How to teach British and American spelling and punctuation
Summary: Teaching tips and classroom activities for colour/ color, kilometre/ kilometer, commas in lists, and other British and American spelling and punctuation differences.
While differences between individual style guides and exceptions for reasons of clarity are probably more important, knowing general differences between British and American punctuation can be useful, if only to stop students worrying unnecessarily about two equally good options. It could also help them notice variations as they go onto read different kinds of academic writing, journalism, fiction, etc.
In contrast to punctuation, the main variations in English spelling are between the UK and US, with other differences such as those between individual dictionaries and style guides being much less important. Put together, UK and US spelling and punctuation differences are probably somewhere in importance between the more vital vocabulary differences and the less important grammar differences (dealt with in other articles on this site). This article explains the most important differences in British and American punctuation and spelling, and then gives some classroom activities and other teaching ideas.
All language and descriptions below are given British first and then American (“flavour/ flavor”, etc) unless stated otherwise. Lists of examples are given in approximate order of usefulness, with ones which even lower level students should know top of each section.
British and American terms for punctuation
As well as having different punctuation, Americans and Brits use different words to describe the punctuation that they use, namely:
- full stop/ period for “.”
- exclamation mark/ exclamation point for “!”
- (round) brackets/ parentheses for “( )”
- square brackets/ brackets for “[ ]”
The last two mean that when a Brit says “brackets” they usually mean “( )” but when an American says “brackets” they usually mean “[ ]”.
The most important differences between British and American punctuation
British and American capital letters after colons
This one rarely gets mentioned in lists of British and American differences, but Americans use a capital letter after a colon when it is followed by something which could be a whole sentence (“He stopped: He had forgotten his hat” instead of “He stopped: he had forgotten his hat”). The British system is simply to never put a capital letter after a colon. The capital letter doesn’t seem to aid comprehension, so I would stick to the simpler British system when possible as it matches the general rule of only putting capital letters at the start of sentences, not in the middle.
British and American points in abbreviations
Famously, most titles take a point in American English but not in British English, as in:
- Mr/ Mr.
- Ms/ Ms.
This is part of a more general pattern of Brits only putting a point after the abbreviation if it is the end of the word that has been cut off, making “Doc. Jones” correct (though informal) in both varieties of English but “Mrs. Smith” wrong in British English.
British and American commas in lists
British writers tend to avoid a comma before the last thing in a list unless it is needed to make the meaning clear, writing “bananas, apples and pears” where an American would usually write “bananas, apples, and pears”. The British system more closely follows the idea of a comma being a pause in speech, as a dramatic pause before “and pears” is rare. However, I find the American version generally easier to understand for readers, especially for language learners, and so tend to use when I can.
British and American apostrophes in decades
Although things seem to be moving towards the “cleaner” British style that I would generally recommend, Americans still often use an apostrophe before the “s” in decades such as “in the 1980’s” and “in the 70’s”.
British and American punctuation with quotation marks
There are numerous exceptions on both sides, but in general British English recommends putting commas and full stops outside the quotation marks unless they are part of the original quote, where Americans would put them inside. Readers of my articles might have noticed that I use whatever system I feel aids comprehension in that sentence, which usually means putting the punctuation outside when possible.
British and American single and double quotation marks
This is often the top result when you search for British and American punctuation differences, but there are so many variations from situation to situation and style guide to style guide in each country that I think it is impossible to make any useful generalisations. Given the choice, I would choose double quotation marks with single quotation marks inside (often said to be the American way). This is because a single quotation mark can sometimes be misunderstood as an apostrophe and so shouldn’t be the first choice, but double quotation marks inside double quotation marks is even more confusing.
The most important differences between British and American spelling
It is possible to explain many of the differences and exceptions below with etymological stories of word origins and which version is closer to the original French, Greek, Latin, etc. However, for most students those stories will not really help them memorise the differences, and just telling them about the patterns below will be enough to convince them that they are not dealing with something completely random and so make the differences seem more learnable.
