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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 3.1 and 3.2. Table 21.1 lists some words that do not conform to a single pattern of spelling differences and that may easily slip past editorial notice (though many will be detected with spellchecking software).

Table 21.1

US

British

adz

adze

ax

axe

behoove

behove

caliper

calliper

carburetor

carburettor

checkered

chequered

checkers (game)

chequers

chili

chilli

gelatin

gelatine

glycerin

glycerine

granddad

grandad

jewelry

jewellery

karat

carat

licorice

liquorice

maneuver

manoeuvre

mustache

moustache

novitiate

noviciate

pajamas

pyjamas

peddler

pedlar

phony

phoney

pita bread

pitta bread

plow

plough

pudgy

podgy

raccoon

racoon

tartar sauce

tartare sauce

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 3.1.2.

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 Table 21.2.

Table 21.2

Meaning for which one dialect uses a particular spelling

British spelling

US spelling

an order for a bank to pay a sum

cheque

check

current of air; amount swallowed; depth of water; denoting beverages served from a barrel

draught

draft

division between walking area and driving area

kerb

curb

unit of length in the metric system

metre

meter

all meanings except those connected with computing

programme

program

level of a building

storey

story

metal tool with movable jaws

vice

vise

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 Chapter 3. When this is the case, it should be ascertained whether house style dictates one spelling or another. If this is not the case, internal consistency is the rule, following the preferred spellings in a suitable dictionary.

21.4.3 Compound words

See 3.3 for general discussion. US English is much readier to use and to accept new compounds spelled solid (that is, with no space and no hyphen) than British English. A number of compound words are spelled open or with a hyphen in British English but solid in the US. These include

  • • 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 10.2.1, is full points (or elimination of them) at the end of contractions such as Mr, Ms, Dr, St, and the like. Full points are expected in US English, absent in British English.

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 10.2.4. British English often uses Aids in a non-technical context, and US English has AIDS for acquired immune deficiency syndrome.

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