Americans and Brits may appear to speak the same language, but there are many subtle (and some not-so-subtle) differences in American and British English.
When it comes to spelling, American English and British English can be surprisingly different—but there are a few simple ways you can sort out what’s correct on either side of the pond.
Why Do Americans and Brits Spell Some Words Differently?
As English evolved from its Germanic roots over centuries of development, it spread across the globe to become the most-spoken (or the third-most-spoken) language in the world—depending on whom you ask. As the language traveled from continent to continent, however, spellings (and sometimes meanings) began to diverge from their roots, changing the orthography for their dialects.
This isn’t surprising when you realize that standardized spelling didn’t begin until the English writer Samuel Johnson published his Dictionary of the English Language in 1755. Noah Webster followed with An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. The two camps have been hopelessly divided by their common language ever since.
Patterns in American vs. British Spelling
Today, England and her Commonwealth countries (e.g., Australia, Canada, New Zealand) tend to follow standard British spelling, which is based on Dr. Johnson’s dictionary, although each has incorporated some deviations. None, however, have strayed as far as the Americans, whose spelling was permanently changed by Webster.
The word “orthography” means accepted standards for writing a language and spelling words, and the orthography for British English and American English diverge in several important ways.
Below you’ll find a list of the most common endings and spellings that vary between American and British English. The American standard is on the right.
—ence / —ense
licence, pretence / license, pretense
—re / —er
centre, theatre / center, theater
—lled / —led
channelled, travelled / channeled, traveled
Ligatures vs single vowels
aeroplane, orthopaedic / airplane, orthopedic
—ogue / —og
analogue, catalogue / analog, catalog
—se / —ze
analyse, organise / analyze, organize
Some Spelling Variations Don’t Follow a Pattern
There are also spelling variations that don’t follow a pattern. Once again, the American spelling is on the right.
- cheque / check
- grey / gray
- liquorice / licorice
- sceptic / skeptic
- tyre / tire
The “Correct” Spelling Depends on Where You Are
Whenever you have a question about spelling, check the dictionary. Like many publications, TCK’s standard is Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition. We also use Merriam-Webster.com, an updated and expanded online version of the eleventh edition.
You’ll notice that Webster’s often lists alternate spellings of a single word as acceptable. The first one is the preferred format. If you wanted to know whether “channeled” or “channelled” was correct, you’d choose the former, since it’s listed first.
In other cases, Webster’s designates a “less commonly” used spelling when one choice is clearly more accepted than another.
Note: This article presumes you’re writing for an American audience. For British, Canadian, and other Commonwealth readers, consult a dictionary from that country.
Have you run into other British spelling variations? How do you remember which is which? Share your thoughts or ask a question in the comment section below.