When it comes to British English vs American English, it has been said that we are “two countries divided by a common language.”
If you’re a writer or editor in the increasingly globalized digital market, you’ve probably encountered this divide firsthand in the job hunt. More contracts are certainly available for those who can use both of these common variants of English—but are you confident enough to expand your content writing services into a less familiar version of English?
If not, you’re in luck. Though the differences between American and British English can be finicky, they follow distinct patterns. In our ultimate guide, we cover spelling, common usage variants, and punctuation differences to help you write fluently in either variant of English and snag those extra contracts.
British vs American English: Historical Origins
English linguistic history goes back to before the 12th century. Back then, residents of what is now the UK used a combination of Germanic languages (which we consider the roots of modern English), early French, and Latin. Spelling and grammar weren’t standardized, and words with similar Latin roots might be spelled either the French way or the Latin way.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, influential dictionaries helped orchestrate the standardization of the English language. In 1755, Samuel Johnson published the first widely used British dictionary. Johnson preferred spellings based on a word’s roots, favoring French spelling, since, as he wrote, “the French generally supplied us.” Standard British spelling still follows this course.
Noah Webster, whose famous dictionary was published in 1828, tended to choose spellings based on common use and pronunciation rather than history, setting the trend for American spellings.
Now that we’ve seen how these regional variants were born, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty differences between American and British English so you can nail those overseas job proposals.
American vs British English Usage and Vocabulary
It’s been suggested that when you pit British English vs American English, differences in vocabulary are focused around three areas: clothing, food, and transportation. It certainly seems that our terms for these common items are wildly different.
Here’s a quick chart so you don’t get caught out wondering what “boot” means in American English...or vice-versa.
American vs British English: Food
American vs British English: Outdoors
American vs British English: Clothing & fashion
American vs British English: Everyday home items
Spelling Differences between British and American English
The common spelling differences between British and American English fall into these easy-to-recognize patterns. Still, there are always exceptions (this is English, after all), so keep a dictionary or style guide at hand.
-Or vs -our
American writers have mainly dropped the U in words with this ending. However, both variants may be acceptable on either side of the pond for some words.
- AmE behavior/BrE behaviour
- AmE color/BrE colour
- In words where the ou sound is pronounced differently than an O sound, the ou spelling is standard to both regions: contour, troubadour
- In derivatives and inflected versions of these words in British English (that is, words where letters have been added or changed to denote different attributes or tenses), the U is not always kept: for instance, honour is BrE standard, but honorary drops the U.
- Cardinal numbers four and fourteen are always spelled with U.
-Ize vs -ise
The -ize spelling comes from Greek, while -ise is the French spelling. In American English -ize is the preferred form, while British spelling typically uses -ise, although style guides in Britain have more variance in their preferences. This applies to forms of the word other than the root word also.
- AmE organize, organizing /BrE organise, organising
- AmE colonize, colonization/BrE colonise, colonisation
- Words that do not come from a Greek root or do not use -ze/-se as a suffix are standard in English everywhere: advertise, seize, guise, capsize, franchise, demise, enterprise
-Yze vs -yse
This one is a bit simpler. In verbs, the British form is -yse while the American form is -yze. The spelling is followed in all forms of the verb.
- AmE analyze, analyzing/BrE analyse, analysing
- AmE paralyze, paralyzed/BrE paralyse, paralysed
-Er vs -re
If a word ends in -re rather than -er, it’s the British spelling. However, even in British English, many words that end in this sound use -er. Generally -re is only used for the root versions of nouns; when this sound is used as a suffix (nicer, bigger) it always gets -er. Consult a dictionary if you’re unsure.
In the US, unless you are quoting the name of a fancy arts venue with an anachronistic spelling, it’s safe to assume -er is correct.
- AmE center/BrE centre
- AmE specter/BrE spectre
- AmE fiber/BrE fibre
- Words borrowed as-is from another language (such as French) retain their -re spelling in both UK and US English: genre, double entendre
- Words with Germanic roots, such as fire, anger, mother, danger, chapter, monster, member, and disaster, are typically consistent in both regions.
- Words made from the Greek suffix “meter” (for a measuring instrument) are always spelled -er: thermometer, barometer
-Se vs -ce
While the British generally prefer the S when it comes to suffixes, for these words, they turn to a C, while Americans use an S.
