Over the centuries, English has borrowed words from many languages—Latin, French, and German, to name a few. As a result, English spelling and grammar is complex and inconsistent, making English a difficult language to learn to read and spell.

When Noah Webster first compiled his English dictionary, he decided to simplify the spelling of many words. Most of his suggested changes were adopted in US English, although tung (for tongue) did not, and I don’t know if he ever attempted to simplify words like enough or cough (enuf and cof, perhaps?).

Many countries speak and write in English, and each will have their own subtle variations. Most countries tend to use British English, as they were originally colonised by the British. As such, editors who work with international clients need to understand the difference between US and British English, and possibly other variants as well.

Fortunately, Microsoft Word allows users to choose their preferred dictionary, with many versions of English. Editors can also check queries against the recognised (recognized?) dictionary for that country to ensure consistency.

The main differences in spelling between British and US English are:

-or vs. -our

One of the most well-known differences is color vs. colour. While I see Webster’s point about simplifying the language, it took years of reading US English books before I stopped mentally tripping over words like color and harbor.

If we are to spell correctly, we should refer to Pearl Harbor and the Sydney Harbour Bridge. However, most books change the spelling for consistency (which readers and editors seem to value).

There are exceptions. For example, the UK and New Zealand both have a left-leaning Labour Party, both of which have historic links with the trade union movement. In Australia, the equivalent political group is the Labor Party. Interestingly, all three parties use the colour/color red in their logos, while red signifies the political right in the USA.

-ize vs. -ise

The English language often adds -ise or -ize onto a noun or adjective to form a verb. A Cambridge-educated colleague in London once informed me that the -ise ending should be added to adjectives, and the -ize ending should be added to nouns . . . or was that the other way around? It doesn’t matter: the Oxford Dictionary of English makes no such distinction.

The -ise ending apparently comes from French, while Latin and Greek used -ize. The 1973 Shorter Oxford English Dictionary says, “There is no reason why in English the French spelling . . . should ever be followed.” Despite that, British, Australian, and New Zealand English tend to use the -ise ending, while the USA uses the -ize spelling.

My view is that writers should choose one and use it consistently. However, there are exceptions: prize is always spelled with a z, and surprise is always spelled with an s. If in doubt, consult the appropriate dictionary.

-er vs. re

Webster changed the spelling of words like centre and theatre to center and theater. I have to admit, Webster’s spelling is more logical even if it adds an extra letter to the past participle (centred vs. centered). Maybe I read too many books written in US English, but I think the US centered looks more elegant than centred.

-ed vs. -t for past participles

The English language typically adds -ed to words to signify the past tense: burn becomes burned. British English sometimes uses the -t suffix instead: burn becomes burnt. The Oxford Dictionary of English allows both suffixes, noting that burned is the US usage (although it includes sunburned and sunburnt with no comment as to origin).

In many cases, British English will accept either variant. If so, my personal preference is to pick the spelling that is more widely accepted—usually the US English spelling. However, the most important point is to be consistent: if your character is sunburned, then the -ed suffix should be used for burn and lean and smell as well.

My preference is to use the -ed ending consistently, a position I adopted after discovering the smelt is a species of fish. Writing “the smelt smelt bad” might be correct, but “the smelt smelled bad” is clearer writing.

single vs. double consonants in past and present participles

British English often adds an extra letter when adding -ed or -ing to a word, but not always. For example, trial becomes trialed or trialing in US English and trialled or trialling in British English … but trail is always trailed and trailing, and there is no logic for which words take one consonant and which take two.

US English removes the extra letter, which means no one has remember when to use a single consonant and when to use a double.

Other Differences

There are other differences, but most of these should be picked up by spellcheck, or by checking in the appropriate dictionary. As with any editorial project, we need to aim for correct and consistent spelling, which may mean a more detailed style sheet than normal.


Iola Goulton is a New Zealand book reviewer and editor specializing in adult and young adult Christian fiction. She won the 2016 ACFW Genesis Award (Novella), and copyedited Then There Was You by Kara Isaac, which won a RITA Award from Romance Writers of America. Iola holds a Bachelor of Commerce degree majoring in marketing and has a background in human resource consulting.

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