What's our standard?
A logical first question in spell checking is "Which dictionary are we using?". And the truth is, this wiki has never actually decided on a standard. This is because most resources are in agreement about over 99% of words, anyway. The fact that we haven't chosen a particular dictionary as our standard really only means that we have to have a forum discussion about particular words in the case of conflict between resources, such as we did in the case of artefact vs. artifact.
What we present to you here, instead of a single standard, are a wide variety of dictionaries and word comparison lists. All are excellent ways for you to begin or continue your education in British spelling:
- The Oxford English Dictionary. The "mother" of all British English dictionaries, the OED has the disadvantage of not being free to everyone. Unless your local library subscribes to it, you'll have to pay to use it. Contact your librarian for info.
- Longman's Dictionary of Contemporary English has a reasonable reputation and is entirely free.
- The Cambridge Dictionary online is also wholly free.
- Oxforddictionaries.com, not to be confused with the Oxford English Dictionary, offers a good overview of the basic differences between American and British English.
- An excellent comprehensive list of US/UK differences
- Not exactly a spelling guide, but a useful phrase translation list
- TravelFurther.net's American-British dictionary is a less academic guide to inter-English difficulties
If and when we decide on a definitive dictionary for this site, spellings in that dictionary will supersede any given on the above sites.
Dictionaries native to your operating system
Some computer operating systems provide dictionaries by default. The OED is also available to Mac users as a native part of OS X, depending on their localisation settings. Mac users with American localisation have the OAD, instead — but even the OAD leverages its connection to the OED to give common British spellings. The OAD/OED has been standard in OS X since at least version 10.4.0.
Windows users are less fortunate, with no dictionary being a part of the core software at least through and including Windows 7. There is an OED version available for Win7, but it's not free.
Linux/UNIX users will find that their dictionary experience will usually be controlled behind the scenes by the dict executable directory. kdict and gdict are GUI expressions of dict, often included as a a part of the KDE and GNOME environments, but it is not known to what degree these are useful in settling questions of British spelling. Linux users are advised to go here for a good primer on the dict core that's still a part of most Linux environments.
There are at least a couple of cross-platform dictionary possibilities, which are free:
Both allow the user to load in whatever dictionaries they want, including the OED. Note that this wiki doesn't actually recommend these pieces of software, nor guarantee that you'll be able to use them, nor warrant that they'll be harmless to your computing environment. You must investigate them yourself and decide if you find them suitable.
Because the differences between British and American English are much greater than simply -our and -ise, it's strongly recommended that you set your computer or browser's spell checker to British English whilst editing this wiki. Advice on how to do this is given in various links found in the navigation area at the very top of this page.
Caution with spell-checkers
Though we do recommend that you change your spell-checkers to British English, we add a note of caution. Spell-checkers have difficulty assessing context, or in dealing with words that have valid alternate spellings. There are some words for which there's a dominant British spelling, and a dominant American spelling, but where the other country's spelling is seen as an acceptable secondary spelling. Spell-checkers have no facility to advise you that you're using the "less-common-but-still-acceptable" British spelling of a word. The perfect example of this is jail. This is also spelled gaol in British English. But most British English spell checkers pass both, meaning we're left without a single spelling. Another example is smidgen, which can also be spelled smidgeon, and smidgin without upsetting your British spell-checker. Dreamed and dreamt are also like this, both being valid spellings of the simple past and past participle of to dream.
Spell checkers also aren't of much help with words that have different spellings as different parts of speech. For instance, licence is always incorrect in American spelling; regardless of part of speech, license is the appropriate American spelling. In British English, however, license is a verb, whilst licence is a noun. For this reason, British spell-checkers pass both license and licence — which doesn't help a lot. Another word like this is tyre. The noun — the four wheels on your car — is absolutely, unambiguously tyre in British English. But tire is also the valid spelling of a word in British English: the completely unrelated verb to tire. Americans are thus helped not at all by a British spell-checker. They type "tire", meaning wheel, and their British spell-checker passes it on the basis of being the verb. Likewise, practise and practice both pass British spell-checking, because the Brits see the former as a verb and the latter as a noun. Americans use the -ice ending for both, which means their British spell-checker would fail to alert them if they used -ice for the verb.
Point is, even with spell-checking, and diligent effort on the part of American editors, errors can creep in.