The One Hour Pocket Guide that Helps You Understand Differences in Pronunciation, Stress Patterns, Vocabulary, Spelling and Grammar Differences. Plus Extra: Some Quirky Differences that only Linguists Care About.
There are some differences between British and American English, so English that is spoken in the UK and English that is spoken in the US. But it’s easy to exaggerate the differences, because they are pretty minor. If I talk to you for an hour about the differences, you would manage in both countries, and in any country in the world, without problems. It’s still the same language, after all. It is true, though, that some Americans find it difficult to understand British speakers, and some British speakers can’t understand some American dialects. It’s mostly because of the accent and because of different words and idioms being used.
Easy Things First: How to Say Bath and Can’t
I’m sure you know some differences between English English and American English without me telling you about it.
For example Americans say bath and can’t with an a that is like the a in cat. British people say these words with the a like in car.
Brits call the thing that takes people up to a higher floor lift, whereas Americans call this elevator.
And, very important, British chips are American French fries. Why they’re called French has never been clear to me. as everyone knows that the best fries or chips come from Belgium!
Confusingly, the American chips (potato wedges that you buy in a bag) are crisps in British English.
American Spelling Reform
And there are some spelling differences, because America had a spelling reform in which they decided to simplify a few things. Americans write colour and neighbour without the u, so color, neighbour, behaviour and honor. Why they didn’t drop the silent gh in neighbour is a good question…
Americans also changed some irregular verbs to a regular version.
In British English you write burnt for the past of burn. In American English this becomes burned. Same with dreamt (past of dream) and learnt (past of learn). But I don’t know why they didn’t change meant!
Some more differences:
Pronunciation Differences between American and British English
Some more pronunciation differences:
Americans say leisure with ee like in see. Brits say this with e like in bed, so it rhymes with pleasure.
Americans say experiment with the second e like the ee in beer, while Brits say this with the e like in bed.
There are a lot of stress differences in American and British English. On the whole, where there is a difference, Brits put the stress on the first syllable of the word more often.
However, with address it’s the opposite! Americans say ADdress, whereas Brits say adDRESS.
It’s also different with advertisement. Americans put the stress on ad, whereas Brits put the stress on ver.
And hospitable is different: Americans put the stress on hos, and Brits put it on pit.
But lots of words are really according to this rule that I’ve told you (that Brits put the stress on the first syllable).
Compare these few examples of common words:
Stress on the end of the word
Stress on the first syllable (the beginning of the word)
|BalLET [BeLAY]||BAllet [BeLAY]|
|Garage [GeRADZJ]||Garage [GAradzj]|
|Buffet [BeFAY]||Buffet [BAfay]|
Spelling Differences between US and UK English
Here is a small list of spelling differences. There are more but these words are common, so I think you should know them:
|License||Licence is a noun
License is the verb.
|Practice||Practice is the noun
Practise is the verb.
|Canceled, canceling||Cancelled, cancelling|
|Traveled, traveling||Travelled, travelling|
Question: Which spelling variant do I use when I write these newsletters?
Answer: I use UK spelling. Although I write organize with z.
Obviously, there are lots and lots of differences in word choice between American and British English. But don’t worry, the vast majority of words is still the same in both variants of English.
Here are some that you need to know, besides chips/fries and lift/elevator that I’ve told you before:
|Pacifier (the thing that babies suck on)||Dummy|
|Diaper (the thing that babies wear)||Nappy|
|Gas (fuel for the car)||Petrol|
|Mail, mailbox, mail carrier||Post, postbox/letterbox, postman|
|Check (in a restaurant)||Bill|
|Railroad (system of national trains)||Railway|
|Zucchini (actually this is Italian!)||Courgette (actually this is a French word!)|
|Period (.)||Full stop|
|Elementary School||Primary School|
|Grade (the score for an exam)||Mark|
Other Language Differences between American and British English
When they possess something, Americans say: I have, and they ask: Do you have?
Brits say: I’ve got, and they ask: Have you got?
Some, not all, Americans use the present perfect less than British speakers. They will say: Did you read my email? And a British person will always say in this case: Have you read my email?
When an American uses the phone, they call you. In the UK, people more often say ring you or phone you.
Some car words are also different. This you may want to know when you own a car or rent one. A hood (where the engine is located) is a bonnet in British English. The trunk, where you put your baggage, is a boot in England. And number plate is used in the UK, whereas in the US you say license plate.
In and On
Brits say at the weekend, whereas Americans say on the weekend.
Brits say in a team, Americans say on a team.