-or and -our spellings in British and American English
Many words ending in -our in British English end in -or in American English, in particular when that syllable is unstressed and so the ending has the schwa sound (like the “-er” in the last syllable of “computer”). Common examples include:
- colour/ color
- neighbour/ neighbor
- humour/ humor
- flavour/ flavor
- harbour/ harbor
- labour/ labor
- rumour/ rumor
- behaviour/ behavior
- honour/ honor
- tumour/ tumor
- favour/ favor
- endeavour/ endeavor
- vapour/ vapor
- splendour/ splendor
- armour/ armor
- odour/ odor
- saviour/ savior
- parlour/ parlor
- fervour/ fervor
- rigour/ rigor (but both use -or in “rigor mortis”)
- clamour/ clamor
- savour/ savor
- vigour/ vigor
- demeanour/ demeanor
- valour/ valor
- ardour/ ardor
- rancour/ rancor
- candour/ candor
- succour/ succor
There are also a couple of words where the same -our/ -or change happens in the middle of the word, as in:
- smoulder/ smolder
In words like “detour” and “contour” the “-our” ending is pronounced like “or” in “more” rather than “er” and so they end in “-our” in both British and American English.
British and American usually keep the same forms in other parts of speech of the words above, as in neighbourhood/ neighborhood, flavourings/ flavorings, coloured/ colored, favourite/ favorite, honourable/ honorable, savoury/ savory and armoured/ armored. However, there are words which take -or with affixes in both British and American English, so need to be changed from the British spelling above, such as:
-re and -er spellings in British and American English
Some words like “centre” which are spelt “-re” in British English but have an “er” sound are spelt “-er” in American. There are very few common examples of this, but those examples are common enough that it is worth at least letting students know that the pattern isn’t random. The most common/ important ones mostly follow “t” and “b”, as in:
- (kilo/centi/ milli)metre/ meter (but “thermometer” in both)
- litre/ liter
- centre/ center
- fibre/ fiber
- theatre/ theater
- sombre/ somber
- lacklustre/ lackluster
- calibre/ caliber
- spectre/ specter
- reconnoitre/ reconnoiter
- sabre/ saber
- lustre/ luster
- meagre/ meager
Obviously there are far more words which end in “-er” in both British and American English, as in “letter” and “monster”. Americans don’t change words like “acre”, “massacre”, “mediocre” to “acer”, “massacer” and “mediocer”, presumably because that makes the word look like it has a soft C (as in the Taiwanese company Acer). “Ogre” is also never “oger”, presumably because of the same possible misunderstanding with hard and soft G. There also words which don’t match the pattern above because the “-re” has more of a French “rer” pronunciation such as “genre”, “timbre” and “oeuvre”, and so are not spelt “-er” in American. Something similar also happens when where the final “e” is pronounced, as in “padre” and “émigré”.
-ce and -se spellings in British and American English
There are few of these, but they can be confusing, particularly the top two, where only the verbs differ:
- to practise/ to practice (but “some practice” in both)
- to license/ to licence (but “a licence” in both)
- defence/ defense
- defenceless/ defenseless
- offence/ offense
- pretence/ pretense
-ise and -ize endings in British and American English
When I first starting using Microsoft Word back in the day, it wouldn’t let me use the “-ize” suffix in “democratize”, “democratization” when I had spellcheck set to British English. This meant that I had to use “democratise” etc, even though the “-ize” endings which are standard in American English have actually always been acceptable options in British English. Microsoft have now fixed that bug, and although the British tend to prefer “-ise” endings, “-ize” endings are the international standard and so probably should be the first choice nowadays.
Common examples include:
- realise/ realize
- recognise/ recognize
- organise/ organize
- emphasise/ emphasize
- criticise/ criticize
- summarise/ summarize
- apologise/ apologize
- specialise/ specialize
- visualise/ visualize
- subsidise/ subsidize
- publicise/ publicize
- memorise/ memorize
- finalise/ finalize
- prioritise/ prioritize
- colonise/ colonize
There are some words which cannot be changed to “-ise” in British English, but these tend to be ones where “-ize” isn’t a suffix like:
There are also many which take -ise in both British and American English, most of which also don’t include a suffix, as in:
-yse/ yze endings in British and American English
“-yse/ -yze” has the same “eyes” pronunciation and sometimes the same changes as “-ise/ -ize” above, as in:
- analyse/ analyze
- paralyse/ paralyze
- catalyse/ catalyze
Unlike “-ise/ -ize” above, “-yze” is usually actually wrong in British English in these cases.
