American spelling

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

getty_noah_webster-51160524.jpg
American lexicographer Noah Webster (1758-1843), the most influential exponent of spelling reform in American English. (Stock Montage/Getty Images)

Definition

American spelling refers to the spelling conventions generally followed by users of present-day American English.

Linguist John Algeo notes that "American spelling, though distinct in style, is different from British in only a few ways. It is likely that those ways will decrease in number and importance."

See Examples and Observations below. Also see:

 

Examples and Observations

  • American vs. British Spelling
    Below are listed some common American-British spelling correspondences:
    American labor, favor
    British labour, favour

    American license, defense
    British licence, defence

    American spelled, burned, spilled
    British spelt, burnt, spilt

    American analyze, organize
    British analyse, organise

    American center, theater
    British centre, theatre

    American judgment, abridgment
    British judgement, abridgement

    American dialed, canceled
    British dialled, cancelled

    American installment, skillful
    British instalment, skilful

    American tire
    British tyre

    American curb
    British kerb

    American program
    British programme

    American pajamas
    British pyjamas

    American check
    British cheque

    American catalog
    British catalogue
    (Edward Finegan, Language: Its Structure and Use, 5th ed. Thomson Wadsworth, 2008)
     
  • Present-Day American Spelling
    "Present-day American English spelling is not English spelling with minor deviations from the shared canon, but a system unto itself. . . . [S]tandard spelling, as reflected in press guides and composition handbooks, and common spelling, as reflected in everyday print materials, do not always agree. . . . For American spelling, one analysis found more than 2,000 words for which four major collegiate dictionaries have alternative spellings (Deighton). Furthermore, for almost 1,800 of those words, the dictionaries did not agree on which spelling was predominant.

    "Nevertheless, the differences between American and British spelling practices are not large and, if any direction of change can be detected, it is toward consensus rather than wider differentiation."
    (Richard L. Venezky, "Spelling." The Cambridge History of the English Language: English in North America, ed. John Algeo. Cambridge University Press, 2001)
     
  • Changes Before Suffixes
    "With the exception of a few isolated spellings such as curb and jail (British kerb, gaol), all of the British-American spelling differences are in medial or final word positions, and most of the differences are in word endings. . . .

    "American and British spelling differ in seemingly contradictory ways in the handling of final consonants and vowels before both derivational and inflectional suffixes. Before [ment] and [ful], the American style is to double or to retain a doubled [l] (enrollment, fulfillment; skillful, willful), while the British style is for a single [l] in each case (enrolment, fulfilment; skilful, wilful). On the other hand, the British style is to double a final [l] after a single-vowel spelling, even if the final syllable is not stressed, while American style is generally to double a final consonant only after a stressed single-vowel spelling (American traveling, marvelous vs. British travelling, marvellous). The British reverence for doubling final [l] extends even to [l] after digraph vowel spellings, giving forms like woollen where American spelling admits only woolen. (But the British preference is for paralleled and devilish.)

    "With words ending in [p], the British style favors gemination: kidnapped, kidnapping and worshipped, worshipping. American spelling is more unsettled. The Collegiate and Random House both preferred kidnapped, kidnapping, but worshiped, worshiping, while American Heritage prefers a single [p] in all four."
    (Richard L. Venezky, The American Way of Spelling: The Structure and Origins of American English Orthography. Guilford Press, 1999)
     
  • Noah Webster and the Process of Simplification
    "[I]n all of these examples of American spelling we have the process of simplification at work through reducing or shortening the written form of words. We can ask why the changes in spelling occurred in this particular way. . . . We can get a fairly clear answer to the question from [Noah] Webster himself. . . .
    Such a reform would diminish the number of letters about one sixteenth or eighteenth. This would save a page in eighteen; and a saving of an eighteenth in the expense of the books, is an advantage that should not be overlooked. (Webster, 1789:397)
    Given that changes had to be made in the English of the Americans, the changes, according to Webster, had to go in the direction of linguistic economy, because it is also 'commonsense' real economy."
    (Zoltán Kövecses, American English: An Introduction. Broadview Press, 2000)