At some point in your English learning journey, you'll need to decide whether to apply British or American spelling rules to your written work.

Nobody has written a set of guidelines to help you make the 'right decision' — it really boils down to your location, your course and your personal preferences.

If you are looking at studying or working in Australia, choose British English as it is still the most dominant form and is the government standard. Obviously, adopting British spelling is also advisable if you are moving to the UK.

It is, however, worthwhile bearing in mind that media productions are largely dominated by American English, which is why it is often the first choice for non-native English learners.

If your goal is fluency in written English, you may decide to opt for the easier and more phonetic American spelling.

Many English teachers and courses, especially online courses, teach American English spelling for its similarity to the spoken pronunciation of words.

You may not have noticed the differences before now as many words only have one letter changed. However, there are also words with more obvious changes involving two or more letters, or sometimes a totally different word.

These changes may seem odd to a lot of people, particularly those born in Britain, Australia, New Zealand or South Africa — all of these countries tend to apply the same spelling and grammar rules.

Although there are clear differences, and everyone has their own personal preference, the different versions of English spelling are not often a source of confusion, and don't really impact on the enjoyment or ability to watch English-language programs, or read English books.

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What Lead to the Changes to American English Spelling?

Spelling is constantly evolving. The British and American changes have occurred fairly recently. In even more recent times, Australian English is being modified, or completely changed, to suit American audiences.

Throughout its history, and owing to its geography and location in Europe, England was targetted relentlessly by invaders — all of whom brought their native languages into the country.

With these multiple lingual influences, English became a true cocktail of languages, from Latinate languages, including French, and Germanic languages from Northern Europe.

Instead of completely adopting the language of their invaders, the different languages were merged, with words and expressions appearing and essentially creating a 'new' language.

The result was a period of significant and repeated English language change with each new wave of invasions and occupations.

Today's English spelling almost acts as a historic glossary, reflecting all the different language influences.

Which European languages and dialects influenced the English language and spelling?
Historical invasions are not only reflected in English heritage, but also in the English language and its spelling. (Source: Pixabay - jazzmeister)

With the movement of English into the American colonies, there eventually came another change to the structure of English words.

According to the Oxford Dictionary:

British English has maintained the spellings of their 'foreign loan words', whereas American English spelling underwent changes to better reflect word pronunciation.

One example is the British spelling of 'theatre', which came from the French ‘théâtre’. In America, the word is spelt 'theater' — with the '-er' being more phonetically accurate in terms of pronunciation.

American spelling is now standardised, but how did that happen?

To put it simply, a dictionary with the new and modified spellings was published and, at the time, dictionaries were the only accepted reference for spelling in America.

The man behind this change was American lexicographer, Noah Webster, who, in the late 1700s had started publishing articles calling for spelling reform. These publications roughly coincided with the USA winning independence from Great Britain in 1776 as Webster was said to have resented the fact that schools continued to use British textbooks and learning resources.

Webster's drive for change was politically motivated, as well as being about linguistics.

After writing a series of articles, Webster quickly published the American Spelling Book, an education guide to spelling that remained popular for 100 years. In 1806, Webster's first mainstream dictionary became available.

While American spelling can drive some spelling purists crazy, there is no doubt as to its practicality and growing popularity among people who are learning English spelling.

Were All of Webster's Changes Implemented?

The simple answer is no.

While a large number of Webster's proposed changes became the sanctioned orthography of the United States, there were many that were not accepted.

Amongst Webster's rejected suggestions were changes such as 'laf' (laugh), 'speek' (speak) and 'proov' (prove) — all more phonetically appropriate. Although, some phonetic adjustments did break through, including 'plow' (plough) and 'draft' (draught).

Webster also fought to remove silent letters from any word where they had no other function. The most well-known of these would be the silent 'u', dropped in American spelling from words like 'color' (colour) and 'humor' (humour).

The silent 'a' in 'bread' and the silent 'i' in 'friend' were also suggested omissions, but were, for some reason, not accepted.

Webster's intention with many of his proposed changes was to make spelling easier for all speakers of English, as well as reducing pronunciation difficulties for English as a second language learners.

How successful were Webster's changes when it comes to learning English spelling?
Noah Webster showed unwavering ambition in his quest to ensure spelling reform in the US. (Source: Visualhunt - Internet Archive Book Images)

Noah Webster was successful in his proposal to omit other unnecessary letters, namely the application of double consonants when adding certain suffixes to nouns and verbs.

This particular rule causes untold confusion amongst native and non-native speakers of British English as it is inconsistent as to whether the final consonants need to be doubled or not.

Webster's proposal led to the adoption of inflections like 'traveled' (traveled), fueling (fuelling), 'counselor' (counsellor) and 'traveler' (traveller).

