American vs. British Spelling: Why?

I just learned I’ve been spelling “catalog” wrong my entire life. At least, wrong as in I’m American and we’re in America and Americans apparently drop the -ue endings of random various words. Yes, that means I’ve been spelling “dialog” wrong, too. I mean, don’t tell me that doesn’t look weird. It should be “dialogue.” The word just doesn’t look finished without that -ue ending.

Alright, this might not be entirely related to poetry. I apologize. I had a mini-meltdown last night while copyediting CNF pieces for Gandy Dancer when, after consulting three different writing manuals, I realized I’ve *apparently* been spelling these words wrong since I was in elementary school. And that no one ever bothered to correct me.

…which made me wonder, have you guys ever found yourselves spelling “color,” “colour?” “Gray” as “grey?” Or–*gasp*, “center” as “centre” and “theater” as “theatre?” I tried to google some information on why there are differences in the accepted standard forms of American vs British English, but all I could really find was that there was never really a standard form to begin with–Americans just tend to favor (favour?) some spellings, while Brits favor another.

So, have any of you ever run across this problem in your poetry? Do you think some variant spellings automatically look/read “better” than others (re: am I just crazy?)? Should “catalogue” and “dialogue” really be “catalog” and “dialog”–or should I just up and move to the UK since I can’t stand the way the dropped -ue ending looks?

6 Replies to “American vs. British Spelling: Why?”

  1. This started to really bother me when I published an article to ThoughtCatalog. I realized it was spelt without the -ue, and it brought the same questions to my mind as it did for you.

    I just recently read (and this could be utter internet B.S.) that grey spelt with an e is associated with lighter grey, closer to white. Gray, spelt with an a, is associated with darker grays, closer to black. But again, a rule like this could have just been made up on the spot. However, it’s the closest I’ve gotten to finding some sort of standard. Also, if you want to think about this in poetic terms–say you want to reference a darker gray or a light grey in your creative writing, then you’ll know to pay attention to spelling in order to be deliberate and specific, right?

  2. Somebody told me once a trick for remembering to spell “grey” as “gray” is that Americans use the “a” spelling because A is for America and the “e” spelling used in E for England. That’s really silly, but it’s helped me remember to spell it with as “gray,” so I guess it is helpful!

  3. I love “grey, “dialogue,” and “catalogue” but I’m all about “color” and “favorite” and omitting other “-ou” words. I remember discussing this with my best friend from high school. She was miffed because she was a fan of “-ou” in color, favorite, etc and our teacher marked points off of her paper.

    And “theatre,” “centre,” and other “-re” words has to do with Old French origins mixed with some Latin.
    Here’s a link to the Oxford dictionary!

    Personally, I found that most Americans in theatre like to use “-re” because they’re referring to it as an art form. Then they use “theater” to describe the venue. It’s probably not technically correct but once a group of people do it for awhile, then it’s adapted into English. Alright? (Get it?)

    To answer your original question–I don’t think it affects my poetry or prose that much. I still have the urge to write “grey” most of the time and sometimes I do…I find that American English has a lot of different variants associated with different cultures and social groups (see AAVE for instance). However, AP Style Guide disagrees.

  4. Don’t move to the UK just yet! Thanks for sharing this Katie because I really can relate. Whenever I send something to my mom to proofread that contains words like those we always bicker over what is the correct spelling. She says that if I use the UK spelling then I’ll sound smarter and more educated (alright mom).

    With my poetry, however, I haven’t truly come across this problem yet. I feel like I just gravitate to the American spellings without actually thinking about the consequences. What if I do want to sound “more educated” in a certain poem, then perhaps I should use the UK spelling? Are there more people out there like my mom who think this way? It definitely is something to consider!

  5. I don’t think I’ve paid much attention to it in my writing in the past, just using whichever language I was more comfortable using, i.e. which spellings I normally use (dialogue, theater, favorite). Though the spelling / language choices could be used to create a specific atmosphere, especially if it takes place in a different country or time period, I don’t think I pay much attention to it in other writers’ poetry either. So aside from the ambiance it might give a piece, I don’t think it matters too much, but I’m sure I’ll be paying attention to it in my own writing now!

    P.S. Fun and useless history fact (because why not?): the English language was “Americanized” by this guy named Noah Webster. The Merriam-Webster dictionary says that he changed the spellings from English spellings because of “inconsistencies,” but I was taught by my high school history teacher that it was partially because he stubbornly wanted the American English language to be different from the British English to signify their independence. Believe what you will! Here’s more random info about Noah Webster: &

  6. I struggle with this problem most days. I’ve eventually chosen to stick to a rather arbitrary system: grey, towards (to move to) vs. toward (to have something come to you), theatre (for the show) vs. theater (for the building), catalog (to inventory) vs. catalogue (the inventory) but dialogue… and so on and so forth. It’s an arbitrary art form. Just as you might say e-ther and ei-ther, you don’t always have to stick to one. Sometimes the situation calls for one or the other!

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