The Differences Between British and American English

Thandi asks: What are some key differences between the UK English and US English?

British-American-FlagMost people are well aware of some of the more obvious differences between British and American English. For instance, American English omits the “u” in colour, neighbour, honour, etc. Most people also know that a lot of words mean different things: a boot is the trunk of your car, a jumper is a sweater, and thongs are flip-flops. But there are some subtle differences between the two dialects that you might not have noticed at first glance.

This is by no means a comprehensive list of every grammatical quirk between the two versions of English, just a selection of differences that I thought were fun or interesting based on my experiences as an American living abroad where British English is the dominant language. I think I should also point out that with British TV shows on American screens and vice versa, not to mention the interaction we’re able to enjoy on forums across the internet, it’s possible some British or American English has slipped into your vocabulary, so some differences are starting to disappear.

First, speakers of British and American English have different preposition preferences. These little words are so small you might not have noticed the differences when talking to your British/American friends. Each example is grammatically correct, but one or the other might sound a little strange to you depending on where you’re from:

British English: I will come home at the weekend.
American English: I will see her on the weekend.

BE: He studied history at university.
AE: She studied biology in college.

In terms of past-time adverbs such as yet, just, or already, Brits usually use the present perfect verb tense and Americans use the past simple verb tense. Again, both forms are correct, and you can get the same meaning across either way:

BE: Have you phoned her yet?
AE: Did you call her yet?

BE: Have you already been to the library?
AE: Did you already go to the bank?

British English speakers will also use the word “got” more than American English speakers. Where Brits will say “have got,” Americans will typically say “have.” Like this:

BE: I’ve got to go now.
AE: I have to go now.

BE: I’ve got five siblings.
AE: I have five siblings.

Even when asking a question, the “do” form of “have” is much more common in American English, while British English typically uses “got” for specific situations:

BE: Have you got a sister?
AE: Do you have a sister?

BE: Have you got time to write this down?
AE: Do you have time to write this down?

Interestingly, when Americans do use “got,” the “have” and “do” forms are often mixed up between the question and answer, while in British English they are more consistent. Take this example from the BBC:

BE: We’ve got a new car! – You have?
AE: We’ve got a new car! – You do?

There are a lot of differences in regular and irregular verbs in British and American English. That means that we tack on various endings on some verbs in one dialect that we don’t in others. A couple of the verbs that are irregular in British English are burn, learn, and smell. These words are all regular in American English. For example:

BE: She burnt the toast.
AE: She burned the toast.

BE: The garden smelt of roses.
AE: The garden smelled of roses.

There are also a couple of verbs that are irregular in American English that are regular in British English, including dive, fit, and wet.

BE: She dived into the lake.
AE: She dove into the lake.

BE: He wetted the paintbrush.
AE: He wet the paintbrush.

The use of the verbs “have” and “take” are also a little different. In British English, they prefer “have,” while in American English, they prefer “take.” For instance:

BE: I’m going to have a nap.
AE: I’m going to take a nap.

BE: She is having a bath.
AE: She is taking a bath.

In addition to cutting out letters, sometimes Americans cut out entire words—at least when their sentences are compared to British sentences. In this case, I’m talking about “can” and “could.” When using perception verbs like see, hear, and smell, British English often calls for “can” and “could,” while American English ignores them entirely, like this:

BE: I could hear Jane talking in the other room.
AE: I heard Jane making breakfast in the kitchen.

BE: She can see a rainbow in the sky.
AE: She sees a rainbow in the sky.

Then there are those words that are left with an “s” or not depending on which dialect you speak. One such word is the shortened form of mathematics, which is “maths” in British English and “math” in American English. The reasoning for this one is that “mathematics” is plural, so the shortened “maths” in British English should be too. In American English, it’s shortened, but cutting off the “s” as well. Another example of this is toward vs. towards, which is one of the most common mix-ups:

BE: She walked towards the light.
AE: He moved toward the door.

There are even a few differences in punctuation between British and American English. First, it is more common to use the single quotation mark in British English, whereas in American English it is more common to use the double quotation mark. Second, in American English, people include punctuation inside quotation marks, while in British English the punctuation goes outside of the quotation marks (unless it’s part of the quote.) For instance:

BE: ‘She went to the park’, said John.
AE: “She went to the park,” said John.

