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Defence vs. defense

Defence and defense are different spellings of the same word. Defense is preferred in American English, and defence is preferred in all other main varieties of English, including Australian, British, and Canadian English. The spelling distinction extends to most derivatives of defence/defense, including defences/defenses and defenceless/defenseless. But the words defensive, defensiveness, and defensively have an s everywhere.

Though defense is now the American spelling, it is not American in origin. The OED and Google Books reveal examples of the spelling from as long ago as the 1300s, many centuries before the United States existed. That spelling continued to appear a fraction of the time through the 19th century, when it was taken up by American writers. Today, to the chagrin of those who dislike American English, the spelling is gaining ground throughout the English-speaking world.

Ngrams

This ngram, which graphs the use of defence and defense in American English through the 20th century, shows that defense became the prevalent spelling around 1910:


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And the next ngram graphs the occurrence of the words in British English during the same period. It shows defense gaining ground:

Examples

U.S. publications use defense—for example:

The Redskins are last in the NFL in defense, giving up an average of 394.8 yards per game. [Washington Post]

Schools in Southern Section Division 1AA had better start preparing for Etiwanda’s man-to-man defense. [Los Angeles Times]

A senior U.S. defense department official says China’s military buildup could turn the Asian regional security balance upside down. [Voice of America]

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Comments

  1. It would be interesting to see research into why these trends regarding the Ngrams use in each context. I would suggest much of the behaviour is driven by the common use of computers with built-in American dictionaries that automatically correct ‘defence’ to ‘defense’. This is having a huge impact on the use of language in countries that employ English (I refuse to say British English, because that is simply English).

    • German_Shepherd says:

      Americans should say “American English” since Brittain was around long before North America.

      • I think you mean it was around long before the United States. The United States of America gained independence from England before spelling was standardized (standardised) in any English speaking country. Therefore the spelling that Americans use is every bit as legitimate as the spelling Brits use and just as deserving of the general term “English” as is the British method.

        • Danny Shevlin says:

          Got a feeling that the continent of America was about a little before the island of Great Britain.Still,imo,English is English and any variations are just that.

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        • Silver_Wings says:

          I was tempted to write a whole list of reasons why American English and English shouldnt both be called English, but here is the main reason: English was the BASE LANGUAGE for American English, Americans added and took away words from English, they found different ways to say the words, different ways to spell them. American English isnt a “variation” its another language, Im not saying its completely different Im just saying it has WAY too many differences to be considered the same.

          • Hmmm, more like Dialects. A 15th century Brit would probably argue that modern British English isn’t English. Under your argument, middle english was the base for British English, and old english was the base for middle english. This is just language evolving over different geographical areas over time as it always has. As far as saying the American dialect of English is “another language”, anyone who has a background in language would set you straight. Again, look at the “English” spoken on the British Isles from 1200-1900. Even it was not standardized until relatively modern history. As widespread as English is today, it takes many forms whether you are from Canada, the US, Australia, Britain or elsewhere. All are English and all will continue to evolve. I personally am proud of the history of the English language. It defied all odds to become the language we are debating, and England is one fine country to inherit something from.

          • erikpandimensional says:

            Thank you, some sense. Linguistic essentialism has to be one of the stupidest kinds of xenophobia.

          • Shane Wood says:

            Brilliant reply

          • DannyYiddoShevlin says:

            Think what you want my friend.English English and American English is what it says it is and that is definitely NOT two different languages.Is there any chance I could actually tempt you write a list just for the laugh.Base language lol Seriously,I give up!

          • Joe Morphew says:

            American English blends multiple languages, being the “melting pot” that it was, people and cultures from all over Europe influenced the langauge developement. That said, British English also changed from the time the U.S. was born, languages evolve, it happens, neither is right or wrong.

          • The English that we speak is also a ‘melting pot’ borrowing words from French, Italian (Latin), Greek, Indian and just about every other country that we have invaded/concured/occupied over the years.

      • Britain is a pile of crap country that enslaved its people. You guys have messed up teeth too! LMFAO

      • DannyYiddoShevlin says:

        No they should just call it English because that’s all it is.oh and I think you mean Britain.

