[This article is a sequel to American Spellings for British Schools? published in J21, 1997/1]

Choosing between American and British spellings as standards for written English.

Preface | Differences between British and American English | Topic index |
On another page: Topic 12. Alfabetical list of spellings.

Preface and acknowledgments.

This set of webpages was developed from a paper submitted in July 1996 by the Simplified Spelling Society to the then School Curriculum and Assessment Authority (now Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) in London. It was published with amendments in the Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society 21, 1997/1, pp30-32, under the title 'American Spellings for British Schools?'. It was created by Christopher Upward, Editor-in-Chief of the SSS, with assistance from: the Society's committee; Cornell Kimball of Los Angeles who researched aspects of American spelling; and Professor John B Shipley of Chicago. The present version draws also on a computer-generated listing of 1455 dictionary mismatches between British and American English created by John Bryant of Cambridge, UK, which allowed a number of gaps in earlier versions to be filled; and on public comments on attitudes of users of the world's two main variants of written English to the other variant, most notably the article by Tim Dowling 'Can U spell OK? Absolutely Britannia' which first appeared in The Independent on 21 July 1998 and was reprinted in the Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J25, 1999/1, p30. Readers seeking further information on the history of American spellings are referred to Chapter 9 'American Spelling' (pp184-202) by John W Clark in the 2nd edition of G H Vallins (1st ed. 1954) Spelling, London: André Deutsch, revised by D G Scragg (1965); a few examples of American spelling given in these webpages are taken from this source. Accounts of some 20th century innovations in American spelling will be found in: Cornell Kimball 'Pragmatic Strategies for Promoting Spelling Reform' in Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society J23, 1998/1, and John B Shipley 'Spelling the Chicago Tribune way, Part I in J24 1934-1975', Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society, 1998/2 pp3-10, Part II in J25, 1999/1 pp3-10, Part III in J26, 1999/2 pp16-19.

This document is presented under the auspices of the Simplified Spelling Society.


Differences between British and American English.

Anyone who takes a world view of the English language is aware of differences between the vocabulary, pronunciation and spelling used by those educated in the American and British traditions. The following webpages are concerned with spelling differences, but these are sometimes connected with vocabulary and pronunciation. Clearly the terms pavement/ sidewalk differ in spelling and pronunciation because they are distinct words, albeit with the same meaning; such differences of vocabulary are not our concern here. Nor are we concerned with words like missile or schedule, which are differently pronounced despite identical spellings and meanings on the two sides of the Atlantic. Of some interest, but not of primary concern, are pairs such as aluminum/ aluminium, behove/ behoove, glycerin/ glycerine, which have the same meaning but whose different spellings reflect different pronunciations, the one more usual in America, the other in Britain. The main subject of the analyses presented below are discrepancies of Anglo-American spelling that do not reflect differences either of pronunciation or of meaning, as typified by such widespread patterns as center/ centre and color/ colour.

A long-standing public nuisance.

Such spelling differences between British and American English have been a public nuisance for a long time, and have several undesirable consequences. Publishers marketing books from the other side of the Atlantic have often felt it necessary to print separate editions with changed spellings. Dictionaries valid on one side are less valid on the other. Separate spellcheckers are needed for word-processors. Other English-speaking countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand are unsure which spellings to use. Americans who move to Britain and Britons who move to America sometimes feel they have to adjust their spelling - which is harder for Americans, because British variants are more arbitrary, being governed by fewer simple rules. Children whose spelling was good enough at home and who move across the Atlantic during their schooling are dismayed to be told that they are 'bad spellers'. Translators adopting one or other spelling give foreign novels an American or British flavor that jars with speakers of the other variety (British speakers are generally less tolerant of American spellings than vice versa). And non-native-speaking learners of English face two different written forms for a significant number of words.

Right/wrong, better/worse.

The nuisance has persisted because both sides regard their own spellings as right, and the other side's in many cases as wrong. Yet their reasons for doing so often amount to no more than the prejudice of familiarity: word-forms that look strange must be wrong, those that look familiar must be right. This view is itself an obstacle to resolving the problem, since people are not easily persuaded to accept something 'wrong' in place of what they have been taught to believe is 'right'. To be persuaded, they need objective reasons for deciding one spelling form is 'better' than another, and that there are advantages to be gained from adopting it.

