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”

  • 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. 🙂

  • Paul Giles

    You missed one:

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

  • 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.

  • 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

    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.

  • Mark Nichol

    Peter: Hydroplaning, actually. You were expecting consistency?

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