The Farlex Grammar Book > English Spelling and Pronunciation > Spelling Conventions > American English vs. British English Spelling
American English vs. British English Spelling
While English is fairly uniform in terms of structure and spelling across the various regions in which it is the native language, there are a few prominent differences that have arisen over the years. These differences are most notably codified between two major English-speaking regions, resulting in American English (AmE) and British English (BrE). (It’s important to remember that there are many other variations [Canadian English, Australian English, etc.] that may incorporate elements of both or may be subtly different in their own right, but the biggest and most consistent spelling changes are most easily divided into American and British variants.)
Most of the differences between these two varieties of English have to do with the endings of certain types of words, but there are differences that appear in other parts of the word as well. We’ll start with one of the most common: words ending in “-er” vs. “-re.”
“-er” vs. “-re”
Many words in British English are spelled with “-re” when that ending follows a consonant. This spelling is a reflection of the French spellings of the words from which they were derived. In American English, we (almost) universally find “-er” after a consonant at the end of a word. This (along with many other uniquely American spelling patterns) was established by Noah Webster in the 19th century to more naturally reflect the word’s pronunciation.
manoeuvre (the other spelling difference [“e” vs. “oe”] will be discussed later)
metre (when describing a unit of length)
This difference in spelling is maintained when we add most suffixes—for instance, the American English spelling center becomes centered or centering, while the British English conjugations are centred and centring. However, this is not always true; there are some vowel suffixes that, when attached to words ending in either “-er” or “-re,” cause E to be omitted in both spellings:
- caliber, calibre→calibrate
- center, centre→central, centric, centrist
- fiber, fibre→fibroid, fibrous
- luster, lustre→lustrous
- meter, metre→metric
- sepulcher, sepulchre→sepulchral
- specter, spectre→spectral
- theater, theatre→theatrical
Words that always end in “-er”
While there are quite a few words that have different endings in American vs. British English, there are many more by far that share the same ending, most common of which is “-er.” For example:
- meter (when used to describe an instrument that takes measurements)
- timber (referring to trees or wood; has a separate meaning from timbre, referring to sound tones)
As a suffix, “-er” is used to indicate a noun of agency, in which case its spelling is the same in both regions. There are far too many to include here, so we’ll just look at a few common examples:
(*Note that while traveler is spelled with “-er” in both AmE and BrE, there is another spelling difference between the regions: in AmE, we only spell the word with one L, while, in BrE, it is spelled with two Ls. We’ll discuss this convention separately further on.)
Words that always end in “-re”
While the “-er” ending is much more common in both American and British English, there are also many words ending in “-re” that are standard in both regions. Almost all of these end in C + “-re,” which ensures that we pronounce a “hard C” (/k/), rather than the soft C (/s/) that almost always accompanies CE.
- timbre (referring to sound and tone; has a separate meaning from timber, referring to trees or wood)
In other cases, the “-re” ending is carried over from foreign loanwords and reflects the pronunciation of the final syllable, as in:
- cadre (/ˈkædri/ or /ˈkɑdreɪ/)
- chèvre (/ˈʃɛvrə/)
- émigré (/ˈɛmɪˌgreɪ/)
- double entendre (/ˈdʌbəl ɑnˈtɑndrə/)
- genre (/ˈʒɑnrə/)
- macabre (/məˈkɑbrə/, /məˈkɑb/, or /məˈkɑbər/)
- oeuvre (French pronunciation: /œvrə/)
“-or” vs. “-our”
The suffix “-or” is a word-forming element used to create nouns of state, condition, or quality that was originally derived from the Latin “-orem.” Old French adapted the Latin ending as “-our,” and it is this ending that originally informed the spelling in English. While British English retained the “-our” spelling for many words derived from Latin, American English dropped the silent U in most (but not all) spellings around the beginning of the 19th century.
