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American and British English Differences

This article outlines the differences between American English, the form of the English language spoken in the United States, and British English, which for the purposes of this article is assumed to be the form of English spoken in southeast England, used by the British Government and the BBC and understood in other parts of the United Kingdom. The section on Pronunciation assumes the Received Pronunciation of British English. Note that American English refers to the language spoken by the Government officials etc, rather than regional dialects. It doesn't include Canadian English, which isn't regarded as 'American' anyway.

English usage in other countries has traditionally followed one model or the other. Throughout most of the Commonwealth, the spoken English has its roots in the British version, though local expressions abound. Canadian English is something of an exception to this, taking its cue from both the UK and the US. British English is also the dialect taught in most countries where English is not a native language, though there are a few exceptions where American English is taught, such as in the Philippines and in Japan. Ireland's version of English is often described as Hiberno-English and differs in some respects from British English, in so far as phrases and terms often owe their origin to the original Irish language (Gaelic), which allowed for more variations in word structure.

Although American and British English are generally mutually intelligible, there are enough differences to occasionally cause awkward misunderstandings or complete failures to communicate. It has been said that the United States and United Kingdom are "two countries divided by a common language".

Henry Sweet[?] predicted in 1877 that within a century, American English, Australian English and British English would be mutually unintelligible, but it may be the case that increased world-wide communication through television, the Internet, or globalization has reduced the tendency to regionalisation. This can result either with some variations becoming extinct (as, for instance, apartment has been gradually displacing flat in much of the world) or that wide variations are accepted as "perfectly good English" everywhere.

In addition to its use in English-speaking countries, English is used as a technical language around the world, in medicine, computer science, air traffic control, and many other such areas of concentrated expertise and international user populations. Such speakers may be fluent in English within their discipline, but not generally fluent in English.

There are also many surviving dialects and local variations in English. Certainly the Alabama truck driver, the Highlands crofter, the Jamaican rapper, and the Harvard professor can all speak English, but they would have to work at it to talk among themselves. And the Finnish air traffic controller might still feel left out.

Table of contents

Spelling Some words shared by all English speakers are spelled one way by Americans but spelt differently by Britons. Many of these are American "simplifications" of the original spellings, often due to Noah Webster. In some cases, the American versions have found their way across the Atlantic and become common British usage as well, for example program (in the computing sense).

The Wikipedia:Manual of Style accepts both British and American spelling, although recommending American spelling for American subjects, and vice versa. Direct quotes and proper names-for example 'Pearl Harbor' should go as written.

