Why American English and British English Words are Spelled Differently

Photo: Vladimir Strebkov/Pixabay

Vocabulary Bank:

  • spelled (v.): to spell – the way in which the letters of a word are arranged
  • lexicographer (n.) – a person who collects/compiles words for dictionaries, this person also edits dictionaries
  • compiles (v.): to compile – to gather pieces or elements together in order to create something new
  • despite (preposition) – when something happens, even though it could have been stopped by another event/influence
  • distinctions (n. pl.) – clear differences
  • uniform: here, (adj.) – when a series of things all have the same form and do not vary
  • de facto – (adj.) – when a condition or status is in effect but not recognized officially

One of the topics that frequently comes up in my sessions with students and clients is that of the differences in the spelling of some American English and British English words.

It’s no secret that the two dialects of English have almost been seen as being in competition with one another where the use of vowels (in most cases) and the use of consonants are concerned – with a sense of “Pick me!” being shouted from among the list of options for writing.

Native speakers of English are faced with the same point of decision-making about which spelling of a particular word they prefer to use, and the first decisions tend to be made in school.

“Should I use ‘theatre’ or ‘theater’, ‘favourite’ or ‘favorite’, ‘traveling’ or ‘travelling’?”

These are the types of questions that school children in the United States find themselves needing to ask when the time comes to write a composition or essay.

Spelling books tend to offer the American English spelling of the words (theater, favorite and traveling), but as students advance and they begin reading a broader range of English-language literature, they become exposed to the British English versions of words – helping them to realize that their choice of spelling of certain words can contribute to their sense of identity as an English-speaker.

Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster

Many of the differences that we see today go back to a time before spelling standards were established.

A standard for British spelling began to take shape following the 1755 publication of English writer Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language.

As a way of establishing an American identity that could be clearly distinguished from British identity, Noah Webster, an American lexicographer, undertook a campaign of “spelling reform” which popularized certain spellings in America.

This campaign resulted in the 1790 publication of his work, The American Spelling Book (image), through which spellings such as “color” vs “colour”, “behavior” vs “behaviour” and “analyze” vs “analyse” were presented for the public and publishers to use.

However, it wasn’t until after Webster published his book, An American Dictionary of the English Language, in 1828, that a standard for the spelling of American English was born.

Despite these early distinctions, the spellings of English-language words today are not uniform across nations where English is either the official or majority-spoken language.

It is possible that, even within one English-speaking country, both British and American spellings are used interchangeably – with no conflict among native speakers about one or another spelling being correct or not. Former British colonies will commonly use American spellings, for example.

Take a look at the breakdown of the British and American spellings used by countries where English is either an official, dominant or the de facto language – as illustrated and outlined in the following map:

Examples of British and American spellings used by English-speaking countries. (image credit: Wikipedia)

So, what’s a non-native speaker of English to do?

An easy way to prevent yourself from becoming overwhelmed is to keep this tip in mind: British spelling looks most like the English that was written in the Middle Ages, whereas American spelling takes the form of its roots in Latin.

American words are also spelled as they are pronounced – for example: “learned” vs “lernt”.

Since there are no hard and fast rules for you to follow (as there are for other languages), what I recommend to my students and clients is to follow the lead of the overwhelming majority of native speakers of English around the world, as mentioned above, and keep an open mind about the spelling of words in the English language rather than insisting on it being one way or the other.

Stay flexible and decide for yourself which individual spellings of words you prefer to use.

Here’s a quick little exercise to get you started with this new habit for improving your English:

Choose which spelling of the verb “to spell” you prefer:

a) He spelled the word correctly. (American spelling)

b) He spelt the word correctly. (British spelling)

Share your choice in the comments. Be sure to tell us why you prefer the one that you chose – not only would it be interesting to see, it’s also a good opportunity to practice your writing ;).

Thank you for reading my blog. I hope that you found the information shared in this article useful.

For more information about my Business English Coaching and Soft Skills Training services, visit my homepage. Be sure to check out the crossword puzzle that goes with this blog article!

Until next time!


Sources: Wikipedia, Library of Congress

Published by Michelle Charles

Michelle Charles is an International Communications Consultant specializing in Soft Skills Training and Advanced Business English Coaching. You can send her an email at information@michellecharlesenglish.online.

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