English is English? It is not as simple as it seems, there are a number of different variations of English that are all considered ‘correct’. There are 54 countries where English is considered an official language, however only five where it is the first language of the majority of the population. They are Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and the United States of America, all of which have their own distinct take on the language.

How did the differences come about?

English is typically divided into two variations; British and American. There are a multitude of reasons why the two versions of English have become so different over the years, but there are a few key culturally significant events that led to the separation the two languages.

British English is actually heavily influenced by the French, due to several invasions by the likes of William the Conqueror in 1066 who brought French over and made it the official language of Courts, Universities, Schools and anything upper class. Similarly, during the 1700s the French language became increasingly trendy and the English started using some of their spellings and words. Since the US and UK were divided by the Atlantic, this trend didn't spread to American language culture. This resulted in differences like 'Coriander' which the British derived from the French 'Coriandre' in contrast to the US word 'Cilantro' which was derived from Spanish.

Raw, fresh coriander leaves
Coriander or Cilantro? - Photo by Tomasz Olszewski / Unsplash

When developing the first dictionaries, the British employed scholars to create a list of all known English words. Whereas the first American dictionary was created by a gentleman called Noah Webster, who was somewhat of a rebel. He wanted American English to not only be different from British English, but he also wanted it to be simpler, hence why American spellings often drop the 'u' in words like 'Colour'. He also changed words with 'ise' to 'ize' like 'capitalise -> capitalize' as he felt it better reflected the way Americans pronounced them. This focus on spelling based on pronunciation is also responsible for many other spelling differences, including words that end in 're' which are changed to 'er' like 'centre' and 'center' and words that end in 'ence' which were changed to 'ense' like 'defence' and 'defense'. American spellings also focus on efficiency and often drop letters like 'travelling' which was changed to 'traveling' and 'analogue' which was changed to 'analog'.

American English and British English have evolved in different directions due to geographical isolation, the impact of other languages and the decisions of influential people. Who knows where they will end up and what will influence them to further divide (or converge)?

Why do I need to know the differences?

Whilst it might not seem that important, as what you're inevitably writing is still English, the meaning of what you're saying changes. Whether you are conversing with an overseas business, writing a university entrance letter or ordering food online, the details count and people will notice. If you were speaking, these mistakes wouldn't be picked up on, however when you're writing the reader can only judge you on what has been written. If you include a load of poor spelling, grammar and colloquialisms, it's unlikely to go down well. Ultimately, it might make the difference between getting into that university that you have been working so hard for or getting rejected. You might also receive a bag of crisps when you wanted some hot chips. Whatever your situation, it's not worth the risk. You can find out more about the impact of your spelling and grammar here.

Here are some of the key differences to keep you out of trouble:

UK🇬🇧 / AUS🇦🇺 / NZ🇳🇿 USA🇺🇸 Canada🇨🇦
-lled (e.g. travelled) -led (e.g. traveled) -lled (e.g. travelled)
-ise (e.g. capitalise) -ize (e.g. capitalize) -ize (e.g. capitalize)
-our (e.g. colour) -or (e.g. color) -our (e.g. colour)
-re (e.g. centre) -er (e.g. center) -re (e.g. centre)
-ogue (e.g. catalogue) -og (e.g. catalog) -ogue (e.g. catalogue)

Confused? Don’t worry, Outwrite has your back. You can change your language settings by clicking on the flag in the bottom left of the screen. This will change both the dictionary and grammar rules so that you can ensure you are writing your desired type of English correctly.