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Varieties of English Spelling

Colour or Color?

Spell it right!

There are several major varieties of English‏‎: American, British, Australian and so on.

This article looks at differences in spelling between these. It is a general guide which covers the majority of cases, however remember that there are exceptions which will need to be taught to your TEFL class on an as-needs basis.

On that note, in general it does not matter which variety of English spelling you or your class use as long as they are consistent. This means that you can accept work from your students which is in either American or British spelling (or any other variety), but not work which chops and changes with each paragraph!

General Rules

These are a few general rules which cover the majority of spelling differences (in terms of usage) found between British and American spelling.

-our / -or

Most British English words ending in –our change to –or in American English.

colour > color
honour > honor

Note that in British pronunciation, the last syllable‏‎ of these words is the schwa sound:

ˈkʌ.lə
ˈɒ.nə

However, if the word doesn’t end in the schwa sound then it doesn’t change its spelling in American English:

ˈkɒn.tʊə = contour > contour

Most English speaking countries adopt the British English spelling. This is true also of Canada but due to the close proximity of Canada and the USA you will also see American English spellings in Canadian English. In Australia it is almost exclusively –our with few exceptions.

-re / -er

Many British words ending in –re change to –er in American English.

centre > center
metre > meter
theatre > theater

-ce / -se

There are pairs of words which are nouns & verbs‏‎. For example in British English there are:

advice – advise
licence – license
practice – practise

However, with some of these American English will keep the same spelling for both noun and verb, notably:

license – license
practice – practice

 -ise / -ize

Most British spellings use -ise at the end of words while American spellings use -ize.

criticise > criticize
organise > organize

However, you will find many British and international publications using the -ize spelling as well.

-ogue / -og

This variant occurs in a number of words of Greek origin:

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

-t / -ed

A number of verbs which make their participle with –t in British English use –ed in American English:

dreamt > dreamed
leapt > leaped
learnt > learned
spelt > spelled

Spelling Variation List

This table shows different spellings of common words not included above.

British English American English Notes
aeroplane airplane
aesthetic asthetic and some other Greek origin words beginning with ae
aluminium aluminum
armour armor
arse ass meaning an idiot; the animal is spelt ass in both variants
cheque check meaning financial note
chilli chili
cosy cozy
counsellor counselor
doughnut donut
draught draft
encyclopaedia encyclopedia
enrol enroll
fulfil fulfill
fuelling fueling
gaol jail British English often uses jail
gauge gage
grey gray
grille grill
jewellery jewelry
judgement judgment
kerb curb for a part of the footpath only; curb is used in all spellings to mean restrain
liquorice licorice
mould mold
moustache mustache
mum mom
plough plow
prise prize meaning lever
pyjamas pajamas
sceptic skeptic
speciality specialty
storey story a floor of a building
through thru
tyre tire on the wheel of a car

Useful Links

For a longer table of US/UK spelling differences, see this Comprehensive list of American and British spelling differences.

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