United States vs. Britain: Who spells better?

Illustration of words in British and American English
Margueritte Ross/Staff

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Before spelling was standardized, there were often multiple ways to spell the same word. Authors had to decide which spellings they preferred. Jane Austen, for instance, favored “shew” and “chuse” to the now-conventional “show” and “choose.”

Slightly after Austen’s time, Noah Webster simplified many words in “An American Dictionary of the English Language,” which was first published in 1828. Although many of Webster’s spelling changes have since become part of standardized American English, Webster occasionally went overboard with his simplifications. For example, he thought “machine” and “soup” look better spelled as “masheen” and “soop.” Needless to say, these spelling changes didn’t make the cut. Of the words that did, there arose a split between American and British English. American English spellings attempt to boil words down to the bone; extraneous vowels are removed or words are rewritten to read more “logically.” However, not all of these spelling changes make more sense in their simplified American forms. Here’s a judgmental list of seven words with different American and British spellings, based on which versions make the most sense.

1. Cozy vs. cosy

Many American words replace the “s” used in British spelling with a “z” for words such as “realize,” “apologize” and “cozy.” Using a “z” instead of an “s” makes more sense because we pronounce these words with a “z” sound. Besides, “z” is much more fun to use than “s”! Thus, “cozy” is the more logical spelling.

2. Mustache vs. moustache

The British spelling of “moustache” never fails to bring to my mind images of a Salvador Dalí-like handlebar moustache. For this reason alone, “moustache” is obviously the best spelling. “Mustache” just looks so plain and ordinary in comparison, lacking the fantastical imagery inherent in the British spelling.

3. Mold vs. mould

“Mold” reminds me of bread mold and unpleasant-smelling dorm rooms. “Mould,” however, has more elegant connotations, such as moulding clay (or moulding bread, for that matter). Therefore, if you’re feeling fancy, both the American and the British spellings could be useful: “mold” for the noun and “mould” for the verb.

4. Offense vs. offence (-nse vs -nce word endings)

Although we Americans are used to spelling “offense” ending with -nse, the -nce ending in this instance might actually make more sense. After all, we spell “fence” with -nce, not -nse, so “offence” should naturally follow this convention. However, for words such as “pretense,” the opposite could be argued — the -nse ending makes more sense here since the word “tense” is spelled with an -nse ending in both American and British English. Similarly, words such as “sense,” “immense” and “dense” are spelled with -nse endings in both countries. Therefore, because the endings of “fence” and “sense” sound exactly alike, they should be spelled the same way. However, we’re stuck with two ways to spell the same sound because English is ridiculous, regardless of whether it is “American” or “British.”

5. Gray vs. grey

I actually use both spellings — “grey” on a normal, carefree day and “gray” when I want to convey a feeling of misery. “Grey” with an “e” just looks better than “gray” with an “a.” “E” is the preferred vowel, as it sounds better than “a.” “E” also happens to be the most-used letter in the alphabet, which is further proof of its superiority.

6. Aluminum vs. aluminium

In fact, neither spelling was the first name of element 13. “Alumium” was its original name, although the man who named Al changed its name several times before settling on “aluminium,” which stuck in both Great Britain and the United States until the 1900s, when the U.S. began dropping the second “i,” according to World Wide Words. “Aluminum” is clearly the better spelling, as “aluminium” is just too pretentious-looking.

7. Traveled vs. travelled

Although the American style prefers a single “L,” I think double-“L”s in a word looks better. Words such as “cancelled,” “labelled” and “travelled” look more balanced and concrete with two “L”s. I might be biased, though, since my name has double-“L”s, which may have led me to believe that two “L”s are better than one.

Contact Lillian Morgenthaler at [email protected].