A Proofreader’s Guide to British, American and Australian English

Proofed has an international clientele. The documents we check are written for British, American and Australian academic audiences. As a result, our proofreaders must be able to edit documents in line with British, American and Australian English usage rules. This guide will outline some of the key differences between these English dialects to aid proofreaders as they work with different types of English.

Keep in mind that the rules below are simply guidelines and there will be exceptions in many cases. If you are unsure about how a particular word should be spelled, remember to check online for regional variations.


Section 1: Key Distinctions Between British, American and Australian English


Spelling

Here, we look at some of the primary differences between British, American and Australian spelling.

-our vs. -or

British English features many words with ‘-our’ spellings, usually at the end of a word (e.g. col​our​, behavi​our​, flav​our​, fav​our​ite, neighb​our​, lab​our​).
American English drops the ‘u’ from these words and uses an ‘-or’ ending. The American spelling of the above British examples would, therefore, be ‘col​or​’, ‘behavi​or​’, ‘flav​or​’, ‘fav​or​ite’, ‘neighb​or​’ and ‘lab​or​’.
Australian English generally follows British conventions, but there is one exception: the Australian political party known as The Lab​or​ ​Party uses the US spelling of ‘labour’. The British spelling is standard in all other contexts in Australian English.

 

-tre vs. -ter

With words drawn from French, like ‘theat​re​’ or ‘cent​re​’, British and Australian English place the ‘r’ before the ‘e’ (N.B. this does not apply to Germanic words like ‘anger’ or ‘mother’).

American English uses ‘-er’ in these words (e.g. cent​er​ and theat​er​). There are exceptions to this rule, such as modern French loanwords like ‘oeuvre’, but it will apply in most cases.

 

-ise vs. -ize

British English accepts either ‘s’ or ‘z’ in the suffix -ise/-ize (e.g. ‘organ​ise​’ and ‘organ​ize​’ are both acceptable). The same applies to Australian English, although ‘-ise’ is more common.
American English, meanwhile, uses the ‘z’ spelling in all cases (e.g. familiar​ize​, recogn​ize​). However, certain words are always spelled with an ‘s’ regardless of region. For example,
words like ‘advert​ise​’ and ‘exerc​ise​’ are spelled with an ‘s’ in American English.

 

-yse vs. -yze

British and Australian English always use ‘-yse’ for words such as ‘anal​yse​’ and ‘paral​yse​’, while American English uses ‘-yze’ in the same words (e.g. anal​yze​, paral​yze)​ . This distinction is much stricter than the -ise/-ize one above.

-ce vs. -se

There are some regional differences between words with a soft ‘c’ in them (i.e. a ‘c’ that makes an ‘s’ sound). This usually occurs when a word ends with ‘-ce’ or ‘-se’.
The words ‘offen​ce​’ and ‘defen​ce​’, for example, are spelled with a ‘c’ in British and Australian English, but they take an ‘s’ in American English (i.e. offen​se​ and defen​se​).

Despite this difference, the adjectival forms of these words are always spelled with an ‘s’ in all regional dialects (e.g. offen​s​ive, defen​s​ive).

The other main words to look out for are ‘practi​ce​/practi​se​’ and ‘licen​ce​/licen​se​’.

In British and Australian English, the ‘c’ spellings of these words are nouns and the ‘s’ spellings are verbs. But American English uses ‘practi​ce​’ (with a ‘c’) and ‘licen​se​’ (with an ‘s’) for both the noun and verb forms of these words.

Keep in mind, though, that this doesn’t apply to other words where there is a noun–verb distinction (e.g. ‘advise’ is a verb in all regional dialects, while the noun form is ‘advice’).

-ogue vs. -og

With words such as ‘dialogue’ or ‘catalogue’, British and Australian English favour an ‘-ogue’ ending. In American English, simplified ‘-og’ endings are more common (e.g. dialog, catalog). 

There are exceptions here, though. For example, ‘analog ’ is the standard Australian spelling when used as an adjective (but ‘analogue ’ is still standard as a noun). In addition, ‘dialog’ is a fairly common spelling in computing in all regions (e.g. when referring to a ‘dialog box’). 

-oe- and -ae- vs. -e-

In British English, some words are spelled with an ‘oe’ or an ‘ae’ in the middle (e.g. encyclop​ae​dia, man​oeuvre). In American English, the spellings of these words are usually simplified by dropping the ‘a’ or ‘o’ in favour of just an ‘e’ (e.g. encyclop​e​dia, man​e​uver).

Australian English typically follows the British spelling, but it is more accepting of American variations (e.g.‘encyclop​ed​ia’ is more common than the British version in Australia).

As ever, though, there are exceptions to the above. For instance, ‘​ae​sthetics’ and ‘arch​ae​ology’ are both standard in American English (although ‘​e​sthetics’ and ‘arch​e​ology’ are accepted as variant spellings). So make sure to check if you’re unsure about a term.

