4 little-known differences between british and american english

English is the second most widely spoken mother tongue and an official language in 53 countries. It developed in the British Isles, but the majority of its speakers live in the US.

English is the main language of communication throughout the world and the most popular language among foreign language learners. Like any other language, English is divided into various varieties.

The best-known English 'varieties' are British and American English. Can you tell them apart?

Spelling differences

While writing a text, you may have encountered a situation when your text editor marked the spelling of a word you had written as incorrect. When you checked it in a dictionary, it turned out that the word was indeed correct. This situation may be accounted for by the differences between British and American English.

The key spelling difference between British and American English is the letter omission characteristic of American English. In writing, the British keep those letters, which accounts for the spelling differences, for instance between these words:

4 Little-Known Differences Between British and American English

The spelling differences between British and American English also include letter change and letter reversal:

4 Little-Known Differences Between British and American English

Interestingly enough, in British English, no period is used after honorifics, for instance Mr Bean, Mrs Smith, House, M.D. The Americans normally use them.

Pronunciation differences

British English and American English differ even more in terms of their pronunciation. You can immediately tell the difference between them when heard.

Whereas the ‘r’ sound is consequently pronounced in American English, it remains silent in British English unless it occupies an initial syllable position. For example:

4 Little-Known Differences Between British and American English

  • The stress can fall on different syllables as well:
  • Word:                 British – American pronunciation:
    Adult:                  A-dult – a-DULT
    Weekend:          week-END – WEEK-end
  • The Americans sometimes make the pronunciation easier for themselves by altering or omitting some vowel sounds:
    Water:                  waw-tah – wa-der
  • Mountain:          moun-tin – moun-nn

Grammatical differences

When it comes to grammar, the differences between British and American English become slightly more complicated. The differences are small but quite significant.

Take the verb to have, for instance. To talk about possession, the British use the verb to have got (I have got a book.), whereas the Americans merely use to have (I have a book.). Important: the verb have got is also used in American English but mostly to indicate obligation (I have got to go.).

The usage of the present perfect tense differs as well. The British normally use the verb to have (I have just arrived.) in this tense, whereas in the US, this verb is usually omitted. The sentences sound simpler as a result: I just arrived.

Other differences concern the usage of prepositions:

4 Little-Known Differences Between British and American English

The grammatical differences also include differences in irregular verbs, for instance:
British – spill, spilt, spilt; American – spill, spilled, spilled
British – dive, dived, dived; American – dive, dove, dived

The usage of collective nouns is different as well. The words team and committee can be singular or plural in British English, with the plural being used more frequently, pointing to the fact that the group consists of multiple individuals. In the US, the group is thought of as a single entity, consequently, these words are always considered to be singular.

Vocabulary differences

Speaking about the differences between British and American English, the vocabulary is no less tricky. British and American English sometimes use different words to refer to the same thing.

4 Little-Known Differences Between British and American English

These words can sometimes be used only in one variety. A problem arises when a word is used in both varieties but with a totally different meaning, for example:

4 Little-Known Differences Between British and American English

And what about you? Which variety of English do you normally use? Do you prefer the sound of the British or American English?

Six Differences Between British and American English

For VOA Learning English, this is Everyday Grammar.

There is an old saying that America and Britain are “two nations divided by a common language.”

No one knows exactly who said this, but it reflects the way many Brits feel about American English. My British friend still tells me, “You don’t speak English. You speak American.”

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But are American and British English really so different?

Vocabulary

The most noticeable difference between American and British English is vocabulary. There are hundreds of everyday words that are different. For example, Brits call the front of a car the bonnet, while Americans call it the hood.

Americans go on vacation, while Brits go on holidays, or hols.

New Yorkers live in apartments; Londoners live in flats.

There are far more examples than we can talk about here. Fortunately, most Americans and Brits can usually guess the meaning through the context of a sentence.

Collective nouns

There are a few grammatical differences between the two varieties of English. Let’s start with collective nouns. We use collective nouns to refer to a group of individuals.

In American English, collective nouns are singular. For example, staff refers to a group of employees; band refers to a group of musicians; team refers to a group of athletes. Americans would say, “The band is good.”

But in British English, collective nouns can be singular or plural. You might hear someone from Britain say, “The team are playing tonight” or “The team is playing tonight.”

