How Are British & American English Different?

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Somewhere along the way in your English-learning journey, you’ve probably noticed that British and American English are a bit different. 

Maybe you’ve had personal experience with an American or British work colleague, conference attendee, or tourist. Maybe you’ve been spending quarantine bingeing both American and British television shows on Netflix.

But how different are British and American English, really?

The answer is “quite” different, as they say in Britain, or “pretty” different, as they more commonly say in the United States.

British English and American English differ in a few important ways. 

In this post, we’re going to take a look at how British and American English contrast in

  • pronunciation 

  • spelling

  • vocabulary

  • and uses of grammar.

If you’re thinking, “What if I get them confused? Why does English have to be so complicated?” Don’t worry! Confusion and mistakes are part of the process, but we’re here to help! 

So let’s dive in!

The Difference Between British and American English

Different Pronunciations

In general, one of the first and biggest differences you’re likely to notice is in the pronunciation. 

Take the word “water,” for example. Below you’ll see that in the American pronunciation of “water,” the “t” sounds more like a “d,” while the “r” in the British pronunciation is almost silent, or “non-rhotic,” as linguists call it. Try repeating it out loud:

American pronunciation:

water

 / ˈwa dɚ /

(wa-der)

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British pronunciation: 

water

/ ˈwɑː tə /

(woh - tuh)

 
 

Could you hear or feel the difference? 

Now let’s try the word “mobile,” as in “mobile phone.” British English speakers usually pronounce the ending “-ile” with a long “i,” while American pronunciation runs closer to the “-ul” sound, as in “careful.”

American pronunciation:

mobile

/ ˈməʊ bəl /

(moh - bul)

 
 

British pronunciation:

mobile

/ ˈməʊ bɑɪl /

(moh - byl

 
 

And how about the place where you park your car? In the UK, you’ll probably stress the first syllable of “garage,” while in the US, you’ll stress the second. And it’s not the only one. Words like “adult,” and “buffet” follow this same pattern.

American pronunciation:

garage

/ ɡə ˈrɑʒ /

(guh - razh)

 
 

British pronunciation:

garage

/ ˈɡær əʤ /

(gah - ridge)

 
 

This little pronunciation guide above doesn’t account for the many different dialects and variations of accents in the United Kingdom and North America, such as those in Scotland, Ireland, South Africa, Australia, or the American South.

Read more: How to Improve Your English Pronunciation in 7 Easy Steps

But there are a few other important differences between these two dialects of English. Let’s see how British English speakers and American English speakers use English differently every day.

Spelling

Do you go to a “theater” or a “theatre?” Do you think there should be a “u” in the word “favorite?”

Readers of American lexicographer Noah Webster’s Compendious Dictionary of the English Language published in 1808 and later his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language might have had the same questions. Basically, Webster wanted American English to be distinct from British English, and he wanted it to be spelled the way it sounded.

So, while British spellings still reflect the influence of French and Latin on the English language, Americans simplified their spellings to:

“-or” instead of “-our”

 
American British
color instead of... colour
honor instead of... honour
favorite instead of... favourite
 

“-ize” instead of “-ise”

American British
apologize instead of... apologise
capitalize instead of... capitalise
theorize instead of... theorise
 

“-er” instead of “-re”

American British
theater instead of... theatre
liter instead of... litre
meter instead of... metre
 

These aren’t the only examples of the different British and American spellings, but don’t worry about learning them all! Remember that both spellings are perfectly acceptable. If you’re writing in a professional or academic setting, it might be good to choose one style and be consistent

And when it comes to making choices between American or British English in your writing or speaking, it’s good to know what vocabulary you have at your disposal!

Vocabulary

So what if the British call them “chips” and Americans call them “fries?” Why does it matter if you say “lift” or “elevator?” 

It matters because, in some cases, not knowing the difference might lead to confusion or even a sticky situation.

Here’s a scenario: You learned British English in school, but now you’re doing a bit of tourism in New York City. You decide to visit an art museum, and you’re looking for a painting on the second floor. You go up two escalators only to discover that now you’re on the third floor. How did that happen?

In the United States, the floor at the same level as the street is usually called the first floor, but in the U.K. it’s called the ground floor, and the first floor is the one above it.

Here’s another scenario: You studied English in the U.S., and you’ve made a new friend from Great Britain. You ask him where he went to college, and he gives you a strange look. “I didn't. I finished secondary school and went straight to university,” he says. 

In the UK, secondary school is the general term for what North Americans call college. In the UK, college is a place for people 16 and older to take further education courses or to take the A Level or GCSE exams they may not have been able to pass in secondary school. 

Now, consider a final scenario: You tell your new British friend that you like his pants, and you want to know where he got them. He blushes.

