As part of my research into German and English spelling reform, I have compiled what I believe is a comprehensive* list of differences between US English spelling and UK English spelling. I offer these merely as intellectual curiosities and not as a comment on the stubborn backwardness of our friends on the Small Island.
UPDATE: Good grief, people, this is a joke. Stop sending me e-mail about how great British English is.
I count** 1,721 of the little buggers, roots and derivatives included. That's a lot of differences, but they break down into ten or eleven types:
-ise vs -ize
-ll- vs -l-
(final -l vs final -ll)
-ae- vs -e-
-oe- vs -e-
-our vs -or
-tre vs -ter
-gramme vs -gram
-logue vs -log
-ence vs -ense
Why list all 1700 differences? Why not just list root words? Sometimes, the difference lies not in the root (chanel, travel) but in the derivative (chanelling/chaneling, travelling/traveling). Or the difference is in the root (glamour/glamor, enthral/enthrall) but disappears in the derivative (glamorous, enthralling).
Also, the purpose of this list is to be a comprehensive collection that may come in useful if you find you need to "Americanize" your British spelling or "Briticise" your American spelling. A root-only list would not only require more work for me (to cull the derivatives) but, for anyone wanting to actually use the list programmatically (in a Word substitution macro, for example) more work to recreate all the derivatives.
In each sub-headings below, the UK spelling is first, then the US spelling.
-ise vs -ize
This includes words like agonise and terrorise as well as oddballs analyse and paralyse. This is the big dog. It covers close to 900 words. However, there are plenty of words that Americans spell -ise that don't have the meaning "to make or create X," including surprise, advertise, improvise. And then there's televise, which does mean "to make into a television broadcast."
In the comments at bottom, Tim A-M has a good point on the origin of the -ise and -ize endings being different.
-ll- vs -l-
This is a strange category that actually encompasses -ller, -lling, -lled, and related constructions. It's big—about 140 words—but very inconsistent. UK spellings like funnelled, controller, and jewellery fit the category but don't look too odd to Americans because of enrolled, fulfilled, and similar words. Panel follows this form with paneled in the US and panelled in the UK. However, it's just the opposite for empanel. It becomes empanelled in the US and empaneled in the UK! And, as any frequent flier knows, cancelled and canceled exist pretty much equally in US English.
(Final -l vs final -ll)
Call it a small sub-category or a call it a communist plot, words that actually end in L follow a contrary rule to the one above. Words that end in -ll in the US end in -l in the UK. So Yanks write appall, instill, and enroll, while Brits write appal, instil, and enrol. Both write awful, harmful, stressful, etc. despite the obvious connection to full.
Before you say, "Aha! Americans double the L on the end when it's a two-syllable word with the accent on the second syllable!" feast your eyes on cartel and canal—but those are nouns, silly!—and excel, propel, and repel—okay, those are verbs. Brits write fulfil, but also refill. To quote the great English poet Taupin:
It's sad. So sad. It's a sad, sad situation. And it's growing more and more absurd.
-ae- vs -e-
Aeon, haemorrhage, and paedophile look funny to Americans, who are used to seeing eon, hemorrhage, and pedophile. They seem old-fashioned or even ancient. They come from Latin, of course, and the vowel usually makes the long E sound (altho Americans often let it drop to short E). About 70 words fall into this category. Even so, Americans write aerodynamics (and other aero- words) and sometimes archaeology and aesthetic instead of archeologyand esthetic—even tho you won't see one writing anaesthetic like the Brits.
-oe- vs -e-
Similar to -ae-, -oe- words like foetal and diarrhoea look strange and foreign to Americans. The -oe- nearly always makes the long E sound (manoeuvre is an exception). This category includes about 25 words. On the other hand, Americans generally write subpoena, amoeba, and onomatopoeia, even tho valid non-oe- constructions exist (that is, they are valid but not preferred).
-our vs -or
The "cosmetic U," as linguists call it, comes from Old French and wore out its welcome early. Americans have done without it in words like colour and favour for a long time, but a few examples linger on: Americans write glamour. About 150 words fit in this category.
