top of page

British Or American English? Which is Right for Your Writing?

British v. American spelling and vocab. British flag. American flag. word and spelling differences. digital watercolour by Katherine M Kennedy


What Is The Difference Between American English and British English?

When America made the bid for freedom, British English spelling wasn't yet set in stone. British citizens and writers spelled and used words according to their own whim. So when America trotted down its own path, they took their interpretation with them. Splitting the English language into American and British English that publishers primarily concern themselves with today.

Noah Webster, the co-author of the Miriam-Webster dictionary, took exception to British spelling and went out of his way to create confusion that still haunts writers to this day. While not all his suggested modifications stuck. Today, Americans do away with the littering of 'u's' that adorn British words like flavour, colour, and behaviour. Reverses the -re in words like litre, sceptre, and centre to make them liter, scepter, and centre. And replaced 'z' with an 's' in words like realize and analyze.

Why You Have to Pick Between American and British English

My book has two separate worlds in it, so I briefly thought it would be a nifty idea to write the first world in British English and the second world in American English. But the blank horror from my wise editor deterred me. What I thought would be a harmless joke that only a few would notice would have driven many more up the wall. It annoys readers when spelling and grammar isn't consistent. Admittedly, it doesn't annoy me, but as I love reading amazon book reviews, I can attest to the plethora of fuming reviewers who couldn't finish a book because of poor editing and inconsistent vernacular taking them out of the story. As one of the goals of a writer is to envelop the reader in pages, anything that jars them out should be avoided.

Inconsistent spelling and vernacular:

  • Annoys the reader

  • It takes the reader out of the book and the story, breaking realism and story flow

  • It can make characters appear underdeveloped and unrealistic

  • Alternative spellings can be misconstrued as spelling mistakes

For Fictional Worlds Consider Your Target Audience and The Inspiration You Used

When my editor asked me whether I would prefer British English or American English for my book. I told her I didn't mind, whatever would work best. Cue an immediate freak out the minute I spotted an American-spelled word in my book. It was just so wrong. Feeling like a pedantic fool that overthinks everything—mainly because I am a pedantic fool who overthinks everything—I ignored the wrong feeling and moved on with my life and my editing. And when I say 'moved on,' I mean I thought about it constantly.

My book is set in the fictional land of Turring. There is no England or America, and as such, there is no British or American spelling, so why was it bugging me so much? Because I used Regency England as a baseline, that's why. Whenever I had to decide if something existed in my world or if a character would use an idiom or a word, I would check what was up with Regency England. The battle over deciding if my characters were allowed to use pens lasted three days and was revisited two months later for another skirmish. And while I never mention anything about England, my characters are just so British.

I'm still on the fence about this British versus American spelling debate. America is a massive market, with 331.9 million people, compared to the U.K.'s 67.33 million. For content writing, SEO and this blog, a bow to the larger populous of Americans, but for my books? I'm still debating the bigger market with my books British baseline. A British baseline that doesn't effect the story, but confuses my brain when I see Gray instead of Grey. I have another book that I've been working at off and on, and that one will use British English because it's set in England—a much simpler decision..

When Your Book is Set In England, Use British English

color. colour. grammarly. British vs Americna Spelling

If your book is set in England, write (or edit) it in British spelling. This is particularly true of Historical English books, i.e., Regency, Victorian, Medieval, etc. During these times, American spelling didn't even exist. America as America didn't exist.

There are exceptions, like if you are writing in First Person or Second Person from the POV of an American character. Or if your narrator or third-person limited POV character is American.

When Your Book is Set in America or Anywhere that's not England Use American English

Screenshot. Grammarly. American vs British Spelling. American settings. humour versus humor. non-American variant. Slang and verbiage non corrections

If your book is set in America, or frankly, anywhere else in the world, then American spelling is likely your best bet. While the rest of the world has accustomed themselves to reading color instead of color, it can throw off the massive American market of readers. Who can blame them? Most movies, tv shows, and books come from America and have been tailored to American audiences. For them, it looks like a spelling mistake.

If your POV character is British, well, I reckon it's going to be a toss-up. If you're writing in First Person or Second Person, I recommend British English because it would be weird for a character to refer to themselves as 'I, me, we' and then use another country's spelling and verbiage. But if it's third-person limited, the choice is yours. Revel in it—that choice should probably be American though.

