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.

Information about Sheila Ethier and the categories

Get to know Sheila Ethier

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.

Why set it to UK English when I can set it to Canadian English? I think Canadians should try to spell with Canadian English instead of American English, but it seems like so many people I know blame their computer saying it's the setting, when they can simply change the setting. This would be an easy way for them to learn Canadian spelling.

A better way? I don't think Webster's modifications to English spelling were meant to improve the language inasmuch as they were meant to make American a separate language. Moreover, in Canada, where the influence of French is prominent, it makes sense to spell centre, theatre and litre the same way as the British. I also like that we maintain a distinction between the verbs to practise and to license and their nouns practice and licence. It reinforces our basic understanding of grammar. Last, I am not convinced with the article's assertion that all Canadians spell organise and realise with a zed.

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.

In Australia and New Zealand, the spelling convention follows British English. British English (spelling and punctuation) is what is taught at elementary, high school and university.

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 https://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/fr/blogue-blog/orthographe-rec...).
2. “The French spoken in New France,” which provides a historical look at Canadian French (see https://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/en/blogue-blog/francais-nouvel...).


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.

Living in America(U.S.), I get mostly frustrated playing the word game 'Scrabble'.
My English must be extremely difficult to learn for foreigners! Even we get confused.
My question is: What's the correct way to spell...
Canadian OR Canadien?

Does the latter only apply to people or in a possessive term?


"Canadian" is English. "Canadien" is French. The Montreal hockey team is named the Canadiens and so called in both official languages.

Thank you for your comment. As another reader has already noted, both spellings are used in English, but not with the same meaning. “Canadian” is the correct English spelling for both the noun and the adjective. “Canadiens” is the correct spelling in French for the name of the Montreal hockey team; and as part of the official team name, it is used in English in reference to the team, but not in any other context. - Our Languages blog team, on behalf of Sheila Ethier

For words like "fulfil/fulfill" "enrol/enroll" "skilful/skillful" or"instil/instill," which is more correct in the Canadian context of spelling, the single-L spellings or the double-L spellings?

Hi, Steven,

Although Canadian spelling tends to favour the double “l,” there are exceptions. According to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, the preferred spellings for the examples you gave are “fulfill” and “instill” (with a double “l”) but “skilful” and “enrol” (with a single “l”). The best thing to do is to pick a reliable Canadian dictionary and use it consistently. For more information on Canadian spelling, see the second part of the Portal’s writing tip called “spelling: international variations” (https://www.noslangues-ourlanguages.gc.ca/en/writing-tips-plus/spelling-international-variations).


Is it true that Canadian spelling of words have more letters (colour vs. color) because more money was given if the word was longer?
I was told this by a university student.

It is apparently true that early English printers had the habit of adding letters to some words. Here is what the English Spelling Society says in the article
A Brief History of English Spelling”: “The printers also tended to lengthen words. This was driven partly by money – they were paid by the number of lines printed – and partly by page layout...” According to the Society, that explains why “frend” came to be spelled “friend” and “hed” became “head.” But my understanding is that words like “colour” and “honour” owe their “our” spelling to the influence of French, following the Norman Conquest of England. - The Our Languages blog team, on behalf of Sheila Ethier


I'm Canadian but I'm also a citizen of the UK. I've always tended toward the British side of spelling with words like "specialise" and "analyse". It's mostly because the first books I read as a child were all from the UK or Ireland and so that spelling always felt more natural to me. Words that were learnt later on in life like "encyclopedia" and "aluminum" tend to use the American spellings. However there are some glaring exceptions to that rule. A couple that I can think of off the top of my head is that I spell "manoeuvre" instead of "maneuver" and "learnt" instead of "learned".

There are some irregularities in the way Americans spell that has me scratching my head. Like, Sabre becomes Saber, Centre becomes Center, Metre becomes Meter but Tyre doesn't become Tyer, Apple doesn't become Appel and Able doesn't become Abel.

