While discussions surrounding the correct spelling of words can generally be cleared up by visiting the yourDictionary.com Web site, many people find themselves confused regarding the difference between American and British spellings.
An Ongoing Debate
The debate over the correct spelling of words first began when Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language was published in1755, followed by Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. While people in England preferred Johnson's spellings, Webster's simplified variations became increasingly popular in the United States.
Common Differences between American and British Spelling
Although the differences between American and British spellings are often subtle, they are still significant. For example:
- analyze - analyse
- apologize - apologise
- behavior - behaviour
- canceling - cancelling
- center - centre
- check - cheque
- color - colour
- encyclopedia - encyclopaedia
- favorite - favourite
- fiber - fibre
- fulfill - fulfil
- gray - grey
- humor - humour
- labor - labour
- license - licence
- jewelry - jewellery
- theater - theatre
To further complicate matters, some words have a slightly different meaning in American and British English. For example:
- pacifier - dummy
- lawyer - solicitor
- period - full stop
- pharmacist - chemist
- rent - hire
- soccer - football
- cookie - biscuit
- eraser - rubber
Spelling Rules to Remember
If you must frequently work with both American and British spellings, you may find it helpful to keep in mind these spelling rules:
- Words ending in RE in British English have been changed to ER in American English.
- Words containing the silent letters OUGH in British English have been changed in American English to be spelled phonetically.
- Words ending in OUR in British English have been changed to OR in American English.
- Words ending in IOUR in British English have been changed to IOR in American English.
- Many words ending in YSE or ISE in British English have been changed to YZE or IZE in American English, although there are exceptions.
- Many words ending in YSED or ISED in British English have been changed to YZED or IZED in American English, although there are exceptions.
- Many words ending in ISATION in British English have been changed to IZATION in American English, although there are exceptions.
Which Spelling is Correct?
Technically, both American and British spellings are correct. However, American spellings are gaining an advantage in many circumstances because Microsoft Word is set to default its spell check feature to American spellings. Thus, all British spellings will appear as incorrect when using this program.
If you are a student preparing a research paper, ask your teacher which spellings he or she prefers. If your instructor has no preference, simply choose either American or British spellings and be consistent throughout the piece.
British and American Punctuation Differences
Writers who are interested in spelling differences between American and British English may also find it useful to remember a few simple punctuation tips:
- While British English often favors hyphenated compounds, such as counter-attack, American English discourages the use of hyphens where there is no compelling reason.
- In British English, writers typically use two spaces after a semi-colon. American English encourages writers to use just one space.
- Although American English typically calls for commas and periods to be included inside the quotation marks, even if they are not part of the quoted sentence, British English shows clearly whether or not the punctuation is part of the quoted phrase.
To learn more about the difference between American and British English, check out the following helpful Web sites:
- English Media Lab has an interactive quiz to test your knowledge of British English.
- Using English has a printable handout for teachers to use when discussing British and American spellings.
- XPNDC provides a fairly comprehensive list of words that are spelled differently in American and British English.
- Soft32 lets you download a British spell check program to use with your word processing software.