As a learner of English as a foreign language, you’ll be faced with the decision between adopting British or American spelling in your English writing skills practice.
There is no ‘right’ answer to this dilemma, but it is usually down to personal preference and your situation.
For instance, if you are planning to get a job or take English courses in London and want to improve your English skills, you may find it useful to adopt British spelling. However, many non native English speakers choose to use US spelling as a default from the day they start to learn English, since it is the most prevalent in the English-language media.
US English spelling is also simpler and more phonetic than UK spelling, so it is easier to become fluent in written English.
This is because American spelling has been adapted to make it closer to the way words are pronounced in spoken English, so it is a clear winner for teachers of English courses, those studying English who are looking to improve their language skills.
The differences are usually subtle, and only involve changing one letter, so many of them go unnoticed.
Other changes are much more obvious, and involve changing a few letters or even using a completely different word.
This can seem bizarre to speakers of British, Australian and South African English, who generally follow the same spelling and grammar rules as each other.
However, differences between these two versions of English rarely cause confusion, and every native English speaker on each side of the Atlantic can enjoy each other’s TV and films as well as literature with ease.
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Why Has American English Changed?
The variation in English spelling between the US and the UK has come about relatively recently.
Oxford Dictionaries says that the reason for the change is down to the adaptation of English by American speakers:
British English has tended to keep the spelling of words it has absorbed from other languages (e.g. French), while American English has adapted the spelling to reflect the way that the words actually sound when they’re spoken.
The language was born of the British Isles, which lie not so far from Northern Europe.
Given its geography and its location, England (a country which is a part of these islands) was a prime target for invaders, who brought new languages with them.
Being influenced by Latinate languages such as French during the Norman conquest as well as Germanic languages from Northern Europe made England a true melting pot for peoples and their various tongues.
Rather than simply adopting the native language of the invaders, the people who inhabited England instead adopted their words, and the invaders too started merging their language with English.
The outcome was that following each invasion, English endured another wave of change as it took words from foreign languages.
We can still see traces of these today, particularly in spellings.
For example, where the French use the word ‘théâtre’, the Brits spell it ‘theatre’, and the Americans as ‘theater’, with the final two letters swapped to make for a more phonetic spelling.
But how exactly has the American way of spelling become standardised?
The answer is with changes to written English through publishing new, simplified spellings in the dictionary, which, at that time, was the only point of reference for spelling.
This was the work of Noah Webster, an American lexicographer born in Connecticut in 1758, whose campaign was born from his disagreement with the tricky inconsistencies of English spelling.
Webster’s work did not only have a linguistic motivation, but also a political one.
The United States of America won its independence from Great Britain in July of 1776, and from this point onwards, American English began to tread its own path.
According to Merriam-Webster, Noah Webster resented the fact that US schools used only British textbooks and English learning resources, and so, in 1783 in light of recent freedom gained from the British, he published his first suggestions for changes to English spelling.
Webster’s work, which was later released as the American Spelling Book, was an overnight sensation and quickly became the first choice in its field among the American population.
And so, ever since American spelling rose to fame, it has been accepted as the standardised spelling method in the USA.
Noah Webster and the Push for Simple Spelling
Webster proposed a host of changes to renovate how English was written in the United States.
Many of his ideas were widely accepted and came together to revolutionise the orthography of American English, however, others were not so popular.
Some of Webster’s less successful ideas include substituting letters in certain words with more appropriate phonetics – such as ‘laf’ instead of ‘laugh’, ‘speek’ instead of ‘speak’ and ‘proov’ for ‘prove’.
However, a few of these proposals caught on, which is why speakers of US English spell ‘plough’ phonetically, as ‘plow’, and use ‘draft’ instead of the British spelling ‘draught’.
Another success of Webster’s spelling reform was his bid to omit silent letters from words where they served no purpose in pronunciation.
The most famous of these omissions is the removal of the silent ‘U’ from words such as ‘flavour’, ‘honour’ and ‘vapour’.
This change, like the others, was proposed with the intention of making English pronunciation easier for learning English as a second language, as well as making spelling easier for all English speakers.
Webster also put forward the omission of silent letters such as the ‘A’ in ‘bread’ and the ‘I’ in ‘friend’, but sadly, this was not to be, and these words have kept their original spellings.
However, another of Noah Webster’s ideas which concerned removing letters he deemed unnecessary was successful, and his spellings are used by the US population of today.
This changed was to do with double consonants, which cause a lot of confusion when it comes to spelling since it is not always obvious whether one or two letters are required.
