British English & American English — the differences

A very common question I get from English learners is…

What is better — British English or American English?

I am British but I would not really argue that British English is better in any way. I would also not argue that American English is better either.

But I would say that American English is more widely used.

There was a time when people — British people — would say that British English is the true English. They would expect everyone to use only British English.

That may have been true a few years ago, when people regarded England as being the origin of the English language.

But now English belongs to the world.

Many countries and cultures have added and contributed to the English language.

I would say that the standard to use in most everyday situations is American English.

But what is the difference between British English and American English anyway?

Let’s take a look…

 

British English and American English Grammar

 

Let’s look at the different ways that grammar is used between the two forms.

There are some notable distinctions.

 

Collective Nouns

 

A collective noun is a noun that describes a group of things or people together.

For example:

Staff

Family

Class

Band

Group

Company

Team

 

In American English, we use the singular — the staff is taking a holiday.

But in British English, we can use the singular or the plural — the staff is taking a holiday/the staff are taking a holiday.

Other examples:

British English American English
My family is coming to visit/my family are coming to visit My family is coming to visit
The class is having a field trip/the class are having a field trip The class is having a field trip
The band is great/the band are great The band is great
The group is having a meeting/the group are having a meeting The group is having a meeting
The company is doing overtime/the company are doing overtime The company is doing overtime
The team is winning/the team are winning The team is winning

 

Shall and Will

 

In British English, people usually use more formal ways of speaking.

So in the UK, people might prefer to use the word shall. Whereas in America, people will be more informal and say will.

American people also use the phrases:

Can I?

Should I?

How about?

This is most noticeable when making suggestions.

 

British English American English
Shall I turn the air-con on? Can I open the air-con?
Shall we have lunch? Do you want to have lunch?
Shall we have a rest? How about we have a rest?

 

Got and Gotten

 

In British English, the past participle of get is got.

In American English, the past participle is gotten.

 

British English American English
He’s got fat over the years He’s gotten fat over the years
She has got a lot taller She has gotten a lot taller
They could have got in trouble They could have gotten in trouble

 

Have and Take

 

In British English, people use the word have and take with nouns such as bath, rest or shower.

But in American English, people only use the word take.

British English

  • I’m going to have/take a bath
  • I’m going to have/take a rest
  • I’m going to have/take a shower

 

American English

  • I’m going to take a bath
  • I’m going to take a rest
  • I’m going to take a shower

 

Past Tense Verbs

 

There are differences in British English and American English in the past form of irregular verbs.

British people use the -t ending, whereas American people use the -ed ending.

British English American English
learnt learned
smelt smelled
dreamt dreamed
leant leaned
burnt burned
spelt spelled

British English

  • I have learnt many Chinese characters
  • I have dreamt every night this week

 

American English

  • I have burned the toast
  • You have spelled it correctly

British English and American English Spelling

 

There are many differences in spelling between British English and American English.

This is due to a man called Noah Webster. There is now a dictionary named after him.

Webster tried to simplify the way English words were spelt/spelled.

 

This is seen in many words that end in -or/-our.

Colour/Color

Labour/Labor

Neighbour/Neighbor

 

Also, check words that end in -ise/-ize.

British English American English
organize or organise Organize
apologize or apologise Apologize

 

Words that end in -re/-er.

British English American English
centre center
litre liter

 

And the same with words that end in -yse/-yze.

British English American English
analyse analyze
breathalyse breathalyze

 

And words that end in -ence/-ense.

British English American English
licence license
defence defense

 

And words that end in -ogue/-og.

British English American English
catalogue catalog
dialogue dialog

 

In British English, people use a double L, but in American English it is only one L.

For example;

I have travelled to many places.

I have traveled to many places.

 

And some words in British English have a double vowel. But in American English, only one vowel is used — usually the letter E.

British English American English
encyclopaedia encyclopedia
anaemia anemia

 

The best way to check for the correct spelling for British or American English is to use the right dictionary.

British English — The Oxford English Dictionary

American English — The Mirriam-Webster Dictionary

 

British English and American English Vocabulary

 

But of course the most obvious difference between British and American English is in the vocabulary.

There are many words in both countries that are completely different.

For example, people in London live in a flat, but people in New York live in an apartment.

In America, people go on vacation. But in the UK, people go on holiday.

Here is a list of very common words that are different in British and American English.

British English

American English

trousers

pants

car park

parking lot

lorry

truck

crisps

chips

chips

French fries

fizzy drink/pop

soda

enquiry

inquiry

biscuit

cookie

shop

store

bill

check

film

movie

 

But of course, there are many many others.

Check a dictionary if you need to know the right word to use.

 

Conclusion

 

I hope that clarifies some of the confusion between British and American English.

Even for native English speakers, it is confusing sometimes. I often have to check the dictionary to make sure I am using the correct word — be it British or American.

You should always check in a dictionary too. It always pays to check everything.

Please tell me what you think in the comments below!

2 thoughts on “British English & American English — the differences”

  1. That was an excellent clarification David. Fortunately the spell check in Microsoft word can usually be set with your default English of choice. I think it is not so important which you choose in writing as long as you are consistent.

    1. Thanks Leona. I think the differences between British and American English can be quite puzzling to English learners. Puzzling for many other people too! Thanks for reading Leona!

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