Brits say in the street, and Americans say on the street. Likewise, In England you can say I live in Park Lane. And in America you’d say I live on Park Lane. By the way, the main street in the US is the high street in the UK (where the main shops and businesses are).
The city centre in the UK is downtown in America.
And a highway, expressway or freeway in the US is a motorway in the UK.
And a last thing is: Americans say the month first when they tell what date it is, whereas Brits will say the number of the day first:
American: September 25, 2015 [pronounce: Septmeber twenty-fifth].
British: 25 September 2015 [pronounce: the twenty-fifth of September].
British speakers won’t usually say the word also at the end of the sentence. They will use too or as well.
What Floor Are You On?
And a last thing that is quite confusing is that Americans start counting the floors of a building from the bottom up, but British speakers count from the first one above ground floor. So Brits will call the level floor “ground floor,” and the one above that first floor. For Americans these will be first floor and second floor.
(Image borrowed from learnbritishenglish.co.uk.)
Actually, a lot of these words and usages you will find out soon enough once you start travelling in those countries!
The Most Important Thing for You to Know about UK and US English
Do you know what the most important thing you need to know is about the differences between American and British English? Decide what you are. Perhaps you’re from the Philippines. Decide whether you want to speak English like an American or a Brit (or Australian or Canadian would be fine too, of course). Then learn the right spelling and pronunciation of your chosen variant of English. If possible, learn the most important words as well. What would not be good is to make a messy soup of your accent or your spelling, now saying things this way or spelling it this way and in the next sentence in another way. That’s not only confusing but looks unprofessional.
People Who Speak a Mix
That having said, there are more and more people now who speak a mix of British and American English, including yours truly. There are several reasons for this. One is that people travel more. For instance, at my old university there were professors from Canada, Autralia, the UK and the US and I unconsciously copied their speech and writing patterns. Another reason is the internet. If you read a page in English you don’t find a disclaimer at the end that says whether the writer of the article is English or American, or from somewhere else, do you? So what happens is that because there are many more Americans than Brits, American English slowly but surely affects us all. That’s the reason that many more people say apartment for their house than flat.
Is British English only spoken in the UK?
No. In case you were wondering, in some countries of the Commonwealth, especially Australia, South-Africa and New Zealand, the English that is spoken there is more like English in the UK. Although Canada is also part of the Commonwealth, Canadian English shares many features with American English (because they’re neighbours).
Things You Don’t Need to Know
Unless you’re a car fan(atic), of course.
More, Subtle Differences for Experts
There are many more subtle differences in the way Americans and British speakers say things. To know all about this fascinating stuff, you really need to be an expert. If you ask the average native speaker about the differences between English and American English, they can probably tell you about lift and elevator but not much more. In case you want to read more, I suggest you read this entry in Wikipedia, for instance, about the comparison between American and British English.
One of the things they explain there is that Americans say: I see you Thursday. But Brits will say: I see you on Thursday. Believe me, most people won’t notice whether you said on or the other.
Another thing is about intransitive verbs, that means verbs that you have to use it with a preposition if you want to use an object. Sorry, that sounds much too technical. Here is an example. Americans use meet as an intransitive verb, so they say: I’m meeting with my client this afternoon. But in British English you don’t need the with, so you can say: I’m meeting my client this afternoon.
More Reading: British or American English?
I’ve also leafed through a great book by an English professor from, um, the University of Georgia, John Algeo: “British or American English? A Handbook of Word and Grammar Patterns.” You can find a pdf of this online. It details really fascinating stuff about some verbs that only Brits use, such as bin a paper (which means throw it in the trash bin.). There are also some real statistics on British and American uses of ‘ve. As I’ve mentioned above, Brits use this much more often in the present simple and also in the present perfect. In this book you can check exactly how many times more.
I also recommend having a look at this blog, The Ultimate Guide to Writing in British English vs American English.
Here is a small quiz to test your knowledge.
Go here for the online quiz where you can check your answers.
There is one word in each sentence that is typically British or that is typically used in British English. Your job is to find this word and type the American “translation.”
Ricardo went for a walk with his 6-weeks old son in a pram.
(The British word is pram.)
You type: baby carriage
I’ll meet you in front of the theatre.
So we’ll see each other in Queensbury Lane.
It’s directly in the middle of the city centre.
It’s next to the High Street.
I’ll be wearing my wine-red trousers.
I won’t take my bag with me, only a purse.
Please don’t bring a noisy bag of biscuits again.
I’ll toss them in the rubbish if you do.
But I’ll allow sweets if you can’t hold your mouth still.
Afterwards we can go up to my flat for a drink if you like.
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