People Really Do Get Mad About Your English Language Choice—Why That Matters

I read plenty of American books, and I don't think I noticed the spelling, let alone let it bug me. The only time I've been annoyed by an English language choice was if the author chose American English spelling for a Historical British book. And that's because it just doesn't makes any sense!

Recently I read a book written by an Australian using Australian spelling (close to British but with some variations) and Australian slang. There were at least three comments written by American readers saying they couldn't stand the spelling 'mistakes' and half the book made no sense. Most readers won't be put off by a vernacular choice different from their own, but a few bad reviews can drive a rating down. And maybe tragically, maybe for good, reviews matter.

You Won't Always Recognise Your Colloquialisms

I like to think of myself as a lovely hodgepodge of accents, verbiage, and spellings. I have a British mum, my stepdad was at one time Portuguese and at another time American, and I grew up in South Africa. All this means, I have many choices to make, and my editor has a big job striking out all my at times strange slang that I don't realise is strange.

A writer won't always recognize when they're using colloquialisms. I was once asked what Prestik was, and I've never been more thrown. I thought I had Americaned up my writing, and here was an American asking me why I had used such a strange and foreign word. I had no idea Prestik doesn't exist outside of South Africa. To the rest of the world, Prestik is some strange substance called Blu Tack. Baffling.

If you are setting your book in a country other than your own, it's a good idea to have a quick Google and check what words and phrases are specific to your homeland but not anywhere else. That's how I discovered that only South Africa has the delightful candy bar peppermint crisp—truly a tragedy. Call your local congressmen to complain.

You Can Use Colloquial and Regional Differences To Your Advantage

I once read a comment where someone said that when they first read Harry Potter as a child, they thought that J.K Rowling had made up the whole world, down to the concept of boarding school. The commenter considered J.K. the greatest worldbuilder since Tolkien because she thought J.K. had basically made up the concept of England.

I love this.

I don't blame a kid for not knowing about stuff they had never experienced. If anything, I'm slightly jealous of how magical their reading experience must have been. Maybe the American editors who changed 'philosopher' to 'sorcerer' in a quest to sound more magical or sweets to candy for American kiddies made a mistake. Maybe they were taking some otherworldly magic out of harry Potter and the philosopher's stone.

Let The Robots Manage Your British or American Spelling—Microsoft Word and Grammarly

Fortunately, changing the basics, like spelling, is easier than it once was. There really is no need to learn long list of spelling variants when a computer can do it for you. We have tools at our disposal. Both Grammarly and Microsft Word let you change your language preferences, correcting your spelling as you type, from flavor to flavor or from flavor to flavour.

Unfortunately, neither program is going to help you with slang or idioms. Maybe someday in the future, we'll have an A.I. program yelling at us because we want candy when really we are British and should want some sweets, but for now, humans need to do the work of the machines.

How To Change Your Language Preferences on Grammarly:

  • Step 1: Go to the Grammarly menu (three lines at the top left-hand corner)

Screenshot. grammarly. how to find the menu on Grammarly. arrow pointing to menu

  • Step 2: Pick 'language preference's option (under account, you may need to scroll down)

screenshot. Grammarly. How to find the language preferences on Grammarly. arrow pointing to language preferences

  • Step 3: Pick from the limited range of:

    • American English

    • British English

    • Canadian English

    • Australian English

    • Indian English

screenshot. Grammarly. how to find language preferences. drop down of language option. arrow pointing to American and British English

And voila! You have changed your language preferences!

How To Change Your Language Preferences on Microsoft Word* (mac)

  • Step 1: Go to the 'Tool' dropdown

Screenshot. How to find Tools on Microsoft Word for Mac. arrow point too tools. protea/ Katherine M Kennedy protea background

  • Step 2: Click 'Language'

screenshot. Microsoft Word Tools drop down. How to find tools and language preferences on Microsoft Word for Mac

  • Step 3: Choose between a wide variety of language choices

screenshot. How to find language preferences for Microsoft Word. language options

*Alternatively, you might find your language option shortcut at the bottom of the page on the status bar.

screenshot. How to find language option in bottom ribbon on Microsoft Word Mac


bottom of page