Irregular English spelling a literacy problem.

There is growing awareness that standards of literacy in English-speaking countries are inadequate to meet the educational demands of tomorrow. This realization can lead us to the kind of criteria that are needed for judging which of two spellings is better. Comparison with literacy standards in other languages is increasingly showing spelling irregularity to be the root cause of lower standards of literacy in English. Spelling irregularity arises when the letters of the alphabet are not used consistently or predictably according to simple rules for representing the pronunciation of words. Examining how words are spelled in English shows how widespread such irregularity is; and the numerous mistakes people make are mostly due to that irregularity.

Simpler spellings easier to handle.

To make English spelling thoroughly user-friendly would require changes that are too drastic and extensive to be acceptable or practicable in the short term; for instance, some words might change out of recognition (maybe yl for aisle), or plurals might be written with final -z instead of -s. But small improvements would be quite possible, and choosing appropriately between British-American variants would achieve just such an improvement. For instance, the British spelling manoeuvre (which is actually French) is so complicated that many people are unable to write it correctly, while the simpler American form maneuver, though not perfect, is easier to handle.

Most American spellings simpler.

In all but a few cases where British and American spellings differ, the American forms are variously shorter, simpler, more regular, and/or a better indication of how words are pronounced, regardless of accent. The pages linked to this main text give detailed analyses of the spellings concerned and explain the advantages of one alternative over the other. Wherever the English language is used, people would do well to consider these differences and, for the sake of improved communication and literacy, adopt the simpler spellings - so also helping to reduce the public nuisance of British-American spelling discrepancies.

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Topics of detailed analysis.

Click on underlined title for detailed analysis required:
Topic 1. Historical spread of American spellings.
Topic 2. Better phonics.
Subtopics:

Importance of phonics for literacy

z less ambiguous than s: eg, organize

Endings in -er or -re: eg, center

Endings in -or or -our: eg, labor

Simplifying ae, oe: eg, anemia, fetus

Various other vowels: eg, gage, mold, mustache

Losing silent -e: eg, ax, omelet, program, catalog, likable
Some consonant simplifications: eg, skeptic, check, licorice
Topic 3. More regular consonant doubling, eg, traveled.
Topic 4. More consistent, eg, defense / defensive
Topic 5. Fewer unnecessary heterographs, eg, a 2-story house
Topic 6. Fewer etymological errors, eg, sulfur
Topic 7. Informal spellings, eg, tho, thru
Topic 8. More economical, eg, maneuver
Topic 9. Some miscellaneous cases, eg, pajamas / pyjamas
Topic 10. Clearer perspective via Six Axioms
Topic 11. Strategies for education and publishing
Topic 12. Alphabetical list of recommended spellings


Topic 1. Historic spread of American spellings.

Historic trend.

Most spellings felt by non-American readers to be typically American represent a historically more advanced form of written English, which other English-speaking countries tend to adopt hesitantly and often after a long delay. Typically, they were propagated by the great American lexicographer Noah Webster through his American Dictionary of the English Language (1st ed. 1828), though many were already familiar alternative forms in 18th century Britain, and others took hold in the later 19th or in the 20th century. The simplification of ae to e in words like encyclopaedia and mediaeval is now widespread, but many other words containing ae like anaesthetic (American anesthetic) are not yet standard in Britain. British reduction of -our to -or likewise remains incomplete: the -our of old spellngs like inferiour, emperour, etc, was long ago reduced to -or, but it 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.

Some disadvantages.

Most American spellings are improvements over the variants still widely used elsewhere. Yet each needs to be examined on its own merits, and in fact one of the earliest American forms to be adopted in Britain brought mixed blessings. American music and similar words with final -ic (previously -ick as in musick) as recommended by Noah Webster, had the advantage of matching the c in the French-derived adjective musical, where a follows the c. However, cutting -ick to -ic created complications elsewhere, as the k is still needed before the front vowels e, i, y. So we write picnic without k but picnicked with k, and similarly trafficker, frolicking, panicky from traffic, frolic, panic, though there is sometimes uncertainty, with arcking, Quebecker also written arcing, Quebecer. It is a pity that c rather than k was kept from the old -ck ending in such words, as k solves the dilemma of pronouncing as /k/ or /s/ before front vowels. The better model would have been the consistent Germanic spelling with k (Danish/Swedish musik, Dutch muziek, German Musik, Norwegian musikk) which avoids such problems (German Musiker, musikalisch with k before both the back vowel a and the front vowel e). If k had been preferred to c, the present inconsistency would have been avoided by writing frolik / froliking, traffik / traffiker, etc.

