What Are The Differences Between British Vs American English

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There is a saying that says America and Britain are two nations divided by a common language. And while it seems silly, it is largely true. Though both countries speak English, there are quite a few differences between British vs American English – and it’s not just limited to accent and pronunciation.

Of course these are not the only two countries who speak English and we could talk for days about the differences between world Englishes, but UK and US English are undoubtedly the most widely spoken, so we’re going to focus on those two.

Accent and pronunciation are the two most obvious differences between British and American English but in fact there are a large number of differences between the two besides these. British and American English differ in terms of vocabulary, spelling, grammar, punctuation and numbers.

British vs American English: Vocabulary

This is the most commonly identified difference between the two Englishes. There are numerous words which mean different things in the different countries and different words for the same thing. For example:

UK English

US English

Chips

Fries

Autumn

Fall

Life

Elevator

Biscuit

Cookie

British vs American English: Grammar

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

British vs American English: Spelling

American spelling has dropped the –u from certain words – for example, color, honor.

American English uses –ize while British English uses –ise.

Words in American English end in –er ­but ­–re ­in British English – for example center versus centre.

American English simplifies words more than British English – for example program versus program, and fetus versus foetus.

British vs American English: Dates

What is possibly the most confusing convention of all is that of dates. Americans shorten dates using the practice of month-date-year while Brits use date-month-year – for example, 3 May 2018 would be 5/3/2018 in the US but 3/5/2018 in the UK. This can cause not only confusion but also miscommunication.

How does this affect our learners?

As you can see, the majority of these differences are not going to cause major problems for your learners and their comprehension. However, they need to be made aware of these differences, especially those of vocabulary, so that they are not confused if they come across any discrepancies. Problems may arise, however, as a result of different accents and pronunciation, though, so make sure you deal with this during your lessons as well.

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.

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.

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