Neil Turner's Blog

Blogging about technology and randomness since 2002

Why are Brits so wound up about American English?

As a Brit, I often see my co-patriots get annoyed when they see American English spellings of words. Over time I’ve accepted that this is a ‘thing’ that we Brits do, and something that used to wind me up in particular. But why?

Firstly, a bit of background. We can trace the history of so-called American English back to a Mr Noah Webster who, in 1828, published ‘An American Dictionary of the English Language‘. Webster believed that English spellings were, in some cases, unnecessarily complex, and so he simplified them. Words like ‘colour’ became ‘color’; ‘programme’ became ‘program’ and ‘jewellery’ became ‘jewelry’, for example. Webster’s legacy is the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, which is to American English as the Oxford English Dictionary is to British English.

I suppose Brits could argue that British English is therefore the ‘real’ language and that American English is just a simplified derivation of it. This may be amplified by animosity over the fact that the US is now a bigger and more powerful than the UK despite it being a British colony until 1776.

However, I think computers shoulder a lot of the blame for this animosity – certainly in recent years, anyway. And I’m going to call out Microsoft in particular. You see, even though us Brits have our own spellings for words, software localised for British English is rare. It tends to be open source software, where an enterprising British coder has localised it, hence British English is more often available as an option in Linux and in web browsers like Firefox.

But on Windows, American English was our only option. The only concession was that programs (interestingly computer programs in Britain use the American English spelling) like Microsoft Word did at least come with a British English spelling dictionary. But we would have to ‘center’ align text, or change its ‘color’. Or ‘italicize’ it.

I don’t really blame Microsoft for not localising Windows to the UK market. After all, I’m sure that American English is, on the whole, about 99% the same as British English. Where it differs, the words are only spelt slightly differently and the average Brit would still understand them. It just isn’t worth the effort. Plus, Microsoft would probably have to develop Canadian, South African and Australian versions too, each with their own minor differences in spelling and dialect.

Whilst as a Brit, I instinctively use British English spellings, I won’t get into an argument about whether American English is right or wrong. American English is correct in America, and British English is correct in Britain. Let’s leave it at that, shall we?


  1. If you’re an educated American, you read enough English literature that you understand British English spelling and just take it in. I’m sure the reverse can be true.

    Colloquialisms are a little different matter… It takes some getting used to the fact that a flatbed truck is a lorry, gasoline is petrol, and a bathroom is a loo. It helped that most of the literature I read in school was heavily footnoted with historical contexts and translations.

    Once you encounter them, such variations in nomenclature are just additional parts of your life experience. They add subtleties of meaning and interpretation that help us adapt to ever-changing conditions and understand people who come from different backgrounds.

    In the USA, we have thousands of little regional variations in dialect, accent, vocabulary, colloquialisms, speech cadence… I’m sure that is true across the pond, as well. These differences can seem subtle, yet their meanings may be dramatically important to the interpretation of situations.

    Linguists are fond of demonstrating is that spelling really doesn’t matter that much to those who are truly literate in a language. U cn rd ths, rght? Likewise, you can cut the top half off of a line of text and still figure out what it says. Consistent spelling, grammar, and clean printing will speed up interpretation, but we get the sense of the text, just the same.

    In short, I don’t care how it’s spelled, so long as the author remains consistent throughout the text. I don’t care how it’s spoken, either, so long as the rules and patterns of speech are equally consistent.

    Some years ago, in California, there was an argument about whether “Ebonics” should be considered a language and taught in public schools. There was considerable heated debate about it.

    Ebonics is a dialect of American English spoken by African Americans. It has its own remarkably stable rules of grammar, syntax, spelling, and other consistencies, all of which would receive an ‘F’ if a student used them in a “proper” English class in most schools on either side of the Atlantic.

    Yet, if you listen to the speech of Southern American blacks for a relatively short time, you will know the patterns, and can understand what is said, “on the fly,” without thinking twice about it. Many well-educated African Americans will speak “proper” American English in a business or professional setting, and switch to Ebonics among their family and friends who speak that as their primary dialect. They are engaging in linguistic comfort.

    So I would argue that there should be no argument… If you, as a writer, spell and use words consistently, or as a speaker, speak consistently, you will be understood. What is most important is the meaning, conviction, grace, and passion within your message.

    That said, English professors, keep doing what you’re doing. We do need reference standards.

  2. As a Brit in America, I’m completely on board with the whole saving of keystrokes thing.

  3. The thing is, British English or its derived forms (Commonwealth English?) are used as national standards almost everywhere else (EU/Australia/NZ/South Africa/Subcontinent).

  4. To be fair to Microsoft, they have started supporting British English properly as from Windows 8 – IE now talks about “favourites”.