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British and American English


Those people who complain about the difficulties of learning German, don't know how lucky they really are - they only have one language to master. Admittedly, there are regional differences of dialect in German-speaking countries, but the non-native speaker who has learned Hochdeutsch (high or standard German) should have no problems in making himself understood by citizens of Germany, Austria or Switzerland. The difficulty for the non-native learner of English on the other hand is that there is no standard English form. He is confronted with two English dialects to learn: British English and American English (leaving aside Australian, Indian, South African English etc.) And despite the many cross-cultural influences, it seems that the vocabularies, spellings and pronunciations of these two dialects are diverging year by year.

To be consistent in his use of English and, more importantly, to be understood , the non-native speaker needs to know which words have distinct meanings and pronunciations depending on whether they are used by a Briton or an American. This is necessary not only for sake of communication, but also to avoid embarrassment. For example, if a Londoner tells a resident of New York that she has left her child's dummy in the pram and its nappy in the boot, she will merely be greeted with a look of bewilderment. If the New Yorker then tells the London woman that she has nice pants, he may well wonder why she doesn't seem to take his remark as a compliment.

[In America dummies and nappies are called pacifiers and diapers; prams and boots are called baby carriages and trunks. For Americans pants are trousers but for Britons pants are what you wear under your trousers.]

What follows are brief examples of the major areas of difference† between the two languages, together with some quiz questions.


Spelling differences

In general, where there are differences between British English (BrE) and American English (AmE) spelling, it can be said that American English has the more economical and phonetic spelling. Unnecessary letters are left out and words are spelled how they sound. An obvious example is the omission in AmE of the letter u in words such as color, neighbor, honor etc. Compare also the AmE words traveling, jewelry and program with their BrE counterparts travelling, jewellery and programme. However, this rule does not always apply. For example, you would expect skilful to be the AmE spelling and skillful the BrE spelling, but unfortunately you would be wrong!

Quiz 1

In the following table, which words are spelled in American English and which in British English? Can you give the alternative spelling in each case?

Example: AmE - mustache : BrE - moustache


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Pronunciation differences

There are of course great regional differences in pronunciation within both countries, but the following is a list of words which are pronounced differently by most Americans and most British. The difference lies either in using different vowel sounds or by stressing the word in a different place.

Quiz 2

Can you say the following words both how an American and how a Briton would say them?

vaserouteballetaddress (noun)ate

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Vocabulary differences

As a percentage of the total English vocabulary the number of words which are used only in one or the other country is very small, but the problem for learners of English is that these words are among the most common in the language. There are many words that are used almost exclusively by Americans which are understood by most Britons, and vice versa. But there are others which can cause difficulty. For example, most Britons know that Americans call biscuits cookies and flats apartments, but not so many know what an alumnus or a fender is. Similarly, Americans know that what they call their yard is called a garden in Britain and that trucks are lorries, but common British English words like plimsolls or oflicence may mean nothing to them.

Quiz 3

From the lists below, choose the pair of words that have the same meaning and identify them as American English or British English.

Example: AmE - cookie    =   BrE - biscuit

sweetsthumb tackliftbillcaravan
petroldrawing pinholidaytrailer

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British English and American English grammar are mostly in agreement; there are however some interesting variations. For example there are differences in certain verb forms. In AmE the past tense of fit is fit; in BrE it is fitted. Americans say I've gotten to know her well; Britons I've got to know her well. In BrE the present perfect tense is used for situations in which AmE would typically use the past simple. For example using the words just or already, Britons would be more likely to say: I've just seen him or I've already done it whereas in AmE it would be common to hear I just saw him or I already did it.

As another example, Americans are much more likely to be technically correct in the agreement of collective noun and verb form than Britons. So in standard AmE it would be: The team is playing well this season whereas in BrE it is common and acceptable to say The team are playing well. Similar differences can be seen in the use of words like government, committee etc.: The government is .. (AmE), The government are .. (BrE).

Quiz 4

The following sentences are typically AmE. What would the typical Briton say?

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There are countless other small and interesting differences between AmE and BrE, which come under the heading of usage. Take the useful expression used in AmE through, meaning up to and including. E.g., The exhibition is showing March through June. The equivalent expression in BrE is from March to June, but this is ambiguous. Does the exhibition close at the end of May or the end of June? To avoid any misunderstanding, it is necessary to say something like The exhibition is showing from March to the end of June.

As another example: for Americans the number billion has 9 zeros (a thousand million); for most Britons it has 12 zeros (a million million). Zero itself is a much more common word in AmE than in BrE, where nought is more widespread. Americans are likely to say the number 453 as four hundred fifty three, whereas in Britain it would almost always be said four hundred and fifty three. And so on!

Quiz 5

Are the following sentences more likely to be said (or written) by an American or a Briton?

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It is clear that the poor non-native speaker has an almost impossible task to keep the two languages separated. The best he can do is to acquire a good reference book. Two books that I can recommend on this topic are:



Quiz 1 - Spelling

In the following table the red spellings are American English and the blue spellings are British English:

airplane - aeroplane check - chequetheater - theatre
defense - defence woolen - woollen tire - tyre
pajamas - pyjamas jail - gaol*

* Jail is more common in BrE too nowadays, although gaol is still perfectly acceptable (and pronounced the same as jail!)

Quiz 2 - Pronunciation

Americans and Britons agree in most cases on where a word in stressed. For example, everyone says pencil and relax, cinema and consider, but the following words from the table are stressed differently in the two dialects:

The differences in pronunciation of the other words lie in the vowel sounds, not in differently-stressed syllables. They are therefore more difficult to illustrate in writing without recourse to phonetic script, which few people know. Their proununciations are illustrated therefore by reference to common words with the same sound

*  Some Americans pronounce these words as Britons do.

Quiz 3 - Vocabulary

The AmE words are shown in red, the BrE words in blue:

: closet - cupboard : vacation - holiday : fall - autumn : thumb tack - drawing pin : flashlight - torch : subway - underground : baggage - luggage : movie - film : drapes - curtains : elevator - lift : hood - bonnet : mailman - postman : check - bill * : line - queue : candy - sweets : gas - petrol : trailer - caravan :

* In England you ask the waiter for the bill at the end of your meal. In America you ask for the check. A bill in AmE is a synonym for a banknote.

Quiz 4 - Grammar

* AmE is much more likely to use a subjunctive form than BrE.

Quiz 5 - Usage

This was a trick question because in fact all of the sentences are more likely to be said or written by an American than a Briton! Here they are again with their English equivalents:

Frankfurt International School: Art and artists. (Click to see at full size.)