American English or British English: Divided By A Common Language?
Biscuits or Cookies?
By Peter Ball
Have you ever asked yourself ‘Did I just walk on a colorful sidewalk, or have I just walked on a colourful pavement?’ Well, if you have then you are probably noticing (and getting confused by) the differences between American and British English.
At LOI we have staff from both sides of the Atlantic and teach both varieties – but what are the differences? How important are they? And which form should you use?
I can’t give you a detailed account of all the differences here – I don’t have the time, space or expertise. But I will try to outline the basic differences and give you a few clues about usage – and hopefully that will be enough to start you off!
Difference in British English and American English
Pronunciation difference between British and American English.
The main difference between British and American pronunciation is that American accents tend to be far less varied than British ones. It’s a really noticeable contrast; here are a few numbers to think about:
There are about 230 million native English speakers in the USA (64% of the total number of native speakers around the world) living in an area of over 9 million km2, but speaking only about 10 major dialects between them. Now compare that to Britain where 64 million native speakers (16% of the global total) live in an area of 242,500 km2 (about the size of Michigan) and between them speak a bewildering 50 different versions of the language!
Of course, these differences are not confined to accent but include other features such as unique vocabulary and non-standard grammar. I don’t have space to describe this variety but you can find an interesting and entertaining introductory guide to British accents here.
This huge variety is the reason why we need to have something called ‘Standard English’ – it acts as a baseline against which we can describe other accents. If we had no standard to consider and to use in public broadcasts, newspapers and books, the language in Britain would simply diverge and fragment to leave us in our own tower of babel!
So, right here, we can only consider the differences between Standard British and Standard American English. Thankfully these two forms are pretty similar and native speakers rarely have problems understanding each other when they use these forms. I am just going to look at the one major difference that I think everybody notices.
The ‘Rotic’ /r/
Now, we all pronounce Rs at the start of words like regular or rectangle – right? And we also pronounce the R sound when it is part of the first syllable as in pretend or pronounce. However, things get more interesting when we consider Rs in the middle of words such as garden or energy, and words that end with the letter like teacher or November.
If you pronounce the R in the middle or final position in a word you are using a ‘rotic’ R and this is prominent feature of American English – because it was a common feature of the English spoken by the early British settlers. This R has now been lost to Standard British pronunciation (and also to most – but not all – regional British accents).
So in the sentence:
Our regular teacher practised perfect prose
The bold Rs are rotic – and most British people won’t pronounce them, while most American speakers will.
So, while there are a few noticeable differences in pronunciation, most native English speakers, from either side of the Atlantic, can understand each other’s pronunciation most of the time.
Some people feel quite strongly about the way we pronounce things and my personal favourite comment on the subject is the song ‘Throw the R away’ by The Proclaimers; you can listen to it here.
Interestingly, one thing that always stands out in a really good English student is the way that they have native-speaker pronunciation for words and expressions that they learnt for the first time while living in Britain or Ireland. It shows that having ‘a good ear’ is an essential element to language learning.
I think that when a student says ‘I don’t understand British accents’, or ‘Americans talk too fast’, what they are referring to is connected speech. Unfortunately, I don’t have the space here to deal with this topic (and it isn’t a difference between American and British speakers anyway – as we all do it!) perhaps it is a topic for another blog post…
Spelling difference between American and British English
Like all other native speakers at the time, Americans in the 17th and 18th centuries used a wide variety of spellings, some of which differed from spellings common in Britain. The first attempt to standardise American spelling was also an attempt to ‘rationalise’ the spelling – to make it more ‘phonetic’. This process was largely the work of one man; Noah Webster, who published The American Spelling Book in 1783. Coming at the end of the War of Independence, he saw it as an important political gesture ‘to have a system of our own, in language as well as government.’
This book, and his dictionaries that followed, presented the more rational spellings that typify American spelling, here are a few of the main ones:
British American -re becomes -er Centre, Fibre, Litre Center, Fiber, Liter ‘-our’ becomes ‘-or’ Colour, Flavour, Humour Color, Flavor, Humor ‘-ise’ becomes ‘-ize’ Realise, Advertise, Idealise Realize, Advertize, Idealize ‘-yse’ becomes ‘-yze’ Analyse, Paralyse, Analyze, Paralyze ‘ge’ becomes ‘g’ Ageing, Judgement Aging, Judgment ‘-ence’ becomes ‘-ense’ Defence, Licence, Offence Defense, License, Offense ‘ll’ becomes ‘I’ Travelling, Fuelled Traveling, Fueled ‘l’ becomes ‘ll’ Appal, Distil, Skilful Appal, Distill, Skillful
Oxford Dictionaries provide a useful summary here:
Another good summary here
And you can find an exhaustive list of all the US/UK ‘pairs’ here
So what spelling should you use? The important thing is to choose a standard and to stick to it all the time:
If you write, ‘There is a drop-in centre in our neighbourhood,’ you are using good British spelling. And if you write, ‘There is a drop-in center in our neighborhood,’ you are using good American spelling. But if you write, ‘There is a drop-in centre in our neighborhood,’ you are mixing the styles and it looks like you just don’t know what the correct forms are!
