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Main Differences Between British and American English

Students of English as well as native speakers often ask: “How are British English and American English different?” With the easy access to information from all over the world that the Internet provides, it’s more important than ever to know how British English vs American English compare.

Reading newspapers and other sources online will provide many examples of the differences between British English and American English. You’ll also be better informed about events around the world and get different perspectives on your own country.

What Are the Three Major Differences Between British English and American English?

There are three major areas of difference between British and American English: Vocabulary, Grammar and Pronunciation. There are also spelling differences between the two forms. Let’s look at what will be the most important for everyday communication, both written and verbal– vocabulary:

Differences Between British and American English Vocabulary:

Food:

  • Chips or Fries?: The famous British dish called “fish and chips” is a hearty combination of fried fish fillets (filet = USA spelling, fillet = British spelling) and what Americans call “french fries.” The thin slices of fried potatoes known in America as “potato chips” are called “crisps” in British English.
  • Bangers and Mash?: “Bangers and Mash” are another typical British dish. The “bangers” in British English are “sausages” in American English, while the British “mash” is “mashed potatoes” in American English. The British English name of “bangers” comes from the tendency of British sausages made during WW I to “go bang” (meaning to pop) while being cooked because they contained a lot of water.
  • Fancy a Sweet? In British English, to “fancy” something means to want something, or to find something or someone attractive. American English doesn’t use this as a verb, but rather as an adjective meaning of superior quality or elaborately decorated. “Sweets” in British English are called “candies” in American English.
  • Biscuits?: This word has a small but significant difference in meaning in British English vs. American English. Although in both it refers to a similarly shaped food item, the “biscuit” of British English is sweet or savory, usually flat, while in American English, the “biscuit” is usually savory and thick, with a lighter texture. The American biscuit is sometimes topped with butter, or used to make a sandwich with eggs, cheeses, or various meats, especially for breakfast. At lunch or dinner it is eaten covered in sliced meat and gravy. Sometimes honey or jam is spread on the biscuit to make it sweet. What is called a “sweet biscuit” in British English is called a “cookie” in American English; a savory biscuit is the American “cracker”.

Automobile/Car:

Many words related to the car are different in British vs. American English. Some common ones are:

  • The front of the car that opens for maintenance is called a “bonnet” in British English, while in American English, it’s called the “hood.”
  • On the opposite end of the car, the speaker of British English opens the “boot” for storage, while for a speaker of American English, this same place is called the “trunk”.
  • The place where a British English speaker parks their car is the “car park”, but the same place is the “parking lot” to an American English speaker.
  • Goods are transported in a “lorry” where British English is spoken, while a “truck” is used for the same purpose where American English is spoken.
  • A British English speaker refuels at the “petrol station” but the American English speaker goes to the “gas station.”
  • “Cat’s eyes” in British English are those devices embedded into a road that reflect the headlights of an oncoming car. Speakers of American English refer to them simply as “road reflectors.” These safety devices are in fact a British invention, inspired by the structure of the feline eye.

Business/Academic:

  • Science reporting often contains a British English term that is completely baffling to a reader of American English. This word is “boffin” which in British English is slang for a “research scientist” or “technical expert.” While it might remind American English speakers of the word “buffoon”, meaning a comically foolish or stupid person, the British “boffin” carries no negative connotation.
  • Mistakes: Here the difference between British English and American English is important to know in order to avoid a potentially embarrassing misunderstanding. The British English speaker might ask for a “rubber” to remove a mistake while the American English speaker will ask for an “eraser.” In American English, “rubber” is commonly used slang to speak about a condom.

Clothing:

Several items of clothing have different names in American vs. British English. Some of those most common are:

  • Undergarments: A female speaker of American English wears “panties” while a speaker of British English wears “knickers”.
  • Keeping things up: The speaker of American English who wears two straps of material clipped to the waistband to keep the pants up is wearing “suspenders” while the British English speaker wears “braces”. For the speaker of British English, “suspenders” are worn to keep stockings up, as do the American “garters”.
  • Cover-ups: A British speaker slips into a “dressing gown” after a shower or bath while the American speaker wears a “robe” or “bathrobe”.
  • On your feet: “Trainers” are for a British speaker what “athletic shoes” or “sneakers” are for an American.