-able vs. -eable

When adding the suffix ‘-able’ to words that end in an ‘e’, there is some variation between regions regarding whether they drop the final ‘e’ from the word.

In British and Australian English, for example, the final ‘e’ is usually kept in ‘lik​eable​’ and ‘siz​eable​’, while ‘likable​’ and ‘siz​able​’ are more common in American English.

However, although dropping the ‘e’ is more common in American English, this does vary. ‘Chang​eable​’ and ‘not​able​’, for instance, are standard spellings in all regional dialects.

The Double ‘L’

In British and Australian English, when adding a vowel suffix to a word that ends in ‘l’ after a single vowel, we usually double the final letter (this is a variation on the standard​ ​‘doubling up’ rule). This is not the case in American English.

The Double L Explainer Table

Individual Words

In addition to the above, there are some instances where British, American and Australian English simply spell words differently. In British and Australian English, for example, the spelling ‘aluminium’ is standard. But in American English, the second ‘i’ is dropped and the word is spelled ‘aluminum’.

Among similar simplified spellings in American English, we find ‘check’ (i.e. ‘cheque’ in British and Australian English), ‘jewelry’ (i.e. ‘jewellery’), ‘gray’ (i.e. ‘grey’) and ‘plow’ (i.e. ‘plough’).

There is no simple rule for spotting these individual spelling differences, so the key is to check any word you’re unsure about.

Keep a special eye out for the word ‘program’. This is the standard spelling in American and Australian English in all contexts. However, ‘program’ is only used for computing in British English. In all other contexts, such as when referring to a TV show, ‘programme’ is correct.


A Brief Word on Vocabulary

Many resources devoted to the differences between British, American and Australian vocabulary focus on everyday language and slang. These are undeniably important in day-to-day speech (e.g. Brits and Americans mean something different when they talk about ‘pants’, and many Australians refer to the afternoon as the ‘arvo’).

But as an academic proofreader, these terms are unlikely to occur in the documents you proofread. Since academic writing is meant to be formal, you would usually remove, edit or note informal language if you spot it in an essay (regardless of regional differences). Most academic language is technical, and regional variation is rarer with technical terms.

If you are proofreading a non-academic document, you are more likely to come across unfamiliar regional words (e.g. the use of ‘period’ in American English instead of ‘full stop’, or ‘rutabaga’ instead of ‘swede’). British and Australian English are usually quite similar other than slang, but American English can seem quite different in places. If you come across an unfamiliar term, make sure to check it is correct for the selected dialect of the document you are proofreading. If not, suggest an alternative the client could use.

For further guidance on vocabulary, please see the resources in Section 2 of this guide.


Grammar

The grammar of British, American, and Australian English is largely the same. However, there are a few minor differences, and it is worth familiarising yourself with these so that you know what to look for. In all of the cases below, Australian English is the same as British English, so we will focus on British and American English.

Collective Nouns

In British English, collective nouns (i.e. words that refer to a group or collection) can be treated as either plural or singular. Both of the following, for example, would be fine:

Singular:
My team ​is​ winning. ​It​ is top of the league.
Plural:
My team ​are​ winning. ​They​ are top of the league.

The collective noun here is ‘team’. In the first example, it is treated as singular, so it is followed by a singular noun (i.e. ‘is’) and a singular pronoun (i.e. ‘it’). In the second, a plural verb (i.e. ‘are’) and pronoun (i.e. ‘they’) are used instead.

In American English, collective nouns are almost always treated as singular, and only the first example above would be correct. The only exception is when the members of a group are acting as individuals rather than working together. The sentence ‘The team ​are​ fighting with one another’, for instance, would be correct in all dialects because ‘fighting with one another’ implies the team members are acting as individuals.

Have vs. Take

In British English, the verb ‘have’ is often used with an object noun that describes an action. For example, a British writer might say, ‘I am going to ​have​ a nap’​.

In American English, the verb ‘take’ is used in the same way. Consequently, an American writer might say, ‘I am going to ​take​ a nap’ instead of ‘have a nap’.

This distinction is less strict than it used to be, but it is still worth keeping an eye out for it.

Prepositions and Articles

British and American English differ in their use of some prepositions. Examples include:

British/Australian English

British vs Australian English

These are not major differences, but using the right preposition in the right place can help preserve the written voice in a document.

In addition, there are some minor differences in how British and American English use the definite article (i.e. ‘the’). In British English, for example, we sometimes drop the article before ‘hospital’ (e.g. ‘She is in hospital’), whereas it would typically be included in American English (e.g. ‘She is in ​the​ hospital’). On the other hand, American English is more likely to omit the definite article in dates (e.g. ‘June 1st’ rather than ‘​the​ 1st of June’).