I have a Webster's Canadian dictionary that does not include a spelling or meaning of the word Indigenous..there is nothing between the word
indifferent and indigestible in this dictionary

I would like someone to explain this

Thank you for your comment. The reason that the word “Indigenous” (with a capital “I”) does not appear in your dictionary may have something to do with the age of the dictionary. The term “Indigenous” did not come into widespread use in reference to the original inhabitants of Canada until after 2015. (Before that time, “Aboriginal” was the dominant term in Canada.) Therefore, if your dictionary was published in 2015 or earlier, it would be less likely to contain the capitalized word “Indigenous.”

It was the Government of Canada’s adoption of this term that fuelled its rapid increase in popularity in this country. If you are looking for a definition, here is how Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Canada defines the term “Indigenous peoples”: “‘Indigenous peoples’ is a collective name for the original peoples of North America and their descendants.” For an explanation of when to write “Indigenous” with a capital, please see our writing tip capitalization: races; languages; peoples. Blog team for / Sheila Ethier


In British spelling the endings -ise and -ize are both acceptable. Some publishers, notably Oxford university press, routinely use -ize. But it’s complicated. Realise and realize are both OK, but analyze is regarded as American. Overall, the -ise spellings are much more commonly used and they are easier because you don’t have to remember the exceptions!

As i a retired teacher in Ontario & Quebec I think there is
a problem with :
"In 1890, Sir John A. Macdonald was asked (what) spellings should be used in Canada."

===>> Change that to "which spellings"

Thank you for your comment. “Which” is usually preferred when the range of choices is fairly narrow and specific (e.g. “Which foot did you injure?”; “Which colour would you prefer: blue, yellow or green?”). “What” is generally used when the options are more numerous and not as specific. Because the focus here is general and the range of options is not limited to a small number of specified spellings, we prefer “what” in this context. - Our Languages blog team, on behalf of Sheila Ethier


A very educative & illustrative document!!

As a Canadian, I prefer to adhere to the Canadian style of spelling myself; I feel that it gives Canada distinction & myself a sense of patriotic pride in having & using those spellings! However, I do prefer to use the British style of spellings for many words as well; e.g., ‘ise’/‘isation’, words with ‘ae’/‘oe’, words like ‘instil’ & ‘fulfil’, &c. I also prefer using British spellings for a number of misc. words, such as ‘programme’ & ‘plough’ instead of ‘program’ & ‘plow’ (I’ll still use program in a computer sense). I’ve read on the Internet, from different sources, that many British spellings, ones that aren’t considered to be usual for Canadian spelling, are considered to be valid alternatives in Canada!

There’s another spelling pattern in British spelling that isn’t as common nowadays as it once was, & that’s ‘xion’ instead of ‘ction’ for words like ‘connexion’ & ‘reflexion’ instead of ‘connection’ & ‘reflection’. It’s still considered an valid alternative in British English, so I choose to use ‘xion’ for those words, & such, when I spell them. I find the spelling’s more in line with those words’ etymological roots (Latin); plus, I really like the way they look spelt with an ‘x’ instead!

There are some words, which have changed, that I would have liked to have seen kept in their older spellings; specifically, other words that had the ‘our’ spelling. There used to be a bunch of words that had that spelling; for the most part, they have been kept in abstract nouns of Old French/Anglo-French origin. In saying that, I feel that the words ‘error’, ‘horror’, ‘terror’, ‘tenor’ (not in the musical sense), & ‘tremor’ should have been kept as ‘errour’, ‘horrour’, ‘terrour’, ‘tenour’, & ‘tremour’. I’ve found ‘tenour’ listed in a current dictionary as a British spelling of the word ‘tenor’, so I’ll use that one when I’m spelling it in the non-musical sense.

Speaking of music, I’d be excited to see ‘ick’, ‘ack’ spellings restored as well; e.g., ‘musick’, ‘aphrodisiack’, &c. I learnt about this spelling back when I was younger in school. I was explained that the ‘ic’ & ‘ac’ spellings are of, mainly, Greek origin & that the letter ‘k’ was used to, possibly, reflect the transliteration of that. It seems that Greek is older than Latin, so I can definitely see the ‘logick’ of what I had mentioned! In that connexion (words of Greek origin), I think that the word ‘alchemy’ & its descendants: ‘chemistry’, &c.; would be benefited from returning to their previous forms: ‘alchymy’, chymistry’, &c.

