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Why Canadian spelling is different

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Posted on 
November 14, 2017
Written by 
Sheila Ethier (About the author) , Language Portal of Canada

Canadian spelling isn’t quite the same as anyone else’s.

It’s no secret that we Canadians spell differently from our cousins in the United States:

  • We put a “u” in words like “colour” and “favour”; Americans leave it out
  • We spell “theatre” and “centre” with an “re” at the end; they spell them with an “er”
  • We write cheques for things we order from catalogues, while they order from catalogs and write checks

So how did these differences come about?


The roots of the issue

After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, French became the language of government. And when French scribes heard English words, they wrote them according to French spelling rules.

Meanwhile, the low status of English meant that there was no written standard, so even English writers used their own spellings. By the late Middle Ages, English spelling varied greatly.

To add to the confusion, an important change called the Great Vowel Shift took place in spoken English between the 14th and 18th centuries. Over this period, the way words sounded gradually became quite different from the way they were written. As a result, English spelling became less and less logical.

During the 15th and 16th centuries, a number of scholars tried to standardize English spelling or even reform it, but with little success.

England’s Samuel Johnson

In 1755, Samuel Johnson published his 40,000-word Dictionary of the English Language. Johnson didn’t try to reform spelling to make it more logical. Instead, he simply chose the most common spellings in use at the time.

It is interesting to note that most words in his dictionary are spelled the same way they are today. The biggest difference is that words written today with an “ic” all end in “ick”: “comick,” “magick,” “musick,” “romantick.”

Johnson’s dictionary was very popular and became the main reference for spelling in England for more than 150 years. But although English spelling had become standardized, it hadn’t gotten any more logical.

America’s Noah Webster

Several decades after Johnson’s dictionary appeared, Noah Webster (of Webster’s Dictionary fame) set out to reform American spelling by making it simpler.

For instance, he dropped the “u” from words like “colour” and the “k” from words like “musick.” He also adopted the “er” ending for words like “center” and the “ize” ending for verbs like “organize.”

Webster’s 1828 dictionary and 1829 speller became the primary spelling references for generations of Americans.

Canada’s Sir John A.

As time went on, American spelling practices began to creep over the border. In 1890, Sir John A. Macdonald was asked what spellings should be used in Canada.

Our first prime minister felt strongly that all parts of the British Empire should hold to the system used in England. And he ordered that “the English practice be uniformly followed” in all government documents.

Thus, British spelling was upheld as the standard in Canada.

Canadian spelling today

Language changes; and in spite of Sir John A., our neighbours to the south have made some inroads into Canadian spelling.

For example, we’ve adopted the American ending “ize” instead of “ise” in verbs like “organize,” “civilize” and “specialize.” And like the Americans, we spell “encyclopedia” (and most other words like it) with an “e” instead of an “ae.”

So if our spelling is partly American and partly British, how can we be sure we’re choosing the right forms for a Canadian audience? The best bet is to check a reliable Canadian dictionary (such as the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the Gage Canadian Dictionary or the Collins Canadian Dictionary) for the spellings accepted in Canada. When more than one spelling is listed, it is the first one that most Canadians prefer.

What do you think about Canadian spelling? Would you do anything to change or improve it? Tell us your opinion in a comment.


The opinions expressed in posts and comments published on the Our Languages blog are solely those of the authors and commenters and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Language Portal of Canada.

About the author

Sheila Ethier

Sheila Ethier has taught English and translation at the post-secondary level and has many years’ experience in translation. She enjoys creating content for the Portal.


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I am torn by a loyalty to Canada, Canadian history and its institutions, and a common sense approach to all things. On the one hand I wish every word was spelled exactly as it sounds. On the other I am annoyed when my computer automatically reverts to US spelling and auto-corrects or when I see Facebook posts by Canadians using American spellings. Our adherence to the status quo is an illustration of our reluctance to admit someone else may have a better way. My right brain says don't let others tell us how to spell. My left brain says why do we spell it "cough" and not "coff"?

Have you tried setting your language to UK English instead of US English?

But the point of the article is that Canadian spelling is distinct from both U.K. and U.S. spelling.

I knew about Sir John A. Macdonald's order-in-council on Canadian spelling but I'd never seen the actual Government of Canada reference. I ran across this a few weeks ago.

The order in council is referenced on this page (see item 1695): "Refd [Referred] to Sir John A. Macdonald 1890/05/21 - on file with O.C. [Order in Council]; Report 1890/05/30"

The photo of the note to the Queen's Printer about it.

Hi, Gael,

Thanks for your comment with the links to the order-in-council and the note to the Queen’s Printer.

Here’s a fun bit of trivia that I came across when researching the article: the person identified as D. Hurlbert in both document descriptions is actually a Dr. Jesse Beaufort Hurlbert, an academic and the author of various books on Canadian issues, including one titled “The Climate, Production and Resources of Canada” (published in 1872).

And he may have made a habit of complaining to Macdonald. In the book “Riel to Reform: A History of Protest in Western Canada,” Hurlbert gets the following mention:

“The sober-minded principal of Queen’s University was joined in his concern by Jesse Beaufort Hurlbert who took time out from his optimistic writings on Canada’s climate to protest to Macdonald that many Conservatives in the West opposed the syndicate bargain.”

