UK vs. US English: Spelling, Punctuation & Helpful Rules to Know

Robyn Anderson
Successful High school creature teacher of 15 years published writer / photographer and fun-loving (as well as accomplished) sportsperson, Robyn Anderson loves mixing all three parts in an enthusiastic manner. Her chosen settings is next to water and in the mountains.
2000 2000 Robyn Anderson

I never realised that the age-old argument between American and British English really is ages-old! In fact, it dates back to the 1700s. This is evidenced by John Witherspoon, a member of Congress and one of the signatories of the Declaration of Independence who wrote in 1781: ”I have heard in this country [America] in the senate, at the bar, and from the pulpit, and see daily in dissertations from the press, errors in grammar, improprieties and vulgarisms which hardly any person of the same class in point of rank and literature would have fallen into in Great Britain.”

US vs. UK English

There is a premise that as a language develops and becomes older, it simplifies in grammar and spelling. If we use British versus American English as a case in point, we can concur. Take for example the British spelling of colour and the American color – dropping the u does seem like a “no brainer” and keeping it just serves to confuse new and non-native learners! Why is there a difference? British English has kept the spellings of words that it has inherited from other languages, for example French; American English has adapted spelling to mirror the word’s spoken sound – making it more phonetic and giving them their own national language.

So why is it important to know and be able to use both American and British English? Can’t we just learn the simpler version? The difference will not go away; national pride and heritage is at stake! The next time you write a cover letter for a job application, knowing the difference between American and British English might be the difference between you getting shortlisted for the job or not! This knowledge reflects more than the ability to spell. It shows attention to detail, knowledge of the business’s cultural roots and your mental flexibility to adapt with ease to different systems.

See related post: The 5th Language Skill

To help you on your way, here is a short summary of the most important and common mistakes I have seen the students in my UK, German and South African classrooms make. The spelling list is not extensive or complete, just words that I find are the most commonly used and abused.

 

British English

American English

—-Punctuation—-

Mr, Mrs, Miss, Dr, Revd do NOT have full stops (or “periods” in US English). The reason for this is that the abbreviation ends with the same letter as the full word (Mister – Mr). However in cases where the abbreviation of a word DOES NOT end in the same letter as the full word (Professor Prof.), we use a full stop. Abbreviations of (Mr., Mrs., Miss., Dr., Revd.) use full stops or “periods” in US English.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            

 

British English

American English

—-Punctuation—-
Mr, Mrs, Miss, Dr, Revd do NOT have full stops (or “periods” in US English). The reason for this is that the abbreviation ends with the same letter as the full word (Mister – Mr). However in cases where the abbreviation of a word DOES NOT end in the same letter as the full word (Professor Prof.), we use a full stop. Abbreviations of (Mr., Mrs., Miss., Dr., Revd.) use full stops or “periods” in US English.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
—-Spelling—-

British -se and American -ze

Analyse, apologise, criticise, emphasise, organise, realise, recognise Analyze, apologize, criticize, emphasize, organize, realize, recognize
Single -l versus Double -l 
Enrolment, fulfil, skilful Enrollment, fulfill, skillful
In British English, the root word (“enrol” in British English and “enroll” in American English ) remains the same when we add a suffix (-ment) whereas in American English, the last consonant is doubled if it the last syllable is stressed, e.g. en-ROLL-ment and ful-FILL-ment even though the word “full” on its own has a double L. 
Cancelled, counselling, travelling, travelled Canceled, counseling, traveling, traveled 
In British English when -l is preceded by a vowel, one usually doubles the final -l when a suffix ed/-ing is added. In American English, the last syllable of these words is not stressed so the -l is not doubled.

British –ence and American -ense difference

licence (noun) license (verb), practice (noun) practise (verb) license (both noun and verb), practice (both noun and verb)

British -gramme and American -gram

Kilogramme, programme Kilogram, program

British -re and American -er

Centre, kilometre, metre, litre, theatre Center, kilometer, meter, liter, theater

British -our and America -or

Behaviour, favourite, flavour, humour, labour, neighbour Behavior, favorite, flavor, humor, labor, neighbor

British -dge/-gue and American -dg/-gu

Arguement, judgement Argument, judgment

British -ogue and American -og difference

analogue, catalogue, dialogue, monologue analog, catalog, dialog, monolog

British -ae/-oe/-oeu and American -e/-o/-eu 

archaeology, manoeuvre, mediaeval, mementoes, paediatric archeology, maneuver, medieval, mementos, pediatric

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