English used to have two ‘s’s; the one that is used today, ‘s’, & this one, ‘ſ’; the ‘long “s”’. ‘ſ’ used to be used in almost all initial & medial positions, whilst ‘s’ (‘short “s”’) was used almost exclusively at the end of a word. In handwriting, ‘ſ’ was usually only practised in words with ‘ss’, but only the first ‘s’ would be ‘ſ’; e.g., ‘busineſs’, ‘aſsembly’, &c. Printed materials switch to handwritten conventions for ‘ſ’ for a short while before it was dropped entirely. I wouldn’t mind if it came back that way again, as a vestige to the letter that was once used; then there’d be words like ‘aſseſsment’ & ‘expreſsway’, &c!

Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to ‘expreſs’ my opinions & reflexions on this document & its subject! I should be most excited to see this posted & hope that there would be other people who would find it interesting!

Thank you.

I think the fact that we in Canada have a different subset of spelling makes us unique.
Since I teach English to speakers of other languages, it becomes imperative that we emphasize our differences from British and American English.

It would be nice to preserve our Canadian spellings. But, to tell the truth, I get insecure sometimes. Because some of the (official) Canadian spellings (such as the verb "practise" or "centred, centring" "manoeuvre" "skilful" etc.) are not used by many Canadians. In fact, the aforementioned spellings even look wrong to a lot of Canadians, I know because I have been corrected a few times by Canadians who are oblivious. I'm conflicted because I strongly love and cherish the British spellings that we Canadians have, but they may be mistakenly viewed as wrong by many Canadians (who are exposed to American sources all the time). I would love some advice. Should I proudly uphold Canadian spelling to the letter (truth is, I want to) despite the aforementioned problem? or should I spell what I think looks right to people around me?

Hi, Steven,

You have all my sympathy! I can really relate! I too prefer using our more traditional spellings.

But for words with different American and British spellings, I think the best approach is probably to check in a reliable Canadian dictionary for the spelling most common in Canada and then use that. (The more common spelling may occasionally prove to be the American one.)

Then, if anyone questions you, you can refer them to the dictionary in question with an easy mind, since a dictionary is a pretty widely acknowledged authority on spelling. Blog team for / Sheila Ethier

I have read many antique articles, and magazines such as the old issues of the Canadian Magazine or even government pamphlets and the spellings used in them were all what we would constitute now as "American" spelling. I found multiple entries of words such as: Favor, Armor, Flavor, Color, etc. by both the authors and general populance in their letters to editor. It seems to me that those spellings are just as Canadian as the "British" type spellings and it looks like at some point or the other in history, Canadians wanted to be more distinguished from their brothers to the south.

This has been a very interesting and informative blog. Thank you!

Canadian spelling is confusing and as a marketer and brand storyteller, with audiences in both Canada and America, I'm forever being told my spelling is wrong.

That must be very frustrating, especially since both the Canadian and American spelling systems are of course correct!

When people tell me I've spelled something wrong, I say "no, that's the Canadian way!"

I was checking my old spelling book from elementary school , published in Toronto and authorized by the Ministry of Education for Ontario,in the early 60's and it notes with an asterisk to the teacher that while the spelling of colour and parlour are the most common form in Canada that spelling color and parlor without the u are acceptable and that no student shall be penalized for spelling them that way in any test or examination. We were taught to spell programme as were most if not all government documents at the time. Interestingly though all Canadian government documents now spell it program and nary a peep to be heard. But drop that u from colour and you get a tsunami of critics. I often wonder if those same critics who claim Canadian spelling is the same as British spelling actually spell words like "tire as tyre" "curb as kerb" etc.

I’d generally like if we adopted all American standard grammar as they are our neighbours and we talk like them.

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