• Galina Blankenship

Separated by a Common Language: U.S. English vs. U.K. English (Spelling)

Updated: Jan 17

We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language.

— Oscar Wilde, The Canterville Ghost (1887)

Painting "Battle of Guilford Court House" (1781), created by H. Charles McBarron (from "Soldiers of the American Revolution")
Battle of Guilford Court House (1781) by H. Charles McBarron (from "Soldiers of the American Revolution")

The common differences between the two variants of English 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 U.K. and [skɛdʒuːl] (skedzh-ool) in the United States.

Main categories of different spellings are shown below:

1) -or/-our:

Most U.K. words ending in -our end in -or in the U.S.:

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2) -er/-re:

Most U.K. words ending in -tre, -bre,-vre, usually deriving from French, end in -ter, -ber, -ver in the U.S.:

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3) -ize/-ise:

In this group, differences between U.K. and U.S. 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 U.K. these words are still usually written with -ise.

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4) -e-/-oe-, -ae-/-a-:

In words of Greek origin, U.K. English has -oe- where U.S. English has -e- (or less commonly -oe-). Similarly, words with an -ae- combination in U.K. English (orthopaedics, anaesthesia) are spelt without the -a- in U.S. English.

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