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

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Topic 2. Better phonics.

Importance of phonics for literacy

Increasing numbers of education authorities (in Britain, California, etc) now officially acknowledge phonics (ie, learning how letters represent the sounds of the language) as central to literacy acquisition even in such an irregular spelling system as English. Where British and American spellings differ, it is the American forms that represent the pronunciation of the words more directly and which are therefore better suited to phonic methods of literacy teaching.

z less ambiguous than s.
The common ending -ize, as in numerous verbs like organize (and derivatives such as organization, organized, organizer, organizes, organizing) is more usually spelled -ise in British usage (though some British publishers like Oxford University Press, Collins and, until recently, also the London Times newspaper) prefer -ize. The 50 most common instances are: agonize, apologize, authorize, baptize, centralize, characterize, civilize, colonize, computerize, criticize, crystal(l)ize, dramatize, emphasize, exorcize, fertilize, fossilize, generalize, hypnotize, industrialize, institutionalize, jeopardize, localize, materialize, maximize, mechanize, mesmerize, minimize, mobilize, modernize, nationalize, naturalize, neutralize, organize, penalize, polarize, pressurize, publicize, rationalize, realize, revolutionize, scrutinize, specialize, subsidize, summarize, symbolize, sympathize, utilize, visualize. Altogether some four times this number are in more or less general use, and new examples are steadily being coined (eg, computerize as a recent creation). Nearly all these words consist of the originally Greek suffix -ize attached to an independent stem, as in organ + ize (baptize, exorcize are apparent exceptions, as they have no independent stem in English). This -ize spelling has the phonic advantage of making clear that the final consonant is pronounced /z/, so distinguishing that ending from the other pronunciations of -ise heard in expertise, paradise, promise.

This clearcut advantage for -ize is, however, blurred by a much smaller group of mostly more common words which America and Britain alike normally spell with -ise. These are of French or Latin origin, and their endings are typically part of the word stem, and not a suffix: thus advise is made up of the prefix ad- attached to the stem -vise and surprise of the prefix sur- attached to the stam -prise; in other words, unlike organize, these words do not consist of the stems adv, surpr followed by the suffix -ise. There are some 20 such words in general use, namely advise, comprise, compromise, circumcise, demise, despise, devise, disguise, enterprise, excise, exercise, franchise, improvise, revise, supervise, surmise, surprise, televise. The three verbs advertise, merchandise, recognise do not fall clearly within either group, with the result that recognize is regularly and advertize, merchandize are sometimes written with -ize in America. The difficulty raised by the group normally spelt with -ise is that, since their etymological-morphological rationale is beyond most people's powers of analysis, they have to be memorized individually if they are not to be misspelled, and such misspellings as surprize (cf, also the misleading analogy of prize) are common. The solution to this difficulty is clearly for all these words also to be written with -ize, but such a change lies outside the remit of this discussion.

The advantage of unambiguous pronunciation of American z is also found in verbs ending in -yse / -yze such as analyze, dialyze, hydrolyze, paralyze: if spelled with -yse, forms ending in -yses are confusingly ambiguous, with analyses differently pronounced in the phrases he analyses, his analyses (better spelled he analyzes, his analyses). Other examples of the more reliable American preference for z over s are seen in brazier, cognizant, cozy, partizan (partisan more common), raze (after all, no one writes *rasor).

Endings in -er or -re.
The -er in American center and over 20 other words, which British writers spell with -re, tallies with the far commoner ending of enter. Many words ending in -er in modern English originated in French with the ending -re (eg, French chambre, English chamber), and recent French loans often still have -re (cadre, genre, macabre, oeuvre, timbre) in both British and American writing. Among older loans, American usage has anglicized the following, for which British usage still keeps the French ending -re: caliber, center, fiber, goiter, liter, louver, luster, maneuver (British manoeuvre), meager, (centi-, kilo-, milli-)meter, miter, ocher, philter, reconnoiter, saber, saltpeter, scepter, sepulcher, somber, specter, theater, titer. Words with a preceding c pronounced /k/ are not respelled with -er, since that would change the sound of the c from /k/ to /s/; so the following forms appear with -cre everywhere: acre, lucre, massacre, mediocre (never acer, etc). A similar difficulty after g has kept ogre unchanged, although the g in meagre has not prevented the change to American meager (cf, eager, everywhere with -er). The change to -er does not occur when the final -e is pronounced in its own right, as in emigre, padre. Clearly, the interests of spelling regularity require that the ending -er be used in place of -re wherever this is normal American practice.

