Grammar American vs. British English: Spelling |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

American vs. British English: Spelling

The U.S. and the U.K. are connected in many meaningful ways, perhaps most notably by a common language. At the same time, we each have variances that make our expressions distinctive, as well as interesting to learn and understand.

Stateside, it’s also good for us to recognize British style as that being used in countries such as Australia, India, Canada, Bangladesh, and Nigeria. Those of us speaking either American or British English have our own national accents as well, which makes the hearing of English even more rich.

Through the years we’ve received many inquiries from both U.S. and Commonwealth readers about English style and grammar that look correct to one but irregular to another. We thought it would be fun to explore some basic usage principles with the aim of appreciating both dialects’ colorful qualities.

In our first examination, we’ll look at spelling. The Oxford International English Schools website points out the main difference is that British English maintains word spellings it has absorbed from languages such as German and French. U.S. spellings often follow how words sound when spoken (of course with many exceptions).

The following are some of the most recognizable distinctions.

U.S. U.K. U.S. U.K.
theater theatre organize organise
liter litre recognize recognise
traveled travelled license  licence (n.)
canceled cancelled defense defence
color colour catalog OR catalogue catalogue
behavior behaviour dialog OR dialogue dialogue
checker (game) chequer aging ageing
check (bank) cheque judgment judgement

The two dialects also approach many other words in a host of different ways.

U.S. U.K. U.S. U.K.
airplane aeroplane pajamas pyjamas
program programme sulfur sulphur
toward towards tire tyre
mustache moustache maneuver manoeuvre
draft draught plow plough
mom mum pediatric paediatric
aluminum aluminium artifact artefact

This is a wonderful opportunity for American and British writers and speakers to engage. What stands out to you about variations in style and usage? Stay tuned as we continue exploring the vocabulary and grammar that distinguish communication over the pond.


(Special thanks to Anglophiles Megan C. and Emma C. of Illinois, USA, and Rachel M. of Kansas, USA, for their contributions to this discussion.)

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

26 responses to “American vs. British English: Spelling”

  1. We heard from several readers politely informing us that bank (not banque) is the common spelling in Commonwealth countries. The comment below from Brian also represents others we received. Although we picked up bank/banque from multiple online sources, we receive the speakers themselves as the leading authority. We might also have been influenced by the banque spelling used in Canada because of the French influence. We knew we were taking broad breaststrokes across the pond, and we were doing so with the aim of inspiring discourse as well as correction and clarification. We will update the table.

    Also, please note that we are intentionally leaving periods and commas outside quotation marks in the comments under this article, as that is the U.K. norm.

  2. Lawrence J Elliott says:

    Thanks for this from a great Anglophile. You didn’t mention lift or tube. A future piece?

    I’ve noticed how the British (or English?) don’t use articles common to us: “go to hospital, go on holiday.”
    Sure, we use many such constructions: “in prison, and on leave.”

    When I hear a Brit use their slightly shortened phrases, I smile in delight.

    • Thank you; we’re glad you enjoyed the article. We appreciate your insights and will consider them for our series as it continues soon with U.S. and U.K. vocabulary.

  3. Bruce Robinson says:

    Would you agree that, less than 50 yrs ago, “dialogue” and “catalogue” were in fact standard American usage, and that “dialog” and “catalog” were simply not standard usage?

    • We are unable to agree or disagree. Our 1939 Webster’s New International Dictionary, 1968 Random House The American College Dictionary, and our 1992 The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language all list catalogue or catalog, dialogue or dialog. Our “senior” staff members recall their families having ordered items from the Sears and Montgomery Ward catalogs, not catalogues. We therefore have added either spelling as acceptable on the “U.S.” side of the chart.

  4. Brian says:

    We Brits don’t write “banque”, we write “bank”, just like you Yanks do. And your spelling of “sulfur” is now the IUPAC-recognised one, so we’ll no doubt adopt that as our usual spelling too.
    I do admire your use of “#” to represent “number”. We use “no.”, which looks too much like “no”.
    As you quite rightly say, the language is enriched by having different interpretations of what is correct.

    • While Americans do use the symbol # as shorthand for number, we recommend reserving it for informal communication. In formal prose we recommend spelling the word out or using “No.” For example, In quiz question No. 1, underline the incorrectly spelled words.

  5. Buckley says:

    Those in the U.K. say “torch” instead of “flashlight.”