Your new friend is probably embarrassed because you’ve just told him that you like his underwear, and if you want to compliment his pants, you should say: “I like your trousers.” 

So, just to make sure we’ve got this right, let’s look at this chart:

 
British English American English
Ground floor First floor
University College
Secondary school High school
Pants Underwear
Trousers Pants
 

You can find more lists of different British and American terms, but don’t try to memorize them all at once! Keep your ear out for the various words that you hear in British and American news, TV series, podcasts, or movies, and write them down!  You can make lists of 5 to 7 terms at a time, and practice using them in your speaking or writing. That can be a really fun way to retain them.

Now let’s keep reading to learn how British and American English speakers use grammar in different ways.

Different Uses of Grammar

Collective nouns

Has an English teacher from the United States told you that this sentence was wrong?: “My family are from a different country?” Even now, as I’m typing this, my spell-check software says it’s a mistake! But is that right?

Well, yes and no, depending on whether you speak British or American English. 

Collective nouns are words such as family, community, or team that refer to a whole group of something as one single unit. The rules of American English grammar treat a collective noun as singular, as in these examples:

American English

 
  • “My family is from another country.”
  • "My family are from another country.

  • “In these difficult times, your community needs your support.”
  • "In these difficult times, your community need your support.

  • “Her favorite basketball team is the LA Lakers because she loves Lebron!”
  • "Her favorite basketball team are the LA Lakers because she loves Lebron!.
 

But you can relax a bit more if you want to use collective nouns in British English! Collective nouns can be both singular or plural, and they will more likely be plural due to the fact that they are, well, collective:

British English

“My English class is planning a trip to Stonehenge!”

    or

“My English class are planning a trip to Stonehenge!”

“Our well-trained staff has been working hard.”

    or

“Our well-trained staff have been working hard.”

“The Conservation Committee meets every Monday.”

    or

“The Conservation Committee meet every Monday.”

If you’re ever in doubt about whether to treat your collective nouns as plural or singular, don’t worry! Just be aware of your audience or readers. They might not know about these distinctions, but now you do!

Remember! The word “people” is NOT a collective noun. It’s a plural noun. So, we say: “People are…” and not “People is…”.

Present perfect or past simple?

If you’ve been studying English for a while, you may or may not have made friends with the present perfect and the past simple. (And, by the way, we can help you with that!)

Remember that we generally use the past simple to talk about finished actions at a specific point in time.

We use the present perfect when we want to talk about experiences, accomplishments, or actions in the past that may or may not be finished, when we don’t want to mention a specific point in time, and when we want to focus on the result of those experiences, accomplishments, or actions.

Why do I mention this here?

Because British English speakers more commonly use the present perfect to talk about recent actions in the past that have no specified time, while American English speakers use the past simple

American English: Did you eat?

British English: Have you eaten?

American English: My mother just called.

British English: My mother’s (mother has) just called.

A few past tense conjugations of verbs are spelled differently in American versus British English. The ending “-ed” of many past tense verbs becomes a simple “-t” in their British counterparts, such as in “learned” and “learnt.”

American English: We just learned that in school.

British English: We’ve just learnt that in school.

American English: Dad burned dinner again.

British English: Dad’s (Dad has) burnt dinner again. 

And, this may sound strange to your ears if you’re used to American English, but in British English, you’ll often see the verb “got” used as a past participle instead of “gotten.”

American English: I’ve gotten used to having you around.

British English: I’ve got used to having you around.

Tag questions

British English speakers are more likely to use something called a tag question, but American English speakers use them, too.

A tag question, also called a question tag, is a funny little rhetorical question that some English speakers stick at the end of a statement. In basic terms, you can use tag questions to turn your statement into a question and to emphasize what you want to say. We can use them with auxiliary verbs such as be, have, can, or should.

Let’s look at this sentence: “This coffee isn’t very good.”

And here it is with a tag question: “This coffee isn’t very good, is it?”

When we add a tag question at the end, we emphasize our dislike for the coffee, and we indirectly ask others to offer their opinion. It’s also a great way to make your speech sound more natural.

Just remember that if your statement is negative, your tag question should be positive, and if your statement is positive, your tag question should be negative:

“Well, that’s great news, isn’t it?

“She won’t be there, will she?

“You should call your mom, shouldn’t you?

“We haven’t made a huge mistake, have we?

Other dialects of English

With over 1.5 billion learners and speakers of English in the world, and around 160 estimated dialects, no one standard dialect of English exists.

If you’re interested in exploring these and other dialects, check out the International Dialects of English Archive (IDEA), where you can find over 1,500 recordings of English speakers from around the world from 120 different countries. It’s a great way to expose your ear to different accents and pronunciations as well as listen to English speakers from other cultures.

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