Endings in -or or -our.
Around 30 words ending in -or in American usage appear with -our in British spelling. These are leftovers from a general switch from -our to -or that took place in the 18th century, giving such universally accepted forms as interior, emperor today, reduced from earlier interiour, emperour. Still written with -our in British usage are arbor, ardor, armor, (mis)behavior, candor, clamor, clangor, (dis)color, (mis)demeanor, endeavor, favor, fervor, flavor, harbor, (dis)honor, humor, labor, neighbor, odor, parlor, rancor, rigor, rumor, savior, savor, splendor, succor, tumor, valor, vapor, vigor. Since this ending is unstressed and rhymes with many shorter endings such as -ar, -er, -or (compare grammar / glamour, saver / savour, senior / saviour) rather than with words ending in stressed -our like hour, devour, clearly the American ending -or is phonically more appropriate. Americans wishing to follow British conventions (eg, American writers or schoolchildren resident in the UK) face the added difficulty of having to learn the whole list of words spelled with -our in order to ensure they do not also write -our in spelling exterior, governor, junior, superior and other such words.

Another advantage of -or is the fact that even in British usage the ending -our becomes -or before certain suffixes, especially -ous, giving the universal forms clamorous, humorous, odorous, rancorous, rigorous, valorous, vigorous, and more obviously laborious, where the -or is stressed; or is also universal before -ise/-ize, as in valorize, vaporize. However, this does not happen before most other suffixes, so that British usage still has -our in colourful, favourable, favourite, honourable (despite -or in honorary), etc. Regularizing all these forms with the spelling -or would prevent the confusion between forms with -our and forms with -or before suffixes to which British writers are understandably prone today. The word glamour requires special mention, as America commonly writes it with -our; but glamor is also used and should be preferred as matching the other words in this group as well as glamorous. Finally, the -or forms all have the advantage of economy compared with -our.

Simplifying ae, oe.
In a number of learned words British usage writes ae and oe according to Greco-Latin tradition, where America has adopted the simpler spelling with just e, as in French, Italian and Spanish (in many other words, the e spelling has superseded ae and oe in every variety of English, eg, modern hyena for older hyaena, and economy for older oeconomy). The advantage of the simpler form with e is well illustrated by the fact that American students of the life sciences (eg, medical students, nurses) do not have to learn three different spellings for the first syllable of British femur / faeces / foetus (American femur / feces / fetus); and an eminent British zoologist has declared American forms in his field superior, without exception. The most important examples with American e instead of ae (many with several derived forms) are: anemia, anesthetic, archeology (archaeology also widely used), encyclopedia, eon, esthetic (aesthetic more common), feces, gynecology, hemoglobin, hemorrhage, leukemia, medieval, orthopedic, paleolithic, pediatric. The most important examples with American e instead of oe are: ameba (at least in scientific writing), diarrhea, edema, estrogen, fetus, maneuver; these spellings have the further advantage of distinguishing such words from those in which the o-e have their own separate values, as in poet. Both the -re and oe simplifications feature in American maneuver, contrasting with the much misspelled British/ French form manoeuvre.

Other vowels.
The British au / ou digraphs lose their superfluous u in American caldron, draft (cf, call, scald, craft), gage (chiefly in engineering texts; cf, page), and in mold, molt, smolder (cf, cold, colt, colder; the ou spellings suggest the vowel of mound, louder, etc). American naught (cf, naughty) is phonically more accurate than British nought (contrast drought, and dialect nowt). America does not use the highly misleading form gaol (often confused with goal by both readers and writers), but only the phonically transparent form jail. Two isolated cases are: American mustache which no longer suggests the mouse of British moustache (which is the French spelling); and the i of American artifact aligns with artist, artifice, etc, compared with anomalous e in British artefact, which misleadingly parallels artesian.