  • Words ending in -our: British colour, favour, flavour, honour, humour, labour, savour, etc.; American color, favor, flavor, honor, etc. Also derivatives and inflected forms: British favourite, savoury; American favorite, savory. Hour, our, flour, sour, and soury are the same in both languages.
  • Words ending in -re: British centre, fibre, metre, theatre (showing an influence from French); American center, fiber, meter, theater. The adjectival forms of these words are the same in both conventions, however; Americans do not write centeral, fiberous, meteric or theaterical. Britons use meter for a measuring device and metre for the unit of measure. The British forms are recognizable by Americans and occasionally found in American texts, though their usage may be considered an affectation.
  • Greek-derived words with ae or æ and oe or œ: British aesthetic, amoeba, anaemia, anaesthesia, archaeology, diarrhoea, foetus, gynaecology, mediaeval, encyclopaedia; American esthetic, ameba, anemia, anesthesia, archeology, diarrhea, fetus, gynecology, medieval, encyclopedia. British manoeuvre seems to be a special case: its oe was not derived from Greek, but was apparently changed to maneuver in American English on the mistaken belief that it was. British aeroplane and American airplane is a special case in that it's not a straight ae -> e substitution like the rest, it's in fact a different word rather than a different spelling. Some of the British forms are also common in American usage, particularly aesthetic and amoeba, although esthetic and ameba do appear as well. The British accept use the American spelling of encyclopedia as part of their language.
  • Words ending in -gue: British analogue, catalogue, dialogue; American analog, catalog, dialog. The -gue forms are still common in some American usages such as demagogue and vogue (otherwise it would be just vog).
  • Words ending in -ise: British colonise, harmonise, realise; American colonize, harmonize, realize. However, while both the Oxford English Dictionary and Fowler's Modern English Usage prefer -ize, the norm is to use -ise as the standard orthographical practice. Derivatives and inflected forms: British realisation; American realization. Also: British analyse; American analyze.
  • Words ending in -xion: The British spellings connexion, inflexion, reflexion are now rare; the American connection, inflection, reflection have become the standard in British English, too. However complexion is still generally used in preference to complection.
  • British English generally doubles final -l when adding postfixes that begin with a vowel, where American English doubles it only on stressed syllables. British counsellor, equalling, modelling, quarrelled, signalling, travelled, tranquillity; American counselor, equaling, modeling, quarreled, signaling, traveled, tranquility. But compelled, excelling, propelled, rebelling in both, although Americans also use exceling, propeled, rebeling. British speakers also use a single l before postfixes beginning with a consonant where Americans use a double: British enrolment, fulfilment, skilful; American enrollment, fulfillment, skillful.
  • British English often keeps silent e when adding postfixes where American English doesn't. British ageing, judgement, routeing; American aging, judgment, routing. Arguement is found in some places, though the form argument is universal in British English.
  • Nouns ending in -ce with -se verb forms: American English retains the noun/verb distinction in advice / advise and device / devise (pronouncing them differently), but has lost the same distinction with licence / license and practice / practise that British English retains. American English uses practice exclusively for both meanings, and license for both meanings (although licence is an accepted variant spelling). Also, British defence, offence, pretence; American defense, offense, pretense.
  • Miscellaneous: British aluminium, artefact, cheque, disc, draught, gaol, grey, jewellery, kerb, mould, plough, pyjamas, programme, speciality, sulphur, tyre, carburettor; American aluminum, artifact, check, disk, draft, jail, gray, jewelry, curb, mold, plow, pajamas, program, specialty, sulfur, tire, carburetor. The word curb is used in British for the verb meaning "to restrain" or "to control", but the edge of a roadway is always a kerb. British English uses both draught and draft, depending on the sense, and uses jail and jailer more often than gaol and gaoler (except to describe a mediaeval (medieval) building and guard). The form program is normal in British English when referring to a computer program, but for other uses programme is usual. British use storey for a level of a building and story for a tale; Americans use story for both. Americans use vise for the tool and vice for the sin, while British use vice for both. The spelling grey is not uncommon in America. Lieutenant is spelt the same in both countries, but America pronounces as spelt -- lootenant and the English pronounces it leftenant.

Slight lexical differences

  • Verb past tenses with -t: British dreamt, leapt, learnt, spelt; American dreamed, leaped, learned, spelled. As with the "tre" words, these are occasionally found in American texts. The forms with -ed are also common in British English. (The two-syllable form learned is still used to mean "educated" in both British English and American English.)
  • Other verb past tense forms: British fitted, forecasted, knitted, lighted, wedded; American fit, forecast, knit, lit, wed. But the former forms are also found in American. However, lit and forecast are also the usual forms in British English. Also, the American participle gotten is never used in British English, which uses got (as do some Americans), except in an entire archaic expression such as ill-gotten gains. British usage retains the forgotten form, though. Fitted is used in American as an adjective ("fitted sheets" are the same size as the mattress) and as the past tense of fit "to suffer epilepsy" ("Leavitt fitted" in The Andromeda Strain); however fit and fitting are not in ordinary British use for "to suffer epilepsy" (though that usage is common within medical circles), with the same effect being achieved by to have a fit or to throw a fit.
  • Nouns of direction with -wards: British forwards, upwards, afterwards, etc.; American forward, upward, afterward. However, there is no real distinction here, as both forms are used in both dialects, except that afterward is rare in British English.
  • In British English the word sat is often used to cover sat, sitting and seated: "I've been sat here waiting for half an hour". "The bride's family will be sat on the right side of the church". Not all British people do this, but it is not often heard outside Britain. Similarly stood can be used instead of standing.
  • Letter-writing: When starting a formal letter, Americans usually write a colon after the greeting ("Dear Sir:") while Britons usually write a comma ("Dear Sir,").

