The differences between American English and British English when writing your dissertation

When you begin writing your dissertation, you will need to decide what style of English to use.

The most commonly used dialects are American English, British English and Australian English. Although these dialects follow many of the same rules, they also have some important differences – especially in relation to spelling.

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.

Basic spelling differences

The following “cheat sheet” outlines the preferred spelling of some words that are commonly used in academic writing.

Verbs
USUKAustralia
analyzeanalyseanalyse
apologizeapologiseapologise
capitalizecapitalisecapitalise
categorizecategorisecategorise
characterizecharacterisecharacterise
colonizecolonisecolonise
endeavorendeavourendeavour
enrollenrolenroll
fulfillfulfilfulfil
globalizeglobaliseglobalise
honorhonourhonour
hypothesizehypothesisehypothesise
inquireenquireenquire
installinstalinstall
legalizelegaliselegalise
maneuvermanoeuvremanoeuvre
maximizemaximisemaximise
minimizeminimiseminimise
moldmouldmould
neutralizeneutraliseneutralise
optimizeoptimiseoptimise
paralyzeparalyseparalyse
plowploughplough
privatizeprivatiseprivatise
randomizerandomiserandomise
realizerealiserealise
recognizerecogniserecognise
Past-tense verbs
USUKAustralia
canceledcancelledcancelled
channeledchannelledchannelled
labeledlabelledlabelled
modeledmodelledmodelled
traveledtravelledtravelled
Nouns
USUKAustralia
acknowledgmentacknowledgement(either)
aluminumaluminiumaluminium
artifactartefactartefact
behaviorbehaviourbehaviour
calibercalibrecalibre
centercentrecentre
colorcolourcolour
cooperationco-operation(either)
councilorcouncillorcouncilor
counselorcounsellorcounselor
defensedefencedefence
estrogenoestrogenoestrogen
fetusfoetusfoetus
fiberfibrefibre
flavorflavourflavour
humorhumourhumour
judgmentjudgementjudgement
laborlabourlabour
leukemialeukaemialeukaemia
licenselicencelicence
literlitrelitre
metermetremetre
neighborneighbourneighbour
organizationorganisationorganisation
paleontologypalaeontologypalaeontology
programprogramme (but program if computer-related)program
sulfursulphursulphur
theatertheatretheatre
tiretyretyre
vaporvapourvapour
Adjectives
USUKAustralia
agingageingageing
favoritefavouritefavourite
graygreygrey
livableliveablelivable
movablemoveablemoveable
orthopedicorthopaedicorthopaedic
salablesaleablesaleable
skepticalscepticalsceptical
sombersombresombre
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Don’t forget: Consistency is key!

Each word should of course be spelled the same throughout your document. However, it’s also important not to use a mix of English styles.

Examples:

The defense minister first travelled to China in 2013. (US English/UK English)

The defense minister first traveled to China in 2013. (all US English)

The defence minister first travelled to China in 2013. (all UK English)

In addition, the same spelling should generally be used for all forms of a word.

Examples:

US English: The organization is headquartered in Osaka, but it usually organizes workshops in Tokyo.

UK English: The colours of the samples varied greatly, but smallest sample was the most colourful.

Which type of English should I choose?

Some universities have a preference, so you may wish to check your school’s website for guidance. If you are free to decide yourself, it’s best to pick the style that feels most natural to you. Once you have done so, make sure you set the correct proofing language for your document (in Microsoft Word, select “Review” and then “Language”).

Further understanding the differences

If you want to know more about spelling and other grammatical differences between these English styles, see the table below. Bear in mind that the rules are not always very firm: there are many exceptions, and the preferred conventions are constantly changing!

Spelling: As can be seen, the variation usually relates to only one or two letters.

#USUKAustralia
auses -ize, -yze (e.g. quantize, analyze)prefers -ise, -yse (e.g. quantise, analyse), but is flexiblealmost always uses ise, yse
b-er (e.g. center, meter, etc.)-re (e.g. centre, metre, etc.)British usage
cuses -or (e.g. honor, color, splendor)uses -our (e.g. honour, colour, splendour)British usage
duses –ction (e.g. connection)acceptable to use –xion (e.g. connexion)American usage
eprefers single consonants (e.g. canceled, focuses, appal), with certain exceptions for words in which the stressed syllable falls on the doubled consonant (e.g. willful)uses double consonants (e.g. focusses, cancelled, appall), with certain exceptions (e.g. wilful)British usage
foften drops -e for word modifications (e.g. judge à judgment, live à livable)generally keeps e for word modifications (e.g. judge à judgementlive à liveable)keeps -e: (e.g. judgement), like British; but sometimes drops -e: (e.g. livable)
g-e usually preferred to -oe or -ae (e.g. pediatrician, leukemia, etc.)-oe and -ae used (e.g. paediatrician, leukaemia, etc.)British usage

Punctuation: Here, the main differences relate to whether to use single or double quotation marks and where to place other punctuation in relation to those quotation marks.

#USUKAustralia
aDouble 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
bPunctuation 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

Verb forms: The different styles of English do not always agree about whether collective nouns should take singular or plural verbs. There is also disagreement about some past-tense forms of verbs.

#USUKAustralia
aCollective nouns (nouns referring to a group of individual things) take verbs as conjugated for singular nouns (e.g. The team is going to win. or The staff has decided. or The team leads the charge.)Collective nouns (nouns referring to a group of individual things) take verbs as conjugated for plural nouns (e.g. The team are going to win. or The staff have decided. or The team lead the charge.)US usage
bVerbs take -ed endings for simple past tense and past participles (e.g. compel à compelled,spell à spelled,learn à learned) with the exception of common irregular verbs (e.g. take à took, hear à heard) Verbs take -ed endings for simple past tense and past participles, but with more exceptions (e.g.compel à compelled but spell à spelt,learn à learnt); irregular verbs are conjugated the sameUK usage

Abbreviations: There is also disagreement over how to use periods in abbreviations.

USUKAustralia
Most title abbreviations take a period (e.g. Doctor à Dr. Missus à Mrs. Honorable à Hon. Avenue à Ave.)Title abbreviations take a period only if the abbreviation does not end on the last letter of the full word (e.g. Doctor à Dr Missus à Mrs butHonourable à Hon. Avenue à Ave.)UK usage
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1 comment

Kris
June 16, 2016 at 8:00 PM

Thank you, this was amazing.

Reply

Francisco Sousa
February 16, 2018 at 3:50 AM

Thank this amazing thesis

Reply

Ally B
February 24, 2018 at 7:48 PM

Dears,
Thanks for this. FYI - a spelling mistake (typo) appears in your first listed table:
"hypothesize | hypothesise|hyphothesise" - the third instance (Australian spelling) has an errant 'h' after the 'p'.
You're welcome!

Reply

Leon
Leon (Scribbr-team)
February 26, 2018 at 1:44 PM

Hi Ally,

Thanks!
We'll change that. :)

Cheers,
Leon

Reply

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