[Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 21, 1997/1 pp30-32]
[See also a further article on this subject prepared for publication by Chris Upward and colleags, a letter of comments on this article by Cornell Kimball in J22, and Journals, Newsletters, Leaflets, Media, Pamflet 15, Book and Papers by Chris Upward.]

American Spellings for British Schools?

A submission from the Simplified Spelling Society to
the School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (SCAA).
compiled by Chris Upward.

The following is a slightly amended version of a paper submitted to SCAA on 15 July 1996. Thanks are due to the Society's British committee for the original formulation, to SSS member Cornell Kimball of Los Angeles for researching aspects of American spelling, and to Professor Burke Shipley of Chicago for some subsequent amendments.

1. British adoption of US spellings.

Most spellings perceived by British readers as typically American represent a historically more advanced form of written English, which Britain is inclined to adopt hesitantly after an often lengthy delay. The simplification of AE to just E in words like encyclopaedia and mediaeval is now general in British usage, but many other words like anaesthetic (American anesthetic) have not yet been so cut. British reduction of -OUR to -OR likewise remains incomplete: Britain long ago Americanized inferiour, emperour, exteriour, governour, etc, but persists with dozens of forms like flavour, savour despite the misleading parallel with devour. Similarly incomplete is British simplification of draught as draft (despite the draughty/ haughty anomaly), though America prefers draft for all senses. The case of American plow is slightly different: although both plough and plow were current in 18th century England, America chose the simpler and Britain the more convoluted form as its eventual standard.

As this paper will show, most 'American' spellings offer improvements to the alternatives now prevailing in Britain. Yet each needs to be examined on its own merits, and in fact one of the earliest American form to be adopted brought mixed blessings. American music with final -C (formerly -CK in British musick) had the advantage of tallying with the C in the French-derived adjective musical, where A follows the C; but cutting -ICK to -IC elsewhere introduced complications, in that K now has to be restored before the front vowels E, I, Y (eg, picnic but picnicked, traffic but trafficker, frolic but frolicking, panic but panicky, though there is sometimes uncertainty, as between arcing/arcking, Quebecer/Quebecker). It is unfortunate that C rather than K was kept from the old -CK, since K resolves the dilemma of pronunciation as /k/ or /s/ before a front vowel. The better model would have been the consistent Germanic spelling with K (Danish/Swedish musik, Dutch muziek, German Musik, Norwegian musikk) which raises no such problem, as we see from German Musiker, musikalisch with K before both front and back vowels. If K had been preferred to C, the present inconsistency would have been avoided by writing traffik/traffiker, etc.

However, few of today's American forms entail such kinds of problem.

2. Better phonics.

With phonics now officially acknowledged by the British education authorities as central to literacy acquisition even in such a wayward alphabetic system as English, Britain should also acknowledge most American forms as better suited to the phonic learner than their British counterparts. Thus -IZE (eg, organize as opposed to organise) is usefully distinguished from the various alternative values of -ISE as in expertise, paradise, promise. The voicing indicator Z is also preferred in America to ambiguous S in -YSE words such as analyse (the form analyses may come from the verb, or, quite differently pronounced, it may be the plural of analysis) and likewise brasier, cognisant, cosy, partisan, rase (after all, Britain does not write *rasor). The -ER in American center and some 20 other words, which Britain writes -RE, tallies with the far commoner ending of enter, and so reduces an important pattern of exceptions that British children face. American students of the life sciences (above all, those preparing for medical careers) escape the E/AE/OE traps that beset their British counterparts, for instance not needing to learn three different spellings for the first syllable in British femur/faeces/foetus (American femur/feces/fetus), nor in countless other words of Latin or Greco-Latin derivation. (An eminent British zoologist has declared American forms in his field superior, without exception.) Both the -RE and OE simplifications feature in American maneuver, contrasting with the much misspelt British manoeuvre. The K of American skeptic avoids the muddles induced by misleading analogies with septic/sceptre (Britain moved from sceleton to skeleton centuries ago). The I of American artifact aligns with that of artist, artifice, etc, compared with disparate E in British artefact (contrast artesian). The AU/OU digraphs lose their confusing U in American caldron, gage (cf call, scald, page), and mold, molt, smolder (cf cold, colt, colder, phonically contrasting with mound, louder, etc). American naught (cf naughty) is phonically more appropriate than British nought (contrast drought, and dialect nowt). A non-phonic final E is shed (and some other simplifications made) in American ax, adz (though these two were formerly subject to controversy in the USA), cigaret (this latter a less common variant of cigarette in the USA), epaulet (cf cadet, quartet), program (cf telegram), catalog (contrast -UE in rogue, argue). Mustache no longer suggests the mouse of British moustache. Ambiguous British QU yields to simpler American C and/or K in bark (for barque), check (for cheque), licorice (for liquorice).

