The Differences Between British and American English

Emily Upton 24
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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24 Comments »

  1. David February 5, 2014 at 3:09 am - Reply

    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. ;)

    • TChristy March 21, 2014 at 7:01 am - Reply

      David, you’re right.

  2. Jason February 5, 2014 at 5:59 am - Reply

    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.

  3. Raymond February 6, 2014 at 3:32 am - Reply

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

  4. fark February 6, 2014 at 6:22 am - Reply

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

    • TChristy March 20, 2014 at 6:50 am - Reply

      fark, hearing blackboards referred to as the cringeworthy “chalkboards” is like hearing fingernails on blackboards.

  5. Laurie February 6, 2014 at 1:28 pm - Reply

    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.

  6. Brian Allred February 6, 2014 at 5:43 pm - Reply

    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.

  7. Lisa Piephoff February 7, 2014 at 2:31 pm - Reply

    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

  8. Mike S February 8, 2014 at 4:21 am - Reply

    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…. :)

    • Bes June 24, 2014 at 4:48 pm - Reply

      Mike S, Americans don’t even realise that!

  9. Jay February 8, 2014 at 6:59 pm - Reply

    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.

  10. TChristy March 20, 2014 at 6:48 am - Reply

    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”.

    • Adrian R. July 9, 2014 at 9:29 am - Reply

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

  11. SScaddan April 22, 2014 at 5:36 am - Reply

    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?)

    • TChristy April 23, 2014 at 7:01 am - Reply

      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.

  12. Ron April 22, 2014 at 6:52 am - Reply

    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”.

  13. Ian April 23, 2014 at 9:04 pm - Reply

    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!

    • TChristy April 25, 2014 at 4:23 pm - Reply

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

  14. Karen April 25, 2014 at 8:11 am - Reply

    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!

  15. Ian April 25, 2014 at 7:01 pm - Reply

    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”?

  16. Mark May 4, 2014 at 8:51 pm - Reply

    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.

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