American English v. British English

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American English v. British English deals with the numerous differences in spelling, grammar, pronunciation and usage that separate the two Englishes.

While there are also many differences and idiosyncrasies among all the other varieties of English spoken around the world, the most significant and systematic differences are to be found between these two variations, with Pyles and Algeo stating that “English is unmistakably one language, with two major national varieties: British and American” (1993:212).[1]

Considerations for learners and teachers[edit | edit source]

There are a number of points to consider when deciding which version of English to learn or teach. A study carried out in 2010 by the Dept. of Languages and Literatures/English at Gothenburg University to find out the attitudes of Swedish upper secondary school teachers aged 23-42 suggested that most "teachers have very strong attitudes towards the different varieties".[2] Received Pronunciation is considered, among other things, “nice”, “formal”, “correct”, while General American is described as being “friendlier”, “young approached” and “down to earth”, with those preferring the former were in the older age group and those preferring the latter were in the younger age group.[2] This study followed a series of other studies carried out by other researchers, including for example, Thörnstrand (2008) whose study suggested that most of the 108 upper secondary school students surveyed used General American more than British English.[3]

Which English to teach?[edit | edit source]

For native English speakers the language to teach will obviously be their native one - as trying to teach the nuances of another version is quite difficult. However, mention should, ideally, be made of any major differences.

Which language to learn?[edit | edit source]

Although there are differences between the two forms of English, both their "standard" forms are mutually intelligible. For the majority of English language learners the main accent that native English speakers will notice is the "foreign" accent associated with the learner's mother tongue rather than a British or American one.

Furthermore, many learners do not spend a considerable amount of time conversing with native English speakers anyway, but instead communicate with other non-native speakers.

Which language is easier to understand?[edit | edit source]

Students will often claim that either American or British English is easier to understand. The probability is that this will simply depend on which accent they have been most exposed to.

Origins[edit | edit source]

Many features of American English that are considered American modifications were in fact in use in Britain earlier. Such is the case of brunch; gottenAmE v. gotBrE; ate /eɪt/AmE v. ate /et/BrE; and even the expression I guess, which many Britons would consider a purely American phrase.[4]

Other differences, especially in spelling, were introduced by the spelling reformer and lexicographer Noah Webster, although not all his proposals caught on. He was responsible for traveler, color, and center. His suggested medicin and examin and others without the final "e" didn't work out, but removing the final "k" from music and logic, etc., actually became standard on both sides of the Atlantic.

While some of the items in this article may overlap, e.g. pronunciation and spelling, major differences are set out as follows:

Grammar[edit | edit source]

General[edit | edit source]

The biggest single different is broadly that in British English the use of the perfect aspect is more widespread, and considered elegant in educated writing, whereas in American English this is eschewed in favour of simplicity. The result is that British English is grammatically somewhat more complex for learners overall, at least at an intermediate level and above.

In British English collective nouns take a plural verb and in American English they take a singular verb.

Examples: Liverpool police want to ...; Dallas police wants to ....

Specific[edit | edit source]

American English British English
cater to cater for
different than different from
speak with speak to

Vocabulary[edit | edit source]

Svartvik and Leech (2006) suggested that some 4000 words differ in British English and General American.[5]

American English British English Comments
apartment flat
can can, tin, tin can Metal container for food
checkers draughts A board game
cookie (sweet) biscuit
cracker (salty) biscuit
diaper nappy
eggplant aubergine /ˈəʊbərʒiːn/
elevator lift
eraser rubber
fall autumn
faucet tap
fender bumper Of a car
flashlight torch portable lamp
torch torch portable fire that gives light
football American football
soccer football
gasoline or gas petrol
hood bonnet Of a car
pants trousers Male or female outerwear
(male) underpants pants Male underwear
sidewalk pavement
stroller perambulator or pram To carry children
tic-tac-toe noughts and crosses
truck lorry
trunk boot Of a car
TV TV, telly
vacation holiday A period in which you are not working, especially if you are away from home
vacation vacation A period when universities or courts of law are closed.
holiday holiday A day in which one doesn't have to work.
yard garden A piece of land where a house is. I have a swimming pool in my yardAmE/gardenBrE
zucchini /zuˈkiːniː/ courgette /kʊərˈʒet, kɔːrˈʒet/

Pronunciation[edit | edit source]

General[edit | edit source]

Rhoticity[edit | edit source]

Rhotic and non-rhotic accent: In Received Pronunciation, the theoretical basis for Standard British English, the letter r is not normally pronounced before a consonant or at the end of a word: car; door; four; hard; more; start; Thursday; work; While American English has non-rhotic varieties, notably in New England and south of the Mason-Dixon line, most standard American English speakers render the "R" wherever it appears.