- US English for the Americas and Asia, but British English for Europe
- Set your spell checker to UK or US as appropriate
- If in doubt ALWAYS check your dictionary – it should give you the alternative spellings (if it doesn’t then throw it away and get a better one)
- Keep a note of words that you typically spell wrong – it’s great to know your enemies!
Grammar difference between American and British English
Luckily, there are not too many differences between American and British grammar – let’s look at the main ones.
I love listening to, and talking about, rock music – but which of the following sentences are correct?
Queen was a band from England.
U2 are a rock group from Dublin.
In American English collective nouns are treated as singular, as in the sentence about Queen, and in British English they are treated as plural, as in the one about U2.
There are similar small differences in how we use prepositions, for example British speakers will say that they studied at university, whereas American speakers will say they studied in university. Also, a British speaker might say he plays football at weekends, but an American speaker will say he plays soccer on weekends.
English speakers often use noun phrases, rather than verbs, to describe actions. If I tell you about my daily routine I might say something like: ‘I shower every morning before breakfast.’ There’s nothing actually wrong with this sentence – but it sounds a little strange. I am far more likely to use: ‘I have a shower every morning before breakfast’. In this sentence have is a ‘delexical’ verb which means that is has no literal, concrete meaning and is just there to allow the noun phrase to describe the action.
These expressions are extremely common in English – but where British speakers use have, American speakers use take:
I’m overworked – I need to take a vacation. (US)
She can’t come to the phone because she’s having a bath.(UK)
Grandma usually takes a nap around now. (US)
We used to have a walk in the forest every morning. (UK)
We spoke above about how American English has attempted to introduce more ‘rational’ spellings – this is true with many verbs which have irregular past tense forms in British English, for example:
The irregular British burnt, dreamt, learnt, smelt, spilt, and spoilt become the regular American burned, dreamed, learned, smelled, spilled, and spoiled.
However, American English isn’t always the most logical form – the regular British dived, fitted, sneaked, and wetted, become the irregular American dove, fit, snuck and wet!
The Present Perfect
Students often ask me which of the following are correct?
‘Did you finish it yet?’ or, ‘Have you finished it yet?’
Well, as I’m sure you are beginning to realise reading this article, they are both correct – they are just examples of American or British usage.
The present perfect exists on both sides of The Atlantic and both American and British speakers use it to say things like, ‘I’ve never been to Africa,’ or ‘Have you ever broken your leg?’ However, there is a difference in usage with the adverbs just, already and yet.
Did you finish that report yet? (US)
I’ve already told you twice! (UK)
He just arrived – he’s waiting in reception. (US)
Sorry if I seem groggy – I’ve just got up. (UK)
I haven’t finished reading it yet. (UK)
I won’t join you for lunch – I already ate / I ate already (US)
In Britain, and across all of Europe, we listen to American music, watch American TV shows and read American books. This means that expressions like ‘I just did it’ are quite common in spoken English – even if they are not considered as ‘standard,’ or actually taught in any textbook. When writing, as with all the other comments in this article, it is important to keep to one standard in you work – mixing your grammar is almost as bad as mixing your spellings!
Before I finish this section, I should tell you that gotten – something many of us associate with American English – comes from old English and is still very widely used in Northern England and Ireland.
You can find a good detailed summary of the points in this section here.
Finally, a phrase like ‘Tell me what you already did’ has great immediacy – and sounds cool, here the Fountains of Wayne contrast this usage with less certain expressions!
Vocabulary difference between American and British English
The word ‘Americanism’ first appeared in Pennsylvania in 1781, coined by a Scottish minister who was comparing it to the word ‘Scotishism’. By 1806 Noah Webster, compiling the first dictionary of American usage defined the word as meaning ‘love of America and preference of her interest.’ Today the word refers to any word or phrase which is used in standard American usage – but not in standard British English.
The earliest Americanisms were nouns for things which didn’t exist in Europe, like Skunk, Hickory and Opossum. Americanisms include some old English words that arrived with the earliest British settlers but later became obsolete in Britain, for instance Faucet, Diaper and Candy. These were added to by words imported by non-English speaking settlers such as Prairie, Chutzpah, Ranch, and Sauerkraut.
Many common, everyday items have different names in American and British English, for example the American Elevator, Sidewalk and Pants are the British Lift, Pavement and Trousers. These words are so common that we soon become familiar with the differences. The main problem comes when words we think are familiar change their meaning when they cross The Atlantic! Words like braces, bog, pants, rubber, dummy, trolley and chips cause real problems because they are so common and familiar to us that we often forget that they have a different meaning! Here is a great summary of the main ‘problem’ words.
