A Guide to British-English Spelling for Americans
Created | Updated Apr 11, 2007
Some 200 years ago, Noah Webster published A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language which led to the authoritative An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. He was the first to recognise truly American words that did not have their roots in British English. He urged that needlessly confusing words be altered ('plough' became 'plow', for instance) and many silent letters to dropped. This led to the American differentials from classic English1. It is likely that if the British as a people were to rewrite their dictionary, as Noah Webster had the chance to do, and did, they would change a few words, just to make things much easier.
Why English is 'So Odd'
An important factor to the difference of English words and their spellings is the simple quirkiness of the language and the printing press. When English was laid out for the first time to be properly spelled, there were some odd choices made (going on modern standards). For more on this, see The Great Vowel Shift.
The general American view of British English is that it seems to revolve around the letter 'u'. For instance, in American English, something that you like best is your 'favorite', but in British English, it reads as 'favourite'. Such is the case with 'color' and 'colour', 'labor' and 'labour' and 'humor' and 'humour'. They are not particularly uncomfortable words to read, as both sides probably understand them and move on, much in the same way that one would dismiss a typographical error. The British view of American English is the absence of the 'u' in those words. This is always a stern reminder of what nationality a writer is from.
An American attempt to make words easier to read has apparently backfired with a new era of fancy buildings. For instance, in many taller, wider American buildings, it might proclaim the building as 'centre' instead of the accustomed American 'center' or replacing the American 'Theater' with 'Theatre'. This is a subtle attempt to appear fancy or important. These words look like typos to Americans.
American society words traditionally ending in -yse (such as 'analyse') were altered for easier pronunciation/clarity. Hence, 'analyse' in British English became 'analyze' in American English.
In the United States, many adjectives and nouns are used as verbs when adding the standard -ize ending, in British English, to standardise a noun or adjective, you must add an -ise ending2. This rule is loosely followed though, as in American English, the term that should be 'surprize' is 'surprise', and in British dictionaries the -ize ending is shown as the ending and -ise as an alternative.
It should be noted that whether you use the suffix 'ise' or 'ize', British readers will often assume the word to be by an American anyway; terms such as 'burglarized', 'hospitalized' and 'colorize' do not naturally exist in British English, which prefers 'burgled', 'admitted to hospital' and 'leave it as black-and-white!'
Usually found in the middle of words like sulphur and sulfur, this is perhaps the most easily detected of the changes. The two spellings are consistent with the same sound as well.
Like many words of French origin, 'tyre' was changed to the simpler 'tire'. Other words of this origin usually have 'unnecessary' letters, and most were dropped in the American English adaptation.
With a word like 'programme', the innovators of the language took off a couple of letters from British English to make it easier to spell. The only exception to this is in computer terminology, where the terms have developed in Britain via American programmers. In this instance, you can watch a British television 'programme' about a computer 'program' and no one will be confused at all.
In American English, words like 'gynecology' turn into 'gynaecology' in British. The use of the 'ae' is supposed to produce a very specific sound - 'ee' as in 'Caesar'. Other examples of this include American 'anesthesia' to British 'anaesthesia', and American 'archeology' to British 'archaeology'.
In British English, words like 'catalogue', which was changed into 'catalog' in American English, there is a somewhat excessive -ue at the end. These two vowels were thought not to serve any particular purpose and were eliminated. 'Analog' and 'analogue' is another example.
In examples like 'hauler', in American English, the British version would cause an American some difficulty pronouncing it, as they would try to add another sound to an already crowded area.
|American English||British English|
|story||storey (In a building)|
|vise||vice (a tool)|
It's important to remember that many of these rules don't apply to all situations - not all 'F's in a word should not be switched with 'PH's while visiting the UK, or vice versa. Whichever variant you use, the English language is odd; in some words, the 'e' at the end will go away, in some it will stay. In some words there will be no vowels. English is an indecisive language.