Losing silent -e.
Many English spellings end in a misleading unpronounced -e, which America dispenses with in a number of cases (though the shorter forms are not all universally established). A non-phonic final e is shed in American ax, adz (these two were initially controversial in the USA), cigaret (though this is less common than cigarette in the USA), curet, epaulet, omelet (cf, cadet, quartet), program (cf, telegram), catalog (and sometimes the rhyming words analog, demagog, dialog, epilog, monolog, pedagog, prolog, synagog, travelog, but not ideologue; contrast -ue pronounced in argue and indicating the preceding long o in rogue). Where the final e follows a doubled consonant in British usage, that is also simplified when the e is lost in American spelling, as in cigaret(te), epaulet(te), omelet(te), program(me).

There are also two patterns in which the final silent -e of a base word is often cut before certain suffixes in American usage, but less often in British usage. One pattern is that of acknowledge, judge, lodge which before the suffix -ment are more economically written acknowledgment, judgment, lodgment without -e exactly as before the suffix -ing (judging, etc). The other pattern is that of words containing a long vowel such as like, rate, use before the suffix -able (also similarly structured words with a short vowel such as live, love): without -e we then have blamable, likable, livable, lovable, ratable, salable, sizable, unnamable, unshakable, usable. These forms have the advantage of economy, as well as paralleling the loss of final -e in similar patterns: before the suffix -ing (liking, loving, etc); in notable (never noteable) from note; and in numerous comparable polysyllabic words such as advisable, believable, conceivable, deplorable, desirable, dispensable, disposable, imaginable, inescapable, measurable, mistakable, pleasurable, recognizable, reputable, valuable. Furthermore, the appearance of rhyming with malleable, permeable, is avoided, though that ambiguity remains after c and g (noticeable, manageable, etc). Comparable to the pattern of likable is the British rather than American form milage which can usefully lose the -e of mile and so align with silage.

Some consonant simplifications.
The k of American skeptic avoids the muddles induced by misleading analogies with septic, scepter (sceleton became skeleton everywhere centuries ago). Ambiguous British qu yields to simpler American c and/or k in bark (for barque), check (for cheque), checker (for chequer), licorice (for liquorice). The preference for k is also seen in karat, mollusk versus British carat, mollusc.

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

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Topic 3. More regular consonant doubling.

A horribly complicated rule.
One of the most troublesome features of English spelling is the lack of reliable rules telling writers when to double consonants. One rule says 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. This means that commit has tt in committing; but where these precise conditions do not apply, the t remains single. So we must write single t in commitment since the suffix begins with a consonant, and single t in inviting since the preceding vowel of invite is long and the t is not final in the base form, and single t in visiting, since the vowel immediately preceding the t in visit is unstressed. Yet even the correct application of this rule creates a problem, in that, though visit/ invite clearly do not rhyme, visited/ invited, visiting/ inviting give the appearance of doing so.

British exceptions and the 'visited/ invited' problem.
This rule, generally accepted in both American and British spelling, is in itself far too complex to be easily mastered, but British spelling makes matters worse with numerous exceptions. The most common occur in verbs ending in an unstressed vowel plus single l, such as equal, travel, pencil. In America these follow the normal rule, but in Britain the l is doubled before a vowel, as in the forms travelled, traveller, travelling (similarly equalled, pencilled, etc), which look as though they rhyme with appalled, appalling, compelled, compelling, fulfilled, fulfilling, etc, where the second syllable is stressed (American equaled, traveled, penciled, etc, do not confuse in this way). Further such British discrepancies involve p or pp: by 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 which are sometimes used in America. The same uncertainty is also seen in inflected forms of the verb to program: should one write programed or programmed, programing or programming?

Though the American forms with single consonants can be recommended for their economy and conformity to the rule, they do raise the visited/ invited problem in a number of patterns, and it may have been the avoidance of this that motivated the British preference for doubled consonants in equalled, etc. When spelt with single consonants, such words involve the visited/ invited ambiguity, as shown by the pairs equaled/ inhaled, imperiled/ reconciled, kidnaped/ escaped, worhiped/ pinstriped, galoped/ eloped, programed/ ashamed. Fortunately, the commonest of these patterns (traveled) entails no such ambiguity, as potentially confusing forms are spelled -ealed (concealed, revealed, not conceled, reveled).

