Differences Between UK English and US English – Part I – Spellings

Hello folks! How have you been lately?

Have you ever come across a person who corrects you by telling you “it’s neighbour, not neighbor”? Or that “it’s a lift, not an elevator”? You might have studied those words in your books and have been saying “neighbor” and “elevator” all your life, but now this jerk comes up to tell you that you are wrong! You would be totally convinced you are the person speaking correct English, but the other person doesn’t retract either!

So, who is correct?

Are there multiple accepted spellings and terminologies in the same language? Can parts of speech be twisted to suit speakers of different regions? The collective answer is yes! People in the UK and USA have some minor differences in spellings, pronunciations, and even grammar at places. Of course, the accent is different too. And while the people in the UK speak English, they refer to the American English as just “American”, and not “English”. But we’ll leave that fight and discussion for some other day.

Today, we are going to talk about the UK and US styles of English language and have a look at the major differences between them. Even though they differ mostly in pronunciations and a few spellings most of the times, the differences are remarkable and the sentence structure changes at times too.

But First, How Did Everything Start?

In 1828, Noah Webster published “An American Dictionary of the English Language” in a bid to standardise spellings in the English language. He was frustrated with the use of words that didn’t actually sound like they were spelt and wanted to give them a proper phonetic touch. Prior to that, multiple variants of the same words were in use in different parts of the English-speaking world. Even though the dictionary couldn’t revolutionise the process in the UK, it significantly impacted the way words were spelt in the US. The shortening of the most prominent words by removal of the “u” was a result of the efforts of Noah Webster who even paid up the publishers to use his spellings. So, “colour” became “color“, “neighbour” became “neighbor”, “armour” became “armor”, and so on for the natives of the US.

This is to be noted that Webster didn’t invent all these spellings himself. He just tried to popularise some spellings; a few of them worked, many didn’t. He did try to invent a few spellings himself but failed to promote them.

The Major Differences Between UK and US English

  1. Spellings:

a. Generally, Spellings in the US are Shorter

The most common difference in the spellings are the shortened words in the US English. For instance, “labour” in UK is “labor” in US, “honour” in UK is “honor” in US, “mould” in UK is “mold” in US, etc.

I believe the Americans are lazy with their spellings. They tend to cut-short the spellings wherever they find convenient. For example, what the British refer to as “dialogue”, “monologue”, and “analogue” are simply “dialog”, “monolog”, and “analog” to the Americans. By the way, “catalogue” and “catalog” work just fine for the US. They have done just the same with many words ending with “ed”, “ing”, “er”, and “est”. For example “cancelled”, “counselling”, “traveller”, and “cruellest” are used in the British English, while “canceled”, “counseling”, “traveler” and “cruelest” form the spellings for the same words respectively in the American English. Similarly, the US English cuts down the “e” from many words when adding suffixes. So, While British people write “ageing”, “likeable” and “routeing”, the US counterparts prefer “aging”, “likable” and “routing”. “Lovable”, “believable”, “curable”, “notable”, etc. are some spellings that are acceptable in both the UK and US versions of the language.

Many of the words that contain “ae” or “oe” in the British English are spelt with just an “e” in the US English. For example, “anaemia”, “paediatric”, and “oestrogen” in the UK English are “anemia”, “pediatric”, and “estrogen” in the US English.

Here again, there are exceptions. Words like “aesthetics” and “archaeology” can be spelt both ways in the US English. And words like “encyclopaedia”, “foetus”, etc. can be spelt both ways in the British English.

But again, there are some words that are spelt otherwise; the British English actually drops some letters! For example, “enrol”, “enthral”, “appal”, “skilful”, “instalment”, etc. are the accepted spellings in the UK style while “enroll”, “enthrall”, “appall”, and “skillful” make up the US style.

b. -ise/-yse or -ize/-yze? Which One Do I Use?

The British use the suffix “ise/yse” wherever required, while the Americans use “ize/yze”. Thus, “specialise”, “standardise”, “catalyse”, “hydrolyse”, etc. are commonly used in the UK style of writing, while the US style makes use of “specialize”, “standardize”, “catalyse”, “hydrolyze” respectively.

c. Do We Take Offence or Offense?

Another confusion that often arises is with the words ending with “ce” and “se”. Variants of the same words with both these suffixes are used interchangeably and it’s confusing at times to identify the part of speech and correct variant to be used in a certain situation. Keep in mind, words ending with “ce” are nouns, like “advice”, “device”, “licence”, “practice” and words ending with “se” are verbs, e.g., “advise”, “devise”, “license”, and “practise”. But in US English, they use license and practice as both noun and verb. Gets me tangled at times! But wait, there’s more! The British use “defence” and “offence”, while the Americans spell them “defense” and “offense”, but the derivatives “defensive” and “offensive” are accepted in both the styles of English.

d. Is it Centre or Center?

Other than just these words, another prominent difference is in the words ending with “er” and “re”. While the British use “metre”, “litre”, “calibre”, “theatre”, etc., the US versions of the same words are “meter”, “liter”, “caliber”, and theater” respectively. But again, words with the suffix “meter” are the same in both the variants, like “barometer”, “pentameter”, “thermometer”, etc.

Interesting fact: Many of the words ending with “er” were once spelt with “re” once. Examples are “December”, “member”, “disaster”, “chapter”, and a lot more.

Now, there are many exceptions here too, which shouldn’t come as a surprise!

Words like “anger”, “mother”, and “danger” end with “er” in the British version of the language too, while the words like “acre”, “massacre”, and “mediocre” are the permitted forms in the US English as well. These words are the same in both UK and US vocabulary.

Whenever the French style of pronunciation is used in words ending with “re”, (// rather than /ə(r)/), they stay the same in the US English. For example, “genre”, “oeuvre”, and “double entendre” are acceptable in the US English because of their pronunciation. It should be noted that some words are acceptable with the “re” ending even though they are not pronounced like “genre” and other words in the league, for instance, “cadre”, “macabre”, “timbre”, etc.

There are many more spellings that vary wrt to the region they are being used in. There are many other aspects that differentiate the British and American variants of the English Language. Watch out for the second part of this article to know how British and US English vary in terms of abbreviations, acronyms, and punctuations.

EDIT: The second part of this article is live now.

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