The terms Britain, Great Britain, The United Kingdom, England and English can be quite confusing, not only for foreign users of English, but also for many people from other English-speaking countries, and even people living in Great Britain, Britain, England, Wales, Scotland or wherever. This is partly for historical reasons and partly because of confusion between political and geographical definitions.
The term "Great Britain" can seem ambiguous as it is not always clear if it is referring to the geographical or political entity.
Geographically "Great Britain" refers to the largest of a large number of islands which comprise the British Isles. The word "Great" does not mean "fantastic" or anything of that nature - it originally meant "big Britain", as opposed to "little Britain" further to the south, which we now know as Brittany (in France).
Politically the term "Great Britain" can also refer informally to the combined political units of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. "Britain" is also often used in this way as a shortened form for the whole political entity. It is the usual usage of people in Ireland.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
This is the formal political name for the political union of the four countries - England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Also known as "The United Kingdom" and "The UK". The nationality of the people is "British". They are sometimes called "Britons" but this can make people think of the Ancient Britons who lived in the country before the Roman invasion. The shortened form "Brit" is commonly used in news reports and by expatriates, but is not very common within the UK itself.
Not all the islands of the British Isles are included in this political unit, with the most obvious exception being the state of Eire in the southern two thirds of the island of Ireland. Other notable exceptions include the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man which are neither members of the United Kingdom nor of the European Union.
The British Isles
The British Isles is the geographical name for the islands of Great Britain, Ireland and the rest of the islands which make up the archipelago (Shetland, Jersey, Man, etc.).
"England" is only one of the four countries which make up the "United Kingdom". It is a common mistake to refer to the "United Kingdom" as "England".
As an adjective
Used as an adjective "English" is used to describe people and things from England. Non-English British citizens may object to being described as English, preferring the term Briton or "Brit", or more specifically, Welsh (adj. + n.), Scottish or Scots (adj.) or Scot (n.). In a reaction to this, others may prefer to refer to themselves as British in an effort to avoid making any explicit nationalist statement. It is best to avoid making assumptions and to follow the lead of the native speaker in such cases.
As a noun
The people who come from England are called "the English".
As the name of a language
English is also the name of the language spoken as a first language by most of the inhabitants of the British Isles.
English is also the common language spoken as a mother tongue by over 400 million people in the world, and by many more as a second or as a foreign language. We can specify it by using an adjective when we refer to national variations of the language: American English; Australian English; British English; Canadian English; Indian English; Irish English; Jamaican English; etc.
Note: Standard British English (BrE) is the present default model for Teflpedia, with some references to American English (AmE). This refers to pronunciation, grammar and even vocabulary, all of which can vary significantly depending on region, social group, etc.
- About-Britain.com guide a thematic guide to Britain - institutions, life, travel and tourism