Published 15th February 2019

British and American English

Differences between British and American English:

Lift vs elevator

Biscuit vs cookie

Sweets vs candy

When we think about the differences between British and American English, our first thought usually goes to vocabulary and accent. The differences between the two Englishes actually go much deeper than that.

Did you know British and American English use different grammar?

Well, they do. But while the differences in grammar usage don’t necessarily affect meaning we should be aware of these differences so we can make sure our students are aware of them.

The present perfect

American English uses the present perfect far less than British English. The past simple is more likely to be used in its place. This is usually in two situations.

  • When talking about an action in the past that has an effect in the present

I can’t find my glasses. Have you seen them anywhere? (BrE)

                                                Did you see them anywhere? (AmE)

  • In sentences with just, already and yet

Have you read this book yet? (BrE)

Did you read this book yet? (AmE)

Collective nouns

In British English collective nouns can be followed by either a singular or a plural verb. In American English they are always followed by a singular verb. So the sentence My team are winning is acceptable in British English but not American English.

Have and take

When have and take are used delexically, have is used more frequently in British English while take is more common in American English. This can be seen in phrases such as have/take a bath/shower, have/take a nap, have/take a decision.

Prepositions

British English and American English use different prepositions in different situations.

For example:

  • At the weekend (BrE)

On the weekend (AmE)

  • At school (BrE)

In school (AmE)

  • Different from/to (BrE)

Different from/than (AmE)

Past tense verbs

There are a number of verbs which have different past simple and past participle forms, such as:

  • dived vs dove
  • got vs gotten
  • spilt vs spilled

What does this mean for our teaching?

It depends where and who you are teaching. If you are teaching American English and you are a British English speaker, for example, you will probably be using British English materials. This means you will have to get comfortable with the materials before you teach from them so you can become aware of the differences. This applies to your vocabulary use and accent too. If you find you use a different word or grammatical structure of phoneme, draw your students’ attention to the difference and move on. It should not place any extra burden on your students.

While we’re on the topic, there is no better English between the two or, indeed, between any Englishes. You cannot denounce one as incorrect or bad because you do not speak it. Instead you need to highlight the differences between the different Englishes for your students so they can appreciate the diversity we have within our language.

If your students need English for a specific purpose – for example, they are going to study in Australia – then you must make sure your students are exposed to that variety of English so they are adequately prepared.