George Bernard Shaw once noted that “England and America are two countries separated by the same language”.
Oh, if the divide were as simple as that. Of course, it’s not. Sentence construction and vocabulary aside, let’s get on to the biggest bone of contention: spelling. (Well, it’s not actually the biggest, but it’s the one that surfaces the most in everyday interactions.) Many supposed “American” spellings, and likewise, “British” spellings can easily be confused as being in the other camp. After all, the only absolute law in the English language is—wait, is there one?
So let’s begin our tour of confusing English words, shall we?
1. Rationalise and rationalize
It’s common knowledge that the Brits, when turning adjectives like rational into verbs, use an –ise, while the American use –ize. This difference is commonly attributed to Americans; however, we can’t give them that much credit. Both forms have been around since the 1400s, nearly 400 years before America reached nationhood. The reason why people spelt things with zs in them was because they were taking words from Greek, where words had the z sound in them. The Brits switched to using –ise predominantly because of other –ise words that no one spells with zs. Like exercise. Or advertise.
2. Colour and color
The debate between whether American English is better or British English is better basically circles around this word. As a
rule suggestion, Americans use –or while the Brits use –our. This falls apart with words like contour for the Americans and rigo rous for the Brits. In this case, neither the Americans nor the Brits really invented either spelling—the Romans came up with –or, and the French came up with –our. (That’s sort of what happens when half your words are borrowed from other languages.) However, the person who really enshrined –or in the American lexicon was Noah Webster, since his American Dictionary of the English Language used –or.
3. Centre and center
This is one of the messiest ones, because the line splitting -re and -er in this case is not the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. Rather, the line is set at some arbitrary point created by people who didn’t like French. Yes, the -re is derived from the French. Or Latin. Or Greek. Or all three. Anyway, both the Brits and the Americans predominantly use -er, with the British exceptions including words like sabre, saltpetre, calibre, centre and fibre. Other words, like enter, oyster and chapter made the transition into -er long before America existed.
4. Learned and learnt
Learned is sometimes a verb used as the past tense of learn. That, of course, gets confusing when considering learned, the adjective to describe a scholarly person. This divide seems to have come about because of all the other -ed past tense words rather than by some disgruntled Americans. It also seems that neither country exclusively favours one over the other, so it’s more of a personal taste thing when spelling learnt. I mean, the past tense of learn.
I don’t really know what I was planning to achieve with this post other than entertaining the grammar police. I guess the moral of the story is not to be dogmatic about which spelling is correct, since they’re all wrong if you ask the wrong person. Or that it was the fault of the British for stealing words left, right and centre to create the English vocabulary. Yes, centre, not center. I’m doing that now just so I can see the dotted red line of disapproval under the words to show that I’ve misspelt it. Oh, yes, misspelt, not misspelled, by the way.
I guess that’s enough confusion for today. Here’s a period and a goodbye.
I meant full stop.
Leave a Reply