artificial British spellings, replaced by simpler, more phonetic American spellings. That’s ornery?
    Noah Webster’s motivation was not simply nationalistic. Any reading of Webster’s biography (start with Wikipedia, and move on from there) shows that he was annoyed by the unnecessary, non-phonetic artifices prevalent in British English. In many people’s opinion (including my own, for what that’s worth), Noah Webster improved the spelling of the language.
    I kind of think that anyone who insists that British spelling is less ornery than American spelling should spend some time thinking about it…perhaps over a night or two in “gaol.”

  • Elaine

    As a Brit living in America for the last 30 years one that still drives me nuts is the American’s adding “ness” to words like “calm” and “health”. Calmness and healthiness drive me crazy to this day

  • Brian

    The other problem is that almost ALL Americans mis-pronounce the word kilometer/kilometre. It does NOT rhyme with speedometer, odometer, barometer or pedometer. These are all devices for measuring things. Metric units of distance, volume and weight like milli-metre, centi-metre, kilo-meter consist of a decimal prefix followed by the unit. Think kilo-gram….then kilo-metre. It helps keep things straight if you use meter for measuring devices, and metre for the unit of length.

    It is astonishing that so many U.S. scientists can’t even properly pronounce the most common unit of measurement of their field of knowledge. It would be like an automotive journalist saying he just had a test drive in a Cor-vet-teee. You would look at him as though he had two heads.

  • stanley

    I think that one should look toward “Modern English Usage” by H.W. Fowler for the correct BrE. It might be old but I feel it still applies.

  • jimbino

    The most annoying Britishism the pervades BBC and other Brit talk on public radio is the construction, “Having said that, the dog is my favorite pet.”

  • sej

    The Australians and Kiwis seem to use the same words as the British. Are there any exceptions? Not including stuff like vegamite sandwich, etc.

  • Sean

    I have never agreed with that George Bernard Shaw quote and judging by the many responses and corrections above his quote might be being proved wrong.

  • Dave

    Thoroughly enjoyed the article and the comments. The differences in our (AE) spelling of the BE language will continue to entertain me. One such entry has intrigued me in the past.

    AE aluminum (ah-loo’-meh-num) vs. BE aluminium (ah-loo-me’-nee-um) first heard by me on the American “Discovery Channel” when cable TV was in its infancy here. We had a lot of Australian programs shown at that time and this, before unheard of, pronunciation was new to me. Thanks to the Internet and Wikipedia, I know the history of aluminum/aluminium.

    “Davy [Humphry Davy, British chemist and inventor of aluminum] settled on aluminum by the time he published his 1812 book ‘Chemical Philosophy’ …”

    “… an anonymous contributor to the Quarterly Review … objected to aluminum and proposed the name aluminium, ‘for so we shall take the liberty of writing the word, in preference to aluminum, which has a less classical sound.'”

    Interesting, yes?

    What I am about to say has nothing to do with differences in spelling for the English language. But you may find it humorous.

    I am reminded of an event related to me by a fellow Marine during the early 70s. He and other U.S. Marines were in a Pub in London where they got into a fray (fight) with the locals which was started by an Englishman calling the Marine a homosexual. The Marine immediately punched the gentleman in the mouth and everyone, having lost all claim to reason due to intoxication, felt obliged, obviously, to support their respective chap/mate/friend/buddy.

    The fight was interrupted by one or more bobbies, one of which was familiar with American culture. The wise bobby conducted his brief inquiry and deduced that the Englishman had, simply, asked for a cigarette or, as the Brits call it, a “fag.” In the U.S., the word “fag” is a pejorative for homosexual. The bobby explained to the two gents what was said/meant and what was heard/understood.

    I don’t remember what was done afterwards but, I would guess that there was some laughter mixed with apologies. Perhaps a round or two was purchased by each group.

  • John

    After all of that, you get Canadian English which is halfway in between British English and American English, and has words which neither of the other two use. Two thirds of words in Canadian English are spelled in the British form (colour, favour, cheque not the American color, favor, check) word, but about a third take the American form.

    Apart from spelling, Canadian English uses “First Nations” for what Americans call “Indians”, and Inuit” for what American call “Eskimos”, “Pop’ for what Americans call “Soda”, Cnadians have “taps” while Americans have “faucets” juts to name a very few.

  • JR

    “ae” is not a diphthong in words like “encyclopaedia,” at least in standard AE: ɛnˌsaɪkləˈpidiə. The word you want is digraph.

    As for Webster being “maddeningly inconsistent,” are you suggesting the British Samuel Johnson wasn’t as well in his dictionary which pre-dates Webster’s? Johnson, after all, had things like “interiour” vs. “exterior”. Where’s the “u” in the latter that you say AE “jettisoned?” Johnson also had “actor,” “factor,” “mirror,” “tutor,” all without the “u” that you claim is in the ur-spelling of the word.

