Rules for Spelling Differences Between British and American English

Posted on 09. Jul, 2012 by in Culture, English Language

Yesterday I introduced the topic of common spelling difference between British English and American English.  Today I want to present to you some predictable difference in the spelling of words in Great Britain and the United States and the rules you can follow to learn these differences.  It is important to keep in mind that even though these words are spelled different in these two different countries, the meanings of these differently spelled words remains the same.  There is no right or wrong spelling of these words in English, but it is important to keep in mind that they are spelled differently in the context of the two cultures.  An American ESL teacher will likely teach the American spelling of these words and a British ESL teacher will teach the British spelling.  If you don’t feel strongly about one English speaking culture or the other, in terms of spelling, it is probably best to just pick the one that is easiest for you to remember and always use the spelling rules for that culture.  Switching back and forth between the different spelling systems (between the British and American ways) is likely to get confusing for you and other people who read your writing.

Here are some rules to keep in mind:

Words that end in: -our / -or

Most words ending in an unstressed syllable -our in British English, for example: colour, humour, neighbour and flavour, end in -or in American English, for example: color, humor, neighbor and flavor.

Words that end in: -re / -er

Most English words that are spelled ending in -er today used to be spelled ending in -re. In American English, almost all of these former -re words have become -er words.  In British English this is less likely to be true.  In British English there are many words that end with -re (usually the -re is unstressed and proceeded by a consonant). For example in British English you have words like: fibre, metre, theatre, and litre, while in American English these same words are spelled: fiber, meter, theater, and liter.

Words that end in: -ise /-ize

British English accepts the spelling of words using both -ize and -ise endings, for words like organize/organise, while American English only accepts the -ize ending for words like organize and recognize.  Around the world the -ize endings is generally used in scientific and international organization/governmental writing.  Interestingly, the European Union switched from using the -ize to -ise spelling of words written in its English publications a number of years ago.  This means the -ize spelling is found in older European Union documents, but the -ise spelling is found in more recent European Union documents.

Words that end in: -yse / -yze

Words that the British spell ending in -yse, the Americans spell ending in -yze. Examples of this are the British English spelling of the words: analyse and paralyse, and the American English spelling of these words as: analyze and paralyze.

Words that end in: -ogue, -og

British English speakers end a number of words spelled with -logue and -gogue. while American English speakers end these same words spelled with -log and -gog engines.  Common examples of these types of words are: analog(ue), catalog(ue), dialog(ue), demagog(ue), pedagog(ue), monolog(ue), homolog(ue), synagog(ue).  The British spelling difference is in parentheses ( ).

Words that end in: silent –e

When adding a suffix to a word that ends in a silent -e British English writers sometimes keeps the silent -e in the word, American English writers on the other hand, do not do this. In British English it is common to see words such as: ageing, roueting, likeable, and sizeable.  These same words in American English are written as: aging, routing, likable, and sizable.  Both forms of English keep the silent -e in the words dyeing* and singeing**, to distinguish these words from dying* and singing**.

Words that end in: past tense -ed

In Britain it okay to end some past tense verbs with a -t instead of an -ed, for example learnt, spelt and dreamt, but this is not allowed in American English, which maintains the -ed spelling on these words: learned, spelled, and dreamed.

*dye/dyeing =  to add a color to or change the color of something
*die/dying = to stop living

**singe/singeing = to burn something lightly
**sing/singing = to make a musical sound with ones voice

I hope these rules are helpful to you.  The may seem overwhelming at first, but remember you only have to remember the rule for one cultural context, the United States or Great Britain.

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About gabriele

Hi there! I am one of Transparent Language's ESL bloggers. I am a 32-year-old native English speaker who was born and raised in the United States. I am living in Washington, DC now, but I have lived all over the US and also spent many years living and working abroad. I started teaching English as a second language in 2005 after I completing a Master's in Applied Linguists and a Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults' (CELTA). Since that time I have taught ESL in the United States at the community college and university level. I have also gone on to pursue my doctorate in psychology and now I also teach courses in psychology. I like to stay connected to ESL learners around the world through Transparent Languages ESL Blog. Please ask questions and leave comments on the blog and I will be sure to answer them.

3 Responses to “Rules for Spelling Differences Between British and American English”

  1. Geoff Kingman-Sugars 21 May 2014 at 10:44 pm #

    Why does American English use the same word to mean two entirely different things; e.g., meter (metre) and curb (kerb)?

  2. gabriele 26 May 2014 at 8:14 pm #

    Geoff,
    Unfortunately that is just the way it is sometimes. English isn’t the only language to do it, but it can be annoying, especially for ESL learners. Hopefully this post was helpful none-the-less.


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