BE: John said, ‘She went to the park.’ (this is part of the quote so it stays inside the quotation marks)
AE: John said, “She went to the park.”

Then, of course, there are the multitude of words that are used differently in each dialect, along with a few different phrases. One I found particularly interesting while polling a few of my friends was the phrase for asking if someone would like you to take them in your car to a different location:

British/Australian English: Would you like a lift?
American English: Would you like a ride?
Some Parts of Canada: Would you like a drive?

Beyond grammatical quirks, here are some words and their corresponding meanings depending on which side of the pond you’re on:

British English

American English

Nappy Diaper
Trolley Shopping cart
Torch Flashlight
Boot Trunk
Thongs Flip-flops
Pants Underwear
Trousers Pants
Rubber Eraser
Biscuit Cookie
Lift Elevator
Bumbag Fanny pack
Car park Parking lot
Candyfloss (Fairyfloss in Australia) Cotton candy
Chemist Drugstore
Cot Crib
Drink-driving Drunk driving
Fish finger Fish stick
Fringe Bangs
Holiday Vacation
Lorry Truck
Pavement Sidewalk
Postcode Zip code
Pram Stroller
Queue Line
Touch wood Knock on wood
Z (zed) Z (zee)

Do you know of other difference?  Please share them in the comments below!

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  • You will struggle to find an Englishman that says “thongs” instead of flip-flops. That’s an Australian term.

    Thongs here mean the same as in the US if the Sisqo song is anything to go by. 😉

  • I’m pretty sure we (Americans) know that a ZIP Code is a postal code. It’s just that the proper name of our postal code comes from the USPS’ Zone Improvement Plan.

  • There is also use use of “ly”
    BE: I’m really happy.
    AE: I’m real happy.

  • Hearing potato chips referred to as “crisps” is like hearing fingernails on a chalkboard ughhh!!!!

  • Interesting that in Canada we use a bit of both.
    Some are interchangeable: at/in college, lift/ride, holiday/vacation.
    I say smelled, not smelt, and dove, not dived, but then I say zed, not zee, and postal code, not zip code.
    I would think it also varies depending on where in Canada you live. Some of my friends who grew up in Newfoundland say things I’ve never heard of before.

  • The biggest thing that stuck out to me when I read the UK version of “Harry Potter” was that a group is plural (a group are plural?). For example:
    BE: Gryffindor are going to win the house cup.
    AE: Gryffindor is going to win the house cup.

    Although, I have to admit, for a long time I thought that candyfloss was a treat unique to the wizarding world. Maybe someday I’ll find out that chocolate frogs is a British-ism for Tootsie Rolls.

    • We call Chocolate Frogs ‘Freddo Frogs’ and they are ‘banging’ (a slang British word for amazing)

  • I learned not to tell your British friend that your little boy looks so cute in his pants and suspenders or they’ll think you’re dressing him in underwear and garters. lol

    • That’s too funny, I was stationed at RAF Bentwaters very near the town of Ipswich for 3 year’s and married a British lady. I found England to be a beautiful and interesting country and I loved the people.

  • My biggest cringe is when Americans say “I could care less” when us Brits have it right with “I couldn’t care less”.
    If you can’t care less, then you obviously care as little as possible. If you can care less, then you still have some way to go…. :)

  • I grew up in Texas in the late 70s early 80s, and we always called “flip flops” thongs. Flip flop just sounds like baby talk to me. It’s like calling water wawa. Unfortunately, flip flop has since spread like syphilis.

  • When you mentioned the word got, you forgot to include that Americans use “gotten” a lot. They use it in almost all the instances where British people just use got. Americans say things like “We’ve gotten a new car!”.

    In British English, the word got, is enough. The only times that “gotten” is used, will be in “ill-gotten” and “forgotten”.

    • Not necessarily true. I was raised in the south (Texas) and we always said,” We got a new car!”

    • I never heard anyone say gotten for got except children. That is considered childish. Also, i haven’t heard it for some time now.

    • For AE, I’ve only heard “gotten” with adjectives (“She’d gotten very angry”), or verbs (“They phoned to make sure I’d gotten paid”).
      I’ve never heard anyone say, “We’ve gotten cake for dessert”. That sounds bizarre paired with a noun, at least to this west coast American.