For phonics to work effectively, we need simpler spellings that correspond to the sounds of words, and the above American variants are therefore to be preferred for pedagogical reasons.

3. More regular consonant doubling.

One of the most troublesome features of English spelling is the lack of reliable rules to tell us when to double consonants. One often cited rule has it that, when a base word ending in a single consonant letter adds a suffix beginning with a vowel, the consonant is doubled if its preceding vowel is both short and stressed (eg, commit has TT in committing); but where these precise conditions do not apply, the final consonant is not doubled (eg, single T in commitment since the suffix begins with a consonant, and in inviting since the preceding vowel of invite is long and the T is not final in the base form, and in visiting, since the vowel immediately preceding the T in visit is unstressed). This rule, which is generally accepted by both American and British spelling conventions is in itself too complex to be easily mastered, but British (not American) spelling aggravates the difficulty with numerous exceptions. The most widespread pattern of exceptions affects verbs ending in an unstressed vowel plus single L, such as travel. In America these follow the normal rule, but in Britain the L is perversely doubled before a vowel, as in the forms travelled, traveller, travelling, which falsely have the appearance of rhyming with compelled, compelling, etc (contrast American traveled, etc). The regular single L is further seen in such American forms as councilor, counselor, jewelry, marvelous, whose British equivalents have anomalous LL. The reverse pattern (Britain simplifying LL where America keeps it intact) is seen in American appall, fulfillment, skillful, beside appalled, fulfilling, skill, whose LL Britain simplifies in appal, fulfilment, skilful (single L here has the advantage of brevity, but not of regularity). Further British discrepancies of consonant-doubling involve P: according to the normal rule, British kidnapped, worshipped (which are based perhaps on analogy with monosyllables such as capped, shipped) should follow the pattern of gossiped, galloped and the forms kidnaped, worshiped used in America.

4. More morphophonemic.

Britain sometimes also arbitrarily varies the spelling of word roots where America is marginally less prone to such inconsistency. Thus Britain changes S to C in several words, creating anomalies such as defence/defensive, where American (like French) keeps the original S in defense (French défense); British C contrasts similarly with American S in licence, mortice, offence, pretence. Another instance is American peddler, modelled directly on the verb to peddle, where British has a doubly anomalous form with single D and -AR in pedlar. Then there is British foetus, although the cognate effete is never written with OE; American fetus/effete is likewise consistent. We may also explain the above pattern of single L retained from travel in American traveled etc, in the same terms, as being motivated by morphophonemic consistency.

5. Fewer unnecessary distinctions.

Another troublesome feature of English spelling is its tendency to develop different spellings for different meanings of the same word, as between flour/flower or metal/mettle, even when, as in these pairs, the words have the same origin. In a number of cases, America does not make such distinctions where Britain does, for instance writing curb for both curb/kerb, draft for both draft/draught, inquiry for both enquiry/inquiry, meter for both meter/metre, story for both story/storey, and tire for both tire/tyre. Other confusing distinctions of British spelling which America finds unnecessary are the noun/verb differences of licence/license, practice/practise and prophecy/prophesy (the different sound value of the final Y in the latter pair of course bears no relation to the British C/S variation).

6. Fewer etymological errors.

The principle on which English spelling is often said to be based, and which is often claimed as its justification, is that of etymology: English spellings are as they are, it is asserted, because they show the derivation of words from Old English, or French, or Latin, or Greek, or wherever else. Yet when one examines in detail the history of many spellings through the centuries, one finds that the pure principle of etymology has been widely corrupted. Examples arising in comparisons between British and American spellings include anomalous British defence, etc (cited in §4 above) and two British preferences based on errors introduced in Latin: foetus was a Latin respelling of fetus (perhaps by analogy with foedus, but in fact related to fecundity, felicity, feminine, as well as effete); and sulphur was a Latin respelling with pseudo-Greek PH of original Latin sulfur. Thus American defense, fetus, sulfur are etymologically more correct, as well as simpler, than British defence, foetus, sulphur.