- AmE defense/BrE defence
- AmE offense/BrE offence
- AmE pretense/BrE pretence
- Derivatives of the above words typically use the S in both regions: defensive, offensive, pretension
- In certain terms, the C denotes a noun form while the S denotes a verb form in both regions: Noun advice/verb advise, Noun device/verb devise
- For other terms, that distinction is kept in British English but not in the US: BrE noun licence/verb license; AmE license for both, BrE noun practice/verb practise; AmE practice for both
Adding suffixes after the letter L
When adding one of the suffixes -ing, -ed, -er, -est, or -or, if the letter in front of the suffix is an L, British English typically doubles the L, while American English does not. However, watch out for exceptions.
- travel > BrE travelling/AmE traveling
- counsel > BrE counsellor/AmE counselor
- cruel> BrE cruellest/AmE cruelest
- Controlled and controlling are the same in both variants.
It gets trickier. When adding one of several other suffixes after an L, including -ful, -dom, and -ment, American English doubles the L, while British English does not.
- fulfill > BrE fulfilment/AmE fulfillment
- Words that are standard to both versions include till > until, null > annul
- British English prefers the root words instil, distil, and enrol over the American instill, distill, and enroll.
For other suffixes (e.g. -ous, -ize/-ise) following an L, there is generally not a one-size-fits-all rule, so don’t close that dictionary!
Adding suffixes to words that end in E
For words that end in E, when adding a suffix such as -ing, -able, or -ism, American English sometimes drops the E as it is not pronounced, whereas British English typically will keep the E as a silent letter.
- Age > BrE ageing/AmE aging
- Like > BrE likeable/AmE likable
- Both sides of the pond typically use lunging, lovable, cringing, curable, and breathable.
Loss of vowel combinations/ligatures
Certain English words with roots from Greek and Latin, often medical terms, have been historically spelled with two vowels together to indicate what used to be a ligature (generally, a typeface that combines the two vowels into one character, e.g. ӕ or œ.) In British English, the combined vowels, either ae or oe, are kept, while in the US, only the E is kept.
- BrE anaemia/AmE anemia
- BrE aeon/AmE eon
- BrE oestrogen/AmE estrogen
- Words that can be spelled both ways in US English: aesthetics/esthetics, archaeology/archeology, amoeba/ameba
- Words that can be spelled both ways in British English: encyclopaedia/encyclopedia, chamaeleon/chameleon, mediaeval/medieval
This is chiefly a word ending you’ll find in British prepositions and adverbs. Of course, Americans may use these terms in informal writing if they enjoy their unmistakable flavor.
- AmE among/BrE amongst
- AmE while/BrE whilst
-T instead of -ed for past tense
For certain verbs, the British use -t to denote the past tense, while Americans typically use -ed. However, in American English, both variants are still often seen.
- leap > BrE leapt/AmE leaped
- burn > BrE burnt (burned an acceptable variant)/AmE burned
- Among others, sleep>slept and sweep>swept are always standard.
-Og vs -ogue
Once again, the British generally use more letters, using -ogue where Americans use -og.
- AmE catalog/BrE catalogue
- AmE analog/BrE analogue
- While both forms of these words are accepted, dialogue, synagogue, and demagogue are the preferred spellings in the US.
Exceptions to the spelling rules
Of course, it wouldn’t be English without some spellings that don’t seem to follow any specific rule. Here’s a quick chart of some more unusual British and American English spelling differences.
Grammar differences between British and American English
Don’t think it’s all about spelling. Some differences have to do more with punctuation. Our comprehensive guide has you covered.
Single quotation marks vs double quotation marks
In general, while American writers prefer “double quotation marks” for dialogue, quotations, irony, and other purposes in a sentence, British writers use ‘single quotation marks.’
However, some British style guides do use double-quotation marks, so be sure to follow any specific instructions you are given.
If you’ve got quotes within quotes—say, a character quoting another within dialogue—the quotation mark styling for the inner marks is reversed.
British vs American English: Does punctuation go inside or outside the quotation marks?
American English puts two punctuation marks inside the quotation marks at all times: the period (full stop in BrE) and the comma. Colons and semicolons always go outside the quotes.
The em dash, the question mark, the exclamation mark, and the ellipsis typically go outside the quotes, unless they belong specifically to the quoted material.