So, Webster promoted the use of simpler, easier-to-spell words such as ‘traveling’ instead of ‘travelling’, ‘counselor’ for ‘counsellor’ and ‘fueling’ where the Brits would spell it ‘fuelling’.
These changes extended to the flexions of these respective words, so in the US, ‘traveled’ is also used instead of ‘travelled’, and ‘traveler’ was preferred over ‘traveller’, and so on.
Webster’s campaign included the drive for the removal of so-called ‘foreign’ spellings, such as the ‘o-g-u-e’ in ‘analogue’, opting instead for ‘analog’, since it made more sense phonetically.
How to Learn English Spelling: American vs British
Discrepancies, not spelling mistakes, between American English and British English are most noticeable when it comes to biology and the world of medicine.
This is because so much of the medical terminology in English is rooted in Greek, and therefore exhibits what some would deem as ‘foreign’ letter combinations.
These are usually combinations of vowels which do not otherwise feature in English spelling.
Here are some examples of how American English has been simplified, where British spelling stays loyal to the etymological root:
It’s not difficult to understand why these changes were made.
Nevertheless, both British and American spelling is accepted in the world of science.
Another major difference concerns tenses, in particular, forming the past tense.
For regular verbs, forming a past participle generally means adding the suffix ‘ed’.
So ‘play’ becomes ‘play’, ‘stay’ becomes ‘stayed’, ‘talk’ becomes ‘talked’, and so on.
It’s important to note the pronunciation of these past participles. Sometimes the ‘ed’ is pronounced as a ‘D’, and sometimes as a ‘T’.
And this point is the reason for the next difference.
When it comes to forming the past tense of ‘learn’ and ‘dream’, the Brits and Americans once again disagree, with the Brits choosing to, this time, spell phonetically as ‘learnt’ and ‘dreamt’, whereas the Americans use ‘learned’ and ‘dreamed’.
Again, this causes little confusion and is really down to personal preference.
However, it’s important to take into consideration the fact that the pronunciation differs slightly, too.
For ‘learnt’ and ‘learned’, only the final letters differ in sound, however for ‘dreamt’ and ‘dreamed’, the difference is more noticeable, with the Brits pronouncing ‘drempt’ and the Americans saying ‘dreemd’ – which reflects their preferred spelling.
Another difference which, this time, affects an entire category of words, is how US English spells verbs ending in ‘ise’, choosing to replace the ‘S’ with a ‘Z’, making ‘ize’.
Here are just a few examples of how this looks:
So, again, the actual difference is nothing major, but rather the scale of it is what is noticeable.
It’s a similar story for words ending in ‘nce’ in UK spelling, where speakers of US English prefer to use an ‘S’ instead of a ‘C’.
This change goes largely unnoticed. So much so, that British people sometimes ‘misspell’ certain words as their American counterparts.
Take a look at the similarity:
Sometimes, however, the differences in UK and US spelling are not so subtle.
For instance, where the Brits write a cheque, the Americans write a ‘check’.
This change was obviously brought about to get rid of the ‘foreign’ and silent ‘u-e’ ending as well as making the spelling more phonetic.
While the Americans categorize their colors and worry about canceling their theatre tickets, the Brits do it slightly differently.
As a non native speaker, it really doesn’t matter whether you choose to use UK or US spelling when you study English.
However, we recommend that you choose one system and stick to it whilst your improve your vocabulary and work on your English speaking skills, listening skills, English conversation and English reading and listening comprehension so that your writing remains consistent.
It's also a good idea to choose one English system in your language learning as each one favours its own English grammar rules, slang and idiomatic expressions and phrases.
This approach is particularly useful if you want to learn English with a particular goal in mind.
If you're an English learner hoping to achieve English fluency and teach English for the British Council, you'll need to focus on gaining the skills learn to confidently speak English to the level of a native British speaker.
This means regular grammar exercises, English listening quizzes, learning to use new words in conversation, incorporating new nouns, adverbs, and adjectives into your sentences when practising speaking English, as well as getting used to how British English speakers pronounce their words and even practising tongue twisters!
A good tip is to watch English TV and films from English speaking countries. By doing this, you can listen to English being spoken and see how the pronunciation matches the spelling and punctuation in the subtitles.
All of this literacy and listening practise will see you achieve a high level of proficiency as you learn to speak English fluently, and is much more valuable than a dictionary when it comes to exams.
Wherever you come from, and wherever your knowledge of English takes you, don't forget to enjoy it!