Finally, Webster also advocated for 'foreign-style' letter combinations to be replaced with phonetic ones. One example is the '-ouge' at the end of 'catalogue' being replaced by '-og' (catalog).

Learning English Spelling — Comparing British to American

It is in the scientific fields of biology and medicine that discrepancies (as opposed to spelling errors) between British and American spelling are at their most obvious.

The reason for this is because a significant proportion of medical and biological vocabulary comes from Greek roots.

These letter combinations are deemed by many as 'foreign origin' and, indeed, many of them do not feature in any other English spelling words.

This table contains a few such examples, with the British spelling retaining its etymological root while the American word has simplified spelling.

BritishAmerican
foetusfetus
oesophagusesophagus
paediatricpediatric

The logic behind these changes is obvious, and both spelling forms are accepted in the scientific world.

The formation of past tense in verbs is another area where there is considerable difference between American spelling and British spelling.

When forming the past tense of a regular verb, the general rule is to apply the 'ed' suffix:

  • join becomes joined
  • walk becomes walked
  • enjoy becomes enjoyed

Note the pronunciation though — depending on the word, the 'ed' can either be pronounced as 'd' or 't'.

This difference is the cause of another variation, but not in the way you might think.

The spoken version of the past tense of 'spell' and 'dream' both have endings that sound like 't'. Again, British and American spelling differs with these words, however this time it is the British version that is more phonetic, with 'spelt' and 'dreamt'. The Americans have chosen to keep the standard rule, with 'spelled' and 'dreamed'.

However, it is worthwhile noting that the pronunciation of these words can change with the addition of the '-t': 'learnt' and 'learned' are not an issue, but 'dreamt' is pronounced 'drempt', while 'dreamed' is pronounced 'dreemd'. Both pronunciations reflect the preferred spelling.

Incidentally, in recent times, both forms have almost become interchangeable.

Which words are completely different in British and American English
Is this a subway station or the underground? And what would you call it in Australia? (Source: Pixabay - PublicDomainPictures)

Sometimes, complete word categories are affected by a change. In one such case, we have the '-ise' or '-ize' argument.

The table below gives a couple of examples:

BritishAmerican
apologiseapologize
organiseorganize
recogniserecognize

One point to note is that, in many cases, the '-ize' ending is also acceptable in British spelling, but is not used in Australian spelling.

Another minor change on a large scale is the use of '-nce' ending in British English, where Americans prefer '-nse'.

This difference is so tiny, and often hard to detect, causing frequent 'misspelling' of these words.

Check the table below to see how similar they look:

BritishAmerican
defencedefense
pretencepretense
offenceoffense

British and American spelling differences are not always so minor.

For example, in America you would write a 'check', whereas in Britain the same little piece of paper is a 'cheque'. This is just another example of a change brought about by American spelling removing foreign influences, replacing the silent 'ue' and making the spelling more phonetic.

While Americans always organize a bookshelf according to color, with the catalogs placed in the center so as not to cause offense — Brits and Aussies have not yet learnt or realised the importance of doing this.

Some of the spellings in that sentence may grate on your nerves a little, but the point is that you could read it — despite the mix of spelling.

Most people want consistency in their writing, but while this is certainly preferable, the world won't stop revolving if you occasionally mix up the different systems. Native speakers of English are doing just this more and more frequently.

If you're worried about which style to choose when learning English spelling, don't be. The important thing is that you pick a style and keep at it until your grammar and vocabulary have improved, and you're feeling comfortable with all the other skills.

Certainly, if you're learning English with a British tutoring company, it makes sense that you would focus on British spelling as it is linked to grammar rules as well as localised expressions and slang. As much as you can, stay with one system of English.

Your choice will naturally be affected by your goals.

If your aim is to teach English in Australia for a tutoring organisation or a community migrant centre, you'll need a proficiency level of a native English speaker in Australia. This means focusing on British spelling and grammar.

It's all the little things that count — grammar exercises; listening activities; incorporating new words into conversations; using different nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs; awareness of homophones, prefixes, suffixes and vowel sounds; and focusing on pronunciation, stress and accent.

Have fun too! Practise your English with tongue twisters, mnemonics and games.

Sit back and listen to music from English speaking bands, or watch English language TV shows and movies. Find the song lyrics, or turn on the subtitles so you can read and listen at the same time, making note of the connection between spelling and pronunciation. Checking out the punctuation while you're at it — particularly the apostrophe use with contractions and possessives.

The more literary and oral/aural practice you get, the more chance you have of improving your English fluency and gaining a higher proficiency level. A dictionary is essential but so is regular and varied practice.

Whatever your background and wherever you want to go with your English — enjoy every single moment of it.

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Kellie

Kellie is an editor, a children's writer, blogger and a teacher. Any remaining time she has is spent on a dragon boat.