    Have you checked with the Oxford English Dictionary to actually see what the ur-spelling of these words were, btw? For example, it looks like the first attested use of the word “color/colour” from 1290 had it spelt “colur”: “c1290 Lives Saints (1887) 216 And axede him of ȝwuch colur were heuene op-riȝt þere.”

  • Joan

    What Shaw actually said was, “England and America are two countries separated by a COMMON language.” Nitpicky? Maybe. But if we’re going to get all copyeditorish about spelling, why not get the quotation right?

  • Mark Nichol

    Brian:

    We don’t mispronounce kilometer; we pronounce (and spell) it differently.

  • Mark Nichol

    Joan:

    As my comment about the Shaw quote strongly implies, there is no definitive wording for something we’re not even sure he said in any form.

  • Mark Nichol

    American Reader:

    I, in turn, regret leaving you unenlightened. As Cecily so graciously commented, this is a tricky topic (and one that brings out prickly responses). I’m not aware of a way of quantifying which version of the undocumented Shaw quote is the “correct” one — I tooks my chances.

    Also, I did not say that the orthography of American English is more ornery than that of British English, but it’s the one I use, and it’s ornery enough for my taste. I suppose, though, I should be thankful I don’t have to navigate British English.

    Yes, Webster had valid reasons for improving the spelling of English, but my point is that he did a shoddy job of it — as I am wont to say about such things, better, but not good.

  • Peter

    We don’t mispronounce kilometer; we pronounce (and spell) it differently.

    It’s very definitely a mispronunciation, but it’s not “American”; I think most people worldwide pronounce it that way. It only applies to the kilo- prefix, though; nobody gets “micrometer” wrong (i.e., “micrometer,” pronounced like the common mispronunciation of “kilometer”, a device for measuring small distances, vs. “micrometer,” a small unit of distance). If you were reading off a scale of distances, “… micrometer, millimeter, meter, kilometer, megameter, …”, it’s unlikely you’d probably pronounce “kilometer” incorrectly…

  • American Reader

    Of course there’s no “correct” version of the undocumented Shaw quote. I was careful to say that the version which includes the word “common” is the “typical” version. To determine that, I compared Google results for the two verbatim phrases. The one returned something like three times as many hits as the other. Wikiquote also uses the word, “common.”
    Perhaps this is an unimportant distinction. Okay, it is–since the quote may well be apocryphal. However, I strongly believe “two countries separated by a common language” to be more elegant than “two countries separated by the same language.” The word, “common,” suggests a degree of kinship which is belied by the word, “separated.” This heightens the irony of the (purported) quotation.

    Webster? Webster was a groundbreaker. I think it’s easy, two centuries after the fact, to accuse him of having done a “shoddy job.” The one quarterback who’s plying his trade on Sunday afternoon gains more sympathy from me than those who make their contribution on Monday morning.

  • Peter

    Here’s a BrE/AmE difference: aeroplane, which Americans spell “airplane”. (I’m curious: what word do Americans use to refer to the effect that causes a car to slide on a wet road? Hydroplaning, or waterplaning? Given “airplane”, I’d expect the latter…:) )

  • Mark Nichol

    Peter: Hydroplaning, actually. You were expecting consistency?

  • venqax

    Some things cited as differences in pronunciation are actually differences in words. E.g., AE doesn’t pronounce aluminium AL-OO-MIN-UM any more than BE pronounces specialty SPES-EE-AL-IT-EE. Aluminum and aluminium are different words, or at the very least, different forms of the same word. Like wise specialty and speciality. One is American the other British. It’s not like Americans just ignore the I’s and skip and entire syllable, or Brits just pronounce random syllables that aren’t there. Same with the jewelry/jewellery debacle. Those are 2 different words, not spellings or misspellings of one. The word “jewelry” is in fact much older, though it survives in AE rather than BE. While we’re at it, I don’t think “lorry” is a misspelling or mispronunciation of “truck” either.

  • Barnegat Blummis

    In the US most folks pronounce jewelry as “joolery” and only a diminishing few as “Jew-ell-ree”

    (no matter how it’s spelled)

    Is it different in BE?

  • venqax

    BB@ Good question and one that really gets to the heart of the matter. JOO-LER-EE is a mispronunciation of the word jewelry. Just look at how the word is spelled— it’s not difficult to discover this. It is precisely the same type of mistake that saying NOOK-YOO-LER is. There is nothing between the L and the R.

    If the word you are pronouncing is the word *jewellery*, OTOH, then you are not as far off (it still has 4 syllables, tho, so JOO-EL-ER-EE, albeit a schwaed second one). If you are American, then your designated word is jewelry, and THAT word is pronounced JOO-EL-REE. You can’t “mix and match”. That makes you Canadian.

  • Paul Giles

    You missed one:

    American English has ‘practice’ as both noun and verb.
    British English has ‘practice’ as noun and ‘practise’ as verb.

  • Agus Satoto

    Well, British English and American English, you owe me a lot of apologies. Both of you have been confusing me during my English study. 🙂

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