American vs British English: Spellings

English, as we all know, is one of the most widely spoken languages on the planet. However, there are many different dialects of English, each of which have different spellings, vocabulary, and grammar.

Among the dialects of English are:

New Zealand English

Indian English

Canadian English

Australian English

But the two most prominent and most widely used forms of English are British English and American English, and it is important that you know their differences.

If you’re from Britain it is expected of you to write with British English spellings and if you’re from America, it is expected of you to write with American English spellings.

That’s pretty obvious and very straightforward, right?

It will not look professional to agents if your writing is not true to your nationality, unless you have a very good reason for doing so.

The difficult part is being 100% sure you’ve not been influenced by another dialect of English!

So: What are the main spelling differences between the two most commonly used dialects of English?

Many of the changes in the two languages occurred during the 19th century when people like Mark Twain and Noah Webster pushed for changes to the languages to make spelling easier. As a result, many of the American words got shorter.

‘Oe’ and ‘Ae’ (British English) turns to ‘E’ (American English):

  • Oestrogen = Etrogen

  • Encyclopaedia = Encyclopedia

‘Ph’ (British English) turns to ‘F’ (American English):

  • Sulphur and Sulphate = Sulfur and Sulfate

One ‘L’ is enough

  • Travelled (British English) = Traveled (American English)

  • Travelling = Traveling

The ‘u’ is dropped:

British English

Colour

Smoulder

Neighbour

Mould

American English

Color

Smolder

Neighbor

Mold

One of the major irregularities of British spellings are the letters ‘re’ at the end of a word, which the British pronounce ‘er’. In America, they swapped the letters round to fit the sound they make.

British English

Metre

Theatre

Litre

American English

Meter

Theater

Liter

In a similar way, the Americans change ‘ence’ to ‘ense’

British English

Defence

Offence

American English

Defense

Offense

However, be careful with the word ‘license’! The Americans always spell it ‘license’, while the British use both spellings for two meanings:

  1. if you pass your driving test, you are awarded a driving licence (noun)

  2. When you have a drive a driving licence, you are licensed (verb)
     

Oh, the joys of the English language!

There is a common misconception that words ending in ‘ise’, as used by the British, are rewritten ending in ‘ize’ by the Americans. This is not wholly true because the British can use either spelling, ‘ise’ or ‘ize’, though they must make sure to remain consistent throughout a document!

These rules don’t 100% apply all of the time because English likes to play with our heads a lot! So, if you’re ever in doubt, consult a dictionary! You can google it, but you’ll frequently come across debated spellings which will likely only confuse you more!