How is the history of Canadian spelling of English words different from that of New Zealand, Australia, India, and other Commonwealth countries?

Hi, Kathie,

Thanks for your question! Since we’re a Canadian government website, our focus in this post was on the way Canadian spelling evolved. We’re not familiar with the way English spelling evolved in other Commonwealth countries, and for that reason, we’re not qualified to respond to your question. However, we invite comments from other readers who may know something about spelling practices in other English-speaking nations.

Australian spelling is almost universally English and usually of an older stripe. I put this down to our colonial past and strong British heritage. I find some Canadian spellings a bit hard to remember, in particular with online platforms automatically using US spellings.

Thanks for the informative article and replies to comments.

Thank you for your views on this confusing topic. It is frustrating when our spell checkers keep auto correcting our correct spellings. Google, Apple are all American companies. We studied correctly, but as adults we are often double guessing. But like our friends across the pond, we spell differently from our closer neighbours. More confusion when you are writing in Canada but for an American forum. I guess we should all remember this quote, "When in Rome, do as the Romans do."

Hi, Anvita,

Thank you for your comment. Spellcheckers that don’t recognize Canadian spelling can certainly be aggravating! Thank goodness we can set our language preference in Word! I always set it to “English (Canada)” so that I’m not corrected when I type words like “honour” or “practise.” I was intrigued by the long list of possibilities for English in Word, and decided one day to count them. There is a separate setting for 18 different varieties of English, including not only Canadian, British and American, but also Australian, Irish, Indian, Jamaican and South African, to name just a few! That should certainly help if we ever find ourselves writing for audiences even farther afield than the U.S.!

Totally, Sheila. I was wondering more when we write to American forums using our Canadian English, but over there it is or might be considered an error, since they have different spellings, do they keep in mind the origins of the writer? Has anyone ever experienced this? Thanks.

Hi, Anvita,

My guess would be that most educated Americans are aware that British spelling differs from American spelling and is considered equally correct. But I have no personal experience to go by.

Are there any readers out there who have experience using British or Canadian spelling in an American Internet forum?

Well, I think Canada has dropped the ball. Big time. If 327 million people spell a word one way versus 37 million spelling the same word differently, obviously we can’t spell.

Hi, Don,

Thank you for your comment. The fact is that correct spelling is merely a convention agreed upon by the speakers of a language. So if a significant community of speakers adopts a particular style of spelling, then that spelling is correct for them, regardless of what other language communities might choose to do.

But for those who place value on numbers, it’s helpful to bear in mind that those 37 million Canadians who haven’t rushed to adopt American spelling are not alone: British spelling is typically preferred by the hundreds of millions of English speakers in countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India.

Speaking as a Canadian, I think Canadians should use British spelling. Why? It is nonsense to try to reinvent the wheel. The English language was fully functional long before us and does not require editing.

Is there an equivalent page about Canadian French? I find how language changes really fascinating.

Hi, Ellen,
This post wasn't translated, because spelling variants don’t exist in French. However, the following posts may be of interest to you:

1. A French post entitled “3 raisons d’adopter l’orthographe rectifiée,” which argues for simplified spelling in French (see
2. “The French spoken in New France,” which provides a historical look at Canadian French (see


Now that the Canadian Oxford is no longer being updated (since 2005! the team was disbanded in 2008), it appears that a number of institutions and publications within Canada are having a hard time finding a satisfactory substitute that works at all times. As time goes on and language evolves, the CanOx does risk becoming outdated in a few areas. I'd love to hear how you guys are dealing with this!

The Language Portal of Canada is still using the Canadian Oxford Dictionary (COD) as its spelling authority. But, for those who might be concerned about the age of the COD, there is a newer Canadian dictionary: the Collins Canadian Dictionary (the second paperback edition came out in 2016). And a popular spelling authority is The Canadian Press Caps and Spelling (22nd ed., 2018). The Portal may consider switching to one of these resources in future.

I think Canadian English is a combination of British and American English.

Which Canadian prime minister changed “er” words to “re” words? I'm thinking Pierre Trudeau, but I'm not sure.

Hi, Terry,

Actually, the ending on words like “centre” or “theatre” or “sabre” was always spelled “re” in British English. And with its closer ties to Britain, Canada retained the British spelling and continued to spell the ending “re.” It was the Americans, under the influence of Noah Webster, who switched to the more phonetic spelling “er.”

I am a Canadian employment counsellor and a former English language instructor. I was educated in the UK and Canada. I am finding that a significant number of Canadians are using US spelling. In the long run, Canadians might adopt American spellings. It is important to preserve Canadian English and Canadian spelling. I have some ideas, but I am not sure where to share them.

Since Canadian English and Canadian spelling help to distinguish us from other English-speaking countries and thus contribute to our sense of national identity, we agree that it would be a shame if they disappeared. If you would like to share your ideas on preserving Canadian English, we invite you to contribute a post to the Our Languages Blog.

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