    • awaypturwpn says:

      Computers with built-in American dictionaries in the 1910’s, 20’s, and especially 40’s? That’s when there were huge upward trends in the usage of “defense,” and I don’t think auto-correct was all that prevalent back then…

  2. LachlanS says:

    I would agree with J. Every time I go through my notes at a later date, I find that so much of my spelling has been changed to American English, and despite the fact that I was once confident that defence was spelt as such, I was now unsure enough to search for an explanation and ended up here!

  3. lol same Lachlan, i went here because word kept correcting me, and even when i change it to “Canadian” English it seems to just reset.

    • Danny Shevlin says:

      Its a conspiracy! Those darn Americans are even trying to take over our language. ;)

    • Yes. I’ve had MS Word set to English (UK) and it would reset itself constantly to English (US) whenever I pasted text in from the internet or from other documents. It randomly does it at odd intervals when you’re typing things too, rather than actually listening to user’s request to have it set to English (Canadian) or English (UK) or English (Australia) … or any other country than English (US). PowerPoint will change it to English (US) automatically, even when you’ve set the MS Office language default to UK English.

  4. i say just spell things how you want. seems like everyone just follows someone else when it comes to spelling. make up your own! For example. You R kool! Who is to say it is wrong?

  5. Agreed.

  6. gWeb_01 says:

    I guess nobody on this blog is aware of Noah Webster. He’s the reason for the differences between UK English and “American” English.

    On a side note, oddly enough, I just realized the similarity between American and Puerto Rican. Maybe if they become a state, they can become Puerto American.

  7. From simplicity’s point of view, American spelling is better according to derivatives of the word (defensively, etc). On the other hand, other “***ce” words might get cranky about it :)

  8. agrazsaxena says:

    thank u to help m to know wat is d diffrnce between !

  9. Americans, butchering our language since 1776.

    • Food for thought: British English in 1776 was much different from the British English of today. Why is it that linguistic developments on one side of the Atlantic are inherently inferior to developments on the other?

      Here in the U.S., we regularly encounter new Britishims, and we tend to view them as charming additions to the language. At least, we don’t view them as threats to English. If only the British (those who comment on this site, anyway) were so politely open-minded.

      Anyway, please read the second paragraph of the above post.

      • DannyYiddoShevlin says:

        great comment until you started banging on about impolite Brits whilst implying that all Americans share your point of view.You should read ALL the comments on this page.

      • Spanish and Portuguese were the same language at some point, but the nation split and the two languages changed over time, i don’t see why american English can’t be called american, are you offended a name which represents your countries independence? surely you would have pride to speak american as an american, english – england , american – america, simple hmm?

        • I think there may be a misunderstanding of Spanish and Portuguese as once being an integrated language. The origins of both Spanish and Portuguese are considerable different, and its divergence was the result of historical and cultural differences in relation with Arabic, Norman, French, Latin and many others. Furthermore, the language of Portuguese is more similar to Galician, a dialect of Spanish, but it is not equivalent too Spanish. Your example also ignores the fact that the differences between the two developed much over a thousand years.
          More appropriately, it would be like saying Mexican and Spanish are different languages. Your argument reflects national pride rather linguist derivation. Language is not stereotyped, there are many regional variations of English within England and the U.S. itself where it understood that the spoken remains as “English”.

          • mexican and spanish ARE different languages , someone who speaks spanish fluently but not mexican would have to learn mexican to socialize in mexico properly but could get by a bit with just spanish for living, there are many regional differences of american in america, and all across different languages their are regional differences, but they dont differ as much as ”american” and ”English” therefore the 2 should be classed as 2

          • “Mexican” as you put it is a dialect of Spanish, not a separate language. Way to exaggerate and ruin your point.
            Being a fluent speaker of Chilean Spanish, I can honestly say I’ve NEVER met a Mexican who could not understand Chilean Spanish or vice versa. Mix a Spaniard in for good measure, with the same results. Just because there are extreme accents within a dialect which are difficult to understand to even a native speaker, or because there are some slang expressions that are not understood among different dialects, that does not make it a different language.
            Basic vocabulary and grammar between American and British English are similar enough to classify it as the same language, just as Spanish between different Spanish-speaking countries.

          • ‘Mexican’ is a nationality, not language.It’s like saying someone speaks Indian. There is no Indian language. Indian is a nationality or ethnic group.They speak Hindi for example.

    • Americans, preserving British English since 1776, compensating for 235 years of degenerative lingual developments back in the UK.

    • Explain to me why “color” is spelled “colour” in the UK? Say “sour” and tell me if (our) should be at the end of color..

      • DannyYiddoShevlin says:

        I’ll explain.Because for a very very long time us English people from England who speak English have spelt it that way.That’s all.

      • Say ‘or’ and tell me if (or) should be at the end of color.
        Huh, it’s almost as if they’re completely different vowel sounds, with the same letter(s)??? Wizard, eh?

        • say pterodactyl, it’s almost like they should spell it terodactil , see how invalid your argument is?

          • If you think that that unrelated comment invalidates my argument, I don’t think you understood my argument in the first place.
            I was making a snarky comment about invalid Chris’s argument was- which was that the ‘ou’ sound in ‘our’ is different than the ending of the word ‘colour,’ I, in turn, pointed out that the ‘o’ sound in the word ‘or’ is also different than the ending of the word ‘color’. Therefore, by his reasoning, neither spelling is correct.
            I’m not entirely sure where you’re coming from.

          • yeah sorry about that, but Americans say it with the or sound, i’m not sure if you know that, you probably do but to me it sounded more like you were trying to justify his argument, i’m not used to reading the reply system on disqus and overlooked that you were replying to chris, but anyhow yes, Americans say col(or) , so to chris your comment wouldn’t mean anything, i don’t know, sorry though, completely a fault on my part :)

          • Americans pronounce it like kull-er. And this argument is kind of silly since English evolved from Latin and grew by incorporating words from other languages. This is the reason for most of the weird spelling. Words are derived from foreign words with foreign spelling. It only becomes English after being bastardized.

        • That’s why every other English nation spells colour like this “colour”. Americans always have to be different, don’t they?

      • machine, say the (CH) does it sound like it should be ch there? maybe with your logic we should spell it mashine
        tell me the col in colo(u)r don’t you think it’s more of a cul sound? maybe we should spell it culo(u)r , you see how stupid your argument is?

      • TurningLeaves says:

        Up until around 1720, sour was spelled “sower” at the same time as colour was spelled as such. Using “our” might have been a better example. To answer your question, English in general is a ridiculous language. Tell me why “one” is pronounced how it is and I might forgive English for its ludicrous spellings.

        • I absolutely love English (from England). I think it’s an absolutely beautiful language. Not just for its richness and poetry, but also for its absolutely incongruous irregularity and nonsensicality. The further back you go to study it, the more ludicrous it becomes. I can’t get enough of it :)

          • TurningLeaves says:

            Neither can I! I have a passion for writing as well. In all honesty, I am ever amazed at the varieties in English and how beautiful it can sound when certain words are put together. But even still, you have to admit. The way it has evolved is… irrefutably ridiculous. XD

      • Because you are pronouncing it wrong. Take a French word, butcher the pronunciation, then complain about the spelling.

    • Brits, holding a grudge since 1776.

  10. Larry Warner says:

    I am an American with some English ancestors. My grandparents were very peculiar about speaking proper English. With that being said I have always found the phrase ‘British English’ to be redundant.

  11. Larry Warner says:

    Just another little side note: Both American and British English have changed a bit since 1776. American English speakers have always been more utilitarian in their approaches to not only speach but also life. British speakers of English have always stressed elegance and poshness in not only their way of life, but also in their speach. I think both ways have their time and place and both can be quite lovely. Sometimes I intentionally try to sound slightly posh myself just to throw people around me off.

    • Grammarist says:

      We’ve written elsewhere that the difference between the two approaches to English is closely linked to our cultural differences. British culture is more grounded in tradition and tends to honor its past while trying to preserve its unique identity. American culture is more dynamic and less grounded in tradition, and Americans are more interested in adventurous innovation than in strict adherence to old norms. These are gross generalizations, of course, but we think it partially explains why Britons tend to be fiercely protective of what they consider to be their language while Americans don’t mind some flux and evolution in their langage.

      • As a development of your point, could it also be that since most Americans are now from a non-British and non-Anglophone background, American English has been more subject to the impact of other mother tongues (Yiddish, Italian, Spanish etc), including orthography, vocabulary and grammatical structures? Speaking as a Brit and a New Zealander, on the whole I find American spelling more logical than British (e.g., defense / defensive), but it also preserves some archaic 18th century forms.

      • DannyYiddoShevlin says:

        Good comment.

      • Although I think American pronunciation is more logical (“secretary” is pronounced “sec-ree-terry” in the U.S. as opposed to the British “sec-ruh-tree”), I still think the British sounds more correct (that’s because the first half of my life was in British South Africa, while the second was/is in the U.S.)

