British and American English

EMS brit and usa english

When I first started teaching English as a foreign language in Germany, I noticed a particular question would keep popping up when I would pronounce or spell a word, or even give a definition; ‘is that British or American English?’

I’m sorry, what?

As a native English speaker, and an Australian at that, the differences between British and American English that I would routinely come across at school and during my studies, were limited to spelling; ‘ou’ vs ‘o’ in words like colour and labour, ‘s’ vs ‘z’ in words like organise and specialise, and some differing word uses; pants vs trousers, chemist vs drugstore, biscuit vs cookie.

As I taught more and, in doing so learnt more, about the English language, its history, development and global uses, I began to realise those differences …

… are only scratching the surface.

The differences between British and American English extend beyond spelling and vocabulary, to quite distinct grammatical differences. Of course, within the ‘British and American’ grouping, lie numerous dialects that, themselves, feature entirely individual quirks of grammar, spelling, pronunciation and vernacular. Alas, I’m doing a blog post, not a book, so we’re not going to delve too deeply – but trust me, it’s fascinating.

For the record …

… in Australia, we have largely and historically learnt British English spelling and grammar, (although American spelling has become far more widespread with the use of computers and spell-check) but use both British and American vocabulary (‘truck’, not ‘lorry’ like the Americans, but ‘boot’, not ‘trunk’ of the car, like the British). That is, of course, not to mention our own Australian vocabulary that neither the Brits or the Americans use and often confuses them greatly. We are a bit of a mixed bag. Other English speaking countries – Canada, South Africa, New Zealand etc etc – tend to straddle both English and American as well, with a healthy dose of their own words and language quirks specific to the development of their English.

What I’m going to do today, is look at some of the main ways in which British and American English differ, on a standard level, and along with a short explanation and, where possible, some fantastic resources for you to explore further.

Ready? Let’s go.

Spelling

  • Humour//Humor
  • Centre//Center
  • Realise//Realize
  • Jewellery//Jewelry
  • Learnt//Learned
  • Etc, etc, etc, etc! …

WHY?

In 1828, an American by the name of Noah Webster produced a book that marked the first clear and deliberate departure of American English from British English. That book was An American Dictionary of the English Language, in which Webster called for changes to be made to the spelling of words, some of which you see above. As well as wanting words to be spelled like they sound, a key motivation behind Webster’s dictionary, was to set America even further apart from England and assert its ‘cultural independence through language’. (That link will take you to a great article!)

Here is a fantastic chart that gives you a visual of the key differences.

Vocabulary

Word choice is generally what gets us English speakers all confused, when we’re conversing with an English speaker from a different country. Aussies say undies, Brits say pants or knickers and the Americans, rather unfortunately, say panties. When an American tourist in England asks where the nearest drugstore is, you’ll need to point them in the direction of a chemist, and Brits and Aussies always get horribly confused when discussing chips, which, to an Australian means both french fries and potato chips, but to an English means only french fries, because potato chips are called crisps. We call it jam, the Americans call it jelly, but jelly for us is jello to the Americans. We have petrol stations, they fuel up at the gas station, ask for a biscuit in America and instead of something sweet and filled with choc chips, you’ll get a savoury, salty toast-like thing.

Some of the differences are quite large, so as to make whole conversations completely confusing, others not so. It is worth nothing that, due to the dominance of American pop culture and the sheer number of Americans in general, American words have filtered through into the vernacular of traditionally British speaking countries.

This is a fantastic side-by-side word list, ten interesting differences, and a great blog to get you started.

Grammar

And so we come to grammar. Do you know what? There are more differences here than you’d ever suspect and are seen in the uses of: prepositions, auxiliary and modal verbs, past tense forms, delexical verbs ‘have’ and ‘take’, and verb agreement with collective nouns. Phew. Bet you didn’t think it was that complicated. And do you know something else? There is a superb article on all of this over at One Stop English, which I cannot improve upon and am not going to try. I am going to suggest you read it – it is extremely interesting and very helpful, both for teachers and advanced students. Go on, check it out.

That’s it for this week! Any questions you have, or things you have noticed in your English learning/teaching careers – pop them in the comments or say ‘hi’ on Twitter.

And here are the previous EMS posts to catch up on.

  1. Englisch is Fun
  2. Welcome
  3. A Phrasal What?
  4. Tenses in Pairs Part 1
  5. Tenses in Pairs Part 2
  6. The Future
  7. More Future Possibilities

Viel Spaß!

11 thoughts on “British and American English

  1. As an American, I can say that I have NEVER said “panties” – it’s underwear. Anyone I know who says “panties” does so in jest. 🙂 Of course, the US is a huge place, so the language changes from state to state. ie, soda vs pop, sub vs hoagie, etc. It’s quite fascinating, isn’t it?

    1. Thank GOD you don’t say panties – dastardly word! It is all so interesting how the language varies from country to country and then within those countries, from state to state. I love it!

  2. wow. very inciteful. good job with the details here 🙂 I work for an australian boss and we use British English a lot in our workplace but I live in a country heavily influenced by Americans so it’s confusing for me at first.

    1. Yes! The Philipines is a fascinating place, linguistically, from what I can gather. So many languages, plus the American influence on English.

  3. I have to second Jen up there, as an American, I’ve never ever used the word panties either. But that could also be because I’m from Boston. We do have a lot of difference just within the same country, and it is really fascinating. As for jam and jelly, they are both utilized, but maybe that’s because I’m a pastry chef and the two have different method of preparations.

    I love how much fun you have explaining the many idiosyncrasies of language. It’s fun to read and you make it much more interesting! I almost never comment but I enjoy your posts a lot.

    1. Hahaha panties seems to be one of those words that is so often held up as an example, but reviled by many who come from the same country it does. I need to find an American who says panties! Thong and g-string is another one that gets everyone confused – in Australia, thongs are shoes (flip flops), so that’s always an interesting one.

      Jam and jelly – is it that jam is more ‘real fruit’ and jelly is more artificial? What do you put on your toast? I used to get confused here, when people would say ‘marmalade’, because marmalade is obviously citrus jam. But here, marmalade is jam! Gah!

      The differences in English, across and within all the different countries, is phenomenal. I love it.

      And thank you for reading, xx

      1. I’m in Maryland, so maybe ‘panties’ is a word used away from the East Coast? No idea.

        For me, jam has more pieces of fruit and seeds in it, and jelly does not.

        But yes, thongs in the US are a style of underwear, and we’d never use that word for our shoes 🙂

  4. “ask for a biscuit in America and instead of something sweet and filled with choc chips, you’ll get a savoury, salty toast-like thing” –actually, if you ask for a biscuit in the US, what you’ll get is a savory scone. 🙂

    1. So THAT’S what it is! What about the big greasy biscuits Captain Marino is always eating, in Patricia Cornwell novels?

      1. I have no idea what those might be! However, it’s not uncommon in the US, especially in the South, to ‘butter’ biscuits–which might make them greasy because unlike a scone, they are served hot; the butter melts and can get messy. 🙂

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