We might expand this category slightly to include mould, moustache, and similar words.
-tre vs -ter
Some Americans love to affect the Anglo-French -re spellings for centre and theatre, yet wouldn't be caught dead writing kilometre or lustre. This is probably the best-known difference, at least among Americans, yet only about 40 words fall into the category, most of which are derivatives of metre and litre.
We might broaden this category slightly to include calibre, manoeuvre, sabre, sepulchre, sombre, and their derivatives.
-gramme vs -gram
This includes programme and kilogramme. Programme happens to be changing to the American spelling, largely influenced by the term computer program and other -gram words (about 17). Aside from it and aerogramme, only metric system words fit this category. The total is about 16 words.
-logue vs -log
The Brits still stick to the old spellings of catalogue and monologue. These are considered acceptable to Americans, but a bit dated. Americans have a tough time deciding to write travelog, tho, or cataloging rather than cataloguing. Only about 15 words fit in this category.
-ence vs -ense
An even smaller group than the previous, the -ence root words number just nine: defence, licence, offence and their ilk. There are nearly 200 valid -ence words in US English. Why these few would be singled out for change is unclear. Fewer than 20 -ense words are found in both types of English (sense, dense, immense, etc.).
Reader Yvonne Long points out that in UK English, license is the noun while licence is the verb, whereas in US English, license does double duty. Interestingly, this is somewhat similar to the difference between advice and advise, but these are pronounced differently, at least in the US.
A number of other spelling differences don't fall into any of the other categories.
connexion vs connection (connexion is dying out in the UK)
draught vs draft
gaol vs jail (gaol is largely converted to the US spelling, even in England)
omelette vs omelet (you'll see both in the US)
plough vs plow
tyre vs tire
yoghurt (and even yoghourt) vs yogurt
judgement vs judgment (you'll see both in the UK)
Americans want to put the E in there, but their spell-checkers tell them not to, Brits often do put an E in there, altho Tim A-M points out in his comment at bottom that this is not sanctioned by certain authorities.
practise (verb) and practice (noun) vs practice
In the course of studying the differences between US and UK spelling, I've come across a few peculiarities of interest.
Both US and UK prefer glamour (but US accepts the non-preferred glamor). But both also prefer glamorous to glamourous.
Both US and UK insist on Caesar, but US prefers cesarean to caesarean.
The use of disc vs disk is hopelessly confused. Both insist on disc jockey and disc brakes. But both also insist on floppy disk and hard disk. In general, UK prefers disc and US prefers disk, but the spelling of the expanded form of CD depends mainly on whether you are talking about music (compact disc) or data (compact disk).
US insists on disheveled, initialed, and similar single-L spellings while UK insists on dishevelled, initialled, etc.
Full is the only word in US or UK English that ends in -full. Related words are always spelled with a single L: handful, teaspoonful, artful, successful, etc. (And, as noted above, US insists on fulfill while UK insists on fulfil.)
Smidgen, smidgeon, and smidgin are all valid variants in US and UK English (with smidgen being preferred in both).
"Fraternal twin" words like dreamt vs dreamed, leapt vs leaped, and speciality vs specialty are treated as entirely different words here, since some are sometimes found in both US and UK English.
* It would be impractical to try to offer a truly comprehensive list of any words like this, since you can make a couple of different verb forms out of almost any noun, a couple of different nouns out of nearly any verb, etc. So capital can become capitalize and capitalizes, then capitalization and capitalizing, then capitalizations and capitalizings, and even capitalizationing and capitalizationings. And then you can negate or reverse them: decapitalizationing, recapitalizationing, pseudocapitalizationing, etc. This is why any estimates of total number of words in the language or someone's vocabulary are fairly meaningless.
** I distilled a list of 60,000 US and UK English words which was compiled from multiple dictionaries by Alan Beale's 12Dicts project (specifically, I used 2of4brif). Similar such word lists are also available on the Web by other dedicated word nerds, but are generally inferior.
"the stubborn backwardness of our friends on the Small Island"
Mmm, "not" biased in any way... Nevertheless, thanks for the very helpful article.
