Why we have both “color” and “colour”

Americans have standardized around different spelling conventions from other parts of the world. There is a multiplicity of spelling differences between British and American English.

Like many such dilemmas, deciding whether to use color or colour depends on the added U in colour. This feature is common to the spellings of many words which differ between American and British English. The American effort to standardize around simpler spellings, where these existed, brought about such differences.

What is the Difference Between Color and Colour?

In this article, I will compare color vs. colour. I will also use both of these words in sentences, as well as reveal a useful trick to help decide whether colour or color is the more appropriate variant for your writing.

When to Use Color

Why We Have Both What does color mean? Color can be a noun or a verb.

As a noun, color is defined as a characteristic appearance achieved by reflecting certain frequencies of visible light while absorbing others. A blue surface, for instance, reflects blue frequencies of light, making the object in question appear blue.

As a verb, color is defined as to give something a shade or a hue. Coloring can be achieved with paints, pencils, or through use of digital software.

Below are examples of color in both its noun and verb forms.

  • Red is not the warmest color. (Noun)
  • “Oh Rachel, that color looks so good on you!” Bryan exclaimed. (Noun)
  • The water in the diving well turned a dark shade of green on Tuesday, and the larger pool began to turn the same color the following day. –New York Post (Noun)
  • “My children want you to color a picture with them,” the woman said to her realtor. (Verb)

The below graph that charts color vs. color in American English, and, as you can see, color is clearly the dominant spelling.

Why We Have Both

When to Use Colour

What does colour mean? Colour is the British English spelling of this word. It is applicable to all the same contexts as color.

  • The colour catches the eye. Polychromatic stone sculpture is not something we are quite used to. –The Telegraph

The below graph charts colour vs. color in British English, and, as you can see, colour has been vastly preferred since at least 1800. It does appear, however, that color is gaining ground, but colour is still the dominant spelling.

Why We Have Both

Even though these charts aren’t exhaustive or scientific, they are useful for identifying long term trends.

Trick to Remember the Difference

Why We Have Both Here is a helpful trick to remember colour vs. color.

Color is preferred in American English. Colour is preferred in British English.

You can remember to use colour with primarily British audiences by noticing the U that colour has in common with United Kingdom. Since there is no U in the word America, you will know not to use colour when writing for American audiences.

Summary

Is it color or colour? Color and colour are alternative spellings of the same word. As a noun, the word refers to the various shades of visible light reflected back to the eye from a surface. As a verb, it refers to the action of imparting color to an object.

  • Color is the preferred spelling in American English.
  • In British English, colour is preferred.

You can remember to use colour with British audiences by noticing the U that colour has in common with United Kingdom.

Color and colour are a good example of spelling differences between American and British English. Be sure to check this website next time you have questions about the meanings of similar words, or about spelling differences between these two varieties of written English.

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Why Do Brits and Americans Spell Words Differently?

Why We Have Both

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are greeted by Britain's Queen Elizabeth at Buckingham Palace in London, April 1, 2009.

(Image: © The White House | Pete Souza)

Two people, one common language… sort of. Center vs. centre, color vs. colour, realize vs. realise — a seemingly endless list of spelling divergences have cropped up in the 250 years since the colonies and United Kingdom were ruled by one and the same king. Why are there so many differences in British and American spelling, and how did they creep in?

Each word has its own unique history, but the primary mover and shaker in this transatlantic drama is the nineteenth century American lexicographer Noah Webster, he of dictionary fame. According to “A History of English Spelling” (Manchester University, 2011) by D.G. Scragg, Webster's dictionary of 1828 is largely responsible for standardizing the accepted spelling of American English.

Before 1828, many words, such as humor (or humour), defense (or defence) and fiber (or fibre), had two acceptable spellings on both sides of the pond, because they were introduced in England via both Latin and French, which used different spellings.

Webster picked his preferred forms (the former ones in each example above), justifying his choices in various ways, but partly on nationalist grounds: he wanted American spelling to be distinct from, and (in his opinion) superior to, British spelling.

 [Why Can't Germans Pronounce 'Squirrel'?]

“Since the book was successful in establishing its authority throughout the States, [Webster's spelling variants] have been generally recognized as American forms,” Scragg writes.

“In that sense Webster was the first to differentiate between British and American usage, and in that it was frequently he who chose the variant of two spellings in early nineteenth-century use which have subsequently been preferred in the United States, he can be said to have influenced the development of spelling. He is in a way 'responsible' for such forms as center, color and defense.”

Color vs. Colour – How to Use Each Correctly

Why We Have Both

What’s the Difference Between Color and Colour?

Color and colour are alternate spellings of the same word. The former is the preferred spelling for American English, while the latter is the preferred spelling for British English. They are used in all the same contexts but by different language communities.

As a noun, it refers to the pigment of something, such as red, orange, yellow, green, blue, or purple. As a verb, it means to add color to something.

The American spelling lacks the letter u.

  • The colors in the painting are so beautiful! (American spelling)

The British spelling includes the letter u.

  • That colour looks very fetching on you. (British spelling)

The original English spelling was the British version. However, the shorter, American has become more and more common over the years.

Let’s look at the usage of these two words.

Using Color in a Sentence

When to use color: This noun describes the hue or shade of different objects. It is related to the way that an object reflects light. The verb means the action of adding color to something.

