Grammar Geekery: Most Common British/American English Spelling Mistakes

The grammar geeks among you will know that I am a confused blogger! I am British although I lived in Australia and New Zealand for 11 years, plus I write for a mainly American audience.

alphabetSo I find my spelling is probably a mix of the cultures, which means I get some grumpy emails sometimes about my spelling! Today’s guest post is from Oliver Randall, who looks at some of the differences between British and American English spellings.

If your job involves writing in almost any capacity, you’ve probably fallen foul of a UK/US spelling mix-up at some point.

Maybe you write for an international audience, only to have people showing up in the comments, decrying the ‘Americanisation’ of English.

Maybe you handed in a draft to a publisher that gave the overwhelming impression you can’t spell, simply because Microsoft Word reverted to its default spell-check setting.

Or possibly you just want to make sure you’re absolutely on top of your writing game.

Well, you’ve come to the right place. Below we’ve compiled a list of common English/American spelling mistakes according to type, so you need never again lay anchor in the ‘harbor’ when you mean to do so in the ‘harbour’, or ‘apologize’ when you should ‘apologise’. Of course, you may still make mistakes, but at least now you’ll do so consistently.

‘ou’ or ‘o’?

As in:   colour/color

humour/humor

This is probably the most common cause of English/American confusion: does a word require an ‘ou’, or will a simple ‘o’ suffice? Simply: Brits use ‘ou’ while the Yanks simplify it to ‘o’. And before any Oxford-type starts guffawing at Americans for having to do things simply, bear in mind that the original ‘o’ spelling is correct in Latin.

The switched ‘re’

As in:   theatre/theater

Centre/center

Another common mistake is the ‘re’ at the end of certain English words. While it makes more sense to spell ‘centre’ how it sounds (‘center’), history has favoured the ‘re’ spelling, especially in ‘theatre’. In fact, ‘theatre’ is a viable spelling even if writing for an American audience, just to complicate things further.

‘ise’ or ‘ize’?

As in:   realise/realize

Organise/organize

While ‘ise’ is only used in English, the Oxford English Dictionary informs us that ‘ize’ can be used in either country. Which begs the question, why use ‘ise’ at all? Well, some Brits prefer ‘ise’, it’s a simple as that. If you’re writing for a UK audience you might as well cover yourself and drop ‘ize’, just in case.

‘yse’ or ‘yze’?

As in:   analyse/analyze

Paralyse/paralyze

Although it sounds like the ‘ise’/’ize’ dilemma, ‘yse’/’yze’ differentiates itself by being geographically specific. Refuse a ‘breathalyzer’ from an English bobby and you’ll be laughed out the station. In this one you can see where both sides are coming from: analysis does end in ‘s’, but its plural is pronounced with a ‘z’. Whoever you think is right, the use of these two variations is happily clear-cut.

The extra ‘L’

As in:   traveller/traveler

Like many dropped or added consonants, this variation seems primarily designed to confuse you. Suffice to say, there is no reason for that extra ‘l’ to be there, except it just sort of looks right. Americans, ever to the point, do away with it entirely.

The missing vowel

As in:   oestrogen/estrogen

Paedophile/pedophile

There’s no hard and fast rule here. Often, Americans simply dispose of a useless vowel, especially one situated right beside an ‘e’. But then you get a word like ‘archaeology’, which can be spelt the same both sides of the Atlantic. Why that ‘a’ hasn’t been culled is anyone’s guess, but follow your instincts and spell it ‘archeology’ and you’ll come across as a buffoon, however unfair that may seem.

‘Ence’ or ‘Ense’?

As in:   offence/offense

Licence/license

Is the best form of attack ‘defence’ or ‘defense’? The ‘ence/ense’ ending is another common mistake, but luckily no weird rules apply. Simply put ‘ence’ in England and ‘ense’ in America. Easy.

The ‘ogue’ debate

As in:   analogue/analog

Dialogue/dialog

Now this is a contentious one. Despite a simple ‘log’ being acceptable in the States, ‘logue’ is not only also accepted, but far more widely used. Remember the ‘ise/ize’ debate from above, where one version was used everywhere, but the other only in Britain? This is the American version. As before, cover yourself by putting ‘log’ when dealing with an American audience. Better that than making a bad impression on your Stateside editor.