The most common words (most functioning as verbs) ending in single l which is doubled in British usage before suffixes beginning with a vowel are:-

10 ending in -al: dial, equal, initial, marshal, pedal, rival, signal, spiral, total, trial.

over 30 ending in -el: apparel, bevel, cancel, channel, counsel (incl. counselor), cruel (eg, cruelest), cudgel, dishevel, drivel, enamel, fuel, funnel, gravel, grovel, jewel (American jewelry, British jewellery), level, libel (incl. libelous), marvel (incl. marvelous), panel, parcel, pummel, quarrel, (un-)ravel, revel, shovel, snivel, towel, travel, tunnel, untrammel, yodel.

6 ending in -il: cavil, council (ie, councilor), (be-)devil, imperil, pencil, stencil.
and a single example ending in -ol: gambol.

Final -l or -ll?
The reverse pattern, with Britain simplifying ll where America keeps it double, is seen at the end of words and before suffixes in the British forms appal, enrol(-ment), enthral, fulfil(-ment), instal(-ment), instil, skilful, wilful, though these have the l doubled in related words such as appalled, installation, fill, roll, skill, still, thrall. This inconsistency is overcome by the American forms appall, enroll(-ment), enthrall, fulfill(-ment), install(-ment), instill, skillful, willful.

Miscellaneous consonant doubling discrepancies.
One of the functions (however inconsistently applied) of consonant doubling in English is, as implied by the traveled/ appalled patterns above, to indicate that a preceding vowel is short and stressed (contrast also discus / discuss, holy/ holly). A number of other words beside those already considered show discrepancies of consonant doubling between British and American usage (British usage usually doubling where American does not) on which this function has some bearing. In these cases it is not always the American spelling that is obviously to be preferred.

Variations of l/ll (in addition to the traveled/ travelled, appall/ appal patterns discussed above) are the most numerous. The short stressed value of the a suggests British callipers should perhaps be preferred to American calipers; however, far more words begin with stressed cal- than with call- (eg, calamine, calendar, calico, calorie, calumny), and the word call is differently pronounced; furthermore, caliper itself appears to derive from caliber; so altogether the greater regularity, as well as economy, suggests a preference for American caliper. The first syllable of American calisthenics suggests the same conclusion, although calligraphy with universal ll has the same prefix as British callisthenics (the Greek source has ll); a long-term resolution of this anomaly would then lie in writing calligraphy with single l too. British chilli with ll, on the other hand, may be felt to show the short stressed value of the first vowel better than American chili (contrast chilly, wily); the lone counter-example of single l in Chile may be discounted as a foreign (Spanish) proper noun. The l of American scalawag creates a misleading resemblance to the differently pronounced scalar and La Scala, which is avoided by the ll of British scallywag. There seems no more reason to write woolen (the American form, though woolly with ll is used in both American and British writing) with ll as in British usage, than to write wooden with dd or woman with mm (the common English place name Wootton has tt from the compounding of wood + ton).

Words involving other consonants are fewer. Of British racoon, American raccoon, the former is easier to recommend as better indicating the second syllable stress of this native American creature. The gg of British waggon might be justified by the first syllable stress, but the consistent single g of rhyming words (dragon, flagon) argues for American wagon. The first syllable stress of the many words ending in -eral such as general, several contrasting with the second syllable stress of referral with rr argues for the rr of British transferral rather than the single r of American transferal. The rr of British whirr is matched by burr, err, purr, but the ir of fir, sir, stir provides a closer match with American whir, whose economy is admittedly offset by the need to write rr in whirred, whirring. British carburettor, American carburetor reflects a subtle difference of stress, carburetor having primary stress on the first syllable while carburettor has it on the third syllable: here the American form may be recommended chiefly on grounds of economy, with a standard first-syllable stress acceptable to British ears too.

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Topic 4. More consistent.