In some situations the differences in vocabulary are particularly striking. When we discuss our cars the British boot, bonnet, windscreen, petrol, torch and gearstick become the American trunk, hood, windshield, gasoline, flashlight and stick shift.
Confusion becomes a lot worse when we discuss our education. At school, it seems like nearly everything has a different name; the British break time, marks, staff room, rubber, holiday and glue become the American recess, grades, teachers’ lounge, eraser, vacation and gum. Also, the phrase public school refers to state education in America but private education in Britain – pretty much the opposite meaning!
This confusion is made worse by the fact that the education systems in the two countries are very different. In Britain we all love High School Musical – but where are those children and how old are they? Are they at school or university? We simply have no equivalent institution in the UK.
My advice for dealing with vocabulary problems is to always check with the person you are talking to, check the context if it is a written form, and always keep a list of ‘problem’ words. Here is a complete list of the main vocabulary differences.
Idioms – The Icing on the Cake
Idioms are a minefield! They are fixed expressions with a figurative, rather than literal, meaning and do not translate into other languages. They are used to emphasise and illustrate, and create a high level of fluency when used correctly. These phrases express much about the culture and history behind the language – but also a lot about the background and attitude of the speaker. This could include their sense of humour, feelings at the time of speaking, and attitudes to things like politics, religion, profanity, swearing, bodily functions, the weather, and sport – the source material for idioms endless!
Interestingly, an American speaker doesn’t need to have a knowledge of, or interest in, baseball to use an expression like ‘home run’ just as a British speaker can understand that an ‘own goal’ is an unintended negative result without being football mad. This means that students don’t necessarily need to know the origin of an expression to be able to use it.
For students, there is little point in studying or comparing the differences between American and British idioms. This is because idioms have more than one meaning and can be used in different contexts so that we can’t translate an American idiom into a British idiom – or into a non-English one. Also, British and American speakers share some idioms, but not others. Finally, there are far too many idioms for you to study and learn by heart – it is far better to deal with them as you find them, and use a few that you are confident with.
Here’s my advice for dealing with idioms:
Think – Idioms are unusual expressions. So ask yourself why that person is using an unusual expression. The reasons are likely to be connected with emphasis, exaggeration, or a high state of emotion! So check the context – and the facial expression!
Ask – this is what native speakers always do when clarifying meaning with someone from the other side of the pond (Atlantic Ocean – a great example of idiomatic understatement). Use expressions like ‘- so you’re pretty angry about that right?’ or ‘OK, you mean that you’re too busy at the moment.’
Be honest – Try using ‘I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you mean.’
Never translate – Idioms from your own language may use the same imagery and concepts, but they are unlikely to translate word-for-word into English.
Tolerate your mistakes – You will definitely make mistakes and create confusion when you use idioms, so be brave and allow yourself the space to try, fail, and try again.
Listen and notice – British people NEVER say ‘it’s raining cats and dogs’ – so why should you? Listen to what native speakers actually say in a given situation, and copy.
Notes – Keep a notebook of your favourite expressions and add anything new that you hear. Try to use new expressions soon after you learn them, this is called ‘use it or lose it.’
Here is a reference for common British idiom.
And here is a much better resource, about American idiom, organised around topics and including discussion questions.
One version of English is no better or worse than another – so it doesn’t really matter which one you choose. Some people say that one version is easier to learn or understand than the other – but no research has ever proven this. This means that the version you choose should be based on your needs – for example most non-native speakers in South America use American English, and this is true throughout the Asia-pacific region. However, in Russia and all of Western Europe British English is standard.
Mixing things up is generally a bad idea. If you mix American and British words to describe your car you could confuse anyone who is not a mechanic. A sentence like; ‘My favourite color is red’ is just bad spelling whichever way you look at it. And if you are mixing US and UK forms then how am I to know what you mean when you say ‘I’ve lost my pants’ or ‘can I borrow your rubber?’
English is a wonderfully expressive language, and easier to learn than many others, it is spoken all over the world and can be a door to success in so many parts of your life. At LOI, we see it as our mission to help you achieve your goals with whatever form of English you choose!
Onestopenglish / Wikipedia / The British Council / BBC Learning English / Oxford Dicionary / Cambridge Dictionary / Merriam Webster Dictionary / David Crystal – The History of English in 100 words / Plus the links provided in the text
What Form of English are the following?
1 I’ve never learnt to spell properly.
2 Sorry I’m late, which team is winning?
3 Jane usually goes hiking at the weekend.
4 You should always take a shower after exercise.
5 That’s a dangerous sport – have you ever gotton injured?
6 I like to have a walk with the dogs in the morning.
7 Did John arrive yet?
8 Who spilled that milk on the carpet?
9 Ireland are going to win the next World Cup!
10 You never listen – I’ve already told you twice!
Now translate them from American to British or vice versa – but make only the smallest possible changes!