Let’s look at a breakdown of words that end in “-or” in American English and in “-our” in British English:
This spelling difference usually carries forward when we add suffixes to the end of the word, but there are some exceptions, which we’ll look at after these examples:
armor→armored, armorer, armors, armory
clamor→clamored, clamoring, clamors
clangor→clangored, clangoring, clangors
color→colored, colorful, coloring, colors
enamor→enamored, enamoring, enamors
endeavor→endeavored, endeavoring, endeavors
favor→favored, favorer, favoring, favors
flavor→flavored, flavoring, flavors, flavorsome
harbor→harbored, harboring, harbors
honor→honorable, honored, honoring, honors
humor→humored, humoring, humors
labor→labored, laborer, laboring, labors
neighbor→neighbored, neighborhood, neighboring, neighbors
odor→odorful, odorless, odors
rumor→rumored, rumoring, rumors
savor→savored, savoring, savors, savory
succor→succored, succoring, succors
vapor→vapored, vaporer, vaporish, vaporless, vapory
armour→armoured, armourer, armours, armoury
clamour→clamoured, clamouring, clamours
clangour→clangoured, clangouring, clangours
colour→coloured, colourful, colouring, colours
enamour→enamoured, enamouring, enamours
endeavour→endeavoured, endeavouring, endeavours
favour→favoured, favourer, favouring, favours
flavour→flavoured, flavouring, flavours, flavoursome
harbour→harboured, harbouring, harbours
honour→honourable, honoured, honouring, honours
humour→humoured, humouring, humours
labour→laboured, labourer, labouring, labours
neighbour→neighboured, neighbourhood, neighbouring, neighbours
odour→odourful, odourless, odours
rumour→rumoured, rumouring, rumours
savour→savoured, savouring, savours, savoury
succour→succoured, succouring, succours
vapour→vapoured, vapourer, vapourish, vapourless, vapoury
The British English spellings for some of these words lose their distinctive U when they attach to a few specific suffixes: “-ous,” “-ate,” “-ation,” “-ant,” “-ific,” and “-ize/-ise.” (Also note that we must use prefixes to form some of these terms.) For example:
Adjective + “-ous”
Adjective + “-ate”
Adjective + “-ation”
Adjective + “-ant”
Adjective + “-ific”
Adjective + “-ize/-ise”
Words that always end in “-or”
Like the suffix “-er,” “-or” is also used to indicate a noun of agency, in which case it is spelled without a U in both regions. There are hundreds of words that take this ending, so let’s just look at a few common examples:
(*Like traveler vs. traveller, counselor is spelled counsellor in British English.)
There are also other “non-agency” nouns that have the “-or” ending in both American and British English, as well. For instance:
Words that always end in “-our”
While the “-our” spelling is distinctive to British English in most cases, there are a few words that will be spelled with the silent U in both regions:
Note that, like some of the British English terms we looked at earlier, the U in amour and glamour is dropped when the suffix “-ous” is attached, resulting in amorous and glamorous. Likewise, glamorize is much more common than glamourize.
“-ize” vs. “-ise”
The suffix “-ize” is used to form verbs, and it is ultimately derived from the Greek verb-forming element “-izein” (later “-izare” in Latin). This Greek suffix became “-iser” in Old French, and it is this form from which the English ending “-ise” was originally derived. The French-origin ending is what still prevails in British English, but American English changed the ending to “-ize” to better approximate the original Greek. (For this reason, some British language authorities recommend the “-ize” ending, despite the prevalence of “-ise” in British English.)
This is a very standard convention, and almost all of the hundreds of words ending in “-ize” in American English will be spelled “-ise” in British English; here are just a few examples:
(*The noun form is also spelled “merchandise” in both AmE and BrE, but the ending is pronounced /-daɪs/.)
Verbs that always end in “-ise”
While the American English convention of using the “-ize” ending for verbs is very reliable, there are a number of words that can only be spelled with “-ise,” regardless of the preference of the region:
- promise (though this is pronounced /ˈprɑmɪs/)
Most of these are derived from existing French verbs, which is why the ending “-ise” only attaches to incomplete roots.
Verbs that always end in “-ize”
There are also a handful of verbs that always take the “-ize” ending, even in British English:
- prize (when meaning “to value highly” or “estimate the worth of”; when it means “to force or move, as with a lever,” it is usually spelled prise in British English)
“-lyze” vs. “-lyse”
The endings “-lyze” and “-lyse” are both derived from another suffix, “-lysis” (as in analysis, paralysis, etc.). Likely due to their pronunciation, they follow the same pattern as “-ize” and “-ise,” with the former being standard in American English, while the latter is standard in British English. Fortunately, there are not many words that end with this suffix (and several are only used in medical terminology), and the American–British distinction holds true for each:
haemolyse (note the other spelling difference, which we’ll address later)
Doubling consonants in American English vs. British English
Because most vowel suffixes are able to replace silent E by preserving the root word’s pronunciation and meaning, we often have to double the final consonant of a root word when it precedes a vowel suffix to avoid confusion. This convention largely depends on the number of syllables and on which part of the word is stressed vocally (see the section Doubling Consonants with Vowel Suffixes to learn more about these rules). While this convention is applied fairly consistently in American English, there are some notable exceptions that occur in British English—specifically, words ending in L.