    • I don’t use gotten.

  • What about use of The and And.
    BE – One thousand and one
    AE – One thousand one

    BE – July the 14th
    AE – July 14 (although int he last two years all cinema ads in the UK seem to have reverted to this.

    Plus other pronounciations:
    BE – premiere (as for French)
    AE – Promeeeeeeeuuur or Promeeeeeer
    BE- Boy (for buoy)
    AE – Booeey (In AE is buoyancy pronounced Booeeeyancy?)

    • SScaddan, dates in the UK normally have the day before the month. AE July 14 would be the 14th of July in BE. Cinema ads often use the AE format because so many films are American.

    • “pronounciation”? I thought people only pronounced this incorrectly, not spelt it wrong as well.

  • Americans are much more likely to destroy the English language with the misuse of adverbs, often using the adjectival form of the word.
    Brits use “garden” for what Americans call a “yard”.

    • garden here is where you plant flowers of vegetables/fruits

      • Unfortunately the heathen youth in Britain now use ‘Yard’ as a slang term for home! In fact they use slang for everything, which drives me absolutely potty. As in ‘Yeah blud, wanna come over my yard? Safe innit.’ (‘Hello friend, would you like to come and spend some time at my house later? That would be great.’)

  • The only real gripe I have with spoken AE is the phrase “two times” when BE uses “twice” which I think sounds better and neater!
    But then as an American friend once said to me when I complained about it once too often, “when did you last say ‘thrice’ ”
    – Fair comment!

    • Ian, even worse is the Americanism “one time” in contexts where the word once, would do. It never ceases to be cringeworthy.

  • Born and raised in England and never once called or heard anyone else call “flip flops” “thongs”…they were always flip flops… all of my children were born in the United states and they laugh at me when I tell them to put on their jumpers instead of their sweaters!

  • In the dim and very distant past, when still under the sartorial control of my mother, jumpers were those thin things, often without sleeves that she made me wear under my school blazer (hated them!) while sweaters were what we “cool” kids wore at weekends without a jacket and tended to be a lot thicker and bigger – courtesy , usually, of “Marks and Spencer” – or was this only a Scottish “Fad”?

  • Here are a few more: BE (and most of the world) refer to football as football while Americans call it soccer. Windscreen vs Windshield. Apartment vs Flat. Caravan vs trailer. Brown Sauce vs HP/Steak sauce. There are lots of words that are pronounced differently even though they refer to the same thing – Vitamin, Aluminum, Lieutenant.

  • “Pissed” comes to mind, which in BE means “drunk” and in AE means “angry”.

    • Yeah, “taking the piss” was very hard for me to interpret the first time I heard it.

      Similarly, “Are you having a laugh?” and, “Bob’s your uncle” are phrases I needed my British friends to translate.

      Fag = cigarette
      (I have a Scottish friend that also insists “fanny” means something else entirely than “butt” but I haven’t confirmed that!)

      • It does. It’s not what Americans refer to as “butt”. It’s the other thing near there, that only women have.

        • You all or ya’ll got/have, are making, me laugh, oh and by the way the above start of this sentence I was just playing/messing around.

          I was stationed in the UK many years ago as a young man, I was just 20 years old and living in the town of Ipswich. On my first weekend living in Ipswich a couple of my friends and I went downtown ipswich to mingle with the rest of us commoners, everytime a Bloke would pass us by on the street I could hear some kind of a mumble coming from the nickname Bloke but I just couldn’t make out what was being said, my friends and I were mystified, I finally stopped this random Bloke on the street and asked him what this mysterious mumbled greeting was, it turns out what was being said was “you Allright mate” I love the British people.

  • It’s worth noting,that elocution did not come into common practice until the eighteenth century.An Englishman from the seventeenth century would have a dialect that sounds more like a New Englanders than a modern Englishmans.

