Posted by: Jack Henry | July 23, 2019

Editor’s Corner: American vs. British Spelling

Our friend Sandy B. recently asked if we would look into the reason why some common words are spelled differently in American English than they are in British English—words like color/colour, center/centre, realize/realise, defense/defence, etc.

I remember reading about this topic before, so I had a general idea, but I put on my research goggles and dove right in to the internet. has a great article about this, and so does a site called Live Science.

Here’s the gist: in the 15th–18th centuries (the early years of the printing press in Great Britain and the United States), spelling was kind of a free-for-all. People just spelled a word however they thought it should be spelled, which led to great variation, and sometimes, a bit of confusion.

Toward the end of 18th century, however, two people were starting to set the standards for British and American spelling. In Britain, in 1755, Samuel Johnson, an English writer, published the Dictionary of the English Language. According to the article, he “made calculated decisions about which spelling variations to use. At the time, French-derived spellings such as honour and theatre were in vogue in England.”

Here in the United States, a few years later, Noah Webster was helping to define American spelling in his books American Spelling Book (1783) and the influential American Dictionary of the English Language (1828). Webster wanted to simplify the English language to make it easier to learn, and he wanted to differentiate it from British English. So, he opted for shorter, more phonetic spellings (program instead of programme, for instance). In fact, he wanted to go further than he did, and he promoted spellings like masheen instead of machine, and laf instead of laugh. Obviously, that didn’t work out too well for him.

But we do have Webster to thank (or blame, depending on your outlook) for making American English look different from British English.

Cheerio. Enjoy your day!

Donna Bradley Burcher | Senior Technical Editor | Symitar®

8985 Balboa Ave. | San Diego, CA 92123 | Ph. 619.278.0432 | Ext: 765432

About Editor’s Corner

Editor’s Corner keeps your communication skills sharp by providing information on grammar, punctuation, JHA style, and all things English. As editors, we spend our days reading, researching, and revising other people’s writing. We love to spend a few extra minutes to share what we learn with you and keep it fun while we’re doing it.

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