Pluralisation of collective terms

Paradoxically:

   British: sport page;    American: sports page
but
   British: drugs dealer;  American: drug dealer

Grammar

  • Collective nouns: Nouns like team and company that describe multiple people are often used with the plural form of a verb in British English, and with the singular form in American. British "the team are concerned"; American "the team is concerned".
  • The singular they is frequently used in spoken British English. Though occurring less often in written British English it is more likely to be considered acceptable.
  • Differences in which nouns are the same in both their plural and singular forms, such as the word sheep. In American English shrimp is such a word but with British English the plural of shrimp is shrimps. (Shrimps is occasionally heard in the southern U.S., but is otherwise rare, although used colloquially when used pejoratively to refer to small people).
  • In names of American rivers, the word river usually comes after the name (for example, Colorado River), whereas for British rivers it comes before (as in River Thames).
  • The present perfect tense is much more common in British dialects than in American, where the simple past tense is usually used instead. For example, I've gone in British English; I went in American.
  • Several verb forms are used transitively in American, intransitively in British English: "I wrote John" in American vs "I wrote to John"; and "workers protested the cuts" vs "workers protested against the cuts".
  • British English allows the verb "have" to be fronted in a sentence in all circumstances to form a question, as in, "Have you the time?". American English, on the other hand, only allows "have" to be fronted when used as an auxiliary, such as in "Have you been to Boston?". An American would instead inquire, "Do you have the time?", inserting the dummy operator "do" as with any other verb.
  • The subjunctive mode[?] is more common in American English in expressions like "They suggested he apply for the job". British English would have "They suggested he should apply for the job" or even "They suggested he applied for the job". These British usages are heard in the United States, however.
  • Singular attributives in one country may be plural in the other, and vice versa. For example, Britain has a drugs problem while the United States has a drug problem. Compare sport page/sports page above.

Punctuation

  • Full stops/Periods in abbreviations: Americans tend to write "U.S.", "U.N.", "Mr.", "Mrs." etc., while most British will write "US", "UN", "Mr", "Mrs", etc., following the rule that a period is used only when the last letter of the abbreviation is not the last letter of the complete word.
  • Quoting: Americans start with double quotation marks (") and use single quotation marks (') for quotations within quotations. English do the opposite, but not on all time.
  • Hyphens in adjective phrases: In Britain the multi-word adjectives are usually written without the hyphen, e.g. "a first class ticket" or "using the first past the post voting system". In America hyphens are usually used, e.g. "a first-class ticket" or "using the first-past-the-post voting system".
  • Contents of quotations: Americans will usually put commas and periods inside quotation marks ("hello world," I said), whereas Britons put the punctuation inside if it belongs to the quote and outside otherwise ("hello world", I said). The American style was established for typographical reasons having to do with the aesthetics of commas and quotes in typeset text; however, it is counterintuitive to some people, and illogical to mutilate strings with characters that do not belong in them. "Hart's Rules" and the "Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors" call the British style "new" or "logical" quoting. This returns British English to the style many other languages (including Spanish, French, Italian, Catalan, and German) have been using all along. According to the Jargon file, American hackers have switched to using "logical" British quotating system, because including extraneous punctuation in a quotation can sometimes change the fundamental meaning of the quotation.

Note: The Wikipedia:Manual of Style splits the difference here, suggesting British style for punctuation and quotation marks, and American style for double and single quotation marks.

Numbers When saying or writing out numbers, the British will put an "and" before the last part, as in "one hundred and sixty-two" and "two thousand and three", whereas Americans go with "one hundred, sixty-two" and "two thousand, three". Americans also have a tendency to read numbers like 1234 as "twelve thirty-four", which would be "twelve hundred and thirty-four" or "one thousand, two hundred and thirty-four" in Britain unless discussing the year 1234, when "twelve thirty-four" would be the norm.

There is also a historical difference between billions, trillions. Historically, in the United States one billion meant one thousand million (1,000,000,000) where as in British english, it meant one million million (1,000,000,000,000), with one thousand million being described as a milliard. However the American english version is now generally used in the United Kingdom and among other non-US English speakers. The word milliard has disappeared from use. See English language numerals for the details.

Finally, when referring to the number 0, Americans use the term "zero" almost exclusively, whereas Britons would use "nought" or "oh" as well. (The digit 0, e.g. when reading a phone or account number aloud, is nearly always pronounced "oh" in both languages for the sake of convenience)

Vocabulary The differences most likely to create confusion are when the same word is used for two different concepts. Most of these are for modern concepts where new words were coined independently, or else the terms are slang or vulgar. Regional variations even within the US or the UK can create the same problems.

