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British vs American Spelling: Explaining the Difference and why it Matters

Knowing the difference between British and American spelling is crucial. When writing academic essays, it is particularly important to understand the distinction between these two forms of English in order to avoid violating your university’s spelling guidelines. When it is not obvious which form of English you should use, it is a good idea to consult with your lecturer to determine whether you should use British or American English. Whatever the case, when choosing either form, always make sure that you are consistent. 

(1) Word formation groups

[-or / -our]
In American English the ‘u’ is dropped from the word, whereas in British English the ‘u’ is retained.
color, honor, flavor, humor, labor, neighbor, behavior
colour, honour, flavour, humour, labour, neigbour, behaviour

[-ize / -ise]
American English uses –ize at the end of words, whereas British English prefers –ise
criticize, recognize, organize, apologize, agonize 
criticise, recognise, organise, apologise, agonise 

[-er / -re]
American English uses –er, whereas British English uses the reverse form –re
center, theater, fiber, liter
centre, theatre, fibre, litre

[-nse / -nce]
Americans generally use –nse, whereas the British tend to use –nce
license, pretense, offense, defense
licence, pretence, offence, defence

[Words ending in a vowel plus –l]
American English prefers the use of a single ‘l’ when adding suffixes to verbs. British English generally uses the double “l” approach to spelling. 
traveling, traveled, traveler
travelling, travelled, traveler

(2) Individual words
Apart from differences in word formation, British and American spelling also differ in terms of individual words. Here are a few examples:
check, aluminum, gray, curb, maneuver, tire
cheque, aluminium, grey, kerb, manoeuvre, tyre

A final tip: When using Microsoft Word, make sure you have the language function set to the correct variant of English. This will help you to avoid unnecessary spelling errors.


Schur, Norman W., and Eugene Ehrlich. British English A to Zed. Revised and Updated ed. New York, NY: Checkmark Books, 2001.

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