British usage sometimes varies the spelling of word stems where America is more inclined to consistency. Thus British spelling has changed s to c in several words, creating anomalies such as defence/ defensive, where American (like French) keeps the original s in defense (French défense). American spelling similarly prefers s for license, mortise, offense, pretense. American spelling is also more consistent in writing peddler, which is modelled directly on the verb to peddle, where British spelling has a doubly inconsistent form, pedlar, with single d and -ar. Then there is British foetus, although the cognate effete is never written with oe; American fetus/ effete avoids that inconsistency too. Other American patterns already discussed that may be explained in terms of consistency include: humor, etc, with or as in humorous; traveled etc, derived from travel; skillful, etc, derived from skill; program aligned with telegram; and many others where the consistency is based on pronunciation rather than relatedness (eg, center matching enter).

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Topic 5. Fewer unnecessary heterographs.

One spelling or two?
Another troublesome feature of English spelling is its tendency to develop different spellings (heterographs) 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 is of course unconnected with the British c / s variation); however, while s-forms are found in American writing for both licence / license and prophecy/ prophesy, the c-form is usually preferred for both noun and verb between practice/ practise. Consistency suggests the same letter, either c or s, for all three of these words; the letter s being slightly less ambiguous, the forms license, practise, prophesy are therefore recommended for both nouns and verbs.

Two spellings or one?
In one case, vice / vise, America uses different spellings to distinguish meanings for which British writers use the single form vice. The American spelling vise for 'holding tool', contrasting with vice for 'moral depravity', is not merely a complication, but further confuses by falsely appearing to rhyme with advise, wise, etc. It is therefore not recommended.

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Topic 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 etymology: English spellings are as they are, it is claimed, in order to show their derivation 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 and other endings varying between -ce / -se; 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 of original Latin sulfur with pseudo-Greek ph. Thus American defense, offense, pretense, fetus, sulfur (also sulfide, sulfurous) are etymologically more correct, as well as simpler, than British defence, offence, pretence, foetus, sulphur.

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Topic 7. Informal spellings.

Substantial simplifications.
Beside the American variants discussed above which are nearly all regularly used in formal printed text, there are some simplified forms which are mainly encountered in informal situations, such as in advertizing and on public signs generally. Very often they involve omission of gh and sometimes also of an associated silent vowel letter, in order to represent the sound of the words more economically and more phonically. Examples are tho, thru, thoro, and boro, which is sometimes seen as a suffix in placenames (eg, Greensboro in North Carolina, an early English colony where many place names end in -boro); to these we may perhaps add donut. These forms are increasingly seen outside America, and are much to be preferred to their traditional equivalents (tho, thru at least may be unreservedly recommended).

Doubtful cases.
Some informal American simplifications cannot be unreservedly recommended. Donut involves several complications: the o-vowel could match that of either Donald or of donor; the syllable do obviously cannot be applied to write dough for as long as the verb to do has the same spelling; and the visible link with dough is lost; yet the hugely simplified form donut has become firmly established and would now be hard to reject. More questionable are words in which the -ight syllable is respelled -ite, as in lite, nite. The final silent e in countless English words like bite, site creates difficulties on several levels: for beginners they involve reading backwards, from right to left, in order to be sure that the words are not lit, nit; and for skilled writers they create uncertainty when suffixes are added, as when liter, rhyming with writer, would mean 'more lite', or, rhyming with meter, it could mean the liquid measure [British litre]). Therefore, the forms lite, nite are not recommended.

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Topic 8. More economical.

Publishers attach considerable importance to economy and conciseness in writing, shorter spellings being valued especially by the press. Many American forms have the advantage of being shorter as well as phonically more accurate than their British equivalents, and are therefore both more economical and more straightforward to use. Conciseness is a particular advantage in the case of tho, thru, thoro. Only in a very few cases is the shorter, more accurate recommended spelling currently found in British usage (racoon and whisky
[N.B.] are two rare examples).

The alphabetical list of spellings given as Topic 12 contains 300 base words recommended for a spelling change of one kind or another. Of these, 187 are recommended not just for a change of letters, but for a different number of letters. In the following twelve cases the longer form is preferred: appall +s, enroll (+ment, +s), enthrall (+s), fulfill (+ment, +s), install (+ment, +s), instill (+s), peddler (+s), skillful, willful (these nine are standard American spellings); and chilli (+s), scallywag (+s), transferral (+s) which are normal British forms. By contrast as many as 175 are recommended to be spelled shorter, usually with just one letter fewer as in armor for armour, but sometimes with two fewer, as in bark for barque, and occasionally even with three fewer, as in tho for though. A large number of words whose alternative forms have the same length are those which substitute z for s, such as organize for organise. When considering these figures, it must be remembered that most of the base words listed are shown with suffixes against them (eg, color also implies the forms coloration, colored, colorful, coloring, colors), so that the total number of words with variant spellings is much greater than the number of base words listed.

