Brit Language: How to Spell like a Brit

The study of words fascinates me. I find language intriguing, especially the English language as it is used in Britain and America. Words evolve, move in and out of culture, and illustrate our history. Earlier, I explained that words like candy and diaper, once uniquely British, fell out of style in Britain and became everyday language in America. We use many common words, but we spell them differently; just enough to cause confusion.

We can thank Noah Webster for that! He changed the spellings of many English words when he published the first American dictionary. “He wanted very much for this budding new nation to have its own language,” says Kory Stamper, whose Merriam-Webster Dictionary is the modern-day version of Webster’s work. Webster introduced distinctive spellings of common words: honor for honour, color for colour, defense for defence, and center for centre. “He thought spellings were needlessly complicated, and tried to simplify them.” I think he made them more confusing.  Sometimes, I’ve come across a word with an ize/ise suffix and wondered whether it was a typo. Thankfully, Webster was only partially successful; women did not become wimmen, and tongue is preferable to tung.

English with all it’s grammar rules and the exceptions to those rules, is hard enough, but differentiating between British English and American English spellings can be confusing: re or er as in litre or liter; our or or as in humour or humor; ise or ize as in apologise or apologize; yse or yze as in paralyse or paralyze; ence or ense for license or license. Verbs ending in a vowel double the vowel in words like travelled, British, or American, traveled. The really tricky ones are double vowels; ae or oe are spelled with an e like paediatric, but Americans drop the a in favor of pediatric.

Spelling can be very confusing when the issue is nationality. I love Britain! I consider myself an expat even though my family has been here since the 1600’s. In my American vernacular, homely describes someone who is unattractive, not a warm person who makes you feel at home. I feel at home in Britain, so I guess that makes me homely. And, I’m okay with that!



  1. avatarSue says

    Hi Crystal
    As your article is about spelling I don’t feel bad about pointing out that “it’s” only ever means “it is”, and is not to be used for for something belonging to it, as you’ve used it above. It’s a very common mistake but it drives me mad! Arghhh!
    That said, it is an interesting topic. Also, I can’t imagine why someone would think they could make the spelling of our mother tongue phonetic. It would be too great a task as English has evolved irregularly via many different languages – French, Norse, Anglo Saxon to name but a few.
    Best wishes

  2. avatarMary says

    Love the article. Just want to point out that in your bio you have every instead of ever, since it will be posted on everything you write. Feel free to delete this comment after, I would.

  3. avatarMary says

    I love the differences in British spelling. With an Aussie friend I’m always getting a lesson. It’s interesting that an article written by a librarian about grammar and spelling would be riddled with errors. In addition to the other errors mentioned, to my knowledge an L is a consonant. Also, the same spelling is given for license. Interesting. Anyone for an editor?

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