It has often been said that the UK and the USA are ‘two nations separated by a common language’. It’s certainly true that sharing English often disguises the cultural differences between the two societies, but what about actual differences between British and American English? Although there are very few differences, aside from differences in pronunciation, that would leave a Brit and an American in a state of mutual unintelligibility, there are significant differences between British and American English that are worth being aware of. Here we look at some of them.
Here we look at a selection of differences between British and American English.
The past simple form and past participles of many irregular verbs are different, most notably get-got-gotten in US English. In the UK gotten is understood but rarely used (got is the form used instead). The verbs learn, spoil, spell, burn, dream, smell, spill and leap have both regular past simple forms (learned, spoiled, spelled etc.) and irregular ones (learnt, spoilt, spelt, burnt, dreamt, smelt, spilt and leapt). British English tends to use the irregular forms, but these are seldom if ever used in standard US English.
A grammatical difference between British and American English that is becoming more widespread in the UK is the use of just and already with the past simple:
US (and increasingly the UK): I just ate. / I already ate.
UK I’ve just eaten. / I’ve already eaten.
A structure that is almost exclusively British is the use of do as what is known as a pro-predicate after modal verbs:
A: Has Toby gone home yet?
B: He must have done. His jacket and bag aren’t here. (UK)
B: He must have. His jacket and bag aren’t here. (US)
A: How about eating out tonight?
B: Yeah, we could do. Why not? (UK)
B: Yeah, we could. Why not? (US)
A: If you’re going to be late, make sure you let me know.
B: Will do! (UK)
B: I will! (US)
Some words are stressed differently in UK and US English:
The ending –ile is also frequently pronounced differently:
- agile /ˈædʒ əl/ /ˈædʒ -aɪl/
- fertile /ˈfɜr tl/ /ˈfɜr taɪl/
- mobile /ˈmoʊ bəl/ /ˈmoʊ baɪl/
The ‘long A’ of UK English (especially southern UK English) is rendered as a ‘short A’ in US English.
- laugh /lɑf/ /læf/
- after /ˈɑf tər/ /ˈæf tər/
- bath /bɑθ/ /bæθ/
There are lots of vocabulary differences between British and American English, although few that cause confusion. Some of the most well-known are (UK/US): lift/elevator, autumn/fall, tap/faucet, football/soccer, lorry/truck, barrister/attorney, biscuit/cookie, chips/fries, motorway/freeway, pocket money/allowance, post code/zip code, shop/store, CV/resume.
Many parts of the car also have different names in the UK and the USA: bonnet/hood, boot/trunk, gearbox/transmission, windscreen/windshield, mudguard/fender.
Be careful with some words, however, which mean quite different things in the UK and the USA. Pants for Americans are what trousers are for Brits, but pants for Brits are underwear. Your fanny, if you’re American, is what your bum is in the UK, where fanny means something altogether different. In the US, the thing you use to erase pencil marks is an eraser. In the UK it’s a rubber – but you don’t want to ask for one of those in an American stationery store!
Thanks in large part to the efforts of Noah Webster to eradicate some of the inconsistencies in English orthography, there are many spelling differences between British and American English. The ending –our in British English is –or in US English, giving us colour/color, honour/honor and favour/favour (plus colourful/colorful, honourary/honorary, favouritism/favoritism etc.). UK English has –ise/yse for US English –ize/yze, so that we have analyse/analyze, organise/organize and so on. –re becomes –er in words such as theatre/theater, metre/meter and centre/center.
You can find a full list of differences here.
There are plenty of other differences between British and American English, but bear in mind that even within the two countries you will find a huge range of accents and dialects and that very few rules are hard and fast. Don’t forget also that as well as the two broad Englishes we have looked at here, there are many other varieties as well, from Canadian English to New Zealand English, from Indian to South African. Each one has its own unique colour and flavour (or should that be color and flavor?), all adding to the richness of one of the world’s major global languages.
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