English spelling – Why different options?

The English language spread throughout the world when the British Empire established overseas trading posts and colonies between the late 16th and early 18th centuries.

In every country the language developed in different ways. In the United States, English acquired a substantially different accent, the use of words changed, and so did the spelling. South Africa, Australia, and Canada still follow British spelling, but in each country the language is spoken with a different accent and has unique local terminology.

The major spelling differences

  South Africa and UK USA
ou / o Favour, flavour, harbour, arbour, labour, colour, humour, neighbour Favor, flavor, harbor, arbor, labor, color, humor, neighbor
s / z Preferred version: Organisation, organise, realise, apologise, recognise, analyse, paralyse

The Z-version is also used, in SA mainly in government documents.

Organization, organize, realize, apologize, recognize, analyze, paralyze
re / er Centre, theatre, metre, litre, fibre Center, theater, meter, liter, fiber
mme / m Programme, although program is also used in a computing context Program
ll / l Travelled, travelling, traveller


Traveled, traveling, traveler


ae or oe / e Leukaemia, manoeuvre, oestrogen, paediatric Leukemia, maneuver, estrogen, pediatric
ogue / og Analogue, catalogue, dialogue Analog, catalog, dialog

How to get it right

The easiest way to avoid the “wrong” English spelling is to go to the MS Word menu, select Review, select Language, select Set proofing language and choose the applicable English version. It also takes care of the squiggly red lines under words that you know you’ve spelt correctly.

What to watch out for

If you quote text from a publication of another country, then it must be quoted with its original spelling.

South African spelling is still very much in line with British spelling. But there are a few words where we have options. Choose one and stick with it:

  • advisor or adviser
  • focused or focussed
  • judgment or judgement
  • enquiry or inquiry

That takes care of spelling. The use of grammar is another kettle of fish.


Theoretically the rules of grammar are the same in every country, regardless of how they pronounce or spell words. But bad grammar is spreading rapidly.

Many people learn English by watching television. To make stories realistic, fictional characters speak the way people speak in real life – slang, bad grammar and all. Then people who watch the shows copy what they hear on TV. And the next TV series still has characters speaking the same way people do, and the cycle continues.

In books you can see the contrast between the use of language in the narrative (which should follow correct grammar rules) and that of characters. A much better way to learn a language.

Some of the bad habits that are evident in today’s spoken English are the use of adjectives instead of adverbs, plural verbs with singular nouns (see Collective nouns and verb agreement), and incorrect use pronouns (see Me, Myself and I – the personal pronoun puzzle).

© Andrea Paulsen