        • I’ve never heard an American pronounced the word “secREEterry” and I’ve lived all over the US thanks to being a military brat. Maybe it’s just regional where you live.

  12. Larry Warner says:

    speech*

  13. look at the effect of WW2 on the use of american word! :)

  14. As a Canadian who’s lived in the US & Canada equally, many words are acceptably interchangeable. Although I do prefer the original (UK) spelling & pronunciation, simply for the officious nature/order, everyone errs occasionally – from oft-edited & proofread magazine articles & adverts, to legally binding contracts…
    I suspect that the pride one took in being a notoriously competent speller is diminishing in the wake of auto-fill & spell-check tools, & they are fallible as they’re capable of being updated with a terrible speller’s interpretations – oh, the humanity! Public Computers!! :-)

  15. It may not be a popular use but I have said I speak/spell American since my teens. Now approaching 40 I still find it the most accurate way of explaining what language I use, it seems more specific than saying I speak English or even American English.

  16. Adolf Shitler says:

    Americans are faggots, Defence wins

  17. But, most words ending in ‘se’ have a spoken-consonant sound. (In other words, it’s pronounced like a ‘z’) Surely ‘defense’ would look more like ‘defenz’ phonetically?

  18. Interesting to see how WWI and WWII brought about peaks in the use of the word defense/defence and that only WWII brought about in increase in the c-variant in British spelling. I bet this is because of television.

    Another peak was in the late-eighties, otherwise known as…
    *takes off glasses*
    … The Leighties.

  19. Farhan Mutlib says:

    ‘Merica

  20. omg i never knew i that, no wonder i thought defence was incorrect

  21. Defense, popular in USA, Philippines, Hawaii, and SPELLCHECKER. So its gaining ground where exactly.? Those countries who do not know how to change the default?

    • I think it’s probably Microsoft’s default spellcheckers changing British/Canadian/etc ‘defence’ into American ‘defense’. (Or Firefox, or other computer settings – you usually have to change your spell checker manually to reflect a non-American English dialect in applications like MS Word and Firefox).

  22. “Today, to the chagrin of those who dislike American English, the spelling is gaining ground throughout the English-speaking world.”

    Why is American English gaining ground throughout the English-speaking world? Because America is the most powerful nation in the world (at least for now…China is gaining!).

  23. Abby Bishop says:

    i use defense and defence it just depends on what im doing and where im doing it.

  24. FrickenGenius says:

    In second grade we had a British student teacher who gave the spelling test. I tried to spell things like she said them and flunked mightily. :)

  25. Canadian here, British West Indies background. I use defense as a verb and defence as a noun. Also, please be kind(er) to each other in the comments.

    • Agreed. Some people in Canada/Britain/etc. seem pretty snobby about their English while some Americans think their way “just makes sense.” (And by the way look how sense is spelled :P) Can’t we just agree that they’re just different dialects of the same language and just appreciate the diversity we have? (Or maybe we should just be glad we’re not all speaking Arabic or Chinese. :D)

  26. It seems that defense is easier, since it doesn’t require a change for derivitives.

  27. jasl;djfla;sjdfl;sjadfl;aj says:

    It’s funny, because I used both interchangeably without even noticing until now. At some point, I felt as if one spelling was right. It just so happened that I decided to google the difference out of genuine curiousity. The “funny” is because I always get away with both spellings. ;)

  28. hyunryungje says:

    I’m asian and i thought i’ve learned american english but now i find i l’ve learned british english for14y omg lol

  29. Americans cannot comprehend complicated spellings, in fact they cannot comprehend pretty much complicated anything. So to avoid confuzion (note new spelling) between American English and British English, American English will henceforth be renamed to Englizh while English will refer to what is spoken and spelt in scattered landmasses elsewhere.

  30. brian waters says:

    english is spoken in england and american in america

  31. Personally, I’ve always used ‘defense’ since ‘defence’ simply looks like someone wishes to ‘de-fence’ a yard.

  32. I’m American and I’ve always used defence, and now I’m getting corrected and told to use defense.. I don’t really understand why or how I ended up using the other spelling, but it’s really confusing!

  33. BertVisscher says:

    The images above do not appear.

  34. nigg

  35. I’ve always used defence but defensively where needed.

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