What Really Is the Difference Between British and American English?

Alex Johnson
July 1, 2020 ·
7 min read
Grammar
Style
Vocabulary

To start, let’s clear up a couple of misconceptions about English. First of all, although there are considered to be different dialects of English, in reality the English language only really differs in accent and vocabulary. And often, the vocabulary differences between dialects are usually colloquial in nature.

What does that all mean? It means that, for the most part, written English is standardized. Indeed, grammatically, there are very few acceptable differences between written English in different regions and countries. When people speak, of course, it may be a different matter.

Two of the best-known forms of English are British and American English. Indeed, Britain and America are perhaps the two best-known English-speaking countries, although they are far from the only ones. Indeed, countries such as Australian, Canada, New Zealand and South Africa, among many others, would also consider themselves to have their own variation of the English language, and that much is true. However, in terms of British or American English, most other countries would tend to follow one or other of those variations.

So how does British and American English differ?

Accent

Of course, there are British and American accents. However, just within Britain there are considered to be anywhere north of 37 different accents and dialects, so saying someone has a ‘British’ accent is a very broad generalization to make. When learning English, then , the objective should be 1) to become familiar with the accent of English you are most likely to deal with and then 2) get as much variety as you can in your learning experience.

Vocabulary

When it comes to vocabulary, there are also many variations just within Britain, or within America. Indeed, you will find variations in vocabulary in any English-speaking country.

But as mentioned previously, much vocabulary changes in colloquial speech, meaning the informal way that people speak to each other. However, in terms of the standard English that you find in a dictionary, for example, there is a distinct difference between the vocabulary of British and American English speakers. Here are just some examples:

American EnglishBritish English
apartmentflat
candysweet(s)
cell phonemobile phone
closetwardrobe
chipscrisps
cookiebiscuit
diapernappy
egg plantaubergine
elevatorlift
French frieschips
garbage/trashrubbish
gas (gasoline)petrol
hoodbonnet (of a car)
pantstrousers
periodfull stop
sidewalkpavement
soccerfootball
sodasoft drink
trunkboot (of a car)
underwear (men)pants (men)
vacationholiday
zucchinicourgette

This is just a taster of how different British and American vocabulary can be. As a general rule, the subjects of cars and food tend to be the categories with the most differences, but the vocabulary can be different in all manner of circumstances, as the examples above show.

Another thing to note is that, while most British people will know the American word, due to the fact American culture is so well-known (through Hollywood and Pop Music, for instance), not all British words will be recognized in the United States.

Grammar

There are very few grammatical differences between British and American English because English has standardized grammar. That said, there are a couple of recognized variations.

First of all, ‘gotten’ is the past participle of the word ‘get’ in American English, whereas in Britain the word ‘got’ is used. Here is an example:

‘I have got everything we need.’ (British)

‘I have gotten everything we need. (American)

In British English, collective nouns tend to be used with the ‘are’ form of the verb ‘to be’, whereas in American English, ‘is’ is preferred. Here is an example:

‘The team are playing well.’ (British)

‘the team is playing well.’ (American)

In spoken English, American English speakers tend to omit the present perfect tense, whereas British English speakers tend to conform more to the grammatical rule in this respect. Please note that in standardized written English, the present perfect from would be considered correct here.

‘I haven’t seen that movie yet.’ (British)

‘I didn’t see that movie yet.’ (American)

Spelling

Spelling is the other aspect of British and American English comparison that can cause some issues. The first thing to say is that there is no ‘right’ way. Use the version that suits your audience, and always be consistent, so don’t use the British spelling the first time and the American spelling the second.

In general, spelling differs in three specific situations, as follows:

SituationAmerican English examplesBritish English examples
or / our wordscolor, honor, valorcolour, honour, valour
er / re wordscenter, theatercentre, theatre
ize / ise wordssocialize, categorize, sympathizesocialise, categorise, sympathise

These may not be the only examples of situations in with British and American spelling differs, but they are certainly the most common.

What can I do?

As well as focusing on the differences highlighted here, remember that you can make use of the Linguix writing assistant to avoid making mistakes relating to the differences between British and American English.

Simply choose the language setting you wish for and watch as the AI-powered tool identifies the mistakes. Speak and write the English you want to produce with Linguix. 

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