Differences in British and American spelling

Girl rubbing her forehead whilst reading the Oxford English Dictionary

This article about differences in British and American spelling was updated by the Great British Mag content team on 20 September, 2019

When it comes to the differences between British English and American English spellings, even Brits get caught out occasionally.

The main difference is that British English keeps the spelling of words it has absorbed from other languages, mainly French and German. American English is more phonetic, meaning that the spelling more often mimics the way the words sound when they are spoken.

(This is not to say that American English is completely phonetic. It is still English, after all, and the spelling typically remains complicated.)

English was introduced to what is now America in the 17th century by British settlers. Since then the language has evolved and has been influenced by the many waves of immigration to the USA. 

The spellings of British English words were largely codified in 1755 by Samuel Johnson, who wrote what is generally agreed to be one of the most famous dictionaries in the world. It took Johnson just over eight years with the six helpers to curate the 40,000 words that appeared in A Dictionary of the English Language.

Similarly in America, A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language was first printed in 1806. It popularised phonetic American English spellings such as color instead of colour. 

The author was Noah Webster, who followed up the original dictionary in 1828 with hisAmerican Dictionary of the English Language  which had over 70,000 words.  

Here are some of the main differences in the spellings explained with examples. 

British English words ending in our usually end in orin American English: 

British  US 
colour  color 
flavour  flavor 
humour  humor 
labour  labor 
neighbour  neighbor 

Verbs in British English that can be spelled with either ize or ise at the end are always spelled withize at the end in American English: 

British  US 
apologizeor apologise  Apologize 
organizeor organise  Organize 
recognizeor recognise  Recognize 

Verbs in British English that end in yse are always spelled yze in American English: 

British  US 
analyse  analyze 
breathalyse  breathalyze 
paralyse  paralyze 

In British spelling ‘L’ is doubled in verbs ending in a vowel plus ‘L’. In American English, the ‘L’ is not doubled: 

British  US 
travel  travel 
travelled  traveled 
travelling  traveling 
traveller  traveler 

 

fuel  fuel 
fuelled  fueled 
fuelling  fueling 

British English words that are spelled with the double vowels ae or oetend to be just spelled with an e in American English.

There are exceptions to the rule; for example both British and American English accept “archaeology” as correct. In American English “archeology” is also acceptable, whilst in British English it is not.  

British  US 
leukaemia  leukemia 
manoeuvre  maneuver 
oestrogen  estrogen 
paediatric  pediatric 

Some nouns that end with ence in British English are spelled ense in American English: 

British  US 
defence  defense 
licence  license 
offence  offense 
pretence  pretense 

Some nouns that end with ogue in British English end with either og or ogue in American English: 

British  US 
analogue  analogor analogue 
catalogue  catalogor catalogue 
dialogue  dialog or dialogue