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American vs British Spelling

Noah Webster published An American Dictionary of the English Language in 1828. Only 2,500 copies were purchased, but the poor sales belied the effect his book would have on American spelling. Seventy thousand words were recorded by Webster with the intention of reducing the complexity of the English language, and standardizing American speech. Unfortunately, it was not until after his death that Webster’s name became synonymous with proper spellchecking and vocabulary building.

Over seventy years earlier, the British author Samuel Johnson completed his Dictionary of the English Language after nine years of laborious work. In England, Johnson’s dictionary brought him fame. In fact, until the Oxford English Dictionary arrived 150 years later, Johnson’s dictionary was the official spell check tool of Great Britain.

Although both works were comprehensive in their word lists, Webster and Johnson diverged on how to spell numerous terms. Some might say that two separate languages have evolved. However, globalization and world-wide communication have improved mutual understanding on both sides of the Atlantic.
Below are some of the common differences. These give a spell check tool a workout if the wrong dictionary is selected.


Probably the most recognizable and mutually understood discrepancy between British and American English is the form of noun endings. Johnson often opted to honor the Anglo-French forms, while Webster used the Latin and Greek endings. A worthy example is the British use of the ending -our versus the American use of -or.


Another example is the British ending -se versus the American ending -ze.


The British English use of the ending –re is far more common than in American English where the letters are swapped to form –er.


This last case is a peccadillo since Americans often use the form and are familiar with its origin.
There are other discrepancies such as the British use of the double -ll where Americans chose to use only -l. An interesting observation is that an American spell check tool is likely to ignore this anomaly in words like cancelled and skillful, even though spellchecking will raise a red flag for epicentre and catalyse.


British English and American English sometimes differ when it comes to ending a word denoting the past, whether simple or participial. The ending -ed is often dropped and replaced with -t in certain words.


American English utilizes the base form of some verbs to form the past tense, whereas British English may add an -ed.


Spelling differences between British English and American English are not the only linguistic dissimilarities. There are several variances in punctuation, pronunciation and usage as well. In some cases, the same word can have different meanings, which leads to an embarrassing moment or two.

This is just a petite sampling of the distinctions between American and British English. With the frequency of computerized spellchecking, the legacy of the ancient lexicographers may be studied comprehensively by perusing the alternate dictionaries in word processing software.

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