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American and British Spelling Styles

May 6th, 2010

While studying the English language, intermediate and advanced students will likely start to notice that there are occasionally variations in how a word is spelled. There are various English speaking locations in the world today and some locations use a specific way of spelling certain words of the English language. Two of the primary ways of spelling English words are categorized as either being American English or British English. Dictionaries in both book form and also in software applications for a computer are available in both English spelling formats.

English language students may wonder why there are various ways to spell the same word in one language. It seems to be historically documented that there were no spelling standards prior to the early 1700’s. A popular dictionary was reportedly released in England in 1755 and another in the United States in 1828. The dictionary of each locale apparently had a major influence on the way each area spelled the words of the English language. Thus, the modern variation in spelling that is found in American and British forms of English is primarily considered a result of dictionaries.

The reason for specific spelling differences is another interesting story. The author of the dictionary released in the United States is said to have had a strong interest in making English easier to spell. Many of the simple spellings were not actually adopted, even though appearing in the dictionary. Some of the British spellings for English words are due to an apparent scholarly preference for a more classical spelling. Much of this is based around a somewhat French spelling of English words. Here are some examples and explanations.

Airplane (American) / Aeroplane (British)

The word “aeroplane” is said to be a French loan word. The modern British spelling is more similar to the French spelling. The word “airplane” is still used occasionally in England, although “aeroplane” is apparently much more common.

Fairy (American) / Faerie (British)

The word “faerie” is also said to be a French loan word. It is also apparently okay use “faery” as a more British spelling of the English word.

Music (American) / Musick (British)

The word “music” occasionally appears as “musick” in some literature. This is somewhat uncommon, but may still be seen in certain documents.
-or (American) / -our (British)

There are many words with more than one syllable that end in “or” in American English. The same words are spelled with “our” in British English. The words are specifically the ones ending in an “or” sound in all spoken English, instead of a longer “our” sound. This is conceptually the reason for the shortened spelling style. Here are some of the words that are spelled this way: color / colour, honor / honour, neighbor / neighbor. One of the words where the “our” sound is longer and have not been changed to an “or” spelling in American English is “contour.” This is due to a longer “our” sound.
You now hopefully understand why some words are spelled differently in American and British English styles.