It should also be noted that most American words can be freely interchanged with their British versions within the United Kingdom without leading to confusion. It tends to be only when the situation is reversed that problems occur. However, there are some exceptions, such as dumpster, gas and stroller (in the sense of pushchair) which could be misunderstood by speakers of British English.

Words only used in British English

In Southern Britain the word whilst is used almost interchangeably with while. Whilst is more often used in instruction manuals, legal documents, etc.

The word while means until in some Northern English dialects. There is an apocryphal story that because of this, railway crossings with signs saying "do not cross the track while the lights are flashing" had to be changed after several fatalities occurred.

List of British English words not used in American English

Words only used in American English

Speakers of British English are generally aware of the American English term, but would not generally use it.

List of American English words not used in British English

Words with different meanings in British and American English

List of words having different meanings in British and American English

Pronunciation Americans pronounce T's differently to Britons, often changing T sounds into softer D sounds between two vowels. More precisely, in American English, when either a 't' sound or a 'd' sound occurs between two vowels, it changes to a flap, similar to the 'r' in Spanish 'pero'. Consequently, to a speaker of both dialect groups, an American's pronunciation of atom and Adam are homophonous in casual speech. See linguistics and allophones for more information on this category of phenomenon.

Though most English accents pronounce the T's in words as a distinctive T it is common, particularly in Estuary English to replace the T with a glottal stop.

The vowels are also somewhat different. American English generally has a simplified vowel system as compared to the British dialects. In particular, with the exception of New England, Americans have lost the distinction between the vowels of awl and all, as well as caught and cot, tending to pronounce all of these with something between a long form of the sound in cot and the "a" of father.

The long "a" of father is used in many British RP words, especially common ones, in two phonetic situations. Firstly, before three of the four voiceless fricatives, as in path, laugh, pass, past, though not before sh. Secondly, before some instances of n and another consonant, as in aunt, plant, dance. In most northern dialects, not to mention Scotish and Irish, though, the short "a" is the norm. (Australian follows RP only in the first case.) An "a" at the begining of a word (such as "ant") is usually short throughout the country, just as in the American.

Most American dialects have not lost the non-prevocalic r. That is, "standard" American English preserves the sound of "r" in all occurrences, whereas British English only preserves it when it is followed by a vowel (see rhotic). However, this does not hold true for all American dialects nor for all British dialects; the dialects of New England and the American South both exhibit the same sound change found in southern England. This phenomenon also partially accounts for the interlocution of 'r' between a word ending in a vowel and one beginning with a vowel (such as "the idear of it") exhibited both in some dialects of Britain and in the Boston (USA) dialect of American English. Most other American dialects interpose a glottal stop where "r" appears in the Boston example, and appears to perform the same function of separating adjacent (non-dipthongized) vowels.

In American English, words of two or more syllables, where the first syllable ends with a single consonant, usually use the long vowel sound:

  • Patriot, the a rhymes with the a in gate
  • Zenith, the e rhymes with the ee in seen

In British English the short vowel sound is usually employed:

  • Patriot, the a rhymes with the a in sat
  • Zenith, the e rhymes with the e in bet

In both British and American English a double consonant ending the first syllable usually means the short vowel sound is used.

  • Parrot, the a rhymes with the a in sat

The name of the letter Z is pronounced zed in British English (and most other European languages) as opposed to zee in American English, though the words are normally only spelled out when noting the difference, like here. Some Greek letters are also pronounced differently. For example, the British pronunciation of beta sounds like "beata" whereas the American pronunciation sounds like "baita", similarly phi is "fie" to Britons and "fee" to Americans, though pi is "pie" to both. The American is more in keeping with the ancient Greek.

Miscellaneous Both British and American English use the expression "I couldn't care less" to mean the speaker does not care at all. In American English, the ironic "I could care less" (without the "n't") is synonymous with this, while in British English, "I could care less" is most certainly not synonymous with this, and might be interpreted as anything from nonsense to the speaker's expressing that he or she does care.

Differences in the intepretation of the verb "to table" allegedly caused a heated high-level diplomatic exchange in the 1930s: in British English, the term means "to discuss now", whereas in American English it means "to defer".

In a similar vein, the verb "to slate" means "to schedule" in the US but (informally) "to disparage" in the UK. Thus a headline such as "Third Harry Potter Film Slated" has two very different interpretations.



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