British and American spelling explained

One of the biggest headaches that editors face is dealing with spelling inconsistencies, particularly with regard to differences between British and American spelling.  Although there are plenty of rule books to refer to, they can often add to the  confusion if you are not aware of certain basic facts.

British or American spelling? 

<alt="red, blue and white flags (British and American) on silver flag poles".

When it comes to spelling, decide which side of the fence  you sit on.  In other words, choose your allegiances. Do you follow British spelling conventions? These conventions are taught in schools in Britain and, to a large extent, in schools in the British Commonwealth?

Alternatively, do you follow the American spelling conventions? This set of rules was promoted by Noah Webster following the American War of Independence in the 1770s and have been used in the United States ever since.

In most cases, British words draw on tradition and have retained the spellings of the languages that influenced them. By contrast, the American spellings are simplified versions of the British ones and tend to be spelled how they sound when spoken.

My intention is not to spark a debate on which language variety is best – British or American. It is essential though to acknowledge that the two forms do exist.

Irrespective of whether you are a seasoned writer or editor, or whether you are learning English as a second or third language, you need to know how to deal with the differences.

Spelling consistency is key

As with many aspects of language, consistency is key.  Select one set of rules over the other and do not use a mishmash of the two. It is probably best to go with the devil you know. In South Africa, where I am from, this is British English.

Write for your audience

Having advised that you stick to one convention, bear in mind that, in some cases, you will need to write for your audience.

    • If, for example, you are writing a paper for an American publication, say, the Lancet Medical Journal, use  American spelling conventions.
  • Similarly, if you were writing a paper for Royal Tit-Watching, a publication of the Ornithological Society of Britain, use British spellings.

The -ise and ize conundrum

Another conundrum we encounter is deciding which endings to use for verbs containing either an s or z in the final suffix. Although it is commonly accepted that the Americans use the -ize form  and the British the -ise forms, things are not that simple.

    • In the 1880s, lexicographers at Oxford University Press threw us a curved ball by promoting the use of the -ize endings. The grounds for this were that the -ize endings were etymologically correct. 
    • Since then, the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), arguably the leading authority on the English language, has favoured this usage.
    • The -ize suffix is of Greek etymology, whereas the -ise suffix is of Latin/French origin. Greek influence over English predates that of Latin and French.
  • In its dictionaries, the OED always lists the the -ize form first. The -ise form is listed as a variant or second option. A typical dictionary would look like this:

familiarize (also -ise) v


The good news is that you don’t need to know Greek, Latin or French to know which ending to use. If you follow the OED rules, you can generally use the –ize suffix for most of the verbs of this kind.

There are, however, exceptions to this rule. The words listed below always take -ise endings.  The rationale here is that in these instances, the -ise forms part of a longer word and is not a discrete ending of its own. Examples of words that always take -ise endings are: advertise, advise, arise, chastise, circumcise, comprise, compromise, demise, despise, devise, disguise, excise, exercise, franchise, guise, improvise, incise, reprise, revise, rise, supervise, surmise, surprise, televise, and wise.

Confused? Don’t be. Only 20 of the 200-odd verbs that could theoretically end in –ize, don’t. However, they are always spelt with –ise in both American and British English.

International usage

A group of prominent international organisations  follow the OED spelling standards.

    • These organisations include those that fit under the United Nations umbrella.
    • They do this for the naming of the organisations, as well for the documentation they produce.
    • Examples are the Word Trade Organization,  the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and the World Food Programme. 
  • Scientific writing, in general, also favours the use of the -ize endings.

To take this topic to its logical conclusion, make sure  that you use an appropriate dictionary for your language variant. When googling word definitions, it is very easy to click on the entry at the top of the feed, without ensuring whether it is British or American.

Common differences

Other generally known and less confusing differences between American and British spellings are listed below:

Spelling differencesAmericanBritish

Words ending in -re

In words ending in -re, American spellings end in –er and British spellings, in –re.centercentre
metermetre
fiberfibre
theatertheatre
Words ending in –our
In American spelling, the o is dropped. The British spellings  retain the –our.honorhonour
colorcolour
flavorflavour
neighborneighbour
Words ending in a vowel plus l, as in -el
When adding a suffix beginning with an -e, to a word ending with a vowel plus l, American usage is a single l. British usage is to double the l.fueledfuelled
traveledtravelled
Words that have double vowels,  as in -oe or -ae
British English uses double vowels ae or oe but American English simply uses an e.encyclopediaencyclopaedia
fetusfoetus
Words ending in -ence
American English uses an –s, not a -c. In British English, a -c is used in the noun form of the word and an -s in the verb form.defensedefence
offenseoffence
pretensepretence
licenselicence (n) license (v)
Words ending in –ogue
 American English drop the -ue and simply use an -o. British spellings retain the -oguecatalogcatalogue
dialogdialogue