The old joke about the United States and United Kingdom is that they "are two countries separated by a common language." That was observed by George Bernard Shaw, the playwright and spelling reform advocate. When it comes to spelling, I myself have joked about "stubborn backwardness of our friends on the Small Island." But the truth is that English has a fairly awful spelling system compared to other European languages, regardless of which version (or mixture of them) you cling to. I've carefully considered the differences between US and UK English and the choices made by Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand writers and have produced these recommendations for unifying English writing at last.
Imagine what advantages there would be if there were only one English spelling and punctuation system. Publishers would only have to produce one version of books. A Californian reading a British writer would see no more difference than if he or she were reading a New York writer. The slang and idioms would still vary somewhat—and all the better for color, of course—but the spelling would not.
I don't suggest that non-US writers simply adopt US conventions. While I think that Noah Webster did a fine job of helping Americans simplify their spellings, there remain good and bad choices on both sides of the Atlantic (and Pacific—honestly, I'm not forgetting you, Australia and New Zealand).
Use -ize instead of -ise
This is a large category and includes words like agonise and terrorise as well as oddballs analyse and paralyse. The American convention of using -ize is clearer about pronunciation and should be used in all cases. Moreover, televise should change to televize. But advise, surprise, advertise, improvise, and other cases where -ise appears in US spelling should remain -ise.
Use -ll- instead of -l-
In this fairly large category, UK spellings like funnelled and intialling don't look too odd to Americans because of enrolled, appalling, and similar words. And, as any frequent flier knows, cancelled and canceled exist pretty much equally in US English. The British consonant doubling is superior when the preceding vowel is short, since the American single L implies that the vowel is long.
Use final -l instead of final -ll
Strangely, many words that actually end in -ll in the US end in -l in the UK. 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. The British practice is superior here, if only because it eliminates an unnecessary letter. Americans already live with cartel, canal, excel, propel, and repel.
Use -e- instead of -ae-
The small category containing aeon, haemorrhage, enclyclopaedia, and paedophile seem old-fashioned or even ancient to Americans, altho they write aerodynamics and even sometimes archaeology and aesthetic. The more usual American practice of simplifying to -e- (eon, hemorrhage, encyclopedia, pedophile, archeology, esthetic) is superior here, and should even be extended to create arodynamics, arobics, and other aro- words as well as Cesar for Caesar (he would have written IVLIVS CAESAR anyway, since Romans didn't have J, U, or lowercase letters; also US prefers cesarean).
Use -e- instead of -oe-
Even more so than -ae-, -oe- words like foetal and diarrhoea look old and foreign to Americans. On the other hand, Americans generally write subpoena, amoeba, and onomatopoeia, even tho valid non-oe- constructions often exist. The -e- construction should be prefered in all cases and extended where necessary (fetal, diarrhea, subpena, ameba, onomatopeia).
Use -or instead of -our
Americans have done without the rare but well-known "cosmetic U" in words like colour and favour for a long time, but a few cases linger on, such as glamour in spite of (US) clamor and (US/UK) glamorous. The American practice is superior in all cases and should be extended where possible (color, favor, clamor, glamor) and should even encompass mold and mustache, where Americans also eliminate the U.
Use -re instead of -er
Some Americans already like to affect the -re spellings for centre and theatre. But this small category also includes calibre, manoeuvre, sabre, sepulchre, sombre, and their derivatives. The British practice is superior here, since it better matches other Euro languages (especially for international measures litre and metre) and derivatives drop the E anyway (center→ centric). Plus, it helps distinguish between agent words (shipper, boxer) and comparatives (nicer, taller), which should continue to use the -er spelling.
This also paves the way for further simplification by dropping the unnecessary final E: centr, theatr, calibr, sombr. Also, light and lighter can eventually become lite and liter without confusion with metric litre.
Use -gram instead of -gramme
This is an obvious (and tiny) case where the US program and kilogram are simpler, especially since British programme is already changing to the American spelling and telegram and diagram are existing UK spellings. Kilogram is kilogramm or kilogram in most languages.
Use -log instead of -logue
The unnecessary -ue is already gone in most cases in US English (altho the U sometimes is found in the -ed and -ing forms). The American practice is superior and should be extended where necessary: catalog, cataloging, monolog, dialog, travelog.
Use -ence instead of -ense
A very small group, the -ence root words can be counted on your fingers: defence, licence, offence, and their ilk. Altho US writers use -ense for these, there are nearly 200 valid -ence words in US English, so the construction isn't foreign-looking. There are extremely few -ense words that are found in both types of English (sense, dense, and immense, for example). These would stay, but the British spelling should prevail for -ence words.
Britons use single quotation marks ("inverted commas") for normal conversation, but these are small and too similar to apostrophes and tend to get lost on the page. US writers use double-quotes. Both switch when there is a quote within a quote, so both are familiar with the other.
"I don't know," Jack said. "Laura told me: 'You can't. I won't allow it.'"
The British style of putting the a period or comma outside the quotation marks is superior, since it is more consistent with other punctuation and more specific when quoting something exactly. For example:
In the Password field, enter "1234".
In American style, the period would be inside the quotation marks, making the data entry uncertain. Should the user include the period or not? So, many move it outside anyway in this situation. If it were a question, the question mark would go on the outside even in the US.
Use aluminium instead of aluminum
The official international spelling of the metal your soda can is made of includes the extra letter I. It took several years in the early 1800s to settle on the spelling aluminium, but American engineer Charles Martin Hall popularized the current US spelling with his products—apparently as the result of a simple misspelling on his patent application. This would be a pronunciation change for Americans as well as a spelling change, but it's an obvious item to include if we're standardizing.
A number of other spelling differences don't fall into any of the other categories. Some of these are admittedly somewhat arbitrary.
In the course of studying the differences between US and UK spelling, I've come across a few peculiarities of interest.
f e e d b a c k
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Sean from Australia/Germany writes:
I have to agree with your stance, Roland.
s i d e b a r