This is such a fun topic to discuss! From the pronunciation, to the vocabulary and spelling, and even the slang, it’s great to explore the linguistic differences between these two major countries. Speaking of slang, here’s a humourous video of Americans trying to guess what these British slang words mean.
Did you notice how I spelled “humorous” (American English) using the British English way of adding the “u”? Well that’s not all. Here’s a video displaying the differences in pronunciation.
VOA Learning English has an article explaining six differences between British and American English.
Six Differences Between British and American English
The most noticeable difference between American and British English isvocabulary. There are hundreds of everyday words that are different. Forexample, Brits call the front of a car the bonnet, while Americans call it thehood.
Americans go on vacation, while Brits go on holidays, or hols.
New Yorkers live in apartments; Londoners live in flats.
There are far more examples than we can talk about here. Fortunately, mostAmericans and Brits can usually guess the meaning through the context of asentence.
There are a few grammatical differences between the two varieties of English. Let’s start with collective nouns. We use collective nouns to refer to a groupof individuals.
In American English, collective nouns are singular. For example, staff refersto a group of employees; band refers to a group of musicians; team refers to agroup of athletes. Americans would say, “The band is good.”
But in British English, collective nouns can be singular or plural. You mighthear someone from Britain say, “The team are playing tonight” or “The team isplaying tonight.”
Another grammar difference between American and British English relates toauxiliary verbs. Auxiliary verbs, also known as helping verbs, are verbs thathelp form a grammatical function. They “help” the main verb by addinginformation about time, modality and voice.
Let’s look at the auxiliary verb shall. Brits sometimes use shall to express thefuture.
For example, “I shall go home now.” Americans know what shall means, butrarely use it in conversation. It seems very formal. Americans would probablyuse “I will go home now.”
In question form, a Brit might say, “Shall we go now?” while an Americanwould probably say, “Should we go now?”
When Americans want to express a lack of obligation, they use the helpingverb do with negative not followed by need. “You do not need to come to worktoday.” Brits drop the helping verb and contract not. “You needn’t come towork today.”
Past Tense Verbs
You will also find some small differences with past forms of irregular verbs.
The past tense of learn in American English is learned. British English has theoption of learned or learnt. The same rule applies to dreamed and dreamt, burned and burnt, leaned and leant.
Americans tend to use the –ed ending; Brits tend to use the -t ending.
In the past participle form, Americans tend to use the –en ending for someirregular verbs. For example, an American might say, “I have never gottencaught” whereas a Brit would say, “I have never got caught.” Americans useboth got and gotten in the past participle. Brits only use got.
Don’t worry too much about these small differences in the past forms ofirregular verbs. People in both countries can easily understand both ways,although Brits tend to think of the American way as incorrect.
A tag question is a grammatical form that turns a statement into a question. For example, “The whole situation is unfortunate, isn’t it?” or, “You don’t likehim, do you?”
The tag includes a pronoun and its matching form of the verb be, have or do.Tag questions encourage people to respond and agree with the speaker.Americans use tag questions, too, but less often than Brits. You can learnmore about tag questions on a previous episode of Everyday Grammar.
There are hundreds of minor spelling differences between British andAmerican English. You can thank American lexicographer Noah Webster for this. You might recognize Webster’s name from the dictionary that carries hisname.
Noah Webster, an author, politician, and teacher, started an effort to reformEnglish spelling in the late 1700s.
He was frustrated by the inconsistencies in English spelling. Websterwanted to spell words the way they sounded. Spelling reform was also a wayfor America to show its independence from England.
You can see Webster’s legacy in the American spelling of words like color(from colour), honor (from honour), and labor (from labour). Webster droppedthe letter u from these words to make the spelling match the pronunciation.
Other Webster ideas failed, like a proposal to spell women as wimmen. SinceWebster’s death in 1843, attempts to change spelling rules in AmericanEnglish have gone nowhere.
Not so different after all
British and American English have far more similarities than differences. Wethink the difference between American and British English is oftenexaggerated. If you can understand one style, you should be able tounderstand the other style.
With the exception of some regional dialects, most Brits and Americans canunderstand each other without too much difficulty. They watch each other’sTV shows, sing each other’s songs, and read each other’s books.
They even make fun of each other’s accents.
There’s even a video accompanied by the article. If you want to learn more, a Wikipedia article also details the differences. I’m sure you’ve heard British people and American people argue over who’s more “correct” and all, but realistically, both varieties of English are linguistically correct and accepted as standard.
I hope this post was insightful, humourous, and the dog’s bullocks (Brit slang for “absolute best”)!
Here are two websites to learn some British slang and phrases to have fun with.