Howling Wolfe: Analys(z)ing the cross-Atlantic spelling divide

Thursday 1 December 2016 by Andrew Wolfe

Howling Wolfe: Toeing the (guide)lines, stalking bad grammar and baying at the moon.

In the first of a regular series, our Senior Editor and Proofreader Andrew Wolfe explores areas of the written word that interest, annoy and confuse even him. Here, he tackles the differences between British and American English.

I’ve been proofreading, copyediting and editing for more than 20 years. An editorial career wasn’t part of my original plans for the future, but it seems to have fit my keen eye for detail. I’ve been lucky to work with some great writers and editors over the years – and my colleagues at The Frameworks are no exception. There’s just one thing that gets under my skin…

Why can’t the Brits spell?*

Most of the writers I work with are located in London, with some here in the US. As you might imagine, I’ve encountered some differences in the English used on each side of the Atlantic. I knew full well once I started at The Frameworks that I would have to pay close attention to which language I’m proofreading for – depending on the client and its audience. But it took me a few tries before it sunk in that many of the mistakes I was marking up in British English weren’t actually mistakes at all – they were the deliberate product of wrong-headed British thinking. OK, so I know American English is borne out of British English, but I can’t escape the feeling that my colleagues have just got it wrong. They have some pretty strange ideas about words.

What’s with these “u”s and “re”s and “s”s?

Most words in American and British English are spelled the same, and, believe it or not, many even mean the same thing – a huge surprise to me considering the Brits seem to have everything mixed up. But there are some differences. My colleagues in the UK love to toss in a “u” with an “o” for no apparent reason, use an “ise” ending where “ize” obviously belongs (the Oxford Dictionaries blog agrees with me on this point) and mix up the order of “r” and “e”. Perhaps it’s just that my colleagues in the UK have trouble spelling properly.

It’s all in the past

I can hear keyboards breaking as my London-based colleagues hammer out angry emails in response to my astute observations. My personal headaches aside, there is a pattern and some history that explains some of these differences. Many of the spelling differences arise out of the origin of the words and are seen in their unstressed vowel endings.

For words with a Latin origin, in British English, we often see a “u” inserted after the “o”: honour for honor, vigour for vigor, labour for labor, colour for color, behaviour for behavior and so on. We also see “re” associated with Latin-derived spellings: centre for center, fibre for fiber, litre for liter and so on.

Just to confuse the issue further, in British English, some derivative and inflected forms often drop the “u,” such as in honorary, vigorous and laborious. And there are plenty of British words that end in “er”, such as letter and proper, and some American words that end in “re”, such as mediocre and acre. It’s all a big mess – and (surprise!) I blame the British.

For words with a Greek origin, my London-based colleagues often use “ise” – the “s” of which, according to the Oxford Dictionaries blog mentioned above, has a French origin – in place of “ize”: centralise for centralize, agonise for agonize, organise for organize and so on.

While the “ise” ending is used quite often in the UK, Australia and other commonwealth countries, it is worth mentioning that both forms are usually listed as acceptable in the Oxford Dictionaries – but the “ize” form is typically listed first (win). So we might see both “organise” and “organize” in British writing – though imagine my horror if they both occurred in the same piece.

Confusingly, for some words not of Greek origin, “ise” and “ize” are not interchangeable and the spelling is the same in both versions, such as seize, prize, advertise and surprise. That can make it difficult for someone who doesn’t have some foundation in British English to easily figure out which ending is appropriate.

So keep that under your hat for your next pub quiz, my British friends: the “ize” ending isn’t just the result of the sloppiness or laziness of American writers. Nor is it a result of an American desire to be “different.” The “ize” ending has been used in British English since the 15th century.

Why the rivalry?

I know British writers are often annoyed with American spelling. It can invoke a furor that leads to delirium in many. Many Americans think that, in part, that rage originates in a feeling of superiority. After all, there are many great British writers, and they’ve been at it for hundreds of years – from an anonymous Anglo-Saxon who wrote Beowulf (Beowolfe?) in the 11th century, Geoffrey Chaucer in the 14th century and William Shakespeare in the 16th and 17th centuries to Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, Charles Dickens and Virginia Woolf in the 19th century and George Orwell, Doris Lessing, Zadie Smith and Jim Crace in the modern era – to name just a very few. But it’s fair to note that even Shakespeare had trouble spelling – a hallmark of Shakespeare’s work is misspelled words and different spellings for the same word, often in the same line.

It’s natural for language and communication to be in a constant state of change and evolution. Language, and especially word usage, often changes based on common or popular usage – and, unfortunately for purists, sometimes incorrect usage.

Teens and young adults in Britain use American vocabulary that has crossed the Atlantic all the time. Like it or not, as language continues to evolve, the line between American and British English will likely continue to blur. And that is an excellent reason to have a proofreader steeped in American English collaborate with British writers working on projects for US clients.

Just to reassure my London-based colleagues of how much I respect them, in my next blog I’m going to write about how they use the wrong words for so many things…

* I work with highly skilled writers who are masters of their craft, and I love them all. But they really need to work on their spelling.

Andrew has left The Frameworks.


  • Creative
  • Comment/Opinion