Doubling L before vowel suffixes
Perhaps the most commonly confused spelling convention is whether or not to double the final L in two-syllable words before a vowel suffix. In American English, we follow the rule that if the word has an emphasis on the final syllable before the vowel suffix, then the L is doubled. However, most words ending in a single L are stressed on the first syllable, so L remains singular.
(In the following table of examples, text in bold represents syllable stress.)
Emphasis on first syllable
Emphasis on last syllable
(However, excellent, with two Ls, is pronounced /ˈɛksələnt/.)
In British English, on the other hand, a final L that follows a vowel is almost always doubled before “-ed,” “-er,” and “-ing” regardless of where the stress occurs in the word.
For the sake of comparison, let’s see the preferred American English spellings (with single L) of some common words alongside their preferred British English spellings (with doubled L):
If you’re writing according to the styles of American English and you can’t remember whether to double the final L or not, just check which syllable in the word is being stressed. If you’re writing in British English, it’s a good bet that the L should be doubled.
Doubling L in American English only
There are a few verbs ending in a single L in British English that more commonly end in two Ls in American English in their base (uninflected) forms.
When these verbs attach to suffixes beginning with consonants, such as “-ment” or “-s,” these spelling differences remain: American English prefers distills, enrollment, and installment, for example, while British English prefers distils, enrolment, and instalment.
When they attach to suffixes beginning with vowels (such as “-ation,” “-ed,” or “-ing”), on the other hand, L is doubled in both regions—e.g., appalled, distillery, enrolling, installation.
skillful vs. skilful and willful vs. wilful
Skill and will are both spelled with two Ls in all varieties of English. However, when they attach to the suffix “-ful,” British English spelling tends to drop the second L, resulting in skilful and wilful. In American English, there is no change in the root words, resulting in skillful and willful.
Other consonant doubling differences
combating vs. combatting
The word combat has two different pronunciations with different syllabic stress: /ˈkɑmbæt/ (noun) and /kəmˈbæt/ (verb). When we add vowel suffixes to the word, the stress usually remains on the second syllable, but, unlike our previous examples, T remains singular in American English:
- combat→combated, combating, combative
Dictionaries often list combatted and combatting as acceptable variants in British English, but it is still most common in both styles for T to remain singular before the suffixes.
Note that combative is the only spelling considered correct in both American and British English.
focused vs. focussed
Another consonant ending that often confuses writers is the S in focus. Should it be focused or focussed? Again, there is a difference between American English and British English conventions.
In American English, the S is never doubled before a suffix, so its conjugations are focused, focuses, and focusing. The same rule applies to all forms of the word that have a vowel suffix, as in focusable and focuser.
This is the most common (and preferred) convention in British English as well, but it is not considered incorrect to spell the conjugations with a doubled S— focussed, focusses, focussing. (Focusable and focuser always take just one S). However, these double-S spellings are much less common and may be seen by some as incorrect, even within the UK.
No matter where in the world you are, it’s best to keep the S in focus singular before a vowel suffix, because it’s always correct.
“e” vs. “ae” and “oe”
Many words (especially medical terms) that were derived from Latin roots originally made use of ligatures, which are single characters formed from two letters to create specific diphthongs. In English, the two ligatures that survived were æ and œ, but over time these specialized characters were divided back into separate letters, creating the vowel digraphs ae and oe.
In American English, however, most of the words featuring these divided ligatures dropped the A and O, leaving just the E behind. (In most cases, the pronunciation is the same in both American and British English, though in some words beginning with “e-/oe-,” the pronunciation varies slightly.)