7. Informal American spellings.

In addition to the above American variants which are all regularly used in formal printed text, there are some simplified forms which are mainly encountered in informal situations, most notably in advertising and on public signs generally. Very often they involve omission of the grotesque GH grapheme and sometimes of an associated silent vowel letter as well, in order to represent the sound of the words more directly (ie, more economically and more phonically); such are tho, thru, thoro and perhaps donut, with boro sometimes seen as a suffix in placenames (eg, Greensboro in North Carolina, an early English colony where the ending is especially common). But in addition, the -IGHT syllable is sometimes respelt as in lite, nite. Such forms are increasingly seen in Britain under American influence, and some (tho, thru, thoro) are phonically greatly to be preferred to their traditional equivalents. Others, on the other hand, are phonically dubious: does donut have the O-vowel of Donald or of donor? and the final silent E in countless words like lite, nite creates difficulties for both beginners (they involve reading backwards, from right to left, in decoding) and skilled writers (they create uncertainty when suffixes are added).

8. Less cumbersome.

Professional print-producers attach considerable importance to conciseness in writing, shorter forms being valued accordingly especially by the press. Many American forms have the advantage of being both shorter and simpler than their British equivalents, and therefore more economical and more straightforward to use. Conciseness is a particular advantage in the case of tho, thru, thoro.

9. Better for non-native speakers.

The majority of users of English do not have the language as their mother tongue, and they suffer additional disadvantages from present spellings (American almost as much as British). Whereas native speakers of English only need to recognize the written forms of words in order to read them, non-native speakers are much more dependent on the spelling to tell them the correct pronunciation. Yet English spelling is notoriously unhelpful in this regard, and countless mispronunciations are caused by misleading spellings. American spellings that are less phonically anomalous than their British equivalents are more helpful in this respect.

A further difficulty for learners and users in non-English-speaking countries is the divergence of spellings between Britain and America, which requires alternatives to be learnt. International publishers face problems too in deciding whether to follow British or American conventions, indeed sometimes whether to incur the cost and trouble of producing separate editions. Other English-speaking countries such as Australia and Canada are particularly affected by uncertainty between the two traditions, Australia for instance being currently torn between a general preference for British labour and the American usage in the name of its Labor Party.

British adoption of simpler American spellings would alleviate all these problems.

10. Other cases.

In a few cases (eg, gray/grey, pajamas/pyjamas) the advantages of the alternative forms are more evenly balanced. Thus gray conforms to a more widespread pattern, as in bay/hay/way, etc, but grey is more phonetic; and the unstressed vowel of initial PA-/PY- does not suggest any particular letter, although we may note that pagoda, palatial, parade etc. at least offer a model with PA-, while PY- with that value has no such common parallel. Finally, in the cases of vice, whisky, the British conventions have some advantage: America makes a distinction between vice (=moral depravity) and vise (=holding tool), where Britain is satisfied with a single spelling for both senses; and Britain enjoys its whisky, where America puts on weight with whiskey.

11. Need for new understanding.

We have here surveyed the majority of Anglo-American spelling differences, and we have noted that nearly all offer patterns where the American conventions are in every respect, or at least in important respects, to be preferred. Britain thus does itself a disservice in many ways if it tries to resist such American spellings. British children frequently encounter American spellings on television and elsewhere, and they naturally prefer simpler, more phonic forms that better suit their pronunciation and the wider regularities of English spelling. To insist that they reject spellings which they commonly see, and which come more naturally to them, at best discourages children, and at worst causes them real distress. The irregular spelling of English does incalculable damage to educational standards in general, but a more enlightened attitude towards American spellings in Britain (and in those parts of the world where the British tradition has taken root) would tend slightly to reduce the problem.

The world needs a new view and a better understanding of English spelling, as outlined in the Six Axioms promulgated by the Simplified Spelling Society.

12. Strategies for British education.

A first, minimal step towards managing the modernization of our archaic writing system would be to adopt at least a more permissive attitude to American spellings. Why, after all, should British children be denied the advantages enjoyed for well over a century by their American counterparts? Such an approach could be graduated as follows:

1. Least controversial would be to instruct British examiners not to penalize American forms.

2. More beneficial would be to instruct schools to teach phonically more predictable American spellings as standard, while still not penalizing the old British equivalents.

3. Most radical would be to rule that, after a certain date, the latter forms should be considered wrong. The time may not be ripe for that yet, but the possibility should be borne in mind.

The Simplified Spelling Society believes it is time for the British to inform themselves of the true nature of their traditional orthography, and to draw the appropriate conclusions for literacy teaching. The recent acceptance that literacy teaching needs to be based on phonics is an excellent and long overdue first step on the road to such understanding, but it is only a first step. Having looked critically at, and rejected, previously fashionable but ineffective methods of teaching literacy skills, we need next to look critically at the substance of what is taught, ie, at the spellings themselves. The differences between spelling conventions in Britain and America would be a practical point at which to start.

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