American versus British English

Six Differences Between British and American English


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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.”

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

A tag question is a grammatical form that turns a statement into a question. For example, “The whole situation is unfortunate, isn’t it?” or, “You don’t like him, do you?”

The tag includes a pronoun and its matching form of the verb be, have or do. Tag questions encourage people to respond and agree with the speaker. Americans use tag questions, too, but less often than Brits. You can learn more about tag questions on a previous episode of Everyday Grammar.

Spelling

There are hundreds of minor spelling differences between British and American English. You can thank American lexicographer Noah Webster for this. You might recognize Webster’s name from the dictionary that carries his name.

Noah Webster, an author, politician, and teacher, started an effort to reform English spelling in the late 1700s.

He was frustrated by the inconsistencies in English spelling. Webster wanted to spell words the way they sounded. Spelling reform was also a way for America to show its independence from England.

You can see Webster’s legacy in the American spelling of words like color (from colour), honor (from honour), and labor (from labour). Webster dropped the letter u from these words to make the spelling match the pronunciation.

Other Webster ideas failed, like a proposal to spell women as wimmen. Since Webster’s death in 1843, attempts to change spelling rules in American English have gone nowhere.

Not so different after all

British and American English have far more similarities than differences. We think the difference between American and British English is often exaggerated. If you can understand one style, you should be able to understand the other style.

With the exception of some regional dialects, most Brits and Americans can understand each other without too much difficulty. They watch each other’s TV shows, sing each other’s songs, and read each other’s books.

They even make fun of each other’s accents.

I’m Jill Robbins.

And I’m John Russell.

And I’m Claudia Milne.

Now it’s your turn. What style of English are you learning? Why did you choose it? Write to us in the comments section or on our Facebook page.

Adam Brock wrote this article for VOA Learning English. Jill Robbins and Kathleen Struck were the editors.

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Word in This Story

collective nounn. a word which refers to a collection of things taken as a whole.

auxiliary verbn. a word used in construction with and preceding certain forms of other verbs, as infinitives or participles, to express distinctions of tense, aspect, mood, etc

modalityn. expressing ability, necessity, possibility, permission or obligation.

lexicographer n. someone who writes dictionaries

inconsistency n. the quality or fact of not staying the same at different times

exaggerate v. to think of or describe something as larger or greater than it really is

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2 thoughts on “American versus British English”

  1. Comparison of American and British English
    From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
    For the Wikipedia editing policy on use of regional variants in Wikipedia, see Wikipedia:Manual of Style#National varieties of English

    This is one of a series of articles about the differences between British English and American English, which, for the purposes of these articles, are defined as follows:
    Comparison of
    American and
    British English

    American English
    British English

    Computing

    Keyboards

    Orthography

    Spelling

    Speech

    Accent
    Pronunciation

    Vocabulary

    Glossary of American terms not widely
    used in the United Kingdom
    Glossary of British terms not widely
    used in the United States
    Lists of words having different meanings
    in American and British English:
    (A–L M–Z)

    Works

    Works with different titles
    in the UK and US

    v t e

    British English (BrE) is the form of English used in the United Kingdom. It includes all English dialects used in the United Kingdom.
    American English (AmE) is the form of English used in the United States. It includes all English dialects used in the United States.

    Written forms of British and American English as found in newspapers and textbooks vary little in their essential features, with only occasional noticeable differences in comparable media[1] (comparing American newspapers with British newspapers, for example). This kind of formal English, particularly written English, is often called “standard English”.[2][3]

    The spoken forms of British English vary considerably, reflecting a long history of dialect development amid isolated populations. In the United Kingdom, dialects, word use and accents vary not only between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but also within them. Received Pronunciation (RP) refers to a way of pronouncing standard English that is actually used by about two percent of the UK population.[4] It remains the accent upon which dictionary pronunciation guides are based, and for teaching English as a foreign language. It is referred to colloquially as “the Queen’s English”, “Oxford English” and “BBC English”, although by no means do all graduates of the university speak with such an accent and the BBC no longer requires it or uses it exclusively.[5] The present monarch uses a hyperlect of the Queen’s English.

    An unofficial standard for spoken American English has also developed, as a result of mass media and geographic and social mobility, and broadly describes the English typically heard from network newscasters, commonly referred to as non-regional diction, although local newscasters tend toward more parochial forms of speech.[6] Despite this unofficial standard, regional variations of American English have not only persisted but have actually intensified, according to linguist William Labov.[citation needed]

    Regional dialects in the United States typically reflect some elements of the language of the main immigrant groups in any particular region of the country, especially in terms of pronunciation and vernacular vocabulary. Scholars have mapped at least four major regional variations of spoken American English: Northern, Southern, Midland, and Western.[7] After the American Civil War, the settlement of the western territories by migrants from the east led to dialect mixing and levelling, so that regional dialects are most strongly differentiated in the eastern parts of the country that were settled earlier. Localized dialects also exist with quite distinct variations, such as in Southern Appalachia, Boston and the New York City area.

    British and American English are the reference norms for English as spoken, written, and taught in the rest of the world, excluding countries where English is spoken natively such as Australia, Canada, Ireland and New Zealand. In many former British Empire countries where English is not spoken natively, British English forms are closely followed, alongside numerous AmE usages which have become widespread throughout the Anglosphere.[8][9] Conversely, in many countries historically influenced by the United States where English is not spoken natively, American English forms are closely followed. Many of these countries, while retaining strong BrE or AmE influences, have developed their own unique dialects, which include Indian English and Philippine English.

    Chief among other native English dialects are Canadian English and Australian English, which rank third and fourth in the number of native speakers. For the most part, Canadian English, while featuring numerous British forms alongside indigenous Canadianisms, shares vocabulary, phonology and syntax with American English, leading many to recognize North American English as an organic grouping of dialects.[10] Australian English likewise shares many American and British English usages alongside plentiful features unique to Australia, and retains a significantly higher degree of distinctiveness from both the larger varieties than does Canadian English. South African English, New Zealand English and the Hiberno-English of Ireland are also distinctive and rank fifth, sixth and seventh in the number of native speakers.

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