You may already know that the word “pants” means something else entirely in British English (hint: it doesn’t mean “trousers”), but do you know about the words that both British and American English speakers use, yet spell differently?
A basic rule of the thumb that covers these words is that American English spelling tends to be simplified and pronunciation-based. While British English favors the spelling of words as they originally appeared in the language they’ve been borrowed from – for instance, the word “cheque” – American English spellers generally write the word as they sound it out: “check.”
Writers, exchange students, and businessmen and businesswomen need to be aware of these spelling differences when dealing with people in Britain and the US, because using the proper spelling for each country helps avoid confusion, and also lends that touch of professionalism that marks a true global citizen.
Here are the main spelling differences between American and British spelling of English words.
Words that end in –re in Britain often have those two letters reversed when spelled in American English. Here are some examples:
centre, fibre, litre, theatre
center, fiber, liter, theater
While the British use the –nce ending, Americans generally prefer –nse.
defense, license, offense, pretense
defence, licence, offence, pretence
American English uses the –ize spelling at the end of words, and while some people in Britain accept that as a valid spelling, you’ll usually see those same words spelled with the –ise ending instead.
apologise, organise, recognise
apologize, organize, recognize
In British English, the preferred spelling of words ending in –our is not maintained in American English; in the United States, the “u” is dropped from the word.
behavior, color, humor, labor, neighbor, flavor
behaviour, colour, humour, labour, neighbour, flavour
Double vowels “ae” and “oe”
While the British retain the more complex spelling of words with Greek or Latin roots, using the orthodox spelling that was established when those words were brought into the English language as far back as the 14th and 15th centuries, the Americans, as usual, like their terminology simplified.
Words ending in a vowel plus –l
While Americans have dropped the double “l” when adding suffixes to verbs that end in the letter “l” the British still generally use the two-“l” approach to their spelling.
The rules can be confusing, especially for people who are learning English as a second language. Which system you choose often depends on where you’re learning English. Obviously, if you’re learning English in the United States, you will be taught that orthography, but if you are learning English in India, you will generally be taught the British spelling. Wherever you are, keep in mind that more often than not, the American spelling of words is a simplified version that is closer to how a word sounds rather how it was spelled in the language it has been borrowed from.
Knowing the spelling rules and differences will help you learn the spelling exceptions, too. For instance, archaeology is a spelling that’s used by English teachers and scientists in both American and British universities. Keep digging around, and you’ll find more exceptions – and that’s a hard and fast rule.
Cross-posted on the Ultimate Spelling blog.
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