Words spelled “ae” and “oe” in both regions
Not many words retain the Latin-based digraphs in American English, but there are a few words that share the spelling in both regions:
Words with “ae”
Words with “oe”
Note that all the words featuring “ae” and the word amoeba have variant spellings with just “e” (egis, esthetic, archeology, pean, and ameba), but these are far less common.
Words with single letters in both regions
While American English much more commonly drops the additional vowel in the Latin digraphs “ae” and “oe,” there are some words in both American and British English that only retain the E:
- chimera (derived from Latin Chimaera)
- demon (though daemon is sometimes used in stylized writing)
- ecology (originally oecology)
- economy (derived from Latin oeconomia)
- ecumenical (derived from Latin oecumenicus)
- enigma (derived from Latin aenigma)
- homeopathy (still spelled homoeopathy in British English, but less commonly)
- hyena (less commonly, hyaena)
- fetid (less commonly, foetid, derived from the incorrect Latin term foetidus)
- medieval (less commonly, mediaeval)
- primeval (much less commonly, primaeval)
Using “-ae” to form plurals
Words taken directly from Latin that end in “-a” are made plural using “-ae” in both American and British English. (Note, however, that the Latinate “-ae” ending has been replaced in modern English by the standard plural suffix “-s” in many common, everday words.)
- antenna→antennae (more commonly antennas)
- aorta→aortae (more commonly aortas)
- copula→copulae (more commonly copulas)
- cornea→corneae (more commonly corneas)
- formula→formulae (more commonly formulas)
- hernia→herniae (more commonly hernias)
- hyperbola→hyperbolae (more commonly hyperbolas)
- retina→retinae (more commonly retinas)
Less common differences
While the conventions we’ve looked at thus far encompass a fairly broad range of terms, there are some other spelling differences between the two regions that only exist for a small selection of words.
“-ward” vs. “-wards”
Adverbs and prepositions formed using the suffix “-ward” can also be spelled “-wards,” with no change in meaning. While both spellings occur in American and British English alike, the “-ward” versions are more common in the US, while the “-wards” versions are more common in the UK:
More common in American English
More common in British English
It’s important to note that many of the words ending in “-ward” can also function as adjectives, but those ending in “-wards” cannot, regardless of region. For example:
- “I just saw a van like that driving eastward.” (adverb)
- “I just saw a van like that driving eastwards.” (adverb)
- “There is a strong eastward wind coming in off the sea.” (adjective)
- “There is a strong eastwards wind coming in off the sea.” (adjective—incorrect)
- “I bumped into someone while I was walking backward.” (adverb)
- “I bumped into someone while I was walking backwards.” (adverb)
- “Her parents have a real backward way of thinking.” (adjective)
- “Her parents have a real backwards way of thinking.” (adjective—incorrect)
If you’re trying to determine whether it should be spelled “-ward” or “-wards,” remember that the option without an S is always correct.
“-ense” vs. “-ence”
A handful of nouns ending in “-ense” in American English will be spelled “-ence” in British English:
The term license/licence is a bit of a special case, though—in British English, it is spelled license when it is functioning as a verb, as in, “The state licensed us to sell merchandise on these premises.”
Also note that while defence is spelled with a C in British English, the derived terms defensible and defensive are spelled with an S, the same as in American English.
These four terms are the only ones that have a difference in their endings between American and British English; any other words ending in “-ense” (as in expense or sense) or “-ence” (as in experience or patience) are spelled the same in both regions.
“-og” vs. “-ogue”
Another spelling difference that is often pointed out between the two regions is that American spellings favor the ending “-og,” while British spellings favor “-ogue.” However, like “-ense” vs. “-ence,” there are only four word pairs in which this is true:
(Note that all of these terms can be spelled “-ogue” in American English, but this is less common. Additionally, analog is also preferred in British English when referring specifically to computers.)
