differences between american and british english

From “A” to “Zed”: The Differences Between American and British English

“Why do British people talk so funny?”

That’s a common question my students ask me.

But another common question is, “Why do American people talk so funny?”

It’s interesting, because those questions show that we may think something is “funny” or “strange” based on our personal experiences.

I’m from the United States, and I teach English in Costa Rica, so most of the English that my students have heard and learned has been American English. So for students here, British English seems “weird.”

But when I lived in Germany, many people there learned British English, so for them American English was “weird.”

So let’s just say this now: Every language variety and every dialect can be both weird and normal. It all depends on your perspective.

After those two questions, my students often ask me about the differences between American and British English. That’s what this article is about today.

We’ll start by quickly seeing why there are differences between British and American English. Then we’ll continue by talking about pronunciation differences, since those are usually the most noticeable. After that, we’ll look at a few grammar differences (but just a few—don’t worry!), followed by famous differences in vocabulary.
 


 

The Ultimate Guide to the Differences Between American and British English

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Why Do They Speak English Outside of England?

The English language developed over hundreds of years. During that time, it was changing a lot. It was adding new words from languages like Latin, French and German, and it was also changing existing English words. The language is still changing today, so what sounds “normal” now may be “weird” in 100 years!

What we call “English” originated in England, which is a part of Great Britain and the United Kingdom (UK). The difference between England, Great Britain and the UK is a bit confusing, but for this post, I’ll refer to it as “Britain” and the form of English they speak there as “British English.”

Britain was a very powerful country, and like other European countries, it started forming colonies in other parts of the world. That means that they went to other areas, conquered the people living there, and took control of the land.

British colonies included what is now Canada and the United States of America, and that’s the main reason why people in those countries speak English today.

Over the years, most of the British colonies got independence. This allowed the English they spoke to change slowly. At the same time, the way people in Britain spoke English was also changing, but not in the same way as in the colonies.

It’s true that there are many differences between British and American English, but there are many more similarities. If you can speak, read or understand someone speaking one variety of English, you’ll also probably be able to understand most of the other varieties with no problem.

And if you find there are times when you don’t understand, don’t worry. Sometimes those differences are confusing for native speakers, also.

As I mentioned before, one of the biggest differences between American and British English is pronunciation.

Pronunciation Differences Between American and British English

I said that sometimes even native speakers don’t understand other dialects of English 100%, and that’s definitely true.

My students think it’s strange when I tell them that I like to use English subtitles when I watch British movies or TV shows! They’re not completely necessary, but I do think they help me understand even better, and they’re useful for me.

So don’t feel bad if you don’t understand every single word in a movie or video, or if you have to turn on subtitles. Or, if you’re speaking directly to someone, it’s also completely normal if you have to ask him or her to repeat what they said.

Still, there are some general differences between the two accents, and it’s good to know those differences.

And remember, these are just general differences. There are many differences between accents in the United States, and there are even more differences between various British accents. Of course, it would be impossible to talk about every single different place, but these are some of the most noticeable differences.

Pronunciation of the letter “r”

This is one of the first differences people notice between different dialects of English.

If there is a letter “r” at the end of a word, it’s usually pronounced in American English. In most dialects of British English, it’s not pronounced. A good example is the word “computer.” 

Note that this is just for r’s at the end of a word. All dialects will generally pronounce r’s at the beginning of a word (like in “red” or my name, “Ryan”) or in the middle (like in “barrier or “parent“). However, the r’s in the middle of a word are usually noticeably “softer” and harder to hear in British English.

Also note that there are some dialects of American English that also don’t pronounce the r’s at the end of a word. These accents are most common in some northeast American cities like Boston and also in parts of the southern United States.

Pronunciation of the letter “t”

A common characteristic of American English is to make different sounds (usually with the letter “t” or two t’s) sound more like a “d.” In British English, this is less common, and the t’s are usually more clearly pronounced.

Listen to the example of “computer” again. If you pay attention to the “t,” you’ll notice it’s a bit clearer in the British version. This is even more noticeable with words that have a double “t,” such as “bitter.” In American English, “bitter” sounds basically the same as “bidder,” which is a completely different word. For more examples, listen to the differences in “litter,” “better” and “butter.”

One other common difference with “t” pronunciation is that American English often doesn’t even pronounce many t’s.

For example, at the end of some words, especially in short words like “what,” American English speakers often don’t pronounce the hard “t,” but British English speakers usually do. The American pronunciation of “what” sounds more like “wuh.”

Another time when American English speakers don’t pronounce t’s is when the “t” follows the letter “n.” A typical example is the word “international.” If a British person said that, you would probably hear the first “t.” But many Americans would eliminate it, and it would sound more like “innernational.”

Notice that this is also most common in casual speech. If Americans are speaking formally or trying to speak as clearly as possible, then they might pronounce the t’s clearly.

Vowel differences

There are various differences between vowels in American English and British English, and some of the explanations are a bit technical and possibly confusing for beginning students.

Generally, many vowels also sound different, but the most common difference that people notice is with the letter “a” in some words. There is a phonetic sound [æ] that’s basically an “a” and an “e” combined into one letter. This sound is very common in American English but not in British English.

So a word like “dance,” “after” or “mathematics” will sound very different in British and American English. It’s hard to describe the difference, though, so you should listen to them to hear the difference for yourself.

Hello Internet podcast

Finally, I want to share a resource if you want to hear more natural examples of differences between American and British English.

There is a podcast called Hello Internet that I personally enjoy. It’s hosted by an American guy named Grey and an Australian guy named Brady who talks with a combination of a British-Australian accent. They talk a lot, so you might not find all of it interesting. But it’s interesting to compare how the two speak so differently.

Grammar Differences Between American and British English

In general, there aren’t many grammar differences between British English and American English. In fact, if English isn’t your native language, there’s a good possibility that you won’t even notice the differences. Instead, you’ll probably notice the pronunciation and vocabulary differences much more.

Still, there are some differences, so if you’re an advanced speaker, you’ve maybe noticed some of them in this section. If you want a more complete guide, you can check out many other resources available on the Internet. But for today, I just want to focus on the four things that my students recognize most frequently. These are common differences, but they can be a little confusing to explain.

have — have got — got

In British English, they use the verb phrase “have got,” but American English simply uses “have.”

For example, a person from the United States might say, “I have a car,” but a British person might say, “I have got a car.”

This makes the question formats differ, as well:

BrE: Have you got a car?

AmE: Do you have a car?

There’s also a strong tendency in American English to say “I got” to mean “I have.” Generally this is not considered correct grammar. This probably comes from quickly saying “I’ve got,” and not clearly pronouncing the “‘ve” part. So it becomes “I got,” like in the phrase “I got a car.” For an American English speaker, this could mean that I have a car right now, or that I got (bought) a car sometime in the past.

got — gotten

Most past tense verbs are the same in British and American English, but there are a few exceptions (also see the next section). The most common exception is the past participle of the verb “to get.”

In American English, the past participle of “to get” is usually “gotten” (get-got-gotten). But in British English, it’s “got” (get-got-got).

So let’s imagine that your coworker Tony called you earlier in the day. Now imagine your boss asks you, “Hey, has Tony called you yet today?”

A British English speaker would probably respond, “Yes, I’ve already got a call from him.”

An American English speaker would probably say, “Yes, I’ve already gotten a call from him.”

Note that there is usually the same difference with the verb “to forget.” In American English, it would be forget-forgot-forgotten, but in British, it would be forget-forgot-forgot.

Past tense verbs

For regular verbs, you form the simple past and past participle forms by adding an “-ed” to the end of the word. Some common examples are:

  • look — looked
  • push — pushed
  • pull — pulled

This is generally true in both American and British English, but there are some regular verbs in British English that form the past tenses by adding “-t” instead of “-ed.” For example:

  • burn — burnt (BrE) / burned (AmE),
  • dream — dreamt (BrE) / dreamed (AmE)
  • learn — learnt (brE) / learned (AmE)

Note that in British English, there are usually two options. For example, you could say “burnt” or “burned” in British English, but “burnt” is more common. In American English, you only use the -ed past tense form for these verbs.

Prepositions

As a quick reminder, a preposition is a word that shows the relationship between two nouns. Prepositions can be words like “at,” “in,” “under,” “on,” etc.

Prepositions can be different in British and American English. There are many more examples on other pages, but a few common ones that are usually true include:

  • at the weekend (BrE); on the weekend (AmE)
  • different to (BrE); different from (AmE)
  • wait on line (BrE); wait in line (AmE)
  • Monday to Saturday (BrE); Monday through Saturday (AmE)

Spelling

Since spelling is connected to writing, you’ll only notice these differences if you’re reading or writing English. These words are generally pronounced exactly the same (or with some of the pronunciation differences we mentioned above).

Some of the most common spelling differences include:

-our (BrE) vs. -or (AmE)

Words like “colour,” “flavour,” “favour,” “favourite” and “neighbour” have an “-our” at the end in British English. In American English, there’s no “u.” So the equivalents in American English would be “color,” “flavor,” “favor,” “favorite” and “neighbor.”

-ise (BrE) vs. -ize (AmE)

There are some words like “organise” and “realise” that are usually spelled with an “-ise” in British English. In American English, they would be “organize” and “realize.”

Single vs. double consonants

Some words in British English have two consonants in a row, but the same words in American English only have one consonant.

For example, British English would use words with two consonants like “travelled,” “travelling,” “traveller,” “cancelled,” “cancelling” and “modelling.” The American spellings are “traveled,” “traveling,” “traveler,” “canceled,” “canceling” and “modeling.”

Vocabulary Differences Between American and British English

As I mentioned before, this is the biggest area of difference between British and American English. This is also the area that causes the most confusion in communication between native speakers.

You can find many lists of vocabulary differences, so I don’t want to just repeat them all here. Instead, I want to focus on the 33 most common ones I’ve noticed in my personal experience as an English teacher and English speaker.

If you’re learning American English but are planning a visit to Great Britain (or vice-versa), then these are some of the differences you’re most likely to notice. In this list, we’ll see the British English (BrE) words first, and then the American English (AmE).

33 Differences Between British and American Vocabulary

1. aeroplane (BrE) — airplane (AmE)

Our first example is actually very similar, and is more a difference in spelling (but the pronunciation is a bit different).

2. biscuit (BrE) — cookie/cracker (AmE)

If you go to the United States, you’ll possibly get to try chocolate chip cookies. They’re delicious, of course, but in British English they’d be called biscuits.

biscuit in American English is very different. There, it’s a kind of buttery bread which is thicker than a cookie.

Also, an American cracker is very similar in shape to a cookie, but cookies are sweet and crackers are savory (not sweet).

3. chemist (BrE) — drugstore/pharmacy (AmE)

This is a store where you can buy medicine or other small items. In the United States, a pharmacy usually just sells medicine, and pharmacies are often part of larger stores.

A drugstore, for example, may have a pharmacy inside of it. And a drugstore is a store that sells a variety of things, and it usually is open longer hours, some even 24 hours a day.

4. chips (BrE) — fries/french fries (AmE)

This is the name for pieces of fried potatoes. A common meal in England is fish and chips, which is a piece of fried fish and some potato wedges. British potato chips are usually thicker and larger than American french fries.

You can find french fries all over the United States (and all over the world, actually), but they’re generally longer and skinnier than British chips. 

5. crisps (BrE) — chips (AmE)

These words also describe fried potatoes, but they’re much smaller and thinner than British chips or American french fries.

So if you order chips in the United States or crisps in the United Kingdom, you’ll get something like in a bag of Lays potato chips.

But per #4 above, if you order chips in the United Kingdom or fries in the United States, you’ll get the kind of potatoes you might get at McDonalds.

6. dustbin (BrE) — trashcan/garbage can (AmE)

This is the name for the container where you can put your garbage, trash or waste.

This is usually smaller and inside of a house in American English, but it can also refer to a larger container that’s outside, especially in British English.

7. cinema (BrE) — movie theater (AmE)

This is the place where you can watch the latest “Fast and the Furious” or “Transformers” movie in public.

In American English, the word cinema usually describes an entire group of movies. So you might hear a phrase like “The cinema of the 1920s” because it describes all of the movies in that decade.

8. film (BrE) | movie (AmE)

This is what you watch when you’re on Netflix or when you go to the movie theater (AmE) or cinema (BrE).

The word film is also common in American English, but it usually refers to the physical product (for example, non-digital cameras use film).

9. fizzy drink (BrE) — pop/soda (AmE)

These words describe carbonated drinks that usually are sweet (such as Coca-Cola/Coke).

In American English, there’s a big debate about what to call these drinks (pop vs. soda); there’s even a whole website about it! I think that may be my new favorite website.

It’s also interesting to note that in many parts of the southern United States, all carbonated drinks are called coke, even if it’s not a Coke.

10. flat (BrE) — apartment (AmE)

This is the name for a small rented home. They’re attached to other apartments or flats in a larger building.

11. football (BrE) — soccer (AmE)

Ahh, this is always controversial.

In British English, this game is called football, and in many parts of the world, there is a similar word to describe this sport.

But not all parts of the world! It’s notable that in other English-speaking countries like Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand, South Africa and, of course, the USA, the word soccer is also common. That’s because football can describe a different sport in those countries.

It’s also interesting to note that the word “soccer” actually came to American English from British English, even though they don’t use it anymore in the UK.

12. holiday (BrE) — vacation (AmE)

This is a word that describes when you take a trip to a different place.

For example, in British English you can say “Last year we went on holiday to Greece.” But in American English you would say “Last year we took a vacation to Mexico.”

The word “holiday” is also common in American English, but it describes a special day or a day when you don’t have to work or go to school, like Christmas or Thanksgiving.

13. jumper (BrE) — sweater/sweatshirt (AmE)

This is a word that describes a piece of clothing with long sleeves that you wear on the top of your body.

There are many different varieties of jumpers, sweaters and sweatshirts. In the US, a sweater is usually a bit more formal, and a sweatshirt is often used for doing exercise. Many people who wear a sweatshirt for exercise also wear a pair of sweatpants, which are made of the same material.

14. lift (BrE) — elevator (AmE)

This is the name for the machine that takes you from one floor of a building to another.

15. lorry (BrE) — semi truck (AmE)

This describes a large vehicle that can carry cargo. In American English it’s called a semi or a semi truck.

16. maths (BrE) — math (AmE)

In both countries, this is the abbreviation for “mathematics.” British people wonder why Americans don’t include the “s,” and Americans wonder why British people do include the “s.” It’s one of the mysteries of the universe.

17. mobile phone (BrE) — cell phone (AmE)

This is the name for a small portable phone, like an iPhone or an older “flip phone.” In the US you may hear people say “mobile phone,” but it’s much more common to hear cellular phone or cell, since that’s an abbreviation of “cellular.”

18. nappy (BrE) — diaper (AmE)

This is the thing babies wear so that they don’t poop and pee all over the place.

Believe me, as a new father: You can call them diapers or nappies, but it’s still not fun to change them.

19. pants (BrE) — underwear/panties (AmE)

This is a big difference. In Britain, pants describes underwear, usually women’s underwear, which is small and tight.

In the US, the same things would be called underwear in general. Most women’s underwear can also be called panties.

If you want to talk about a long piece of clothing that covers your legs, take a look at the next set of words.

20. trousers (BrE) — pants/slacks (AmE)

These words describe a piece of clothing that covers your legs. Trousers in the UK and pants in the US are general terms. Slacks in the US describes pants that are little more formal.

The word “trousers” is also sometimes used in the United States, but not as commonly, and it’s usually used to describe more formal pants.

21. pavement (BrE) — sidewalk (AmE)

This is the name of the path where people can walk, between the street and the buildings.

In the US, pavement is a road or surface that’s covered in asphalt or concrete (in other words, the road is pavedand it’s not a dirt road).

22. petrol (BrE) — gasoline (AmE)

This is the name for the fuel that most cars use. So you can fill up your car’s tank at a petrol station in the UK or a gas station in the US.

Also, gas is an abbreviation for “gasoline” in the US, but it’s also generic name for other types of gas, such as natural gas. Gas can also describe a state of matter in chemistry; the other forms are liquid and solid.

23. post (BrE) — mail (AmE)

This is a word for letters that are hand delivered. You’ll also see these in related words, such as postbox/mailbox (where you receive the post/mail) or postal/mail carrier (the person who delivers the post/mail).

24. pram (BrE) — stroller (AmE)

This is the name for a small (but expensive!) chair on wheels that you push around to transport a baby.

25. queue (BrE) — line (AmE)

This describes a group of people that form a line to wait for a service or to enter a place. Note that the British word queue is pronounced the same as the letter “q,” so the letters “ueue” are silent here.

You can also combine this into phrasal verbs like queue up or line up if you want people to form an orderly line.

26. to ring (BrE) — to call (AmE)

Most of the words on this list are nouns, but this is a verb. Both mean to use the telephone to contact someone. So in the US, you’d say, “I’m going to call my mom,” but in the UK it would be, “I’m going to ring my mom.”

27. rubber (BrE) — eraser (AmE)

This is a small object that you rub on paper to remove pencil marks or mistakes.

Note that the word “rubber” is also common in the US, but there it describes the material (like what you use to make car tires). The word “rubber” is also a slang word for a condom in the US, so be careful!

28. sweet(s) (BrE) — candy (AmE)

This is a generic word for treats that have a lot of sugar. For example, you could say, “I’m going to the candy store” in the US. A similar phrase in the UK would be, “I’m going to the sweet shop.”

29. toilet/loo (BrE) — bathroom/restroom (AmE)

This describes a room that has at least a toilet. This room is commonly (and informally) called a loo in the UKThe British also use the word “bathroom,” but generally only in private houses, where there is an actual bathtub or shower.

In the US, the word “bathroom” is used for public and private toilets. But restroom is usually only used for public toilets. (So if you’re at a friend’s house, you’d probably ask to use the bathroom, not the restroom.) 

30. trainers (BrE) — sneakers/tennis shoes (AmE)

These are terms to describe athletic shoes.

In the UK, tennis shoes can also be used to describes shoes you wear to play tennis. In the US, tennis shoes can be a generic term for most athletic shoes.

In the US, most athletic or informal shoes can be called sneakers. The word “trainer” in the US usually describes a person who helps you at the gym.

31. underground/”the Tube” (BrE) — subway (AmE)

These words describe the transportation system of trains in underground tunnels. Many different cities have subways or underground systems, so they also have informal words to describe them (the subway system in Washington, D.C. is called the “Metro,” for example).

32. wardrobe (BrE) — closet (AmE)

This is the name for the piece of furniture where you can store your clothes. It usually has a part where you can hang clothes, so it’s different from a dresser, which usually just has drawers.

This word is also known to many Americans because of its use in “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe.”

33. Zed (BrE) — Zee (AmE)

This final one may technically be a pronunciation difference, since these are two ways to pronounce the letter “z.” In British English, they say “zed,” which rhymes with “head.” In American English, they pronounce the same letter as “zee,” which rhymes with “sea.”

 

So there you go: The title said we would go from A to Zed in this article, and that’s literally what we have done. I hope that you learned something or that you thought something was interesting. Happy speaking and happy travels, and cheers for reading!


Ryan Sitzman teaches English and sometimes German in Costa Rica. He is passionate about learning, coffee, traveling, languages, writing, photography, books, and movies, but not necessarily in that order. You can learn more or connect with him through his website Sitzman ABC.

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