Is Australian spelling dead?

10 July 2020

With word processing programs in workplaces often remaining in the default setting of US spelling, many people are increasingly unaware of the differences between Australian and American spelling. Australian spelling closely follows British spelling, yet many common words are spelt differently in American English even though they mean the same thing. In an interconnected world with English an international language, do these differences matter?

Follow your leader

Growing up on 3 continents and attending 8 different schools, I quickly learned to adapt to different English spelling requirements. Sometimes the American spelling made more sense, sometimes the British or Australian. But I soon learned that making the ‘incorrect’ choice meant my work would be returned spattered with red corrections. So, if I had an American teacher, I would dutifully write ‘center’, ‘color’, ‘mom’ and ‘traveler’. If I had a British or Australian teacher, I switched back to ‘centre’, ‘colour’, ‘mum’ and ‘traveller’.

Whatever your personal opinion about which is the more logical or better spelling - American or British - it remains important to follow the preferences stated in your organisation’s writing style guide. Consistency of spelling within your own written communications, as well as across the entire organisation, not only promotes a sense of unity within the organisation, it will give your writing a professional polish.

‘z’ versus ‘s’

It might seem an insignificant concern, but the ‘s’ versus ‘z’ spelling variation can still turn a rational person into the embodiment of indignation and righteousness. Many Australians dislike the use of ‘z’ in words like ‘organisation’, ‘realisation’, ‘analyse’ or ‘standardisation’. However, if your spell check is set on the US default spelling, you will get a red line under these words.

Even if you have opted for Australian spelling, there are times when you might have to use the American spelling. For example, when writing brand names or registered business names, you must use the exact spelling of the registered or official name. This overrides the consistency rule. For example, you would write World Health Organization (WHO) not World Health Organisation (WHO).

To add to the confusion, there are also some words that are spelled the same in both American and Australian English. For example, ‘size’, ‘capsize’, ‘exercise’ and ‘surprise’. Any dictionary setting you use will treat these words the same way.

Nouns versus verbs

Another tricky one is the noun and verb distinction. In American spelling, ‘license’ and ‘practice’ are always correct regardless of whether you use the words as a noun or a verb. In British and Australian usage, we differentiate between the nouns ‘licence’ and ‘practice’ and the verbs ‘license’ and ‘practise’.

Many software products are made in the United States, so you will frequently see statements like ‘Public domain is the most permissive type of software license.’ In Australian or British English, this would be incorrect as the noun is spelled ‘licence’, but once you buy the product, you are licensed to use it.

Noun

Verb

I have a driver licence.

I am licensed to drive a motorbike.

This bar has an on-premises licence.

This bar is licensed to sell alcohol.

It pays to do an hour of music practice each day.

Practising for an hour each day will improve your skills.

This medical practice employs 5 general practitioners.

Dr Khan has been practising medicine for over 20 years.

If you don’t feel confident with nouns and verbs, you may be tempted to use the American system for ‘license’  and ‘practice’, which admittedly is much easier. But beware, this may be contrary to your organisation’s style guide. Australian government agencies and most Australian companies follow Australian spelling and defer to the Macquarie Dictionary or the Australian Oxford Dictionary for word usage as well as spelling.

Rather than simply parroting what other people write, take a few minutes to check a reputable dictionary as well as your organisation’s writing style guide. If your organisation prefers Australian spelling, be sure to change your default setting to an Australian dictionary.

For polished and professional business communications, contact us about our professional editing and proofreading services. Call 02 9238 6638 or email patricia.hoyle@concisewriting.com.au

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