Sounds Example word Rhotic Non rhotic
/ɑː/ start /stɑːrt/ /stɑːt/
/eə/ squared /skweərd/ /skweəd/
/ɪə/ beard /bɪərd/ /bɪəd/
/ɔː/ north /nɔːrθ/ /nɔːθ/
/ʊə/ cured /kjʊərd/ /kjʊəd/
/ɜː/ nurse /nɜːrs/ /nɜːs/
/ə/ taylored /ˈteɪlərd/ /ˈteɪləd/
/aɪə/ fired /ˈfaɪərd/ /ˈfaɪəd/
/aʊə/ coward /ˈkaʊərd/ /ˈkaʊəd/

In Teflpedia the silent /r/ is always written, because it is very simple to delete it. Conversely, it is not always obvious where it can be inserted. In /eə, ɪə, ʊə, ɜː, aɪə/ and /aʊə/ it is obvious. In /ɑː, ɔː/ and /ə/ it is not.

Different sounds for the same phoneme[edit | edit source]

Phoneme Example word AmE BrE
/æ/ trap [æ] [æ, a]
/æ/ carry [æ, ɛə, ɛ] [æ, a]
/eə/ square [ɛə, ɛ] [ɛə, ɛː]
/ɪə/ near [ɪə, ɪ] [ɪə, ɪː]
/ɒ/ lot [ɑ] [ɒ]
/əʊ/ goat [oʊ] [əʊ]
/ʊə/ sure [ʊə, ʊ] [ʊə, ɔː]
/ɜː/ nurse [ɜː] [ɜː, əː]
/aɪ/ price [aɪ] [aɪ, ʌɪ]
/j/+/uː/ new [uː] [juː]
/t/ butter [ɾ] [t]
/d/ ladder [ɾ] [d]

No correspondence[edit | edit source]

Several vowel phonemes don't have the same correspondence in general American and Received pronunciation. For example BATH is pronounced with the vowel of TRAP in General American, and with the vowel of PALM in Received Pronunciation. In the following table the words that are in different lines for American English and British English are shown in bold. See also Lexical sets.

Phoneme Example words AmE BrE
/æ/ trap trap, bath trap, marry
/ɑː/ palm palm, start, lot, sorry bath, palm, start
/e/ dress dress, marry, Mary, merry dress, merry
/eə/ square, Mary square square, Mary
/ɒ/ lot   lot, sorry, forest, cloth
/ɔː/ thought thought, cloth, north, force, forest, glory thought, north, force, glory, sure
/ɪ/ kit kit, mirror, nearer kit, mirror, happy (older speakers)
/iː/ fleece fleece, happy fleece, happy (younger speakers)
/ɪə/ near, nearer near near, nearer
/ʊ/ foot foot, tourist foot
/ʊə/ cure cure, sure cure, tourist
/ʌ/ strut strut strut, hurry
/ɜː/ nurse nurse, furry, hurry nurse, furry

In the following cases even if the vowels do not sound exactly the same, there is a one-to-one correspondence.

Phoneme Example word
/eɪ/ face
/əʊ/ goat
/uː/ goose
/ə/ comma
/aɪ/ price
/aʊ/ mouth
/ɔɪ/ choice

Yod coalescence[edit | edit source]

Yod coalescence is a special case of assimilation. It occurs when a /j/ sound blends with the previous consonant.

Word BrE AmE
/tj/ vs /tʃ/
issue /ˈɪʃuː, ˈɪsjuː/ /ˈɪʃuː/
/dj/ or /diː/ vs /dʒ/
cordial(*) /ˈkɔːrdiːəl/ /ˈkɔːrdʒəl/
fraudulent /ˈfrɔːdjələnt/ /ˈfrɔːdʒələnt
module /ˈmɒdjuːl/ /ˈmɒdʒuːl/

(*) In the word "cordial" we can assume the following evolution: /ˈkɔːrdiːəl, ˈkɔːrdjəl, ˈkɔːrdʒəl/

Specific[edit | edit source]

Difference in main stress
Spelling AmE BrE
advertisement /ædvərˈtaɪzmənt/ /ədˈvɜːrtɪsmənt/
corollary /ˈkɔːrəleriː/ /kəˈrɒləriː/
donate /ˈdəʊneɪt/ /dəʊˈneɪt//
laboratory /ˈlæbrətɔriː/ /ləˈbɒrətriː/
vaccine /vækˈsiːn / /ˈvæksiːn/
Difference in secondary stress
Spelling AmE BrE
mandatory /ˈmændətɔriː/ /ˈmændətəriː/
military /ˈmɪləteriː/ /ˈmɪlətriː/
secretary /ˈsekrəteriː/ /ˈsekrətriː/
template /ˈtemplət/ /ˈtempleɪt/

There are several pronunciation differences which don't obey a general rule.

