Skills

American versus British English spelling

Cristina Cabal

Cristina Cabal has been teaching English to adult learners since 1991 and runs her own blog. She loves bringing interactivity into the classroom and she will be sharing some of these quizzes with us over the next few months. In this post, she sets the challenge of American versus British English spelling.

Is it British or American Spelling?

American English or British English – is it not the same language? Well, kind of!

The truth is that although it’s the same language and Brits and Americans, for the most part, have no problem understanding each other, for non-native speakers it’s a lot harder.

English for most learners is not an easy language to learn. To start, there are so many exceptions to pronunciation rules they are almost not worth learning. Also, the huge numbers of new words added to dictionaries make it almost impossible to keep up. Add to this the fact that, though English is spoken everywhere in the world, Brits and Americans use different terms to refer to the same things. So with that in mind, guessing whether a word is misspelled or it’s just American or British spelling is a nightmare.

Why is the spelling is sometimes different if it’s the same language?

There is probably a lot to say about it, but a key reason is because British English has tried for the most part to keep the spelling of the words it has borrowed from other countries. American English however has tried to adapt the spelling of these words to the way they are pronounced in English in an effort to make spelling easier. As Mark Twain once said: “Anyone who can only think of one way to spell a word obviously lacks imagination.”

What are some of the most important differences between British and American spelling?

1. A number of words ending in –our in British English usually end in –or in American English. For example:
colour | color
labour | labor

2. A number of words ending in –re in British English usually change to –er in American English. For example:
centre | center
litre | liter

3. Verbs ending in a vowel plus the consonant ‘l’, double the ‘l’ when adding endings beginning with a vowel in British English. In American English, meanwhile, the ‘l’ is not doubled. For example:
traveller | traveler
modelling | modeling

4. In British English, words ending in –ise or –isation can also be spelled –ize and –ization, while in American English only the –ize, -ization version is acceptable. For example:
realise | realize
apologise | apologize

5. Some words that in British English end in –ence, are spelled –ense in American English. For example:
defence | defense
licence | license

6. Words spelled with the double vowels oe or ae in British English are spelled with just an “e” in American English. For example:
foetus | fetus
anaemia | anemia

7. Words ending in –ogue in British English can end in either -ogue or –og in American English. For example
catalogue | catalog or catalogue

8. Verbs ending in –yse in British English are spelled –yze in American English. For example:
analyse | analyze
paralyse | paralyze

These are the some of the most important differences between British and American spelling, but there are a lot of words that are spelled differently in both languages and that don’t fit in any of the rules above. You’ll see some of these words in this little quiz which will also help you consolidate the rules above!

Are you up to it?
Tip: Remember that the American spelling tries to reflect the way the word is pronounced

Find more difference and similarities between American and British English in this article by Matt Norton on Americanisms in British English.


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