Common Issues in Manuscripts Requiring Correction: #9 British vs American Spelling

This is the ninth in a series of posts to address common issues in manuscripts with my suggestions for how writers can improve their manuscripts before turning them over to agents, editors, and the many other individuals involved in the process of turning a manuscript into a book.

#9 Preferred Spelling Choices, Per Merriam-Webster

Common English words are spelled differently in English-speaking countries around the world. Since most other English-speaking countries were once part of the British Commonwealth, the British spelling preference prevails in those countries. In the US, one dictionary maker, Noah Webster, whose name remains half of the merriam-webster online dictionary I rely on, decided to simplify the spelling of English words by eliminating letters that weren’t pronounced. While not all of his simplifications stuck, some did, including dropping the u after o in words that contained both letters to represent a single sound. Following is a list of some of the variations that have become the American standard for spelling. The lists are not exhaustive but serve to illustrate the principles for the spelling variations.

Leave out letters that aren’t pronounced (o instead of ou, e instead of ae)

British spellingAmerican spelling
anaemiaanemia
anesthaesiaanesthesia
armourarmor
behaviourbehavior
caesiumcesium
colourcolor
encyclopaediaencyclopedia
favourfavor
favouritefavorite
flavourflavor
haemophiliahemophila
honourhonor
humourhumor
labourlabor
neighbourneighbor
rumourrumor

Leave out a doubled letter if it isn’t spoken (l instead of ll, m instead of mme and t instead of tt or tte)

British spellingAmerican spelling
cancelledcanceled
carburettorcarburetor
equallingequaling
jewellryjewelry
modellingmodeling
omeletteomelet
programmeprogram
quarelledquareled
travellertraveler

Leave out a silent e in the middle of a word or e or ue at the end of a word

British spellingAmerican spelling
acknowledgementacknowledgment
analogueanalog
annexeannex
axeax
dialoguedialog
judgementjudgment
monologuemonolog
mouldmold
pedagoguepedagog

Write words the way they are spoken (z instead of s)

British spellingAmerican spelling
analyseanalyze
apologiseapologize
authoriseauthorize
civilisecivilize
cosycozy
emphasiseemphasize
generalisegeneralize
industrialiseindustrialize
organisationorganization
prise prize (the verb meaning to lever)
realiserealize
recogniserecognize

Write words the way they are spoken (s or k instead of c)

British spellingAmerican spelling
defencedefense
discdisk
molluscmollusk
pretencepretense
scepticskeptic

Write words the way they are spoken (er instead of re)

British spellingAmerican spelling
centrecenter
kilometrekilometer
litreliter
meagremeager
theatretheater

Write past tense of verbs as regular verbs when they are spoken as (or close to) regular verbs

British spellingAmerican spelling
dreamtdreamed
leaptleaped
speltspelled
spoiltspoiled

Differences for which there are no obvious rules

British spellingAmerican spelling
aeroplaneairplane
aluminiumaluminum
enquireinquire
greygray
kerbcurb
mathsmath
milliardbillion
pyjamaspajamas
vendorvender

Exceptions

Of course, there are exceptions. No matter the number of words with a doubled l at the end in the British spelling that the American version spells with one l, there are British words spelled with only one l in the middle or at the end that the American version spells with two lls. For example,

  • distil (British) and distill (American),
  • fulfil (British) and fulfill (American),
  • instalment (British) and installment (American),
  • skilful (British) and skillful (American),
  • wilful (British) and willful (American).

If my spelling checker marks a word I think is correctly spelled, I look it up in merriam-webster.com to see if I have allowed my vast reading of English books from all times and all places to allow some British preferences to move into my home vocabulary. I find them all the time, since my husband is English and still insists the Queen’s English is always correct. I let him think so to keep peace around the house, but I stick with the American versions when I write and edit.

For a more complete list of British vs American spellings, check out Wikipedia’s article on the topic. I wonder if it’s called Wikipaedia in England.

Categories: Writing and EditingTags: , ,

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