-ogue and -og endings in British and American English
Words ending in “-logue” that have a silent “ue” are often spelt as “-log” in American English, as in:
- catalogue/ catalog
- dialogue/ dialog
- analogue/ analog
- monologue/ monolog
- epilogue/ epilog
- homologue/ homolog
- prologue/ prolog
However, “pedagogue”, “synagogue”, “demagogue”, “travelogue” and “ideologue” always take the “ue” and all the other “ue” versions above are possible in American English.
ae and e spellings in British and American English
Americans often use just “e” where British use “ae”, as in:
- encyclopaedia/ encyclopedia
- anaemia/ anemia
- faeces/ feces
- gynaecologist/ gynecologist
- orthopaedic/ orthopedic
- anaesthetic/ anesthetic
- leukaemia/ leukemia
- haemoglobin/ hemoglobin
Most examples are connected to medicine and even British people often get the spelling wrong, so I would only teach this in medical English classes.
oe and e spellings in British and American English
This is similar to the point above, but much less common. Americans stick to just “e” where Brits use “oe” mainly in medical expressions like:
- diarrhoea/ diarrhea
- foetal/ fetal
- foetus/ fetus
- gonorrhoea/ gonorrhea
Doubled consonants in British and American English
UK and US English have similar rules about when you need to double consonants when adding endings to words, especially when it comes to keeping the same vowel sound in words like “knitting” (so it doesn’t sound like “knighting”, as the spelling “niting” would). However, Brits also double consonants before suffixes in some situations where Americans (mostly) don’t, mainly with the letter L, as in:
- traveller/ traveler
- cancelled/ canceled
- jeweller/ jeweler
- marvellous/ marvelous
- counselling/ counseling
- snorkelling/ snorkeling
- woolly/ wooly
- councillor/ councilor
- medallist/ medalist
- libellous/ libelous
- dialled/ dialed
- initialled/ initialed
- labelled/ labeled
- fuelled/ fueled
- modelled/ modeled
- quarrelled/ quarreled
- signalled/ signaled
- equalled/ equaled
- carolling/ caroling
- channelled/ channeled
- gruelling/ grueling
- panellist/ panelist
- unrivalled/ unrivaled
- unequalled/ unequaled
- shrivelled/ shriveled
- revellers/ revelers
Ones which keep the double L in both British and American English include:
There are also some examples the other way around, as in:
- skilful/ skillful
- fulfilment/ fulfillment
- enrolment/ enrollment
- instalment/ installment
- wilful/ willful
There are also a few where the words end in -l in British English and -ll in American, as in:
- appal/ appall
- distil/ distill
- enrol/ enroll
- enthral/ enthrall
- fulfil/ fulfill
- instil/ instill
Note that there are quite a few above where the other version is also acceptable (but usually less common).
Dropped -e in British and American English
The vast majority of words where -e is dropped or kept when suffixes are added are the same in British and American English, but there are times when Americans are more likely to drop the -e as in:
- likeable/ likable
- liveable/ livable
- sizeable/ sizable
- unshakeable/ unshakable
- judgement/ judgment
- acknowledgement/ acknowledgment
- ageing/ aging
Even in those cases the other version is often acceptable in the other kind of English.
Other miscellaneous British and American spelling differences
There are also some spelling differences that don’t match the patterns above. They include, in approximate order of usefulness:
- grey/ gray
- kilogramme/ kilogram
- programme/ program (as in “TV…”)
- cheque/ check (as in “traveller’s cheque”)
- pyjamas/ pajamas
- jewellery/ jewelry
- storey/ story (for the floors of a building)
- moustache/ mustache
- omelette/ omelet
- cosy/ cozy
- chilli/ chili
- mould/ mold
- tyre/ tire (for the rubber thing on a wheel)
- kerb/ curb (for the edge of roadway)
- axe/ ax
- draughtsman/ draftsman
- sceptical/ skeptical
- vice/ vise (for the part of a workbench used to hold things)
- sulphur/ sulfur
- moult/ molt
- plough/ plow
- phoney/ phony
- artefact/ artifact
- sheikh/ sheik
- syphon/ siphon
- callipers/ calipers
- bevvy/ bevy (meaning lots of)
- cypher/ cipher
In some cases the other variation is also acceptable.