 Grammar geeks may also enjoy this interview with the author of ‘The Joy of English’

Do you have any particular spelling or grammar niggles? Please do leave a comment below and join the conversation.

About the Author

Oliver Randall is a content strategist and blogger for UK printing service Print Express. Outside of the workplace he enjoys scriptwriting and coffee, which usually results in very little sleep.

Image: BigstockPhoto.com Alphabet

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Comments

  1. Karen van Wyk says

    I almost drove myself crazy with this when I tried to edit my first novel for the American market. Now I just write my narrative in South African English and apologise for it on my website. Dialogue is another issue though. The novel I’m editing at the moment is set in the UK and features both South African and British characters and, after living in the UK for years, I’ve just discovered I can’t speak British English at all.

  2. says

    I barely notice the US/UK spelling differences because they occur mainly in word endings. Sadly, most US changes have merely made American spelling different rather than easier to learn. The -or endings of ‘labor’ and ‘habor’ still have to be learned as exceptions from the main -er pattern of ‘father, mother, number…’
    ‘Center, fiber, saber, theater and kilometer’ are more sensible than the British ‘centre, fibre, sabre, theatre’ and ‘kilometre’, as is ‘marveled’. The most sensible spelling for ‘travelled/traveled’ would be ‘travled’ or ‘travveled’, to show that the ‘a’ is short. The most worthwhile US change has been to conflate the British ‘to practise / a practice’ differentiation which still causes endless mistakes over here.
    I am appalled by the numerous irregularities which make learning to read and write in all English-speaking countries much harder than need be
    http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.com/2009/12/rules-and-exceptions-of-english.html
    and necessitate memorisation of unpredictable spelling quirks for 3,700 common words
    http://englishspellingproblems.blogspot.com/2010/11/english-spelling-rules.html .

  3. Cristina says

    Just wanted to add my voice to this discussion. I’m born English but writing in the States for an American audience about events in England. I’ve used American English mostly but only English English for dialogue. As I still at the first draft stage I may find that it changes once an editor sees it.
    As well as the usual different spellings already mentioned I have been corrected about the past tense of to fit. “I fitted all the books onto the shelf.” In the US it seems it’s fit, for both present and past. Also, learnt, as in “I learnt the correct spellings before I began to write,” has been corrected to learned.
    Puntuation also seems to have its quirks. The semi colon is frowned on in the US and used far less than in the UK, I think.

  4. says

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  5. Emma Dee says

    I’m American and I live in the US and I don’t know anyone who spells it “dialog” or “analog”. That just looks stupid. I can’t even remember ever reading anything that didn’t put the “ue” in.

  6. ed says

    “bear in mind the original ‘o’ spelling is correct in Latin “, so what, you’re saying American writers and authours looked at Latin before changing the spelling on a national scale? Oh what? You’re not? Because you can’t equate two irrelevant events to each other? Latin is a fucking dead language too. What a stupid point to make, trying to justify the American fashion of changing shit for the sake of changing shit to ‘it’s like Latin’ how fucking simple minded. It has NOTHING to do with Latin, saying it’s like Latin DOESN’T make it relevant. It’s colour.

Trackbacks

  1. […] Picking a POV for your story is always tricky. Dan O’Shea talks about the challenges of writing in the second person POV. Once you’re actually drafting, Jami Gold tackles transitions within a story by reminding us that every action should be a reaction to the prior action. And if you’re writing for an international audience, Oliver Randall demystifies the most common British/American English spelling mistakes. […]

  2. […] Grammar Geekery: Most Common British/American English Spelling Mistakes  This excellent, succinct post over at The Creative Penn looks at the spelling differences between English English and American English.  This is important – when you write for our cousins on the the other side of the pond, you should spell like they do.  It’s a whole post on it’s own why you should do that – but I’m utterly convinced of the necessity of doing it. […]

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