Main Differences Between British and American English
In the 16th and 17th centuries, British colonisation of America brought the English language to American shores. Because the British arrived in waves over a couple of hundred years, the English spoken in America was influenced by other colonists from Spain, the Netherlands, Ireland, and also by the native Americans. This led to an English language developing which contained subtle differences to the mother tongue which we will explore in detail here.
Although most words are the same or similar, they often have very different meanings. British chips are American fries. American chips are British crisps. A British car bonnet is an American car hood. American cars have a trunk, whereas British cars have a boot. British sarcasm is American irony.
When dealing with plurals and collective nouns, there are some differences between American and British English. A couple is seen as a collective noun in American English and is treated as a singular item, whereas in British English it is seen as a plural subject.
British English: This couple live in a home they bought outright.
American English: This couple lives in a home they bought outright.
To be, to do and to have are all auxiliary verbs. There are few differences between American and British English regarding the use of auxiliary verbs, but you may see the verb ‘to get’ used more often in British English alongside the verb ‘to have’.
British English: Have you got the time?
American English: Do you have the time?
Past Tense Verbs
In American English, the past simple tense is sometimes used in place of the present perfect preferred in British English.
British English: Have you taken the rubbish out?
American English: Did you take the trash out?
Certain verbs change their past participles depending on the type of English used. The verb ‘to get’ is one example.
British English: She’s got worse at chess.
American English: She’s gotten worse at chess.
Tag questions are used in both British and American English but tend to appear more frequently in British English. British slang sometimes includes the question tag “innit” which is frequently used both in the place of “isn’t it” and simply as a point of emphasis. British English also uses the question tag “weren’t it” which does not appear in American English.
British English: The football’s on, innit?
American or British English: The soccer’s on, isn’t it?
British English: That meal was fantastic, weren’t it?
American or British English: That meal was fantastic, wasn’t it?
British people meet up “at the weekend”, whereas Americans would arrange to do something “on the weekend”. A British holiday might last “from Monday to Sunday” whereas the American equivalent would be “Monday through Sunday”. The phrase “to get along with somebody” is used in both British and American English but in British English it is also acceptable to say that you “get on with somebody.”
Regular and Irregular Verbs
Many verbs which are regular in American English become irregular when translated into British English and vice versa.
British English regular past tense verbs: wetted, quitted.
American English irregular: wet, quit.
British English irregular past tense verbs: spelt, burnt, spilt, learnt, dreamt.
American English regular: spelled, burned, spilled, learned, dreamed.
One of the most obvious differences in American and British spelling is the use of ‘ize’ in the place of ‘ise’ or vice versa.
British English: normalise, organise, prioritise, analyse, recognise.
American English: normalize, organize, prioritize, analyze, recognize.
Another key difference is seen in words with the letter L between two vowels.
British English: chilli, travelling.
American English: chili, traveling.
British English words that end in -re usually end in -er in American English.
British English: calibre, litre, theatre, centre.
American English: caliber, liter, theater, center.
Words that contain ‘ou’ in British English may change to simply ‘o’ in American English.
British English: colour, flavour, honour, armour, behaviour.
American English: color, flavor, honor, armor, behavior.
Words such as tomato and herb are very well-known differences. To-mah-to is to-may-to in American English, and British English speakers pronounce the ‘h’ on herb which is missing in spoken American English.
It’s clear to see that despite these differences, British and American English aren’t so different after all. There’s very little risk of an American not being able to understand British English, or vice versa, even though they may disagree over the spelling of certain words. Try these exercises to determine your understanding of the differences between British and American English.