More Misadventures in English Grammar: U.K. vs. U.S. Spelling

One language, ALL the spelling differences
One language, ALL the spelling differences

There are a few of differences in vocabulary between British English and American English. Hearing an American say “I like your pants” could induce panic in a British person, who may assume that the American can see their underwear, rather than their trousers.

Using the wrong words is not too serious a mistake, though, as most people will understand what you mean either way. It’s always ok to ask a friendly helper if a word is specific to England or to America.

It’s a different story when it comes to spelling.

Some examples of different spellings

‘er’ vs. ‘re’

British American
theatre theater
litre liter
fibre fiber
centre center

‘s’ vs. ‘z’

British American
recognise recognize
organise organize
apologise apologize
realise realize
socialise socialize
cosy cozy
analyse analyze

 ‘our’ vs. ‘or’

British American
labour labor
honour honor
humour humor
neighbour neighbor
flavour flavor
colour color

nce vs. nse

British US
licence license
defence defense


English Plus has a post about the differences in grammar between the two systems here. Here are a few other differences pointed out on that page:

[box] A few other words are spelled differently. A few common examples follow. UK: waggon, gaol (jail is becoming more common), mould, moult, manoeuvre, encyclopaedia, furore US: wagon, jail, mold, molt, maneuver, encyclopedia, furor[/box]

(As a British person, I’d point out that “gaol” has nearly fallen out of use – I only see it used in a historical context. However, we are much more likely to use the word “prison” than “jail”.)

Why are there different spellings?

There are quite a lot of words that English speakers in the UK and America spell differently.

There are a few general rules. American English uses the letter ‘z’ where a lot of British English words use ‘s’, whereas a lot of British words have a letter ‘u’ where it is not present in American words. For example realize/realise, color/colour…

This happens (generally speaking) because British English spelling still has elements of it’s French and Latin routes, while American English made use of having a new country and a new set of grammar rules to simplify many spellings.

American English is generally more intuitive in terms of spelling; the word “gray” is a good example. We usually make an “a” sound when we say the word, but the British English spelling is still “grey”, from the Old English “grǣġ”. This is also why many British English uses ‘re’ at the end of lots of words when American English uses ‘er’, like the British ‘theatre’ with it’s French route, as opposed to the American “theater”

How to navigate the spelling gap

These days, you’re better off than ever before. Most of your writing will be typed into word processors, which will correct your spelling and sometimes grammar (although do NOT rely on them for grammar). Make sure you change your spell check settings to whichever version of English you want to be using. You can always use a search engine such as Google to double check, or ask us a question using our ask box!

On this site, be aware that I will write using British grammar, whilst Frank uses American. If we are writing about grammar rules and there is a difference between the UK and US styles, we will do our best to tell you about them!

Find more Misadventures in English grammar in this post, where I talk about some punctuation discrepancies.

Have a good week everyone!



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