Differences between British and American English
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- 1 Introduction
- 2 Why is the English used in America different from the UK?
- 3 American vs. British Accent
- 4 Differences in Spelling between American and British English
- 5 Differences in Vocabulary between American and British English
- 6 Differences in Tenses between American and British English
- 7 Differences in the Use of Prepositions between American and British English
- 8 Minor Grammatical Differences in American and British English
- 9 Punctuation Differences
- 10 Conclusion
Discover the subtle and interesting differences between British and American English.
While browsing the internet, you must have come across tiny differences between American and British English. For example, in the UK an elevator is generally called a lift. Even some words are spelt differently in British and American English.
So let’s try to understand where these differences come from and what to look out for when you take the IELTS!
Let’s unfold the history of English and how it changed as it travelled across the Pacific to the New World – America!
American English refers to the English that is used in the US. It comprises all varieties of English prevalent in the United States.
British English is the type of English that is used in the UK. It comprises all varieties of English found in the UK.
The key differences between American and British English include:
- vocabulary and lexicon
- Date and number formats, etc.
Let’s go over these, one by one. But first, we must understand where these differences between British and American English come from.
Why is the English used in America different from the UK?
Early in the 17th century, British colonisation brought the English language to America. Because of the power of the British Empire, it also spread to several other regions of the globe.
Over the past couple of centuries, American and British English have begun to differ from each other in a few ways. American English is thus a new dialect separate from British English.
American vs. British Accent
American English and British English sound distinctly different. The most obvious change is how the letter r is pronounced.
In British English, when an “r” follows a vowel in the same syllable the r is not pronounced. American English users pronounce the r.
For example, the word car is pronounced differently by Americans and the British.
To be honest, there are many different varieties of American and British dialects; none has a single authentic accent.
While taking the IELTS, you should not attempt to mimic a particular accent but rather speak confidently with the correct intonation so that you are easily understood by the listener.
Differences in Spelling between American and British English
The primary distinction is that British English retains the spelling of terms it has borrowed from other languages, mostly French and German.
While spellings in American English are primarily determined by how a word sounds when spoken out loud.
- The majority of British English nouns that end in -our are spelt differently in American English (e.g., humour/humor, behaviour/behavior).
- The majority of nouns in British English that end in -re are spelt with a -er in American English (e.g., centre, litre, etc.).
- Many verbs ending in -ise in British English are spelt with -ize in American English (realise/realize, organize/organize, etc.).
So why did this happen?
It leads back to the publication of the British and American English dictionaries, respectively.
Both dictionaries differed significantly in how words were spelt and used. These dictionaries were the basis of how language norms were established in both countries.
A Dictionary of the English Language (1755) by Samuel Johnson
Johnson’s dictionary was initially commissioned by a group of London booksellers who believed that a work of this nature would aid in the stabilisation of the norms controlling the English language.
It was considered to be a great scholarly achievement at the time of its publication. As one of the most well-known dictionaries in history, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language is still widely used today.
A Compendious Dictionary of the English Language (1806) by Noah Webster
The spelling of words should ideally mirror their pronunciation, according to spelling reformer Noah Webster. Due to the widespread usage of Webster’s grammar books in American classrooms, his modifications had a significant impact on American English.
Differences in Vocabulary between American and British English
The vocabulary of American and British English has become very different. These are some frequently used words in American English and their British English variants:
|American English||British English|
|Fall (as in the season)||Autumn|
|Legal holiday or federal holiday||Bank holiday|
|Garbage can, trash can or wastebasket||Bin, dustbin or rubbish bin|
|Cookie or cracker||Biscuit|
|Soda/pop/coke / soft drink||Soft drink / fizzy drink|
Differences in Tenses between American and British English
The present perfect is a tense used in British English to describe something that took place recently and has an impact on the present.
E.g. I’ve missed the bus. Can you pick me up?
The past tense is also acceptable in American English.
E.g. I missed the bus. Can you pick me up?
However, in British English, this sentence would be considered incorrect.
Another difference between American and British English tense usage is how the base verb is used. Americans tend to employ the past tense dreamed for the verb “to dream” while the British will use “dreamt”. Similarly, the words “learned” and “learnt” are equivalent in American and British English, respectively.
Differences in the Use of Prepositions between American and British English
The use of prepositions also differs slightly between British and American English. For example, Americans would play on a team, but the British would play in a team.
There are various time-related expressions in British English where the preposition “at” is used. For example, “We go sailing at the weekends.”
In American English, this will be written as: “We go sailing on the weekends.”
The preposition “on” is also used in street names in America. British English speakers, however, use “in.”
E.g. British English: I live in King’s Circle.
American English: I live on King’s Circle.
Minor Grammatical Differences in American and British English
Collective nouns are regarded as singular in American English.
E.g. The team is playing against Eton today.
However, the plural form of a collective noun is more frequently used in British English, so the above example sentence can be written as “The team are playing against Eton today.”
There are also minor differences in how the two languages use verbs such as “have” and “get.”
The word “have got” is frequently used by British English speakers when discussing interpersonal connections. An example of this is”I’ve got a cousin in New York City.” But it’s more likely for Americans to say, “I have a cousin in New York City.”
This also works in the case of possessive nouns.
American English: I have a fever.
British English: I’ve got a fever.
In British English, you would punctuate titles as Mr, Mrs, Dr, etc.
In American English, you will write Mr., Mrs., Dr. etc.
Double quote marks are used for periods and commas in American English. They are placed outside of single quotation marks in British English.
American English: “We have no set schedule to discuss this,” I said.
British English: ‘We have no set schedule to discuss this’, I said.
Quotations are written similarly:
American English: Would you say, “Life is not fair”?
British English: Would you say, ‘Life is not fair’?
Although there may be some distinctions between British and American English, the two are more similar than they are different. A mistaken exchange of one for the other won’t necessarily result in miscommunication.
If you are struggling to memorise the subtleties of both languages, don’t be too hard on yourself. You will not necessarily lose marks in IELTS for this.
Learn all about IELTS Grammar with IELTSMaterial. To be fluent you will need a strong hand in your grammar skills. To help you score your dream IELTS Band, check out An Exclusive Grammar Workbook: Guide to All Grammatical Woes.
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Frequently Asked Questions
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