Auxiliary verbs

Another grammar difference between American and British English relates to auxiliary verbs. Auxiliary verbs, also known as helping verbs, are verbs that help form a grammatical function. They “help” the main verb by adding information about time, modality and voice.

Let’s look at the auxiliary verb shall. Brits sometimes use shall to express the future.

For example, “I shall go home now.” Americans know what shall means, but rarely use it in conversation. It seems very formal. Americans would probably use “I will go home now.”

In question form, a Brit might say, “Shall we go now?” while an American would probably say, “Should we go now?”

When Americans want to express a lack of obligation, they use the helping verb do with negative not followed by need. “You do not need to come to work today.” Brits drop the helping verb and contract not. “You needn’t come to work today.”

Past tense verbs

You will also find some small differences with past forms of irregular verbs.

The past tense of learn in American English is learned. British English has the option of learned or learnt. The same rule applies to dreamed and dreamt, burned and burnt, leaned and leant.

Americans tend to use the –ed ending; Brits tend to use the -t ending.

In the past participle form, Americans tend to use the –en ending for some irregular verbs. For example, an American might say, “I have never gotten caught” whereas a Brit would say, “I have never got caught.” Americans use both got and gotten in the past participle. Brits only use got.

Don’t worry too much about these small differences in the past forms of irregular verbs. People in both countries can easily understand both ways, although Brits tend to think of the American way as incorrect.

Tag questions

Spot the difference! British English vs American English

Amazingly, about 1.5 billion people around the world speak English. That’s about 20 per cent of the global population! Around 370 million people speak English as their first language, but the kind of English they speak depends on where they are from.

So, the English spoken in Australia, South Africa, the UK, Canada and the USA – to name just some of the countries where English is the official language – are all slightly different, although mutually comprehensible.

The two most well known versions are British English and American English – and, if you’re one of the one billion people currently studying English, or thinking about learning the world’s most widely spoken language, you might be wondering what the difference is.

In a nutshell: not a lot! Brits and Americans understand each other perfectly! But to make it easy for you, we’ve rounded up the main differences below in our handy guide to British English vs American English.

Why is British and American English different?

Settlers brought English to what would become the USA in the 16th and 17th centuries, and English developed differently in the two countries. The two varieties remain very similar, but there are some minor differences. Some spellings were simplified in the USA and different vocabulary was created, particularly for things that occurred after the early settlers had arrived. So, for example, there are lots of differences for car-related terms, such as boot (UK English) and trunk (US English) or gas (US English) and petrol (UK English).

See also:  Further versus farther

Vocabulary

Today, while most vocabulary is exactly the same, some common words are different. You might say ‘trainers’ for the sports shoes you’re wearing, but in the USA they say ‘sneakers’. Americans go on ‘vacation’, while Brits take a ‘holiday’. Brits will have a ‘biscuit’ to go with a nice cup of tea, but Americans will have a ‘cookie’. Ask for ‘chips’ in the UK and you’ll get chunks of hot fried potatoes, while in the USA you’ll get a bag of what the Brits call ‘crisps’. If it gets a bit chilly, Americans will pull on a ‘sweater’ and British people will wear a ‘jumper’. Nowadays, given the popularity of American TV shows and music and the globalisation of American culture, British people increasingly use these terms interchangeably: for example, ‘want to catch a movie?’ is now just as common in the UK as ‘want to see a film?’ And the same is true in the other direction: check out this fascinating blog by Ben Yagoda, a professor of English, who lists some of his favourite Britishisms that are becoming popular in the USA.

Spelling

Some words are spelt differently in British English and American English. This came about because spelling was increasingly standardized from the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly after the publication of Samuel Johnson’s A Dictionary of the English Language in 1755.  Spelling in the USA was gradually simplified, and these simplified spellings were standardized in A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language by Noah Webster, which appeared in 1806. For example, words ending in ‘-our’ in British English were changed to ‘-or’ in American English. So, nowadays, ‘colour’ is ‘color’ in the USA, ‘neighbour’ is ‘neighbor’, etc. Other common differences include words ending in ‘-ise’ in UK spelling, which change to ‘-ize’ in the USA, as in ‘realise/realize’, ‘recognise/recognize’, etc.

Accent

Differences between British and American English — OTUK (Online Teachers UK)

Mixing the two varieties will make your English sound strange and unnatural so it is best to choose just one and use it all the time. There is no “better” or “worse” variety of English and both British and American have their advantages depending on how and where you intend to use the language.