Hmmm, you're right. That does sound biased. Perhaps I should change it to "the stubborn backwardness of our acquaintances on the Small Island." ;-)
Barry from Shropshire, UK writes:
I didn't realise there was this many spelling differences between UK and US. The spelling of 'yoghourt' in the UK, is rare, its almost always 'yoghurt' these days. No doubt the 'h' might get dropped at some point as well. Also I don't see any evidence of 'connection' being replaced by 'connexion'.
Sorry for the confusion. I've made slight changes to help show that yoghurt and yoghourt are both British spellings and that connexion is dying out, not connection.
Nick Kirby from, one imagines, England pontificated:
Hello, normally I would ignore such confusions as the americans have over their mispellings, but to refer to England and English as backward is not only comic, but also farcical. As Oscar Wilde imported, "we have much in common, but one of those things is not language"
The words you highlight are spelled correctly in English, it is american laziness that introduces the mis-spellings. Colour, for example has a French derivative, and has a U in it. Centre, from "the middle" is spelled cent-R E, not as the americans would prefer with center, the clumsy, lazy phonetic spelling. A change that underwrites the less capable linguistic structure and utter lack of sophistication inherent in spoken american.
If you country cannot manage to spell correctly, or even speak properly - what, please is aluminum? Do your little selves not even understand Latin? Then say nothing on a language with a history far longer and richer than the teenage delinquent drop out bastardisation american is.
I would suggest that you learn Latin, and then, with a proper grounding in the English language, look at your own american and appreciate why you cannot spell properly, admit some humilty and learn English, with the correct spellings and pronunciation.
Thank you for this hilarious joke (I presume). You must realize that citing historical French and Latin as a justification for English spelling is the very definition of "backward." I only meant that line as a joke, but some language mavens apparently are secret paleolinguists—and paleolinguists with an almost religious reverence for Latin. Why not bring back eth and thorn so we can spell Anglo-Saxon root words "correctly"? Or learn Japanese, so we can spell tsunami "correctly"? And what do you make of J and U and W? They didn't exist in Latin; surely we need to eliminate them from Latin derivatives in English to be "correct."Language is a means of communication, and we [all speakers of it] control it. We can make up words and we can change the spelling of words we borrow, especially to fit our pronunciation. You can't freeze-dry the language and pretend, once and for all, it's the One True English.
Bruce from the UK writes:
Whilst this sort of banter is interesting I do not find it a subject which should present discord. As a 77 year old Englishman who only had an “elementary” education I find my native British English fascinating – give me a dictionary and I will happily browse through it realising what a wonderful language it is and how the world at large has benefited from it. My scholastic limitations prevent me from entering into the debate at an academic but I do believe I should take the opportunity to comment. As I have been given to understand our non-phonetic spelling is due to an adherence to the influence of Anglo Saxon. As a living language it develops over time adding new words from sources other than its basic including “American” e.g. it has become accepted that when referring to computing is correct to use the American “program” but it would be incorrect to use it relative to a theatre performance when the correct spelling would remain “programme”.
These variations in English apply world wide – not only American v British. Malaysian English for example is phonetic – photograph would be fotograf. Expression is different too. If my English friends as me how I am knowing I have been unwell I would likely reply “much better thank you” but my Malaysian friend would say “much more better” – this is not his lack of knowledge of the language but the way the usage as developed there.
For me it is important that our English here is used correctly with attention to grammar and spelling as is correct for us – for the rest of the world the importance is having a language with which we can all communicate and understand each in the interest of communication – albeit I often have to ask my American friends “what does that mean”,
I think that the differences that have cropped up in English as it gained acceptance around the world demonstrate how how language can—and should—change over time to better adapt itself to our use. While it's important for us to agree on a form (that is, to decide what is "correct"), we should always be open to experiment and change. Not so long ago, teachers railed against the use of "contact" as a verb (as in "please contact me as soon as possible"), but we as a society agreed that it was too useful to abandon.
I think we should encourage change where it is useful and only discourage it where it is unnecessarily confusing or problematic. Having two different spellings for "program", I would suggest, is unnecessary. Many British traditionalists would disagree with me, partly out of simple loyalty to the familiar form, and partly out of a natural fear of being swallowed up by American culture. And I suspect that those kinds of issues are what creates most discord in the discussion of language. Of course many Americans are just as traditionalistic as any Briton, so that certainly doesn't help the conversation.
Just wanted to pass along (as one of those infamously mercurial Canadians -- how are we not all already suffering from heavy metal poisoning, good grief) my words of appreciation for your site re: US vs UK spellings. I was aware of most of what you present, but it's good to have it all gathered in one place. I translate from French to English, and at that, within a European context. As a Canadian, I'm a bit more in tune with that standard, espe. in spelling, but I'm glad to have discovered your site -- it should help forestall any future difficulties.
Now, for the, as they say, nitty-gritty: any chance of favouring (or is that favoring...) us with vocab words which vary entirely when crossing "the pond" -- your lorries vs trucks, your lifts vs elevators, your bollocks vs your bullshit, etc... Just a (somewhat selfish) thought.
Also, thank you for your good humo(u)r re: spelling addicts. As someone who grew up between the French and English worlds (I'm an Acadian from Nova Scotia), I consistently find irrational attachment to spelling systems amusing (at best). In the case of French, with a large number of homonyms, particularly verbal, I can understand the need to differentiate between different grammatical cases that are homonyms (e.g. je dansais, tu dansais, il dansait, ils dansaient), but good grief! why couldn't some brave souls at the Academie francaise (or whatever English institutional equivalent) have dropped the "ph" in filosofy, as the Spanish did (I presume) long ago...
Galen G writes:
Nice list! As one who has spent significant time on both sides of this divide, I find myself vacillating between the variants and wishing for a single global standard.
One omission I noted in your list: judgement/judgment
Though American was my first flavor of English, leaving out the e has always looked wrong to me. Google's count is 9:2 in favor of judgment, however. My British English spell-checker counts judgment (as well as flavor/favor in this email) wrong.
Thank you, and yes, judgment is one I run into frequently. I'm not sure how it got left out. I've added it both to the list and to the Miscellaneous section.
Tim A-M from Australia writes:
The reason why judgment was left out is because it is not a UK/US
divide. You claim that "judgement" is the preferred spelling in the UK
and "judgment" is the preferred spelling in the US. However, lawyers
throughout the Commonwealth (I am an Australian trained lawyer living
and working in IT in the US) know that "judgment" is the preferred
spelling in legal contexts throughout the Commonwealth (although
frequently misspelled in newspaper articles in Australia) while
"judgement" is used in non-legal contexts. There is an interesting
discussion at http://www.proz.com/forum/linguistics/73966-judgement_vs_judgment.html with references to more authoritative sources.
The preferred OED/Times spelling of words like italicize has always been
with the "z" not "s" because it is a based on the Greek "-izo" suffix.
Words with other roots, whether a suffix or not, typically take the "s"
(hence "televised" from the Latin "visus" - "size" is a bizarre
exception). It is an extremely common error to address the US use of
"z" universally with the "s" universally. So much so that it is widely
accepted as preferred usage even by lesser Commonwealth dictionaries
including the MS Spell Checker for UK, Australian, Canadian, Singapore
and New Zealand English. http://www.askoxford.com/asktheexperts/faq/aboutspelling/ize
British English also uses both "draft" (a preliminary version) and
"draught" (a breeze) with different meanings whereas US English uses
"draft" for all senses.
Jeremy from the UK writes:
Thanks for variation list. Very useful as I can exclude the American variations via an exclusion dictionary and add the English variations to a custom dict in MS Word. FYI – I believe modern UK English accepts program, yogurt, disk, connection and perhaps a few others. I’m not sure whether your list is a list of theoretical variations, or whether you’re asserting that UK English does not accept some of the American spellings?
But a great list – just what I was looking for, thanks.
Btw – I’m British. Your line “I offer these merely as intellectual curiosities and not as a comment on the stubborn backwardness of our friends on the Small Island.” Is meant as good humoured jibe I’m sure. J