Noah Webster has a lot to answer for. A prolific American writer and editor, he was also dedicated to the reformation of English spelling. He compiled several dictionaries over his lifetime, including spellings that more closely matched how the words were pronounced instead of the traditional compositions. In most cases, he didn’t originate these revised spellings but he was responsible for popularising them and many of the “reformed” spellings gradually became standard throughout the United States, the reason we now have significant differences between British English and American English.
Without any academic study to back it up, I have often thought that Americans frequently do things simply to be different from the British and in reading up about Webster, I discovered this to be true in relation to his spelling changes. Yet again, we discover the US is the source of a bloody annoying and unnecessary set of circumstances.
Some of his revised spellings didn’t catch on. If they had, I beleev wimmin (and men) would be spewing forth a steddy and hainous korus of grotesk syllables from their tungs, creating a nightmar for the masheen I’m now typing on. (The Spell Checker is going to have a field day with that sentence.)
As much as I would clearly like to, we’re not going to be able to wind back the changes that did catch on. But what we writers and editors should do is make sure that when we edit, we pick one variation of English and stick to it. This will largely be guided by the location of the primary audience.
There are lots of differences between British English and American English, far too many to go into here. But here are a few highlights to help begin the process and ensure consistency.
There are a few one-off spelling differences – in British English, tyres and kerbs get cosy when sceptics park and in American English, tires and curbs get cozy when skeptics park. But there are a lot of words with the same structure that follow the same rule for changes.
-our versus -or
Savour, saviour, honour, colour, neighbour, humour, rumour, glamour and favour become savor, savior, honor, color, neighbor, humor, rumor, glamor and favor.
-ise versus -ize
-ise endings (for British English) and -ize endings (for American English) are on the end of many, many words and even more can be created by adding the suffix (although William Strunk Jr and EB White, the authors of The Elements of Style thought many of them were unnecessary “abominations”). The great thing about this rule is that there aren’t any exceptions. Examples include realise/realize, recognise/recognize, militarise/militarize, harmonise/harmonize, summarise/summarize and the list goes on and on.
-re versus -er
In British English, we are the centre of our own universes, go to the theatre and fibre is a crucial dietary component. In American English, we are the center of our own universes, go to the theater and fiber is a crucial dietary component.
-mme versus -m
There are only a couple of examples of this – “programme” and “gramme” in British English become “program” and “gram” and American English. This is probably one area where American English is winning because other English variations are adopting it as well, particularly Australian and Canadian English. Whichever one you choose to use, add it to your style sheet and be consistent in using it.
-ae versus -e
“Encyclopaedia”, “paedophile” and “anaesthetic” in British English become “encyclopedia”, “pedophile” and “anesthetic” in American English.
-nce versus -nse
There are lots of words that legitimately end with -nse in British English like “sense”, “cleanse” “condense”, “response”, “expanse”, “expense”, “immense” and there are lots of words that legitimately end with -nce in American English like “sentence”, “mince”, “prince”, “convince”, “chance”, “fence” and “once”. In fact, both variations of English share these spellings.
But there are words like “offence”, “defence”, “pretence” and “licence” in British English that become “offense”, “defense”, “pretense” and “license” in American English.
Punctuation is one area that both British and American variations of English are reasonably similar. There are some differences (full stops/periods after condensed titles, the position of the day and the month in dates, the usage of quotation marks and a few others) but the main one is the Oxford comma. In British English, “me, myself and I” only requires one comma but in American English, “me, myself, and I” requires two and the final comma is known as the Oxford comma.
You say, “Potato,” I say… well, I say, “Potato,” too. But in British English, they say autumn, boot, bonnet, biscuit, pavement, holiday, lift, full stop and in American English, they say fall, trunk, hood, cookie, sidewalk, vacation, elevator, period.
Make sure you use the correct vocabulary so your readers know what you are talking about. And it’s just as important to make sure the same words with different meanings are used in their appropriate context. The best example of this is “fanny” but if you don’t know why, I’ll let you have some fun figuring it out on your own.
In British English, the saying is “I couldn’t care less” and in American English, the saying is “I could care less”. No, the US version doesn’t make sense but that’s the Americans for you. And there are lots of examples like this.
It’s hard enough to edit in your own variation of English, let alone an entirely different one. But if you’re a competent enough editor, whether of your own work or the work of others, then it’s very achievable. If you are going to do it, make sure you have access to references to confirm you’re doing it correctly (there are plenty online) and do it well with an eye for consistency.
But also remember that it’s not necessary. In the age of global information, we read content from all parts of the world (or at least I do and I think I can reasonably assume that many others do, too). And I can’t say it bothers me (or that I notice it at all really) whether I’m reading British English or American English or Australian English or Canadian English or New Zealand English. Although I would certainly notice if someone tried to implement all of Noah Webster’s changes that weren’t adopted, mostly because they looks like the efforts of someone who can’t spell and closely resemble the English language of five hundred years into the future imagined in the excellent film Idiocracy. It’s probably Webster’s utopia. But it’s an English lover’s worst nightmare. Make sure your writing doesn’t end up falling into that category.