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Topic 9. Some miscellaneous cases.

In a few cases (eg, gray/ grey, pajamas/ pyjamas) the advantages of the alternative forms are more evenly balanced. American gray conforms to a more widespread pattern, as in bay/ hay/ way, etc, but British grey is more phonetic, and the form greyhound is used in America. The unstressed vowel of initial pa-/ py- in American pajamas, British pyjamas does not suggest any particular spelling, but since pagoda, palatial, parade etc. offer a model with pa-, and py- with that value has no common parallel, the American spelling may be considered the more predictable.

There is also occasional variation between the endings -ey/ -y (as already noted between storey/ story) where the shorter ending has several advantages: economy, matching with rhyming words, and predictability of inflection. In the case of phoney / phony the shorter American form aligns with pony, wich gives the model for the ie-inflections phonier, phonies, phoniest (the British form phoney has the same adjectival inflections, but adds just -s for the plural phoneys).
Another such pair is whisky/ whiskey, the shorter British form whisky aligning with frisky, risky and the plurals differing again, as whiskies/ whiskeys.
[N.B. Purists would say that Scotch 'whisky' and Irish 'whiskey' are not alternative spellings. Web Editor]

The en-/ in- variation already mentioned between American inquiry and British enquiry partly reflects a difference in pronunciation, America stressing the initial inq-, and Britain the second syllable with long i. Yet there are other cases where spellings with initial i in America may correspond to initial e in Britain with no difference in pronunciation being implied. Examples are imbed/ embed, impanel/ empanel, and other rarer words. However, since American usage is not fully committed to the im-, in- forms in such cases, and no particular advantage arises from preferring either im-, in- or em-, en-, no choice between British and American spellings is called for.

Two isolated Anglo-American variations are gobbledegook/ gobbledygook and noviciate / novitiate. Since medial y is unusual in English, we may prefer gobbledegook for the first; for the second, the ending -itiate is the more common (initiate, propitiate, vitiate versus only officiate) and the American form novitiate therefore offers a sounder basis of regularity (the word novice not being considered close enough in pronunciation to influence the choice in favor of noviciate).

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Topic 10. Clearer perspective via Six Axioms.

These webpages survey most Anglo-American spelling differences, and show how the American conventions are in most cases to be preferred. Users of more irregular British conventions do themselves a disservice in many ways by resisting simpler American alternatives. Non-American children frequently see American spellings on television and elsewhere, and they instinctively prefer simpler, more phonic forms that better suit their pronunciation and the wider regularities of English spelling. To insist that they reject such spellings, 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 generally, but a more enlightened attitude toward American spellings in those parts of the world where the British tradition is dominant would tend to reduce the problem.

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

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Topic 11. Strategies for education and publishing.

A first, minimal step toward managing the modernization of the archaic English writing system would be for those now educated in the British tradition to adopt at least a more permissive attitude to those American spellings that are more economical and more regular. Why, after all, should children educated in the British tradition be denied the advantages enjoyed by American children?

The following steps would be moves in the right direction:

1. As a minimum, teachers and examiners outside America should not penalize better American spellings.

2. More positive would be for schools to teach phonically more predictable American spellings as standard, while not penalizing less regular British equivalents.

3. A step beyond this would be to rule that, after a certain date, the alternative less regular British forms should be considered wrong.

4. Since learners live in an environment where most adults will continue to use the spellings they themselves grew up with, it would be important for the publishing industry to recognize the economic advantages of shorter American spellings, and adopt them as standard. In this way learners would encounter more and more published material using the more convenient forms they had been taught.


The Simplified Spelling Society believes it is time for the world to inform itself of the true nature of traditional English spelling, and to draw the appropriate conclusions for literacy teaching. The increasing acceptance that literacy teaching needs to be based on phonics is a long overdue first stage on the road toward such understanding, but it is only a first stage. 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 British and American spelling conventions would be a practical point at which to start.

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Topic 12. Alfabetical list of spellings.

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