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UK vs US spelling: Separated by a Common Language [infographic]

  • July 11, 2011
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Communicating with friends across the pond is a perpetual problem. American and British spelling differences include simple changes that affect the meaning, pronunciation and use of words. Today, native and non-native English speakers are the largest group in the world, but the dialects they speak are shockingly different. Linguists have pinpointed the transition to today’s English to sometime during the 1800s. Noah Webster, the creator of the first and most prestigious American dictionary, published his first lexicon dedicated to US spelling and pronunciation in 1828. British spelling differences and pronunciations are easy to see for ESL students and anyone who interacts with English speakers across the ocean. Here are several examples of common British spelling differences and their US counterparts:

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Past participles and simple past verbs are often spelled differently. The British spelling typically includes a -t ending for words like smelt, spelt, dreamt, leant and so on while the US spelling uses the –ed form for smelled, spelled, dreamed and leaned.

UK spellings favor –re endings while American variations use -er. For example, is it the theatre in the town centre? Or the theater in the town center? Other British –re words include metre and litre.

An extra “U” can be found in the British spelling of many words, including favour flavour, labour, neighbour, glamour, colour and vigour. The “OU” combination is also found in the middle of words like mould or moustache. Words like analogue, catalogue and dialogue use –ue endings instead of the abrupt –log ending favored in American variations.

The last letter in words ending with an “L” is doubled before the ending when following the UK spelling. Words that follow this rule include signalling, equalling, traveller and many more.

The US spelling of many words use –ize as an ending while British spellings favor the ending -ise for words like organise, prioritise, memorise utilise and similar sounding words, such as analyse.

Many UK spellings utilize spelling tendencies taken from French and the romantic languages that were incorporated into English after the Battle of Hastings in 1066 and the Norman Conquest led by the Duke of Normandy.

Extra E’s are frequently added or retained in British spellings. To avoid common misspellings, remember the French influence in words like cheque, banque and programme. Other words like ageing retain the last –e in their UK spellings.

Some words like tyre don’t follow a specific rule. It’s important to remember that tire is typically used as a verb in British English. In general, auto-related vocabulary varies greatly between American and British English.

Aluminum is another tricky word. When using British spellings, it’s essential to remember that an extra syllable is added to aluminium.

Grey and gray are also commonly confused. The easiest way to remember this one is Americans use an “A” while British speakers use an “E.”

The UK spelling of mathematics is always maths while Americans use math.

The “C” and “S” switch can be a sticking point when going back and forth between American and British spellings. Remember that most British spellings use a “C” like defence while verbs like practise and license use an “S.”

The most important point to remember is consistency. Many ESL speakers find they have a natural preference for one or the other. Which spelling do you prefer?


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