British vs. American English Words: More Than an Occasional U

UK flag versus US flag

Adapted from Getty Images

Nothing is quite as frustrating to effective communication as a language barrier. This is especially true when the barrier only involves one language. We’re talking about British English vs. American English. When someone from America talks with or writes to someone from the United Kingdom (or vice versa), they quickly realize there are some unmistakable differences between how they spell their words. Or, should that be quickly “realise”?

While the United States uses its own unique form of English, most other English-speaking countries, such as Australia and Canada, tend to use the British spelling most of the time. Though, they can sometimes blend American words and some of their own specific preferences. This is especially true in word games like Words With Friends where both versions of a word's spelling may be valid.

British vs. American English Vowel Differences

When reading any books, articles or other literature from either region, the first thing you’ll probably notice is the different spelling of words. More specifically, you might notice the different vowels that either version of English will use. 

Historically, the spelling of English words has been affected by region, culture and the other languages around it. For example, in terms of culture, many words are spelled the way they are in America because there was an active effort to establish a unique identity for the country’s version of the language.

Removing the Silent E 

In both forms of English, there are many words that end with a silent E. However, the list of these words in British English far exceeds the equivalent American words. In American English, the extra vowels are usually dropped to better match their American pronunciations.

Examples (British vs. American spelling):

  • Annexe / Annex

  • Tonne / Ton

  • Programme / Program

  • Olde* / Old

* “Olde” has become less common in modern British English, but it is still used on occasion.

Reducing Pairs of Vowels 

Often, British words tend to use more vowels, such as the extra U in words like “colour” and “valour.” But, once again, the trend in American English is to simplify the spelling of words. This means that pairs of two or more vowels together, such as A with E or O with U, are sometimes reduced down to just one of those vowels in American words. Valid Scrabble words can vary, then, based on where you're playing the game.

Examples (British vs. American spelling):

  • Aeon / Eon

  • Aesthetic / Esthetic

  • Colour / Color

  • Harbour / Harbor

  • Valour / Valor

Words Ending in “UE”

Another common simplification you’ll see in American English is the removal of the “UE” vowel pair at the end of certain words. These are silent vowels, so the words don’t lose any part of the pronunciation (at least in the American form) while trimming the letter count. You’ll also find words, like “cheque” and “check,” where the British and American English words are even more different.

dialogue versus dialog with visualdialogue versus dialog with visual

Examples (British vs. American spelling):

  • Catalogue / Catalog

  • Analogue / Analog

  • Dialogue / Dialog 

Consonants Differences in British Words vs. American Words

As with the vowels, British English and American English have their preferred ways to use consonants in specific words. Some words double up certain consonants, some are placed in a different order and some use completely different consonants altogether.

Adding and Removing Double Consonants

Certain words might use two of the same consonant. What can make this confusing is that both British words and American words use specific letter counts, depending on the word. A British word might have double consonants while the American version of the word won’t. The reverse can happen too.

Examples (British vs. American spelling):

  • Appal / Appall

  • Counsellor / Counselor

  • Equalling / Equaling 

  • Fulfil / Fulfill

  • Skilful / Skillful

Replacing Consonants: C, S and Z

One of the most common differences between British and American English is the replacement of certain consonants. A word in British English might use an S while the American version uses a C. Or, an American word might have a Z rather than copying the British word using an S.

Examples (British vs American spelling):

  • Defence / Defense

  • Licence / License

  • Offence / Offense

  • Organise / Organize

  • Finalise / Finalize

  • Subsidise / Subsidize

Miscellaneous Simplifications

When it comes to British words vs. American words, most words will follow the patterns listed above. But, sometimes, certain words are spelled differently by using unique rules. For these words, it comes down to a matter of using the words enough to memorize how you are supposed to spell them.

Examples (British vs. American English):

  • Aeroplane / Airplane

  • Barbeque / Barbecue 

  • Cheque / Check

  • Doughnut / Donut

  • Draught / Draft

  • Grey / Gray

  • Jewellery / Jewelry 

  • Plough / Plow

  • Sulphur / Sulfur

Different British and American Word Choices

Sometimes, a word won’t simply have a different vowel or an extra consonant. Rather, the two types of English might use completely different words. This can create the greatest source of confusion between British English and American English users, as British words and American words can mean different things from one region to the next.

chips versus french fries with visualchips versus french fries with visual

Examples (British vs. American words):

  • Flat / Apartment

  • Bonnet / Hood

  • Boot / Trunk

  • Saloon / Sedan 

  • Holiday / Vacation

  • Jumper / Sweater

  • Crisps / Chips

  • Chips / French fries

  • Trainers / Sneakers

  • Biscuit / Cookie

  • Football / Soccer

  • Lift / Elevator

Study Some More English Variations

The differences between British English vs. American English words have been and probably always will be a source of confusion for some people. At least it’s usually more humorous than anything. The same goes for other unique forms of English around the globe. One example is Australia’s version of the language and the many idioms they have. If you want to know about how they use English down under, read our list of Australian slang words. Brushing up on their terms can keep you from looking like a complete drongo.

Zac Pricener has been a content creator for the past eight years. He’s a bit of an all-around nerd, and he has a bad habit of working movie and TV show references into conversations whenever possible.


See more popular articles