There are also others which reflect differences in pronunciation, such as
- aeroplane/ airplane
- aluminium/ aluminium
- mum/ mom
- speciality/ specialty
- arse/ ass
- bogeyman/ boogeyman
How to present British and American spelling and punctuation differences
The differences in spelling and punctuation listed above are subtle enough that it can be a nice challenge for students just to look at the same piece of writing written in the two different styles and try to find all the differences. It’s best if this includes more than one example of each difference, e.g. at least two “-re”/ “-er” endings differences. This is so that students can make generalisations about the patterns in spelling, and use that to help them find more differences.
When students have tried for a while, tell them how many differences they should be looking for. When they have found that many differences, they can then try to work out which text is British and which is American. They should then be ready to make some rules about British and American use.
Particularly if you are teaching Academic English, you can also do the same thing with the same piece of writing rewritten to match two style guides, e.g. APA and Oxford.
The pairwork variation on this and How British is your Spelling and Punctuation below can also be used at the presentation stage.
How to practise British and American spelling and punctuation
British and American pairwork dictation
This is a pairwork version of the activity above. Give one student a text or list of sentences in British English and give the other student the same thing converted into American English. To make it easier, you could have one difference per line or per sentence. Without looking at each other’s worksheet, they should find and mark any differences. To do so, they should try to spot any parts which they think might be different and check the spelling and punctuation with their partner.
British and American spelling and punctuation consistency tests
Although many textbooks such as Headway include it, I would avoid exercises that ask students to convert from British to American or vice versa. This is because such exercises give students an unrealistic idea of how important such distinctions are. Instead, higher level students could be taught how to be consistent by giving them a text that is written almost completely in one of the variations, but with some inconsistencies. For example, the text could include three lists written with a comma after every item but with one list with the comma missing off the last item, so students should add a comma there to make it consistent. This can be combined with spelling inconsistencies like “colour” three times and “color” once, or “liter” and “center” but also “kilometre”.
How British is your spelling and punctuation?
This activity can be used at either the presentation or practice stage. Students listen to some sentences and try to write them down with suitable punctuation and spelling. They then listen to and/ or look at the same sentences with two kinds of punctuation and/ or spelling, make sure that they wrote one of those down, and choose one of the variations there if the wrote nothing or something different. They try to guess with a partner who has more British and who has more American English. Then they look at the guide to which punctuation style and/ or spelling rules are which to check whose English is more British/ American.
For just spelling, the same thing can also be done with just single words.
British and American spelling jigsaws
Make a three-column table. Put the letters at the beginning or end of the words in the middle column, e.g. “col-“ for “colour/ color”, “democrati-” for “democratise/ democratize” and “encyclop-” for “encyclopaedia/ encyclopedia”. Put the British endings (“-our”, “-ise”, “-aedia”, etc) in the left column and the American endings in the right column. Cut the worksheets into cards which each have at least two boxes from the table (so not cut into cards with just one part each) and get students to put it back together. If they get stuck, give them a list of spelling rules to help. They can then try to remember and complete the same spelling rules when they have finished and checked their jigsaw.
British and American spelling and punctuation hangman
Students use as many British or American spelling and punctuation rules as they can in one British or American sentence, up to a maximum number of characters (e.g. 50 character, with punctuation included in the number of characters). Perhaps after being told whether the sentence is British or American, their partners try to guess the whole sentence, including punctuation.
You can play the game with students guessing randomly, with the letter or kind of punctuation put in everywhere that it is in the sentence if it is guessed correctly, like normal hangman. Alternatively, they can try to guess the next letter or piece of punctuation one by one from the beginning of the sentence, perhaps also needing to say if a capital letter is needed if you want to practise quotation marks, colons, etc.
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