  6. Robin says:

    So grateful for the information you provide.

  7. Larry Z says:

    Another word to add to this list is centre and center.

  8. Brian Thompson says:

    I am a Brit with 11 years in the USA. One thing always amuses me, why do some American theaters change to the English THEATRE? To add a bit of “je ne sais quoi”? Why don’t they all do it?

    • In truth, we Americans do appreciate the accent and flair that other dialects and languages offer. For some business owners, such as those in entertainment and restaurants, adding verbal touches such as “theatre,” “programme,” “a la carte,” and “du jour” can lend a hint of perceived sophistication within an otherwise often casual U.S. culture.

  9. John says:

    I remember, while stationed in England, a British Air Force mechanic asked me for a “torch” to inspect his “thermos”. He wanted a flashlight to inspect his liquid oxygen store converter.

  10. Andrea says:

    In the list above, you overlook the role of parts of speech. In U.K. English, licence (with a c) is the noun. License (with an s) is the verb. [C the noun, s the verb].

    • Thank you for your observation. It is one we noted during our review, but for simplicity’s sake, we opted to present the difference in the table as an example without getting into a more-detailed grammatical explanation. We will however add a part-of-speech marker identifying the usage in the table as a noun.

  11. Dirk van Eijk says:

    Beautiful subject to publish information about. I am an ESL teacher in China. English is also my 2nd language. We (my wife and I) have a house in Las Vegas. We try to be there at least three months a year, but that is impossible right now. My English comes from Europe, I mean UK English. In China, in general, they “prefer” US English. So I follow those US rules; however, high school students are confronted with both sides.
    When I am talking with locals in Las Vegas they many times ask me “Where does your English come from?” And I explain that and then I ask “Why do you want to know?” And their reaction is unanimously “It sounds so soft”. And that is still the French influence in the UK English (starting 1066 William the Conqueror). I am very, very happy with your article about US/UK English and I am looking forward to Part II.
    If you are interested, a small anecdote about how Chinese students approach the English language. High school and university students, preparing for studying abroad, focus mainly on the IELTS and TOEFL results. Then I ask them sometimes “Do you think that when you arrive in the US that the border police have different counters for IELTS speaking or TOEFL speaking students?”
    FYI my first language is Dutch. Thank you.

  12. Greg says:

    Why is it that there is a difference between what are plural in Commonwealth English and singular US English? For example:

    Commonwealth: Virgin Atlantic have retired all of their 747’s?
    US: Virgin Atlantic has retired all of its 747’s

    Commonwealth: Come and give us a visit. As in one person. What does one say when he wishes to welcome someone to visit more than one person?

    US: Come visit me. (for one person; “us” for more than one).


    US: Greg is in the hospital. Greg is in school; Greg is (at) home; Greg is at the office.
    Commonwealth: Greg is in hospital.

  13. Janice H. says:

    The message on the differences between U.S. English and U.K. English was really fun! Some of the pairings I knew about; others I did not.

    I have regularly agonized (or “agonised”) about whether or not to double the “l” at the end of verbs like “cancel” in past tense or when using the past participle. Now I know either is standard English, just in different countries.

    I have always avoided “towards,” thought it was non-standard, even sub-standard English. Now I know that it is just from “across the pond.” I notice that you use “over the pond.” Is one or the other considered “standard,” or is this another case of U.S. usage versus U.K. usage?

    I look forward to Part II of this topic.

    • We are glad you enjoyed the first article and appreciate that you anticipate the subject as it continues.

      The phrase “across the pond” is the more-standard usage to describe the space between the U.S. and the European continent. Our adjustment was based on style and intent: We felt that “over the pond” suggested more proximity between the U.S. and the U.K. as opposed to “across the pond,” which to us subtly implied greater distance.

  14. Isabel Claassen says:

    Is the use of “impact” as a verb accepted as good/standard US English?

    • The word impact has become commonly used and accepted as a verb in American English since around the early 2000s. As self-admitted word nerds, we have been slow to accept the use of impact over the perfectly good affect or influence (see our entry in Confusing Words and Homonyms). However, we fear the battle is lost.

  15. Roger says:

    I predict that the internet will stop these speech, spelling, and usage differences in the future

Leave a Comment or Question:

Please ensure that your question or comment relates to the topic of the blog post. Unrelated comments may be deleted. If necessary, use the "Search" box on the right side of the page to find a post closely related to your question or comment.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *