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Notes on English usage - British and American spelling

Updated on April 24, 2015

It was George Bernard Shaw who said that Britain and America were "divided by a common language", and this is brought home quite forcibly when we look at our rules of spelling!

In the UK, the English language has evolved over many centuries, and the way we spell our words today is not always how our ancestors would have done so. Emigrants to the New World took the English language with them in the state that it was at the time, and there has been a certain degree of divergence since then, although there are many examples that show that it is the British spelling that has changed in the meantime, not the American.

There have also been several deliberate attempts at spelling reform in the United States, most notably by Noah Webster of dictionary fame, and Melville Dewey, who devised the Dewey Decimal Classification for libraries and preferred "catalog" to "catalogue". Spelling reforms have also been proposed in the UK, but with much less success. However, the constant cross-fertilisation supplied by American books, journals and (especially) web-based materials has led many British people to accept American spellings in daily use.

Some of the differences

So what are the differences? One that is now becoming very blurred is "-ise" and "-ize" as a word ending. I would always prefer to see "recognise" rather than "recognize", as I regard "-ize" as an Americanism, but some British dictionaries now give "recognize" as the preferred form. However, this "rule" - if it is a rule - only applies to words of two or more syllables - for example, don't confuse "prise" and "prize", which are words with entirely different meanings.

One very clear difference is the American omission of the "u" in "-our" word endings. So whereas a Brit would write "neighbour", "harbour" and "colour", an American would write "neighbor", "harbor" and "color". The important thing to remember here is not to use both forms of spelling in the same document - decide which spelling code to adopt and stick with it.

Changing spellings can change meanings

There are some examples where spelling reform has led to confusions that do not occur in British English. For instance, a floor of a building is a "storey" in Britain but a "story" in the USA. However, a "story" is also a tale that is told, on both sides of the Pond. In the plural, both "storeys" and "stories" are correct in the UK, depending on the context.

Another example is "kerb" and "curb". If you hold something back, you curb it. If that something is the edge of a pavement (or "sidewalk" to an American), a Brit will do so with a "kerb", but in American English "curb" is used for both meanings, and the special meaning of "kerb" has been lost.

I am not saying that one way of spelling is correct and the other is wrong, only that these differences exist and it is important to be aware of them, so that when writing in English you are consistent. However, as I said above, things are not completely cut and dried and you can be forgiven for not getting it right every time - very few native-born writers of British English do so anyway!

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    • Lissie profile image

      Elisabeth Sowerbutts 

      10 years ago from New Zealand

      I think 1 US usage which is now official UK is program as in a computer program, but not a programme of music or study. The yanks seem to use gotten a lot as well which is very slangy in English. Thebathroom always gets me - I don't want a bath I want a toilet! What do they ask for if they want to have a wash?

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 

      10 years ago from Central New Jersey

      It is funny, isn't it--then there are all those cutesy American euphamisms for toilets--"the sandbox", "the pottie", and a peculiar southern one,"the necessary" which I believe comes straight from 18th century English usage.

      I find Brit food words funny-- bangers and mash, toad in the hole, bubble and squeek etc... and the first time an English traveling companion offered to knock me up in the morning I was a bit taken aback:-)

    • The Indexer profile imageAUTHOR

      John Welford 

      10 years ago from UK

      Robie, Thanks for the comment. To be strictly accurate, a pillarbox is only so called when it is a pillar. When it is set into a wall, as many of them are, it is just a postbox. We also use the word "mail" - indeed, the organisation that runs the postal system is the "Royal Mail". Don't get me on to names for places where people relieve themselves! I always laugh internally when an American asks for the restroom or the bathroom, as they have no intention of either having a rest or taking a bath! (I have similar problems with American "football" - the game in which they hardly ever use their feet - how can you have a touchdown when the ball is not touched down?). Mind you, I'm not all that keen on people going to the john for a pee, given that John is my first name!

    • robie2 profile image

      Roberta Kyle 

      10 years ago from Central New Jersey

      ahhh yes !! We have mailboxes and you have pillarboxes. We have TV. You have the tele. We have trucks and you have lorries. You have the cinema and we go to the movies. We use the john while you visit the loo. Shaw had it right, didn't he. Thanks for this delightful hub

    • funride profile image

      Ricardo Nunes 

      10 years ago from Portugal

      Great hub! Thank you for alerting me to your new hubs ;)

      I´ll "study" more carefully your site because I think it has so many things to teach me.

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