This convention is not reliable, though, as there are quite a few words that only (or predominantly) end in “-ogue” in American English as well as British English:
Miscellaneous spelling differences
In addition to spelling patterns that affect multiple words, there are also a number of unique pairs that have specific spelling differences between them. In some cases, the difference in spelling reflects a subtle difference in meaning, pronunciation, or both; other times, the spelling is the only difference.
aging vs. ageing
These two spellings are about equally common in British English, but, in American English, aging is the preferred spelling by a wide margin. There is no difference in pronunciation (/ˈeɪʤɪŋ/).
airplane vs. aeroplane
The terms airplane and aeroplane are both commonly used in British English, but, in American English, only airplane is in common use. Because of the additional O, there is a slight difference in the two forms’ pronunciation: airplane is pronounced /ˈɛrˌpleɪn/, while aeroplane is pronounced /ˈɛərəˌpleɪn/.
aluminum vs. aluminium
Aluminum is an amended form of the word alumium, coined by the English chemist Sir Humphry Davy in 1807. In American English, this form came to be the standard spelling, but British scientists changed the ending again to form aluminium, which parallels the spelling of other metallic elements (such as lithium, potassium, and sodium). As with aeroplane, the additional vowel changes the overall pronunciation of the word (this time even affecting which syllable is stressed): aluminum is pronounced /əˈlumənəm/, while aluminium is pronounced /ˌæljʊˈmɪnɪəm/.
annex vs. annexe
The word annex can function as a noun and a verb in both American and British English. When functioning as a verb, it is spelled the same in both regions; as a noun, British English spells it with a silent E at the end, reflecting its French origin.
artifact vs. artefact
Artefact is the older spelling of the word, and it is still the favored version in British English. The variant, artifact, became the standard spelling in American English in the early 1900s. There is no difference in pronunciation between the two (/ˈɑrtəˌfækt/).
behoove vs. behove
The verb behoove is derived from the noun behoof, an archaic term meaning “advantage, benefit, or use.” In British English, the verb is spelled behove, possibly in relation to the German behoven. While both spellings were originally pronounced the same way (/bɪˈhuv/), rhyming with move or groove, the British English spelling is now usually pronounced the same way as rove or stove (/bɪˈhəʊv/).
check vs. cheque
These spellings refer only to written slips that authorize a bank to pay the amount specified from a particular account, with check being preferred in the US and cheque the standard in the UK. Both spellings have the same pronunciation, /tʃɛk/. (The term checking account would therefore be written chequing account in British English, although the term current account is preferred.)
In every other use of check, both as a noun or a verb, it is spelled the same way in both regions.
chili vs. chilli
In American English, chili is the most common spelling, though chile (short for the Mexican Spanish term chile con carne) is also a common variant. In British English, though, chilli (with two Ls) is more common.
cozy vs. cosy
Cozy is the preferred spelling in the US, while cosy is preferred in the UK. There is no change in pronunciation.
curb vs. kerb
The variant spelling kerb is favored in British English for one specific meaning: “a concrete stone border along the edge of a street forming part of a gutter.” For any other meanings of curb, either as a noun or a verb, the spelling is the same in both regions.
draft vs. draught
Despite their starkly different spellings, draft and draught are both pronounced in very similar ways: /dræft/ (American English) and /drɑːft/ (British English).
The American English spelling draft rose to prominence to better represent the pronunciation phonetically, and it is used for all meanings of the word.
In British English, the spelling draught is commonly used as a noun or modifier when referring to a current of air drawn into an enclosed space or into one’s lungs, a portion of a drink or the act of drinking, beer or wine that is stored in and served from a cask, or the act of pulling a heavy load. For example:
- “Do you feel a draught coming from the window?”
- “I prefer draught beer.”
- “We need to buy a new draught horse.”
- “He poured out a healthy draught of the tonic.”
(The term draughts is also the name of the game that’s called checkers in the US.)
Draft, on the other hand, is preferred when discussing a rough outline or preliminary plan or sketch (functioning either as a noun or a verb) or a check/cheque issued by the bank guaranteed against its own funds. For example:
- “Could you please draft a report for our December earnings?”
- “I have a few changes I need to make to the first draft of my essay.”
- “Do you know how long it takes for the bank to issue a bank draft?”
gray vs. grey
In American English, gray is the most common spelling, while, in British English (and most other English-speaking regions), grey is preferred. This carries over to inflections of verbs (grayed/greyed, graying/greying) and the formation of comparative and superlative adjectives (grayer/greyer, grayest/greyest). There is no difference in pronunciation.
licorice vs. liquorice
The American English spelling of this noun, licorice, comes from Old French licorece, which specified the plant and/or its root from which candy, medicines, and liqueurs were flavored. The British English spelling, liquorice, is perhaps influenced by the process of distilling the root into a liquid.
