21 US and British English
21.4 Orthographic variation (spelling and hyphenation)
Orthographic variation constitutes the difference between the major dialects of English that is most obvious to readers. There are hundreds of orthographic variants (that is, differently spelled versions of the same word) between British and US English, and between any other two dialects of English. Fortunately, most of them fall into easily identifiable patterns. There are, however, many individual cases. These cases mostly involve variants in which one dialect uses a single spelling for different meanings while the other dialect uses different spellings to distinguish different meanings of a word.
21.4.1 Spelling patterns
The main spelling differences between British and US English are detailed in
Note that the spellings aesthetic, archaeology, caesura, caulk, glamour, ochre, onomatopoeia, paean, and theatre are acceptable in both dialects; these are exceptions to the rules laid out in
Whisky is the British spelling for all varieties except Irish whiskey; US spelling has whiskey as standard and whisky as a common variant, and does not maintain this geographical distinction.
The US spelling for sulfur (sulfide, sulfate) is also the one recommended by the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry (IUPAC) and is used in most British English scientific texts but not all. Check with the publisher; in non-technical material, use sulphur in British English.
21.4.2 Spelling ambiguities
A few words deserve close scrutiny because different spellings are assigned to different meanings in one dialect while the other dialect uses a single spelling for all meanings. Some examples appear in
It must be kept in mind that a number of spelling variants are in fact acceptable in both British and US English; most of these are discussed in
21.4.3 Compound words
• the intermediate directions of the compass (northeast, southwest, etc.)
• compounds beginning with anti-, non-, and semi- (antinuclear, noninvasive, semitrailer)
• nonce compounds ending in -like (adobelike)
• percent (always solid in the US but per cent in British English)
An exception is no one, always two words in the US but sometimes spelled no-one in British English. In general, US English is ready to eliminate a hyphen in a word formed by addition of a prefix or suffix except when the hyphen serves to prevent the doubling of a vowel or the tripling of a consonant.
21.4.4 Forms of abbreviations and initialisms
Many frequently used abbreviations and contractions differ in punctuation between the two dialects. An important point to check, discussed in
There is widespread conformity in the presentation of acronyms and abbreviations in US and British English, though see the note about punctuation of these at
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