Everyday life:

  • Felines: In British English the domesticated feline is referred to as a “moggy” (sometimes spelt “moggy” or shortened to “mog”). Although it is applied to all cats, it is particularly used to talk about one without a pedigree, having been thought to be a corruption of the word “mongrel”. In American English, the equivalent term is “kitty.”
  • Avoiding the stairs: Both methods of avoiding climbing the stairs are different in British English compared to American English. In British English, a “moving staircase” was previously called exactly that while the American English “escalator” has now become more common. In a taller building, the speaker of British English will take the “lift” but a speaker of American English will take the “elevator”.
  • Living spaces: A difference between British English and American English often seen is that what the British speaker calls a “flat” is called an “apartment” by an American speaker.
  • Bathroom: The slang for bathroom is different in British English vs. American English. The British English speaker will talk about the “loo” or “WC” (an abbreviation of “water closet”), while the American will speak of the “john”, “the throne room”, or another of the many euphemisms available.
  • The famous British English “bloody”: Here the difference between British English and American English is that “bloody” in British English has a slang meaning as well as a literal one; in American English, just the literal. For the speaker of British English, as a slang term it can be used to intensify either a pejorative adjective (“its bloody awful”) or a flattering adjective (“its bloody marvelous”). In American English it only has the meaning of being covered or showing a significant amount of blood.
  • If you are a speaker of American English, you will move your baby (or possibly small or elderly dog) about in a “baby carriage” or “stroller” while a British English speaker calls this same device a “pram”, which is a shortened version of “perambulator”.

Grammar:

In British English vs American English, the grammar difference that is most noticeable is a difference in the conjugation of verbs for singular nouns that represent a collective entity, such as an educational institution, a political party, sports team, or a business. In British English, such nouns are followed by a verb in the third person plural, while in American English they are followed by a verb in the third person singular.

Speakers of British English are more likely to use formal speech in situations where an American would use more informal speech. For example, the British are more likely to use ‘shall’, but Americans would prefer ‘will’ or ‘should’.

A speaker of British English might say something like “I shall go the pub tonight” but the American speaker would say “I will go to the bar tonight.”

In American English ‘gotten’ is preferred as the past participle of ‘get’, which the British have long since replaced with ‘got’.
‘Needn’t’, which is frequently used in British English, is seldom if ever used in American English. Instead, ‘don’t need to’ is used.

Pronunciation:

The differences between American English and British English can be grouped into three general categories:

The melody of British and American is quite different, even though the structure of speech is nearly identical. In British English, the tendency is to a high falling intonation, speaking the main stress high and dropping down.

Conversely, in American English rising tones are more common, so the intonation goes up from the main stress. This pattern in statements is sometimes called “upspeak”.

Individual words: Some words have distinctly different pronunciations in American English vs. British English. Some notable examples are:

  • The British speaker pronounces “schedule” as though it was spelled “shedule” while the American speaker pronounces the same word as though it was spelled “skedule”.
  • British speakers pronounce the “h” in “herb”, while it’s silent for American speakers.
  • The pronunciation of “i” varies in several words in American English vs. British English. In American English the first “i” in “vitamin” is a long sound, but in British English is a short vowel. The “i” is “privacy” is pronounced as a long sound in American English, but as a short vowel in British English. In American English, the second “i” in “missile” is more a schwa sound but in British English it’s a long sound.

Some words are stressed differently in American English compared to British English, particularly those of French origin. In these words, American English retains the last syllable stress and while British English switches the stress to the first syllable. Some examples are garage, gourmet, ballet, and brochure, though this is reversed in the words address and moustache.

Spelling:

A minor difference between British and American English is the spelling of a small group of words. Generally, these differences can be grouped in three categories:

  1. In British English, words including -our usually are spelt with -or in American English. These are words such as neighbour vs. neighbor; colour vs. color; behaviour vs. behavior; favourite vs. favorite.
  2. British English words ending in -re usually end in -er in American English. Some examples include centre vs. center; theatre vs. theater; litre vs. Liter.
  3. In many words where British spelling uses a final -ise American spelling uses -ize instead. Examples include realise vs. realize; recognise vs. recognize; analyse vs.analyze.
    There are some other miscellaneous differences in spelling in British English vs. American English. For example, the rubber part of a car wheel in British English is spelled “tyre” while in American English, it’s spelled “tire”.

Knowing these differences between American English and British English will help you communicate with a English-speaking people from all over the world, regardless of which version you learned as a native or studied as foreign language.

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