It’s a delicious irony that misspell is one of the most misspelt words in the English language. Indeed it’s one of the most misspelled too. But which one is spelt (or spelled) correctly?
The answer lies in 3,000 miles of ocean and three centuries of separation. Or in other words, in the distinction between British and American English.
We can probably all think of examples where spelling here in the UK differs from our cousins across the pond. British skies are grey for instance, while a cloudy day in the States is a gray one. But you might be surprised at how many differences there are between the two countries’ languages, especially as autocorrect begins to blur our awareness of which version of English we’re using.
So here are a few of the most common distinctions that we get asked about here at Superdream.
-mme vs -m
If Instagram had been born in the UK it would probably have been called Instagramme. No really. British English retains a -mme ending on words such as programme, whereas American English simply stops at the first m. So while you might buy a programme for a show in London’s West End, go to a Broadway theater and it’ll be a program you get.
-re vs -er
Which brings us neatly onto the next distinction: words ending in -re and -er. Run a 10k race in the US and you’ll be covering 10,000 meters. Rehydrate at the finish line and you’ll be doing so in liters. Here in the UK, you’d travel metres and drink litres, as well as doing your training at a sports centre rather than a sports center.
l vs ll
One of the big confusions is doubling up on letters. For example, if you wanted to tell someone about a backpacking trip last year, should you say you went travelling or traveling? And that along the way a flight was cancelled or canceled? In this case, British English doubles up, while American English does away with the unnecessary “l”.
-se vs -ze
A favourite of the spellchecker’s wiggly red line is the UK’s organise against the USA’s organize. Similarly specialise and specialize, rationalise and rationalize. In essence, words that sound like they have “eyes” at the end are spelt with an “s” in British English and a “z” in American English.
-our vs -or
We all know about the difference between colour and color. But did you know about labor, neighbor and favorite too? All of these words drop the “u” in American English, as it’s viewed as being unnecessary for the pronunciation of the word.
-ce vs -se
Confusingly some nouns that end in -ce in British English end in -se American English. For example, the UK has the Ministry of Defence, whereas it’s the United States Department of Defense. Similarly, an English pretence is an American’s pretense.
Bonus spelling fact: in British English, -se is used for verbs and -ce for nouns. You advise someone but you give advice. You practise speaking but you do some practice. You have a driving licence but you’re licensed to drive.
-t vs -ed
Finally, the question posed at the start: misspelt or misspelled? Both are correct of course. To understand the reasons why it helps to have a head for linguistics; but put simply, the -t is an irregular verb ending that stems from the influence on English of German, while the -ed version has been regularised (or regularized?) in American English, so that it follows the pattern of the majority of verbs. Other examples include burnt and burned, learnt and learned, dreamt and dreamed.
Consistency is key
Why all the differences? The main reason is that American English has adapted itself to following the way a word actually sounds more closely. The language is more phonetic, because you write how you speak and you say what you see.
Ultimately though, when it comes to choosing which variety of English to employ, it doesn’t really matter which, just as long as you’re consistent. No one variety of English is more right than another; it all comes down to your location and the preferences of those around you. Just remember that if you start out using organize, keep it up and don’t let a sneaky “s” creep in.
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