The main differences between US and UK English
When writing your dissertation, research paper or essay, you will have to consistently follow the conventions of a specific style of English. The most commonly used forms are American English, British English and Australian English. Although these dialects follow many of the same rules, they also have some important differences in spelling, punctuation and word choice.
Check with your supervisor or department to find out if you are expected to use a specific style of English. If you are allowed to choose, pick the style that feels most natural to you. Make sure you set the correct proofing language for your document (in Microsoft Word, select “Review” and then “Language”).
Why is it so complicated?
After winning their independence from the British, Americans used language as a way to create their own identity. This led to many variations in spelling and punctuation, among other things. Australia also developed its own written conventions, which lie somewhere between those of the US and the UK (although they tend to be more British).
Of the three, Australian English is generally the most flexible, and US English is the least flexible. Bear in mind that the rules are not always very firm: there are many exceptions, and the preferred conventions are constantly changing!
As the table below shows, the difference between UK and US spelling usually relates to just one or two letters.
|uses -ize, -yze (e.g. quantize, analyze)||prefers -ise, -yse (e.g. quantise, analyse), but is flexible||almost always uses ise, yse|
|-er (e.g. center, meter, etc.)||-re (e.g. centre, metre, etc.)||British usage|
|uses -or (e.g. honor, color, splendor)||uses -our (e.g. honour, colour, splendour)||British usage|
|uses –ction (e.g. connection)||acceptable to use –xion (e.g. connexion), but this is increasingly rare||American usage|
|often drops -e for word modifications (e.g. judge to judgment, live to livable)||generally keeps e for word modifications (e.g. judge to judgement, live to liveable)||keeps -e (e.g. judgement), like British; but sometimes drops -e (e.g. livable)|
|usually prefers -e to -oe or -ae (e.g. pediatrician, leukemia)||uses -oe and -ae (e.g. paediatrician, leukaemia)||British usage|
The following cheat sheet outlines the preferred spelling of some words that are commonly used in academic writing.
|program||programme (but program if computer-related)||program|
The main punctuation differences relate to single and double quotation marks and where to place other punctuation in relation to quotations.
|Double quotation marks (“x”), but alternate with single for quotations within quotations (e.g. She said, “This model has been called ‘the best.’”)||Single quotation marks (‘x’), but alternate with double for quotations within quotations (e.g. She said, ‘This model has been called “the best”’.)||UK usage|
|Punctuation appears within quotation marks (e.g. “The best there is,” she said. or She said, “the best there is.”) except when punctuation emphasizes the writer’s sentence rather than the speaker’s quotation (e.g. Did she say, “the best there is”? or She told them we are “the best there is”!)||Punctuation appears outside quotation marks, except when the punctuation is part of the original quotation (e.g. ‘The best there is’, she said. but She said, ‘the best there is.’; also, Did she say, ‘the best there is’? but She asked, ‘the best there is?’)||UK usage|
There are some differences in subject-verb agreement with collective nouns (nouns referring to a group of individual things as a unified whole) and in past tense verb forms.
|Tends to treat collective nouns as singular (e.g. The team is going to win, the staff has decided)||Tends to treat collective nouns as plural (e.g. The team are going to win, the staff have decided)||US usage|
|Verbs take -ed endings for simple past tense and past participles (e.g. compel to compelled, spell to spelled, learn to learned), with the exception of common irregular verbs (e.g. take to took, hear to heard)||Verbs take -ed endings for simple past tense and past participles, but with more exceptions (e.g. compel to compelled but spell to spelt, learn to learnt); irregular verbs are conjugated the same||UK usage|
There is also disagreement over how to use periods in abbreviations.
|Most title abbreviations take a period (e.g. Doctor to Dr., Mister to Mr., Honorable to Hon., Drive to Dr.)||Title abbreviations take a period only if the abbreviation does not end on the last letter of the full word (e.g. Doctor to Dr, Mister to Mr, but Honourable to Hon., Drive to Dr.)||UK usage|
Consistency is key
Most importantly, each individual word must be spelled the same throughout your document. However, it’s also best to avoid mixing different styles of English.
- The defense minister first travelled to China in 2013. (US English/UK English)
- The defense minister first traveled to China in 2013. (US English)
- The defence minister first travelled to China in 2013. (UK English)
In addition, the same spelling should generally be used for all forms of a word.
- The organization is headquartered in Osaka, but it usually organizes workshops in Tokyo. (US English)
- The colours of the samples varied greatly, but the smallest sample was the most colourful. (UK English)