Most 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:
|Car park||Parking lot|
|Candyfloss (Fairyfloss in Australia)||Cotton candy|
|Fish finger||Fish stick|
|Touch wood||Knock on wood|
|Z (zed)||Z (zee)|
Do you know of other difference? Please share them in the comments below!
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy:
- Why Do the British Pronounce “Z” as “Zed”?
- The British Equivalent of “That’s What She Said”
- Why British Singers Lose Their Accents When Singing
- Why Americans Call Football “Soccer” and Where the Word Came From
- How the Tradition of Saying “Pardon My French” After Saying Swear Words Started
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