“England and America are two countries separated by a common language” – George Bernard Shaw

This quote by the famous Irish linguist and playwright still rings true today and various differences between British and American English remain. Native speakers of both varieties have relatively few problems understanding one another, but there are several points at which British and American diverge. Let’s take a look…

VOCABULARY

The most evident differences between British and American English are in vocabulary. Misunderstandings can arise when the same word has different meanings in the two varieties, for example: “pants” – Brit. underwear, Amer. trousers.

So if an American doctor told a British patient to “remove his pants”, he might be a little surprised by the result! The word “chips” also causes problems because in American it means “crisps” (Lays, Pringles, etc.), where in British English it means “French fries” (the ones you get at MacDonalds).

In other cases, the languages have different terms for the same thing. Here are some common examples (Brit vs. Amer):

Shop vs. StoreBill vs. CheckBin vs. Trash canBiscuit vs. CookieBoot vs. Trunk (of a car)Car park vs. Parking lotLift vs. ElevatorFull stop vs. PeriodPram, pushchair vs. Baby carriage

Engaged vs. Busy

For a complete word list with further explanations, click here.

British and American English can use certain prepositions differently as in these examples (Brit vs. Amer):

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At the weekend vs. On the weekendIn a team vs. On a teamTuesday to Friday vs. Tuesday through FridayTalk to John vs. Talk with JohnDifferent to vs. Different than

Where are you? vs. Where are you at? (informal)

There are also some small differences between idioms in the two varieties (Brit vs. Amer):

A storm in a teacup vs. A tempest in a teapotFlogging a dead horse vs. Beating a dead horseTouch wood vs. Knock on wood

Sweep under the carpet vs. sweep under the rug

SPELLING

Another area of visible contrast is spelling. In 1828, Noah Webster published An American Dictionary of the English Language, in which the spelling of many words was simplified with the aim of making American English more logical in its reading and pronunciation.

British English adopted Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language of 1755 and thus retained many original spellings from words borrowed into the language. English contains a vast number of words of French origin, the spellings of which are often convoluted and contain additional (arguably superfluous) letters that are not pronounced.

American tends to simply words of this kind, where British has left them unchanged.

Here are some common examples of spelling differences (Brit vs. Amer):

-our vs. -or

British English and American English

Look at these sentences. Do you know which sentences are more typical of British English or American English?

Shall I open the door for you?
He's taking a shower.
France have won the World Cup.

I'm not hungry. I just ate.

Try this exercise to test your grammar.

Grammar test 1

Exercise: British English and American English: Grammar test 1

Read the explanation to learn more.

Grammar explanation

The main difference between British English and American English is in pronunciation. Some words are also different in each variety of English, and there are also a few differences in the way they use grammar. Here are five of the most common grammatical differences between British and American English.

1. Present perfect and past simple

In British English, people use the present perfect to speak about a past action that they consider relevant to the present. 

The present perfect can be used in the same way in American English, but people often use the past simple when they consider the action finished. This is especially common with the adverbs already, just and yet.

British English American English
He isn't hungry. He has already had lunch. – Have you done your homework yet?- Yes, I've just finished it. He isn't hungry. He already had lunch. – Did you do your homework yet?- Yes, I just finished it.

2. got and gotten

In British English, the past participle of the verb get is got. 

In American English, people say gotten.

** Note that have got is commonly used in both British and American English to speak about possession or necessity. have gotten is not correct here.

British English American English
You could have got hurt! He's got very thin.She has got serious about her career. BUT:Have you got any money? We've got to go now. You could have gotten hurt! He's gotten very thin.She has gotten serious about her career. BUT:Have you got any money? (NOT Have you gotten …)We've got to go now. (NOT We've gotten to …)

3. Verb forms with collective nouns

In British English, a singular or plural verb can be used with a noun that refers to a group of people or things (a collective noun). We use a plural verb when we think of the group as individuals or a singular verb when we think of the group as a single unit.

In American English, a singular verb is used with collective nouns.

** Note that police is always followed by a plural verb.

British English American English
My family is/are visiting from Pakistan. My team is/are winning the match.

  • The crew is/are on the way to the airport.
  • BUT:The police are investigating the crime.
My family is visiting from Pakistan. My team is winning the match.

  1. The crew is on the way to the airport.
  2. BUT:The police are investigating the crime.

4. have and take

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