  • You can also add these differences:
    AE: busy; BE: engaged (phone)
    AE: crazy; BE: mad
    AE: doctor’s office; BE: doctor’s surgery
    AE: dumb, stupid; BE: stupid
    AE: fall, autumn; BE: autumn
    AE: first floor, second floor etc; BE: ground floor, first floor etc
    AE: store, shop; BE: shop
    AE: resume; BE: CV
    AE: enroll; BE: enrol (but notice ENROLLED is the same in AE and BE)
    AE: installment; BE: instalment
    AE: skillful; BE: skilful
    AE: pajamas; BE: pyjamas
    AE: tire; BE: tyre
    AE: fertile rhymes with hurtle; BE: fertile rhymes with tile. Also: ductile; futile, versatile
    AE: mirage, barrage, garage (stress on second syllable); BE: stress on first syllable

  • In my neck of the woods I have heard and used both words you have listed as coming from the opposite side of the pond. To phone someone or call someone are both common here. Got and have are both used. Fall and autumn are both used. Once and one time the same way. Pants and trousers are both familiar, and are interchangeable. She burnt, or burned the toast; both work for me. Panties are women’s under ware,

  • What I want to know is do they call a hardware store an ironmonger as I have been told? What is a hob?

    • Tallia Summers

      I’ve never heard of a hardware store being called an iron mongers and I’ve been living in the UK since I was 15. It’s usually called a DIY Store or more often ‘can you tell me where the nearest B&Q or Homebase is love?’

      And a hob is a stovetop. Oh and by the way British English is vastly different in Scotland than in England. e.g. the above mentioned thing upon which you place pots and pans etc on top to cook which was a stove up until I was 15 became a hob when I moved to Milton Keynes and was suddenly called a cooker when I moved to Glasgow.

      And don’t even get me started on the worktop, countertop, bunker, side argument that occurred between my husband and I when we were still dating that left me simply pointing to the god-forsaken top of the kitchen cupboards and calling it ‘the thing’. For months I’d just point and say “put it on the thing.”

  • still i am not been clear with the difference between British English and American English

  • Some people may be wondering (my fellow Britons included) why we call the luggage compartment of a car the “boot”.

    It dates from the era of horse-drawn carriages and the luggage was placed on a platform which folded down from the back of the vehicle, and was held in the horizontal position by a couple of ropes or chains. A sheet of leather was then placed over the top for protection against the weather (and to secure it in place).

    The word for a leather weatherproof covering was a “boot”. (Some believe it has the same root as “bottle”. Bottles were made of leather before glass was invented.)

    • I forgot to mention: if you watch an old American Western film, and there’s a stagecoach, you’ll see one.

    • Tony you do realize that here in America we also had horse-drawn carriages however the boot on our cars is called a trunk.

  • AE:Ax

    Although British, I have always thought the American version to be better, as the e on the end should turn the a to a long vowel making the pronunciation closer to “aches”.

    Incidently, I was taught in an English grammar school to use “, a ‘ is an apostrophe, which seems very rare In AE and is dying out in BE as teachers become too lazy to try to teach pupils (yet another word not .much used in AE) how to use them.

  • AE: Trunk (of a car)
    BE: Bonnet

    AE: Go up the hill
    BE: Ascend the hill

    AE: Excuse me
    BE: Pardon me

    AE: Sink
    BE: Basin

    AE: Bathtub
    BE: Sink

    • David, you got your third and fourth examples backwards.

      Your fifth example is not right. AE: Bathtub is BE: Bath.

      Your second example is questionable. Ascend is rarely used in BE. Go up is much more common.

    • Surely a trunk is at the back whereas a bonnet is at the front.

  • Just spent a week with a friend from England. Noticed she eliminates the word “the” often. EX: i need to go to hospital. I need to go to Post Office. I could listen to that lovely accent forever!

    • Jeannie, “the” does not go before hospital, unless someone is talking about a particular hospital. It’s like talking about going to school. Americans and British people don’t include “the” before school, unless they are talking about going to a particular school. For some strange reason, American English includes “the” before hospital, even when not talking about a particular one.

      Regarding your second example, there should be “the” or “a” before post office, depending on whether someone is talking about a particular example or not. Not including “the” or “a” is not common in British English. It’s a mistake.

    • Yes finally someone pointed this out, thank you, I’m going in hospital June 21st for surgery.

  • BrE has more diphthongs that is why they pronounced colour, while AmE pronounced color coz they replaced the diphthongs with long vowels.

  • I sometimes hear British people say “whilst” — is that the same as “while” or is there some difference?

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