Spelling AmE BrE
apricot /ˈæprɪkɒt/ /ˈeɪprɪkɒt/
blouse /blaʊs/ /blaʊz/
clerk /klɜːrk/ /klɑːrk/
erase /ɪˈreɪs/ /ɪˈreɪz/
expatriate /eksˈpeɪtrɪət/ /eksˈpætrɪət/
leisure /ˈliːʒər/ /ˈleʒər /
lever /ˈlevər/ /ˈliːvər/
organization /ɔːrɡənəˈzeɪʃən/ /ɔːrɡənaɪˈzeɪʃən/
perhaps /pərˈhæps/ /pərˈhæps, præps/
premature /priːməˈtʃʊər/ /ˈpremətʃər/
process /ˈprɒses, ˈprəʊses/ /ˈprəʊses/
schedule /ˈskedʒuːl/ /ˈʃedjuːl/
squirrel /ˈskwɜːrəl/ /ˈskwɪrəl/
suggest /səgˈdʒest, səˈdʒest/ /səˈdʒest/
tomato /təˈmeɪtəʊ/ /təˈmɑːtəʊ/
towards /tɔːrdz/ /təˈwɔːrdz/
vitamin /ˈvaɪtəmɪn/ /ˈvɪtəmɪn/
yogurt /ˈjoʊɡərt/ /ˈjɒɡərt/

See also Wikipedia, American and British English pronunciation differences - Miscellaneous pronunciation differences

Variant words[edit | edit source]

This table shows similar words with different spelling and pronunciation. Related words that have a shared spelling are shown in green.

American English British English
airplane /ˈeərpleɪn/ aeroplane /ˈeərəpleɪn/
aluminum /əˈluːmɪnəm/ aluminium /æljəˈmɪniəm/
ass /æs/ (buttocks) arse /ɑːs/
ass /æs/ (donkey)
bathe, bathed (somebody) /beɪð, beɪðd/ bath, bathed /bɑːθ, bɑːθt/
bathe, bathed (yourself) /beɪð, beɪðd/; Also to take a bath
carburetor /ˈkɑːrbəreɪtər / carburettor /kɑːrbəˈretər/
dream, dreamed dream, dreamt
flutist flautist
ketchup /ˈkɛtʃəp/, catsup /ˈkætsəp, ˈkɛtʃəp/, catchup /ˈkætʃəp, ˈkɛtʃəp/ ketchup /ˈkɛtʃəp/
learn, learned /lɜːrn, ˈlɜːrnd/ learn, learnt /lɜːrn, ˈlɜːrnt/
learned /ˈlɜːrnɪd/
mom /mɒm/ mum /mʌm/
spell, spelled spell, spelt
Z, zee Z, zed

Spelling[edit | edit source]

General[edit | edit source]

  • Double letters: Some double L's are simplified in American English if the stem doesn't have a double L.
from cancel: cancelling, cancelled, cancellationBrE - canceling, canceled, cancelationAmE
from counsel: counselling, counselled, counsellorBrE - counseling, counseled, counselorAmE
from travel: travelling, travelled, travellerBrE - traveling, traveled, travellerAmE
  • If the verb ends in two vowels and then L, this rule does not apply
from reveal: revealing, revealed
  • Graeco-Latin words spelled with ae or oe have different forms (encyclopediaAmEencyclopedia or encyclopaedia or encyclopædia)BrE. There are no hard and fast rules, so if in doubt, check in a dictionary. In the past the ligatures æ and œ were often used, but now they are almost never used. In uppercase the ligatures are Æ and Œ.
American English British English
archaeology, archeology archaeology
ecology ecology, oecology
encyclopedia encyclopedia, encyclopaedia
enology oenology
fetus foetus, fetus
gynecologist gynaecologist
See also
American English British English
-er -re
theater theatre
center centre
meter metre (unit of length)
meter (measuring device)
-or -our
behavior behaviour
color colour
favor favour
honor honour
humor humour
labor labour
neighbor neighbour
-ize -ise or -ize
finalize finalise, finalize
realize realise, realize
See also

Specific[edit | edit source]

American English British English
acknowledgment acknowledgement
aging ageing
artifact artefact
catalog, catalogue catalogue
check check (vb), cheque (n)
defense defence
dialog, dialogue dialogue
disk, disc disc (round object), disk (IT)
draft draught (current of air), draft (drawing)
judgment judgement
mold mould
offense offence
plow plough
practice practise (vb), practice (n)
program programme (plan), program (IT)
skeptic sceptic /ˈskeptɪk/
sulfur sulphur
wagon wagon, waggon

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Pyles, Thomas and John Algeo. 1993. ‘The Origins and Development of the English Language’. 4th Ed. Orlando: Hartcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers. (Reference taken from Tioukalias 2010).
  2. 2.0 2.1 Tioukalias, Kaliopi. "Standard English versus General American: Which Variety is Preferred in Swedish Classrooms?", 2010. Retrieved 2nd December 2014.
  3. Thörnstrand, Åsa. 2008. “British or American English? A survey of some upper secondary schools”., Karlstads Universitet, Sweden. Retrieved 2nd December 2014.
  4. Crystal, David The English Language Penguin ISBN 0-14-100396-0
  5. Svartvik, Jan and Leech, Geoffrey. 2006. English. One tongue, many voices. Palgrave Macmillan