British and American English can be differentiated in four ways:
- Differences in language use conventions: meaning and spelling of words, grammar and punctuation differences.
- Vocabulary: There are a number of important differences, particularly in business terminology.
- Differences in the ways of using English dictated by the different cultural values of the two countries.
- Differences in the way off using Grammar
Our clients choose between British or American English, and we then apply the conventions of the version consistently.
The British actually introduced the language to the Americas when they reached these lands by sea between the 16th and 17th centuries. At that time, spelling had not yet been standardised. It took the writing of the first dictionaries to set in stone how these words appeared. In the UK, the dictionary was compiled by London-based scholars. Meanwhile, in the United States, the lexicographer was a man named Noah Webster. Allegedly, he changed how the words were spelled to make the American version different from the British as a way of showing cultural independence from its mother country.
In terms of speech, the differences between American and British English actually took place after the first settlers arrived in America. These groups of people spoke using what was called rhotic speech, where the ‘r’ sounds of words are pronounced. Meanwhile, the higher classes in the UK wanted to distinguish the way they spoke from the common masses by softening their pronunciation of the ‘r’ sounds. Since the elite even back then were considered the standard for being fashionable, other people began to copy their speech, until it eventually became the common way of speaking in the south of England.
Differences in language use conventions
Here are some of the key differences in language use conventions.
- Dates. In British English, the standard way of writing dates is to put the day of the month as a figure, then the month (either as a figure or spelled out) and then the year. For example, 19 September 1973 or 19.09.73. The standard way of writing dates in American English is to put the month first (either as a figure or spelled out), then the day of the month, and then the year. For example, September 19th 1973 or 9/19/73. Commas are also frequently inserted after the day of the month in the USA. For example, September 19, 1973.
- and ou. In British English, the standard way of writing words that might include either the letter o or the letters ou is to use the ou form. For example, colour, humour, honour, behaviour. The standard way of writing such words in American English is to use only o. For example, color, humor, honor, behavior.
- Through. In American English, the word through (or thru) can be used to mean until. For example, ‘September 19th thru October 1st’, would be in British English ‘19 September until 1 October’.
- Hyphens. Hyphens are often used in British English to connect prefixes with the main word. For example, pre-emption, pre-trial, co-operation. They are less common in American English. For example, preemption, pretrial, cooperation.
- z or s? In British English, s is generally used in such words as recognise, authorise. The letter z is used in American English in such words as recognize or authorize. However, it is not wrong to use z in such words when using British English as standard. Note, however, that some words must always end in -ise whether you are using British or American English standards. These include:
- advertise – advise
- arise – comprise
- compromise – demise
- despise – devise
- disguise – enfranchise
- excise – exercise
- franchise – improvise
- incise – merchandise
- premise – revise
- supervise – surmise
- surprise – televise
- l or ll? In American English, a single l is used in such words as traveled or counseled. In British English, ll is used (e.g. travelled, counselled). Note, however, that in British English, some words that end in a double ll lose one l when a suffix is added: skill becomes skilfully, will becomes wilfully. In American English, the double ll is retained: skill becomes skillfully, will becomes willfully.
- -re or -er? In American English, the -er ending is used in words like theater, center, meter, and fiber. In British English, these words are spelt theatre, centre, metre, and fibre.
- oe and ae. Some scientific terms retain the use of the classical composite vowels oe and ae in British English.
- These include diarrhoea, anaesthetic, gynaecology, and homoeopathy. In American English, a single e replaces the composite vowel: diarrhea, anesthetic, gynecology, homeopathy.
- -e or -ue?. In British English, the final silent -e or -ue is retained in such words as analogue, axe and catalogue. In American English, it is omitted: analog, ax, and catalog.
- -eable or -able?. The silent e, produced when forming some adjectives with a suffix is generally used in British English in such words as likeable, unshakeable, and ageing. In American English, it is generally left out: likable, unshakable, and aging. The e is however sometimes used in American English where it affects the sound of the preceding consonant: traceable or manageable.
- -ce or -se? In British English the verb that relates to a noun ending in -ce is sometimes given the ending -se. For example, advice (noun) / advise (verb), device/devise, licence/license, practice/practise. American English uses -se for both the noun and verb forms of these words. It also uses -se for other nouns which in British English are spelt -ce, including defense, offense, pretense.
- Prepositions. In American English, it is acceptable to omit prepositions in certain situations. In British English, this habit is less common. For example, an American lawyer might find a certain clause in a contract to be ‘likely enforceable’. A British colleague would be more likely to say that it was ‘likely to be enforceable’. An American civil rights activist might ‘protest discrimination’, while his British colleagues would ‘protest against discrimination’.