British grammar is similar to US grammar in that it also puts the colon and the semicolon outside the quotation marks at all times. However, all other punctuation goes outside the quotation marks as well, unless it belongs to the quoted material and not the whole sentence.
In British English, in dialogue (that is, quoting from speech, real or fictional, rather than from another text), periods and commas typically go inside the quotation marks, as they indicate the tone of the speech and therefore belong with it.
Still confused? When it comes down to it, most punctuation marks are actually used the same way. The differences you should watch out for are in commas and periods. When these belong to a quote, as in dialogue or a full sentence from an original text, they’ll be inside the quotation marks in both variants.
When they are added to indicate punctuation in the new sentence, rather than the original quote, differences are as below.
The Oxford comma, or serial comma, comes after the final item in a list, before the word “and.”
It’s easy to remember which version of English uses the Oxford comma as long as you reverse what you’d expect: the English of Britain, home to Oxford University Press, tends not to use the Oxford comma. Meanwhile, in the US, the Oxford comma is more common.
Plural versus singular for groups
When referring to an entity composed of a number of individuals—such as a company or a band—an American would likely refer to the group as singular, while a British person would probably write about them as plural.
How can I learn to write American English—or vice versa?
Now that we’ve gone through the labyrinth of differences between British and American English, do you feel ready to take on a copywriting job anywhere in the world? If you’re determined to write like you’re on the other side of the pond, here are our five best tips for learning to write British English or American English.
1. Read the style you want to write.
The best tools writers and editors have are often their brains—and lots of repetition. After all, this is how we all learned English in the first place! Find books, magazines, and news media from reputable organizations in the version of English you want to write. Read often about a range of subjects, and you’ll begin to pick up on the variations naturally.
2. Avoid inconsistency!
The most important thing when writing is simply to choose one spelling/usage and stick with it. If you write “theatre” once, then make sure you always write “theatre.” Reader and editor preferences vary, but inconsistency always looks unprofessional.
It may be easiest to choose a major style guide to follow. (E.g., Chicago Manual of Style for American English or Oxford Style for British English.) Buy its official reference book and you’ll have all the info you need, though be warned that these can be quite dense.
Make yourself a style sheet and write down the required or preferred spelling every time you learn a new term. These can get long, so organize (organise) your style sheet so it doesn’t become completely unreadable.
3. Use your spellcheck to its full capacity.
If you’re writing in an unfamiliar dialect, spellcheck is your best friend. But make sure to double-check the language it’s checking—if you’re trying to write in British English and it’s set to American, you will have no end of woes.
Remember that this goes for the default autocorrect settings on your communications platforms and cloud documents, too.
If your word processor of choice doesn’t have a built-in spellcheck, try using an add-on such as Grammarly.
Most spellcheck programs enable you to customize your dictionary, so if you notice a word that you often get incorrect, you can add it to the program’s directories manually and never worry about it again.
4. Just look it up!
If you’re uncertain about a term, don’t guess: look it up!
Editing isn’t just about knowing what’s right; it’s about anticipating what might be wrong. Learn the signs that suggest a term might have an American or British variant—if you see an -ise or -ize spelling, for instance—and look those terms up at first rather than relying on memory.
Once you’ve learned a new term, add it to your style sheet. Choose one dictionary as your reference and stick with it, as there is some variance between dictionaries.
You may have to check often, but with repetition, most of these decisions will become second nature.
5. Ask a native speaker.
Many of us know somebody who either grew up in another country or continent or is living there now. If you have a friend who’s a native speaker of the variant you want to learn, ask them to scan your prose for anything that looks “off.” There’s no better resource than someone who’s been using a dialect their entire life.
If you don’t know anyone who speaks the variant personally, asking language questions on forums like Reddit and StackExchange could be useful. Or, if you can afford it, hire an editor who’s a native speaker.
There you have it—the ultimate guide to the differences between American and British English. There are plenty more details to learn if you’re keen, but this will get you through the day-to-day.
Of course, if you’re still unsure whether you’ll get your target audience’s variant right, or if you don’t want to spend hours programming spellcheck, Eleven’s team of professional copywriters includes native English speakers from both sides of the pond, and we are ready to help.
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With a PhD in Languages, Literature & Cultural Studies, Eloise has a long background in language teaching which she brings to her work as an editor. When not poring over the words of others, she’s working on her epic fantasy novel, kicking bags at the gym, or roaming the beaches, hills and forests with her dog.