Grammar 101 with Michael Kwan

There is no such thing as a single unified language called English. The language that they speak in Los Angeles isn’t really the same as the one they speak in London, just as the English in Australia is distinctly different from the English in Alabama. There are all sorts of regional differences, not only in vocabulary, but also in sentence structure and spelling.

You may have noticed that there are many spelling differences between what we consider to be American English and what we consider to be Canadian English. The latter may derive much of its spelling conventions from British English, but as you can imagine, there are still substantial differences between Edinburgh and Edmonton. We certainly don’t refer to the “boots” of our cars or the “nosh” that we need, for example.

Today’s post certainly can’t cover all the spelling differences between Canada and the United States, but I am to discuss many of the main ones.

The Issue of the Added “U”

In Canada, the convention is to spell words like colour and valour with a U, but that letter is generally omitted in the American form: color and valor. As I continue to write on the Internet, largely for an American audience, I’ve found myself shifting to that spelling too. Ironically, I have an American friend who insists on adding the U. Go figure.

Ending in -ER or -RE

I imagine this might have something to do with the French heritage that makes up a significant part of Canadian history, but we spell the word “centre” rather than “center” like our American friends. This can refer to the middle of something or it can refer to a venue, like The Centre in Vancouver for Performing Arts.

Similarly, a Canadian might go to the bank to cash a cheque, whereas the American would cash a check. But remember that when you’re at a Canadian restaurant, you ask for the bill and not the check/cheque.

Offence and Defense

I’m not really sure why this is, but “offense” (and “defense”) is the preferred spelling in American English, whereas “offence” (and “defence”) is generally used in other parts of the world. Interestingly, whereas Americans tend to use “practice” as both the noun and the verb, Canadians differentiate: “practice” is a noun, whereas “practise” is a verb.

Swapping the S for a Z

British and Canadian English typically utilizes an “S” in words like recognisable and cognisant, whereas American English spells these words as recognizable and cognizant. The same can be said about words like realize (realise) and analyze (analyse). Interestingly, both Americans and Canadians write words like immunize and industrialize, whereas our British counterparts write immunise and industrialise.

And the Extra Letters

Now, this isn’t always the case, but I have found that British (and by extension, Canadian) English tends to spell words with more letters than their American counterparts. The American version tends to drop letters that don’t add anything to the pronunciation, for better for for worse.

In Canada, we might say that we had a dialogue about the analogue catalogue, while an American may say that he had a dialog about the analog catalog. Similarly, Canadian spelling has a habit of double-letters, as is the case with cancelled, medallist and counsellor. Americans drop the second “L” in all three of those words. For some reason, though, the reverse is true for words like fulfillment and instill.

What about ales and lagers? If you’re looking to order a pint on tap in Vancouver, you might ask for some draught beer, but it’s draft beer if you head to Seattle. Similarly, we have doughnuts and Americans have donuts, but both “draft” beer and “donuts” are gaining in popularity here too.

Dropping Some E

Because of some historical context (which I won’t get into), Canadians also maintain the “ae” formation in words like anaestesia and haemophilia, while Americans drop the “A” to write anesthesia and hemophilia. You’ll also find that Canadian and British spelling would say we write ageing and liveable, while Americans tend to write aging and livable.

And finally, we have words that are not only spelled differently; they’re pronounced differently too. In the States, you have aluminum (ah-loo-min-um). While more Canadians are spelling and saying it that way too, the original British would say you should have aluminium (ah-loo-min-EE-um). There’s an “extra” syllable in there.

A Useful Resource

All of these differences can make things very confusing for people who are learning English as a second language and, indeed, difficult for even us native speakers. There’s a great database at that lists some Canadian, British and American spelling of common words. It’s not comprehensive either, but it is quite extensive.