Commonwealth English

Varieties of English
AAVE (Ebonics)
American English
Australian English
British English
Canadian English
Caribbean English
Commonwealth English
English English
Hawaiian English
Highland English
Hong Kong English
Indian English
International English
Jamaican English
Liberian English
Malawian English
Malaysian English
Mid Ulster English
Newfoundland English
New Zealand English
Philippine English
Scottish English
Singaporean English
South African English
Standard English
Welsh English

Commonwealth English is intended as a collective term for the perceived standard English language used in the Commonwealth of Nations1, applying in theory to Australian English, British English, Caribbean English, Canadian English, Hiberno-English (Irish English)2, Hong Kong English, Indian English (includes Pakistani English), New Zealand English, and South African English. But Canadian English in particular does not fit well with the others. The term is little used, and when used is most often synonymous with British English in its narrower sense or with International English in a specialised sense which excludes North American English.


Rationale for the term Commonwealth English

The term perhaps comes from a desire to recognise that "Standard English" of Britain, distinguished from American English, is just as much owned by those who use it in Australia or New Zealand or India or South Africa as by those who use it in the land of its origin and from a feeling that this use in multiple countries should appear in its name, that this kind of English is no longer only British.

Canadian English's unique position

Words and idioms

Canada, the Commonwealth country with the largest native-born English-speaking population outside of Britain, is unique in that its standard vocabulary, idiom, and accent tend to coincide with that of neighbouring speakers in the United States far more than with those of Britain or the rest of the Commonwealth.

Canadian spelling

There is no universally accepted standard of Canadian spelling, and standards differ from one area of English-speaking Canada to another.

Historical ties with Britain tend to pull Canadian spelling in that direction; physical proximity with the United States has tended to pull it towards the American standard. As a result, Canadian spelling has tended to waver between the two, taking some of each.

Most authorities, such as the Canadian Government's style manual, The Canadian Style, the Canadian Press style guide, the Gage Canadian Dictionary and the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, propose certain standards:

  • the use of the "-our" ending in words such as "neighbour" and "colour";
  • the use of the "-ce" ending for nouns and the "-se" ending for the equivalent verbs, such as licence (noun), to license (verb) and practice (noun),to practise (verb);
  • the use of double letters in words such as travelled, leveller, etc.

Certain American spellings remain common. The spelling program is more usual than programme, airplane is universally favoured over aeroplane, tire is used rather than tyre, etc.

That being said, regional differences also exist within the country. An Ontarian will be more likely to write colour, while an Albertan will probably tend to write color, for example.

Australian borrowings

Australian English also borrows from both British and American spellings. Though the American spelling of "-or" is preferred by some newspapers, British spelling tends to dominate.

Internal spelling differences

Within British English and its Commonwealth variants there is disagreement as to proper spelling of words such as organise / organize. Both -ise and -ize are generally accepted as correct. The -ise forms are very rarely used in Canada, but they are the choice of the majority in Britain (even though most British dictionaries prefer the -ize forms). See British English for more details. According to Pam Peters (1994: -ise/-ize), based on British National Corpus data, in Britain:

... the -ise spellings outnumber those with -ize in the ratio of about 3:2. In Australian English, the difference is still greater (often 3:1, by frequencies in the ACE corpus), and the tendency has been reinforced by official endorsement of -ise by the Australian government Style Manual since 1966.</blockquote>

The English Academy of South Africa website uses -ize forms on some pages and -ise forms on other pages, recognising both. The Australian Journal of Linguistics, the official journal of the Australian Linguistics Society, insists on the -ize forms against the Australian dictionaries and the majority in Australia.

Independent standards within Commonwealth English

The more extensive forms of Commonwealth English and even some of those less used have their own separate, recognised dictionaries. The Dictionary of Canadian English: The Senior Dictionary was first published by the Canadian textbook publisher Gage Learning in 1967 and updated versions have appeared regularly, the most recent being the Gage Canadian Dictionary in 1997. For South Africa there was Charles Pettman's Africanderisms, a glossary of South African colloquial words and phrases published in 1913. Philip Branford's A Dictionary of South African English was published in 1978 and the most recent edition in 1991. Australian English has had the Macquarie Dictionary since 1981. In 1996 Oxford University Press published the Concise Ulster Dictionary. In 1998 they went farther afield by releasing A Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles, The Canadian Oxford Dictionary, and The Dictionary of New Zealand English. In 2000 they published The Australian Oxford Dictionary. All these use previous Oxford English dictionaries as a base, but modify or replace text according to research on other varieties of English. Caribbean English has Frederic G. Cassidy and Robert B. Le Page's Dictionary of Jamaican English and John A. Holm and Alison W. Shlling's Dictionary of Bahamian English.

Limited use

Commonwealth English is not a clear and distinctive dialect, although it becomes far closer to being one if Canadian English is not considered. Microsoft Encarta appears in four English versions, an American English version, a British English version, a Canadian English version, and an Australian English version, indicating that Microsoft did not feel that one Commonwealth English version would serve to balance the American English version, though there are likely to be few differences between the British English version and the Australian English version. A fifth version could be introduced as well: British English with Concise Oxford Dictionary spelling (IANA value en-GB-oed). Also increasingly spell checkers are supporting more finely grained systems of spelling, not attempting to make British English, renamed as Commonwealth English, to do for all.


  1. There are a number of other Commonwealth nations which are not listed here but also have English as either the primary or an official, language. Examples include Malta, Singapore and Mozambique which is a Commonwealth member but uses Portuguese as its main language of communication.
  2. Although Hiberno-English (Irish English) is listed as Commonwealth English, the Republic of Ireland is not a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, but Northern Ireland is.

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