In American English, the word is most commonly pronounced /ˈlɪkərɪʃ/, while the British English pronunciation is more commonly /ˈlɪkərɪs/—note that it is only the final C that changes in pronunciation, rather than the part of the word that is spelled differently.
mold vs. mould
Both in reference to fungi and to the cast used to form the shape of something, American English exclusively favors mold, while British English exclusively favors mould. This carries over to inflections of verbs (molded/moulded, molding/moulding, etc.) and the formation of adjectives (moldy/mouldy, moldier/mouldier, etc.). There is no difference in pronunciation.
Unlike the “-or/-our” difference, this discrepancy in spelling does not occur with any other words ending in “-old/-ould.”
mom(my) vs. mum(my)
Mommy and its shortened form mom are distinct to American English, whereas mummy (when referring to a mother) and the shortened mum are distinct to British English. The reason for this difference in spelling (and subsequent pronunciation) has to do with regional evolutions of the term mama—another word for mother that represents infant speech sounds.
omelet vs. omelette
The American English omelet is an adaptation of the French-origin word omelette. British English simply prefers the original spelling, which remains standard in the region.
pajamas vs. pyjamas
In American English, the word for sleepwear is spelled pajamas, while British English favors pyjamas. This spelling difference likely has to do with the Urdu and Persian terms from which the word is derived and the alphabetic representation of the initial vowel sound; however, both spellings of the English term are pronounced the same way (/pəˈdʒɑməz/).
plow vs. plough
In all meanings of the word, American English favors the simplified spelling plow, while British English prefers the spelling plough (possibly to reflect the original Old English plog or ploh).
practice vs. practise
In British English, practice and practise follow the same pattern as advice and advise—that is, practice is used as a noun, while practise functions as a verb. The difference is that practice and practise are both pronounced /ˈpræktɪs/, while advice is pronounced /ædˈvaɪs and advise is pronounced /ædˈvaɪz.
In American English (perhaps to avoid confusion, since the difference in spelling doesn’t result in any change in pronunciation), the spelling practice is used for both the noun and the verb.
program vs. programme
In American English, program is used for every meaning of the word.
In British English, program is only used in reference to computer programming. For any other senses of the word, the longer form programme is used.
story vs. storey
In American English, story is used for every meaning of the word.
In British English, a story refers to a narrative of some kind, whether true or fictitious. A storey, on the other hand, refers to the horizontal section of a building.
tire vs. tyre
In American English, tire is used for every meaning of the word.
In British English, though, the spelling tyre is used specifically in reference to a rubber wheel covering, while tire is used as a verb meaning “to lose or reduce energy, strength, patience, or tolerance.”
vise vs. vice
In American English, vise is either a noun (referring to a heavy clamp that holds something in place) or a verb (referring to the action performed by a vise). A vice, on the other hand, refers to a practice, habit, or behavior that is considered evil or immoral. Both spellings are pronounced /vaɪs/.
In British English, there is no such distinction; vice is used for each of these meanings.
yogurt vs. yoghurt
In British English, both yogurt and yoghurt are used, though the latter is a bit more common. In American English, it is almost exclusively written as yogurt.
Quotation marks in American and British English
Finally, in addition to differences in how words are spelled, there are also differences between how the two regions use quotation marks.
There are two forms of quotation marks: double quotation marks ( “ ” ) and single quotation marks ( ‘ ’ ). American English almost exclusively uses double quotation marks (except when a quotation appears within a quotation), while British English tends to favor single quotation marks (although it is not uncommon to see double quotation marks used in British English as well).
In American English, a period or comma used at the end of direct speech always appears within the quotation marks. In British English, however, if the quotation ends in a period or comma, it is usually placed outside the quotation mark.
The CEO said, “This is a great day for the company.”
“I want to be a doctor when I grow up,” Susy told us yesterday.
The CEO said, ‘This is a great day for the company’.
‘I want to be a doctor when I grow up’, Susy told us yesterday.
Note that if a quoted sentence ends in a question mark or exclamation point that belongs to the quotation, it will appear within the quotation marks. If the question mark or exclamation point belongs to the overall sentence (that is, it isn’t actually part of the quotation), it will appear outside the quotation marks. This is the same in both American and British English. For example:
- Samantha asked, ‘How long will it take to get there?’
- But I don’t want to just “see how things go”!
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