Clichés and Chestnuts: Spelling
Some common fallacies about British and American English
I’ve always been fond of American spelling. My first degree is in American Studies, and when I started teaching English, I found that the -er spelling was solidly entrenched in my brain. I was sometimes corrected by my students.
Hoover Dam, USA and street sign Portsmouth, UK
Bargate Shopping Centre, Southampton. UK
Bridport Arts Centre, Dorset, UK
theatre / theater, centre / center
Every day it seems, I pass vans (trucks) from a British plumbing supply company called Plumb Center. The name is a pun, ‘plumb centre’ means ‘the exact centre.’ But how did a British company come to paint an American spelling on all its signs? Was it consciously American? Are they American-owned? Is it just plain ignorance?
Plumb Center sign, Poole, UK
In the USA the situation is more complex. We’ve often tried to use realia from US maps and guidebooks, only to find examples of the British -re all over the place. A rapid scan of the entertainment sections in US guide books throws this information up. The chapter heading in all of the guide books is Theater.
Orlando and Walt Disney World
center proved universal: Epcot Center, Quality Outlet Center, Orlando Science Center, Nickleodeon Production Center, Information Center
Sea World Theatre, The Murder She Wrote Post-Production Theatre (Universal Studios), Graumann’s Chinese Theater (Disney-MGM), Harvest Theater (EPCOT), 100-seat theater, Mickey’s Hollywood Theatre (Magic Kingdom)
I only found the spelling center. It lists eight theatres and six theaters.
This proved consistent on center, and had a great majority of theaters. The exceptions are the Apollo Theatre and Theatreworks USA.
center again. But five theatres and four theaters.
LA is more sure of itself. Eighteen theaters to one theatre. There’s also the intriguingly named “Theatre / Theater” on Cahuenga Boulevard.
Poster for Theatre / Theater, Los Angeles
Several centers. Nine theatres and two theaters.
Ford’s Theatre, Washington DC
The capital’s happy with center. But there are seven theatres and two theaters. The most famous is Ford’s Theatre which spawned one of the oldest journalist / paparazzi jokes (Yes, I’m terribly sorry about your husband, Mrs Lincoln. But apart from that, what did you think of the play?)
Theater Center sign at Nortwestern University, Evanston, Illinois
Century Shopping Centre, Chicago, Illinois
Lots of centers here nearer the center of the USA, but there are exceptions: The Chicago Cultural Centre, the Century Centre and the Olympia Centre.
Then a browse through the entertainment section produces three theaters, but an astonishing fourteen theatres.
Go to the Cleveland Memory Project for a history of the five theaters in Playhouse Square. The text throughout uses the spelling theater to describe the five listed ones, but then each theater is listed as what it calls itself: The Allen Theatre, The Hanna Theatre, The Ohio Theatre, The Palace Theatre, and The State Theatre. All were opened between 1921 and 1922.
Canadian is -re. Two centres. Seventeen theatres, no theaters, two théâtres.
Draw your own conclusions. I think you’d have to say that theatre is at least as common as theater, unless you live in Los Angeles.
Century Theatres, Evanston, Illinois and Loews Theatres, Chicago
Universal Cineplex Theatres, Orlando, Florida
AMC Theatres, Glendale, Arizona
IMAX Theatre advert
But if you’re going to a movie theater it’s far more likely to be the –re spelling which is used by the American chains, like Loews Theatres, Century Theatres, AMC Theatres, IMAX Theatres and Universal Cineplex Theatres. This results in bizarre conversations in American textbooks, following the convention of never altering trademarked names:
A: Which theater are you going to?
B : My favorite theater. The AMC Movie Theatre Ten Screen.
It gets more bizarre when you do net searches as again and again the theater reference leads you to a photo with theatre clearly illustrated on signs.
honor / honour; favor / favour; harbor / harbour
There is a reason for the number of theatres and the odd few centres. It comes in an explanation of the spelling honor / honour. American spelling is honor, with the exception of the fixed expression to have the honour of your company seen in wedding invitations and other very formal written invitations. The British spelling still carries with it an air (or illusion) of culture.
sign, Christchurch, UK
favor / harbor seems the fixed American version. favour / harbour the fixed British version.
Contrary to what you see in tourist areas (in both the USA or UK), there is no excuse for adding an “e” to make words look old fashioned (or olde fashioned).
sign, Warwick, UK
It’s not old British English. It’s not new British English. it’s a silly affectation.
program / programme
For TV, radio or theatres, we maintain the difference. Programme is British. It never established itself with computers, so in British English you have to say that program is the only acceptable spelling for computer programs.
traveling / travelling
The Traveling Wilburys. George Harrison’s band was three-fifths American, two-fifths British
This is the only American spelling that breaks my neutral stance. traveling, traveler and traveled (or canceled, canceling) annoy me. British English is travelling / traveller /travelled and cancelled, cancelling. The double-l is there for a reason, which is the same spelling rule as stop / stopping / stopped or big/ bigger / biggest. When you have a vowel-consonant-vowel sequence, the first vowel is normally lengthened. Doubling the letter stops this. So we have:
mad / made /A film made of Far from the madding crowd
twin / twine / twinned cities lined with twinning signs
hop / hope / the steak topped with pepper tasted like rope
hut / flute / a bigger bit of butter
If you don’t double the -l in travelling / travelled, the pronunciation would normally be tray-velled and tray-velling. If some authority decided that one consonant was sufficient, then why stop there? Why not stoped? (stow-pt) and twined? (twy-nd) An American editor tried to justify and explain that it was different with ‘l’. I remained unconvinced.
So, I went to scan my 1965 copy (typeset in 1954) of the Hamlin Garland collection of short stories, published by Holt, Rinehart, Winston at 95¢. And the US title is “Main Travelled Roads.” They say they reproduce the 1891 text carefully. So when did that “l” get dropped?
US edition, 1965, typography done in 1954
My conclusion is that some people use the double-l in the USA, but that spellcheckers prefer the single-l. Don’t follow them.
A recent example of confusion is the verb to snipe meaning to bid in the closing seconds of an eBay auction. What you do is sniping, which most sites realize. snipe, sniper, sniped, sniping. It does not double the consonant p because we want that long i sound as in pipe, sky, Hi. A number of sites don’t know this and call it snipping software. This would rhyme with ripping, nipping, dipping. Wrong sound. The wrong rule has been internalized. You double to preserve a short sound. snipe doesn’t have a short i sound to preserve. Snipping is what you have done to dogs and cats, or another word for performing a vasectomy.
realize, realise, recognize, recognise
My spellchecker hates the z in this group of words. It’s NOT a British / American distinction, but a publisher house-style distinction in Britain. Oxford University Press and The Times prefer z. Other publishers and The Daily Mirror prefer s. Both are correct.