Spelling Differences Between British and American English
The spelling differences between British and American English first arose because at the time of the British colonization of North America, English spelling wasn’t yet fixed. Standardized spelling of English came about in the 18th century, after the American Colonies had already declared independence.
Related: English through the ages
In this article we are not going to elaborate the vocabulary differences, though we will acknowledge them. The most noticeable difference between American and British English is vocabulary. There are hundreds of everyday words that are different. For example, Brits call the front of a car the bonnet, while Americans call it the hood. Americans go on vacation, while Brits go on holidays, or hols — vacation is closely related to the Spanish word vacacione. Spanish is the second most spoken language in the US so it makes sense that it would influence the first. England has strong historical and economical ties to France and British English reflects that.
The main difference is that British English keeps the spelling of words it has absorbed from other languages, mainly French and German. Whilst American English spellings are based mostly on how the word sounds when it is spoken.
List of Main Spelling Differences
Below we have listed the main spelling differences that exist between British and American English.
1. Much of our modern alphabet comes directly from the Greek alphabet, including a letter, that looked just like our “Z,” that the Greeks called “zeta.” “Zeta” evolved into the French “zede,” which in turn gave us “zed” as English was shaped by Romance languages like French. By contrast, the –yze ending in words like analyze and paralyze is only acceptable in US English. In the UK you must use analyse and paralyse.
2. Many words that come from Ancient Greek have an –ae– in British English but only –e- in US English. Most of these words are scientific, medical, or technical words.
3. Sometimes British spelling requires a doubled consonant, for example in the past participle of certain verbs, where American spelling omits it. In other places, it is US English that has the doubled consonant; in certain verbal infinitives, or to preserve the root word of certain adjectives.
4. Many nouns that end in –ence in British English end in –ense in the US. UK English only uses –ense for the corresponding verb; for example, you can license someone to do something, after which they hold a licence to do it.
5. On both sides of the Atlantic, English is famous for the “silent” –e at the end of many words. Where both American and British English have this, in words such as name, make, or have, it comes from an Old English inflection. But many final –e spellings come from French loanwords,where often the consonant before the final –e is doubled. American English tends to omit these in accordance with Noah Webster’s spelling reforms.
6. Like –ae- above, British English preserves the –oe- digraph in words derived from the Classical languages, while US English has simplified it to –e-.
7. This is one of the more famous spelling differences between British and American English, and comes from French influence. Nearly all of these words originally come from Latin, and had the plain –or ending.
8. Like –our, the –re spelling originally comes from French. In the United States it was replaced with –er to better reflect American pronunciation.
America’s First Dictionary
Many American spellings do owe their existence to Noah Webster’s spelling reforms, which sought to simplify spelling and bring it closer to common American pronunciation. Many of his suggestions – like plow – took hold and became standard American spelling. Others – like tung (for “tongue”) – did not.