Present Perfect vs. Past Simple

In situations where British English uses the present perfect tense (i.e. when a past event has consequences in the present), American English is more likely to use the simple past tense:

British English:
We ​have been​ on holiday, so we feel relaxed now.
American English:​
​We ​went​ on holiday, so we feel relaxed now.

Verb Forms

A few verbs have different simple past tense and past participle forms in British and American English. For instance:

Past participle forms of verbs in different dialects

As you can see, the differences here are minimal. In addition, many of the American forms are gaining acceptance in British English. The main one to look out for is ‘gotten’:

British English:
Bob has ​got​ fatter since Christmas.
American English:​
Bob has g​otten ​fatter since Christmas.

Sticking to ‘gotten’ in cases like this will ensure the writing sounds more American.


Punctuation

Most punctuation rules apply for all English dialects, but there are a few issues you might want to watch out for while proofreading. We’ll focus again on British and American English, since Australian English follows the same conventions as British English in all of these cases.

Quote Marks

American English differs from British English quite significantly when it comes to quotations.

British English typically uses single quotes for quotations, and then uses double quotes for quoted text within a quote. In addition, British English only puts punctuation inside a closing quote mark if it is part of the original sentence:

White (2007, p.43) writes that ​‘economic systems are, as many have claimed, an “​inevitable by-product​”​ of civilization​,​ ​although he does not expand on this further.

The US method reverses the quotation marks, and all full stops and commas are placed within closing quote marks regardless of whether the punctuation was there in the original:

White (2007, p.43) writes that ​“economic systems are, as many have claimed, an ‘​inevitable by-product​’​ of civilization​,”​ although he does not expand on this further.

Abbreviations

There are a few differences between British and American English when punctuating abbreviations. The first is that American English sometimes (although not always) puts full stops between each letter in an initialism:

The U​.​S​.​A​.​ has all the best punctuation!

This is much less common in British English, so you may want to edit acronyms and initialisms accordingly.

The second difference is related to punctuation at the end of abbreviations. In British English, abbreviations that end in the same letter as the full word are not punctuated (other abbreviations are):

Mr​ Humphries is visiting on ​Wed.​ 21​st​ to fix your punctuation.

In American English, however, it is standard to punctuate all abbreviations of this kind:

Mr.​ Humphries is visiting on ​Wed.​ 21​st​ to fix your punctuation.

E.g. and I.e.

Although this is largely a matter of stylistic preference, American English is more likely to use commas after the terms ‘e.g.’ and ‘i.e.’ than British English:

British English:​
I love punctuation, e.g. commas, full stops and semicolons.
American English:​
​I love punctuation, e.g.​,​ commas, full stops and semicolons.

Times and Dates

Finally, we have times and dates to consider. Although not strictly an issue of punctuation, it is important to remember that the British and American date formats differ.

British English orders dates day/month/year: e.g. ​21/04/1986

American English orders dates month/day/year: e.g. ​04/21/1986

With times, the main regional difference is that British English traditionally uses a full stop between the hour and the minutes (e.g. 12.30), while American English uses a colon (e.g. 12:30). However, this rule is not commonly followed in modern writing, so the most important thing is consistency.

Section 2: Resources for Further Guidance

This section provides links to other useful resources online.


Spelling, Grammar and Punctuation

1. A summary of common British and American spelling differences:

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/spelling/british-and-spelling

2. A list of words spelled differently in British and American English:

http://www.tysto.com/uk-us-spelling-list.html

3. A summary of differences between American and Australian English:

http://www.onlinewritingtraining.com.au/2015/02/23/writeaussie-australian-american-spelling-differences/

4. A summary of British and American grammar differences:

https://dictionary.cambridge.org/grammar/british-grammar/types-of-english-formal-informal-etc/british-and- american-english

5. Differences between British and American Punctuation: http://www.thepunctuationguide.com/british-versus-american-style.html


Vocabulary Resources

1. British vs. American vocabulary differences:

https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/usage/british-and-american-terms

2. A comparison between British and Australian English:

https://www.englisch-hilfen.de/en/words/british_australian_english.htm


Dictionaries

1. ​The Cambridge Dictionary​:​ ​https://dictionary.cambridge.org/

2. ​The Oxford Dictionary​:​ ​https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/

3. ​Collins Dictionary​:​ ​https://www.collinsdictionary.com/

4. ​The Oxford English Dictionary ​(subscription only):​ ​http://www.oed.com/

5. ​Webster’s Dictionary​:​ ​https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/dictionary

6. ​The Macquarie Dictionary​ (Australian English; subscription only): https://www.macquariedictionary.com.au/


Online Style Guides

1. ​The MHRA Style Guide​ (British English):​ ​http://www.mhra.org.uk/style

2. ​The Elements of Style​, 1s​ t​ Edition (American English):​ ​http://www.bartleby.com/141/

3. ​The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage​ [PDF]: https://eslebooklibrary.files.wordpress.com/2009/07/australianenglishusage.pdf