Separated by a Common Language: British vs. American English (Spelling)
Updated: Jul 11, 2022
We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.
— Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost (1887)
The common differences between the British English (BrE) and the American English (AmE) can be categorized as differences in spelling, grammar/usage, punctuation, and lexicon.
Keeping in mind that languages continually evolve, the lists provided here are neither complete nor definitive. Many words and expressions listed here can be found in both variants, and the first choice indicated is more common than the second one.
Some of the differences involve changing a single letter, e.g., tyre, mum, and carcase in England, versus tire, mom, and carcass in America. Some require changing only a single syllable, e.g., aluminium and appendicectomy in Britain versus aluminum and appendectomy in America.
Many words ending in -er in America become -re in England: e.g., centre vs. center. Similarly, many words spelled with an -ou- in England use a simple -o- in America. The British colour and labour become color and labor over here.
There are words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciations: e.g., clerk is pronounced [kla:rk] in Britain, whereas in America, clerk rhymes with Burk. Another example is the word schedule, which is pronounced [ʃɛdjuːl] (shed-yool) in the United Kingdom and [skɛdʒuːl] (skedzh-ool) in the United States.
Main categories of different spellings are shown below:
Most U.K. words ending in -our end in -or in the United States:
Most British words ending in -tre, -bre,-vre, usually deriving from French, end in -ter, -ber, -ver in the United States:
In this group, differences between the BrE and AmE spelling are far from systematic. Some verbs, regardless of the country, can only have -ize (capsize, seize), while in others only -ise is possible (advertise, advise, surprise).
Dictionaries in both countries prefer the suffix -ize in words such as apologize, legalize, and realize. Many Britons, however, (not to mention the spelling checkers of popular word-processing programs) do not agree with the dictionary-makers, and in the United Kingdom these words are still usually written with -ise.
4) -e-/-oe-, -ae-/-a-:
In words of Greek origin, BrE has -oe- where AmE has -e- (or less commonly -oe-). Similarly, words with an -ae- combination in BrE (orthopaedics, anaesthesia) are spelt without the -a- in AmE.
A certain number of disyllabic verbs stressed on the second syllable are written in British English with a single - l, but in American English, with -ll.
In the AmE spelling, when you add a suffix like -ing, -ed, or -er to a word, you double the final consonant only if the stress falls on the second syllable of the root word.
Thus, as in the BrE, the verb patrol gives patrolling and patrolled. On the other hand, the verb travel becomes traveling, traveled, traveler (BrE travelling, travelled, traveller).
Some further examples:
6) One-Letter Differences:
An interesting group is comprised of words which are spelt with a single different or additional letter. The difference affects pronunciation.
7) Other Spellings:
Important spelling differences not already noted are listed below: