You just moved in with an American roommate, and you’re off to the grocery store.
“I shan’t be gone long!” you call out.
Your roommate looks at you like you’ve lost your mind.
That’s because Americans almost never use certain modal verbs such as “shan’t” (“shall not”). It sounds over-the-top formal and even snooty (self-important) in the U.S.
On the other hand, a British English speaker might find your statement perfectly normal.
So, what’s the deal!?
The simple answer is that there are many important differences between British and American English grammar.
If you want to avoid being misunderstood or just want to sound more like a natural American English speaker, it’s important to learn some of these differences.
I’ve put together an easy, eight-step guide to understanding how American English grammar works, and what makes it different from British English.
How to Practice American English Grammar (Even from Your Couch)
There are a number of ways to practice American English grammar, including the fun and easy option to simply watch TV.
There are tons of American TV shows from which to choose, but I recommend “Modern Family” to get you started. The actors on the show have a variety of American accents, and the characters greatly differ in age. This means that you’ll be exposed to a lot of different grammatical structures and colloquial vocabulary.
If you want to practice your listening skills, try listening to some American podcasts like the famous “This American Life,” a weekly program with diverse stories.
One of my personal favorites is “Serial,” a podcast that tells one story each season and usually focuses on crime or big political news. The host, Sarah Koenig, has an American accent that’s easy to understand, and she uses impeccable (very good) grammar.
Want to be sure that you understand any American English video or audio clip? FluentU was created to make authentic English material accessible for language learners.
FluentU takes real-world videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.For example, every video comes with interactive subtitles. You can click any word in the subtitles for an instant definition, grammar info and American pronunciation.
There are also flashcards and fun quizzes to make sure you remember what you’ve learned. Since the videos are organized by genre and level, it’s really easy to find the ones that work for you. There are thousands of videos including many American English options, from this famous, hilarious TV commercial to this speech by former U.S. President Barack Obama.
You can explore all the videos and learning features for free with a FluentU trial.
For those looking for a more traditional way to explore American English grammar, consider buying a grammar book like “Basic American Grammar and Usage,” which is available on Amazon.
It features loads of practical lessons on American English and includes quizzes, so you can track your progress.
You might also consider buying a practice book such as one of the “American English File” workbooks. They have several different levels available from beginner to advanced English, each with tons of exercises for you to practice American English grammar.
Before you begin practicing, let’s get you started with an introduction to several important differences between British and American English below!
8 Distinctly American English Grammar Rules to Sound Like You’re from the States
Collective Nouns Are Singular in American English Grammar
“Collective nouns” are simply nouns that refer to groups of people.
Some examples of collective nouns include words like band, team, staff, community, family and committee.
When it comes to collective nouns, the difference between British and American English lies in the whether they’re considered plural or singular.
British English usually treats collective nouns as plural nouns, so the verb must agree with the plural form. Take a look at some of the following examples.
British English: The staff are taking the day off.
British English: The committee are making the decision today.
On the other hand, American English almost always uses the singular subject-verb agreement with collective nouns. Look at the exact same examples in American English.
American English: The staff is taking the day off.
American English: The committee is making the decision today.
This important distinction (difference) between American and British English is one you can expect to hear often.
Americans Don’t Use the Present Perfect Tense as Much
Talking about the past is simple in American English grammar. Americans typically stick to the simple past tense to describe recent, completed actions.
American English: He ate his lunch.
American English: I went to the store.
However, British speakers sometimes use the present perfect tense instead of the simple past in these cases. The present perfect is constructed from the auxiliary verb “to have” followed by the past participle of the main verb.
British English: He has eaten his lunch.
British English: I have gone to the store.
Normally, the present perfect tense is used to describe an action taking place in an ongoing or unspecified timeframe. For example:
British or American English: I have drawn a picture every day this week.
Watch Your Prepositions! Transitive and Intransitive Verbs Flip in American and British English
A “transitive verb” is a verb that takes a direct object. In other words, transitive verbs describe an action that’s happening to something else.
Some transitive verbs include “to bring” and “to name.”
She will bring pasta to the party. (“Pasta” is the direct object.)
They named the baby Charlotte. (“The baby” is the direct object.)
An “intransitive verb” has no direct object. These include verbs like “to smile” or “to fall.” The key thing to notice is that intransitive verbs are often followed by prepositions and then indirect objects.
She smiled at me cheerfully. (“At” is a preposition and “me” is the indirect object.)
Help! I fell off my bike! (“Off” is a preposition and “my bike” is the indirect object.)
In many cases, a verb that’s transitive in American English will be intransitive in British English. Other times, the intransitive American English verb will be transitive in British English. So you’ll see that they need to use prepositions in different contexts as well.
Here are a few examples of verbs that differ in British and American English.
British English: They agree the treaty. (Transitive)
American English: They agree to the treaty. (Intransitive)
British English: He appealed against the decision. (Intransitive)
American English: He appealed the decision. (Transitive)
Knowing which verbs are transitive or intransitive takes a lot of practice, and the best way to memorize them is to simply listen to as many native speakers as you can.
Americans Spell Simple Past Tense Verbs with “-ed”
As we discussed above, the simple past tense is used to describe completed actions. While there are many irregular verbs that must be memorized, the majority of American English verbs simply need an “-ed” at the end in order to transform them into the past tense.
to cook → cooked
However, British English often adds a “-t” at the end instead of the “-ed.”
Let’s look at a few examples.
British English: learnt
American English: learned
British English: dreamt
American English: dreamed
British English: dwelt
American English: dwelled
While you’re likely to be understood no matter which way you construct the past tense, it’s necessary to keep this in mind if you really want to sound like a native American or British speaker. It’s also important to know if you’re going to be writing in American English for school or work.
Americans Don’t Use “Have Got” as Much
The use of “have” vs. “have got” varies in American and British English.
For starters, British English uses “have got” to show possession much more than American English does.
British English: I have got a dog.
American English: I have a dog.
Secondly, British English speakers use “have got” to show obligation more than American English speakers do.
British English: I have got to go home.
American English: I have to go home.
Don’t confuse these uses of “have got” with the present perfect tense of “got,” which would be have/has gotten.
…Well, that’s what it is in American English, anyways!
Here’s one more key difference with British English.
British English can use “got” as a past participle, whereas American English uses “gotten.”
British English: My job has got better.
American English: My job has gotten better.
It’s crazy how many grammatical differences one small word can have!
American and British Speakers Use Different Modal Verbs
Modal verbs are a type of “helping verb” or “auxiliary verb” that help change the tense or mood of your sentence.
Some common English modal verbs include “should,” “would,” “will,” “could,” “might” and “must.”
The usage of these modal verbs differs between British and American English. For example, shall and shan’t are almost exclusively (only) used by British speakers, as American speakers find these words extremely formal. Americans use will and won’t instead.
British English: I shall go.
American English: I will go.
British English: I shan’t attend.
American English: I won’t attend.
You’ll also hear British English speakers use the phrase “should like to” to refer to something they plan or want to do. Americans don’t typically use this phrase. They would say “would like to” or “want to” instead.
Here are some examples to further explain the concept.
British English: I should like to go on a date with you.
American English: I would like to go/want to go on a date with you.
It may seem like a small difference, but native speakers can instantly tell whether someone is from England or the U.S. just by listening to this one modal verb.
Adverb Placement Varies in American English Grammar
American English changes the position of adverbs quite easily, sometimes placing them before the verb and sometimes after it.
American English: She drank quickly./She quickly drank.
On the other hand, British speakers usually place the adverb after the verb.
British English: She drank quickly.
While this is generally true, do keep in mind that adverb placement is a tricky concept to master because it really depends on the type of adverb. In other words, is the adverb revealing (showing) manner, duration, time, certainty, etc.?
For an in-depth explanation, take a look at this article on types of adverbs and how to use them.
“Well” Has Fewer Uses in American English
In American English grammar, the word “well” is only used as an adverb to mean “good.”
However, in British English, the word “well” can also be used to mean “very.”
British English: I’m well sleepy.
American English: I’m very sleepy.
Congratulations—you’ve made it through eight of the biggest grammatical differences between British and American English. You’re now ready to take on both British and American conversations!
And One Last Tip About Learning American English
What’s the key to learning English the way native speakers really use it in the U.S.?
Using the right content and tools.
After all, a regular textbook isn’t going to teach you the casual English that Americans use.
You need to learn from real English like it’s spoken on TV.
Well, there is a site designed to help you with just that: FluentU.
Unlike traditional language learning sites, FluentU uses a natural approach that helps you ease into the English language and culture over time. You’ll learn English as it’s spoken in real life.
FluentU has a variety of engaging content from popular talk shows, nature documentaries and funny commercials, as you can see here:
FluentU makes it really easy to watch English videos. There are captions that are interactive. That means you can tap on any word to see an image, definition and useful examples.
For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you'll see this:
Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.
The best part is that FluentU keeps track of the vocabulary that you’re learning and gives you extra practice with difficult words. It even reminds you when it’s time to review! Every learner has a truly personalized experience, even if they’re learning with the same video.
You can start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, by downloading the app from the iTunes or Google Play stores.
Camille Turner is an experienced freelance writer and ESL teacher.
If you liked this post, something tells me that you'll love FluentU, the best way to learn English with real-world videos.