For example,

  • My favorite color is blue. (noun)
  • The child colored the pages of the book. (verb)

Color appears in many different idioms, as shown below:

  • a horse of a different color: something totally different
    • Oh, you want to borrow one dollar? That’s fine. I thought you wanted to borrow one thousand dollars. That’s a horse of a different color.
  • to pass with flying colors: to pass with an excellent grade or very high score
    • Although she was initially worried about taking the test, she ended up passing with flying colors.
  • color inside the lines: to follow the rules without ever straying from them
    • He’s a good employee and always colors inside the lines. However, he’s not very creative.
  • off color: to feel a little sick or to be rude or vulgar
    • Sorry I can’t come into the office today, but I feel a little off color.
    • Off-color jokes are not appreciated in formal settings.
  • reveal/show one’s true colors: to show one’s true personality
    • Everyone thought he was a kind person at first, but then he showed his true colors. It turns out that he was very cruel.
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Many historians point to Noah Webster as the reason behind the differences in spelling between American and British English.

He was a contemporary of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin who wanted the newly independent America to have its own culture and language separate from Britain.

As part of this, he suggested some alternate spellings that he believed were better. Color was one of these alterations.

Using Colour in a Sentence

When to use colour: This has the exact same meaning and usage as color. It can mean a pigment or hue as a noun, or the act of adding color as a verb. The only difference is that this is the spelling you use if you are using British English.

For example,

  • Children often learn the names of different colours when they are very young. (noun)
  • Don’t colour on the walls! (verb)

The expressions are the same as those used with color. The colour spelling occurs in the Commonwealth of Nations, countries that were formerly controlled by the British.

Remembering Color vs. Colour

There are a few ways to help you remember when to use color versus colour. First, many more nations use colour. Amongst them are the United Kingdom and all the countries in the Commonwealth. Just as there are more countries that use colour, there are more letters in colour. This connection of more countries equaling more letters can act as a useful mnemonic device.

A second mnemonic device is that color is the new version of the spelling, just as America is a newer country than Britain. You can tell it is new because it has been edited to remove what people saw as an unnecessary letter.

Outside Examples

  • While most patients did not have a color change, the 14 cases suggest it’s not an isolated finding. In 13 patients, hair turned darkish brown or black. In one patient, it turned black in patches. –Denver Post
  • If a homeowner wants to change the entry door color, the style of windows, or install a skylight, how does the owner know if the request is worth the effort, and how do they know what is the HOA’s application process? –OC Register
  • The commentary prompted an official statement from Madame Tussauds headquarters in England: “Our talented team of sculptors takes every effort to ensure we accurately colour match all of our wax figures to the celebrity being depicted. Lighting within the attraction combined with flash photography may distort and misrepresent the colour of our wax figures.” –San Francisco Examiner
  • The Eiffel Tower is lit in the colours of the Olympic flag during the launch of the Paris bid to host the 2024 Olympic Games on Friday. –New York Daily News
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Quiz: Colour vs. Color

Instructions: Fill in the blank with the correct word, either colour or color.

  1. The tulips come in several different _______________. (This sentence was written in Britain.)
  2. Some people are ____________ blind. (This sentence was written in the United States.)
  3. Some people find ________________ helps to relieve stress. (This sentence was written in Australia, a member of the British Commonwealth.)

See answers below.

Article Summary

Should I use color or colour? These words are two different spellings of the same word. Color and colour both describe the different hues that exist due to different wavelengths of light, and how light reflects off of objects.

  • Color is the preferred spelling in the United States, due to adoption of spelling reforms in the late 1700s and early 1800s.
  • Colour is the preferred spelling in the United Kingdom, and Commonwealth countries.

Either version is correct. However, it is typical to use whichever variant is more common for the audience for which you are writing.

  • If you are in America, and writing for Americans, use color.
  • If you are in another English speaking country, use colour.

Answers

Color or colour? Are you writing your English right?

Ever noticed that your computer and phone speak a different dialect of English from yours? How they think 'colour', 'analyse' and 'centre' are spelling mistakes when you know for a fact that they are spelled correctly? For the most part, those of us who write the Queen's English have become so used to being erroneously corrected by our computers that we don't even notice it any more.

It's time to do something about it.

Very broadly, there are two main English 'dialects' when it comes to spelling. The main differences are in word endings:

  • 'British English' uses -ise (analyse, organise), -our (colour, honour) and -re (centre) endings.
  • 'American English' uses -ize, -or and -er endings (organize, color and center).

In Australia, we generally use and recognise the British forms, probably because of our cultural heritage.

However, particularly because of the predominance of American forms on the internet, Australians (along with those from many other Commonwealth nations) are comfortable reading either variety.

Increasingly, the -ise and -ize words are used interchangeably: Australia's Macquarie Dictionary recognises both forms. 

How to choose spelling for your own writing

This begs the question: from an Australian perspective, which form of spelling should we use, particularly if writing for the web when our words will be read by Americans and the British?

There is no hard and fast answer, but here are three guidelines:

  1. On the web, stick to British English if your site will predominantly be read by Australians and/or those from England and other nations of the old British empire. Use American English only if your site is specifically targeting a US or broadly international audience.
  2. For books and ebooks, the same guidelines apply though there is probably a stronger slant towards the use of British English for books published in Australia. Still, use of American English is a perfectly valid choice if you feel more comfortable with it (or want your American readers to feel more comfortable with it).
  3. Above all, be consistent. The worst thing you can do is mix and match both forms in one document. Choose one 'dialect' and stick with it. This applies to -ise/-ize words too – if you decide to use -ize spellings alongside colour and centre, make sure you use -ize spellings throughout.

Changing your computer's language

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