Here is a guide to determine whether a spelling variant is acceptable in a given dialect of English. This is geared towards people who write in multiple dialects, or find themselves wondering which spelling belongs to which region. In many cases, most countries in the English-speaking world prefer one set of standards, with the United States adopting its own, but that’s not always the case.
Note: Ecumenical English is the term I use to refer to the combination of British-derived standards used in most English-speaking countries outside the United States. The default spellings here are the Ecumenical ones because that’s what I’ve been using for years. This isn’t intended to be prescriptive as much as it is informative. This is a living document and is far from complete or exhaustive.
Ecumenical spelling uses the U in these classes of words; American doesn’t.
Variable: colour, favour, honour, odour, rancour, savour, honourable, saviour, flavour, labour, clangour, clamour, valour
Less variable: glamour, coloration/colouration
Always: honorarium, laboratory, honorific, glamorous
Most -our nouns are abstract or categorical nouns, rather than tangible things.
The U-less versions of these words are strongly associated with the United States, thanks to the spelling changes introduced in Webster’s original American dictionary in the early 19th century. Australia and New Zealand experimented with U-dropping on and off, but ultimately rejected the convention. Some Canadian newspapers also went through a phase of U-dropping before returning to Canadian standards. Missing U’s and -ER spellings are the most notorious Americanisms of them all.
These spellings are highly variable within Ecumenical spelling systems. American systems only use the Z.
Variable: minimise, realise, organise, customise, &c. Ize spellings are technically allowed across the board, but there are many people in places like the UK and Australia who don’t care for the -ize spelling and associate it with American usage. The Oxford English Dictionary prefers -ize endings; many British publishers follow Oxford rules and use -ize instead of -ise. British newspapers and the BBC uniformly use -ise. -Lyze spellings are only allowed in the US and Canada. This is one area where Canadian spellings diverge from British traditions.
analyse, paralyse, catalyse, &c. Spelling these with a Z is only allowed in the US and Canada.
Always: capsize, resize, advise (verb)
-re is typically Ecumenical; -er is typically American.
Variable: centre, fibre, metre (unit of measurement or poetic term), manoeuvre, theatre, calibre. -Re is Ecumenical; -er is American.
Less variable: accoutrements generally has the R preceding the E, even for Americans.
Always -re: massacre, acre, ombre
Always -er: meter (measuring device)
EXCEPTIONS: ‘Theatre’ often appears in American writing as well, especially when referring to specific ones. American dictionaries won’t list it in front, but it’s an acceptable variant. Accoutrements appears to be the most frequent spelling, regardless of dialect.
The number of Ls depends on the word.
Variable: cancelled/cancelling, travelled/travelling/traveller, levelled/levelling/leveller, dialled/dialling/dialler. The two-L spellings are Ecumenical; the one-L spellings are American. By contrast, fulfil, instil and distil are typically written with one L in British, Australian, Indian and Irish spelling systems, and have two Ls in American or Canadian systems.
EXCEPTIONS: Cancelled and cancelling, and occasionally traveller and travelling, frequently appear in American writing too.
© Finn M Gardiner 2018. All rights reserved unless otherwise specified.