- Have and got. In American English it is quite acceptable to use the word got without have in sentences like ‘I got two tickets for the show tonight’. In British English, it is more usual to say ‘I’ve got two tickets for the show tonight’.
- Gotten. Gotten is a proper word in American English, but is only used as an Americanism in British English, except in certain phrases such as ‘ill-gotten gains’.
- While or whilst? Both while and whilst are used in British English. In American English, while is the right word to use, and whilst is regarded as a pretentious affectation.
- The past tense and past participle of the verbs learn, spoil, spell (only in the word-related sense), burn, dream, smell, spill, leap, and others, can be either irregular (learnt, spoilt, etc.) or regular (learned, spoiled, etc.). In British English, both irregular and regular forms are used, but the irregular forms tend to be used more often. In AmE, only the regular form is used.
- Directional suffix -ward(s): British forwards, towards, rightwards, etc.; American forward, toward, rightward.
- Full stops/Periods in abbreviations: In American English, we write “Mr.”, “Mrs.”, “St.”, “Dr.” etc., while in British it is usually “Mr”, “Mrs”, “St”, “Dr”, etc.
- Quotation marks: In British English, single quotation marks are used, and in American English, double quotation marks are used. In British English, double quotation marks are used within the single quotation marks, whereas in American English, single quotation marks are used inside double quotation marks.
- Period and comma: In British English, the period and comma are placed outside quotation marks. However, if the punctuation mark is a part of the quote itself, then the quotation mark is placed after the period or comma. In American English, the period and comma are always placed inside quotation marks.
- In British English, i.e. and e.g. are used, whereas in American English, i.e., and e.g., are used.
- Serial commas are used in American English but not in British English.
- Use of the Present Perfect:
- In British English the present perfect is used to express an action that has occurred in the recent past that has an effect on the present moment. For example: I’ve lost my key. Can you help me look for it?
- In American English the following is also possible: I lost my key. Can you help me look for it?
- In British English the above would be considered incorrect. However, both forms are generally accepted in standard American English. Other differences involving the use of the present perfect in British English and simple past in American English include already, just and yet.
I’ve just had lunch
I’ve already seen that film
Have you finished your homework yet?
I just had lunch OR I’ve just had lunch
I’ve already seen that film OR I already saw that film.
Have your finished your homework yet? OR Did you finish your homework yet?
Here are some key vocabulary differences.
storey (of building)
respectfully yours / yours truly
yours sincerely (letter)
bonnet (the front of the car)
boot (the back of the car)
Difference related to cultural values
British and American English have a number of differences which relate to the different cultural values of the two countries. For example, British English contains a number of frequently used metaphors relating to football (‘scoring an own goal’) and cricket (‘a sticky wicket’), while American English uses metaphors relating to baseball (‘in the ball park’).
The two versions of the language also have certain tendencies which are worth bearing in mind. These are not absolute, since individual writers have their own styles which may incorporate aspects of both British and American tendencies. However, in general:
- British English tends to react more slowly to new words and phrases than American English. American English enthusiastically adopts new usages, some of which later pass into general use (e.g. corporate citizen, social performance), and some die out after a short period in fashion (e.g. synergy).
- British English has a slight tendency to vagueness and ponderous diction. American English (at its best) tends to be more direct and vivid.
- American English tends to be more slangy than British English.
- Both American and British English are keen on euphemisms. In British English, these are often used for humorous purposes (e.g. to be economical with the truth) or to smooth over something unpleasant. In American English they may be used for prudish reasons (thus lavatory or WC becomes restroom or bathroom), to make something mundane sound important (thus ratcatcher becomes rodent operative), or to cover up the truth of something unpleasant (thus civilian deaths in war become collateral damage).
Aside from spelling and vocabulary, there are certain grammar differences between British and American English. For instance, in American English, collective nouns are considered singular (e.g. The band is playing). In contrast, collective nouns can be either singular or plural in British English, although the plural form is most often used (e.g. The band are playing).
The British are also more likely to use formal speech, such as ‘shall’, whereas Americans favour the more informal ‘will’ or ‘should’.
Americans, however, continue to use ‘gotten’ as the past participle of ‘get’, which the British have long since dropped in favour of ‘got’.
‘Needn’t’, which is commonly used in British English, is rarely, if at all used in American English. In its place is ‘don’t need to’.
In British English, ‘at’ is the preposition in relation to time and place. However, in American English, ‘on’ is used instead of the former and ‘in’ for the latter.