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American vs. British English: How to Tell Them Apart

My students often ask me about how to tell American and British English apart.

I tell them that, although the specific differences are plenty, you can break them down into a few major categories.

The differences in American and British English mainly lie in pronunciation, grammar, spelling and vocabulary. There may be even more variations depending on the subdialect you’re looking at.

For example, the American accent in California will be somewhat different from the one used in New York. Similarly, a Cockney accent will not sound the same as a Yorkshire accent in spoken British English. And those are just the accents!

In this article, we’re going to concentrate on the general differences between British and American English. Settle in, dear reader, and let’s begin!

Contents

American vs British English: Pronunciation Differences

The most obvious difference between American and British English (at least, in the spoken version) would have to be the pronunciation.

Below are the general differences between the two. As mentioned earlier, there can be even more differences depending on the subdialect.

The “r” at the end of many words

In general, if there’s 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.

Compare these words, for example:

American EnglishBritish English
computer computer
clever clever
brother brother

However, most dialects will generally pronounce r’s at the beginning of a word, like in:

American EnglishBritish English
red red
Ryan Ryan

The “r” in the middle of many words

Similarly, the r’s in the middle of a word are often noticeably softer and harder to hear in British English. In American English, they’re a bit clearer.

Some examples include:

American EnglishBritish English
large large
work work
park park
turn turn

Note that the “r” sound in the middle of some words will always be pronounced, no matter the dialect! This is the case in words like:

American EnglishBritish English
barrier barrier
parent parent

The letter “t” as a double consonant

Another common characteristic of American English is two t’s in a row sounding more like a “d.”

In British English, this is less common, and the t’s are usually more clearly pronounced.

Check these out:

American EnglishBritish English
bitter bitter
litter litter
better better
butter butter

The letter “t” after the letter “n”

Another time when American English speakers don’t pronounce t’s is when the “t” follows the letter “n.” 

For example, a British person would say international , while an American would say international .

Notice how the first “t” is pronounced in the British version, while the American version sounds more like “innernational.”

This difference is even more obvious in casual speech. If Americans are speaking formally, they might pronounce the t’s more clearly.

The letter “a” in general

Many vowels also sound different, but the most common difference between American and British English is with the letter “a” in some words.

For example, there’s a phonetic sound [æ] that’s basically an “a” and an “e” combined into one letter. This sound is more common in American English than British English.

Listen to these words and hear the differences for yourself:

American EnglishBritish English
dance dance
after after
mathematics mathematics

Grammar Differences Between American and British English

In general, there aren’t many grammar differences between American and British English. These differences are subtle, though, so if you want to become fluent in either dialect, it’s important that you master the little things that set the two apart.

have — have got — got

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

American EnglishBritish English
I have a car. I have got a car.

This makes the question formats differ, as well.

American EnglishBritish English
Do you have a car? Have you got 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 “I got 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. 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.” In British English, it’s “got.”

American EnglishBritish English
get
got
gotten
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?” This is how the two responses would look:

American EnglishBritish English
I've already gotten a call from him. I've already got a call from him.

The verb “to forget” has a similar difference, as you can see here:

American EnglishBritish English
forget
forgot
forgotten
forget
forgot
forgot

Past tense verbs ending in “-t” and “-ed” 

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:

InfinitivePast Simple or Past Participle
looklooked
pushpushed
pullpulled

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

VerbAmerican EnglishBritish English
burn burned burnt
dream dreamed dreamt
learn learned learnt

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, but a few common ones include:

American EnglishBritish English
on the weekend at the weekend
different from different to
wait in line wait on line
Monday through Saturday Monday to Saturday

Aside from the above, you can find many more examples of grammatical differences by listening to media from Britain and America. Use the FluentU program to make the most of your studies, since it gives you the transcript and definitions right in the video as you watch.

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How to Spell in American English vs. British English

Spelling of “-our” vs “-or”

A few words are spelled “-our” (with a “u”) in British English, while in American English, the “u” is omitted.

American EnglishBritish English
color colour
flavor flavour
favor favour
favorite favourite
neighbor neighbour

Spelling of “-ise” vs “-ize” 

Likewise, some words that are usually spelled with an “-ise” in British English would be spelled with an “-ize” in American English instead.

American EnglishBritish English
organize organise
realize realise
recognize recognise
sympathize sympathise
optimize optimise

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. 

This is often the case with the letter “l.” In British English, two are often used, while there’s only one in American English.

American EnglishBritish English
traveled travelled
canceled cancelled
modeled modelled
labeled labelled
signaled signalled

How American and British Vocabulary Differ

Vocabulary is the area that arguably causes the most confusion between English speakers of different dialects.

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 the United Kingdom (or vice-versa), these are some of the differences you’re most likely to notice. 

American EnglishBritish EnglishDefinitions
airplane aeroplane an aircraft or flying mode of transportation
cookie
biscuit a sweet baked dessert made out of flour and sugar
drugstore
pharmacy
chemist a place where you can buy medicine or other small household items
French fries
fries
chips long pieces of fried potatoes
chips crisps fried potatoes, but much smaller, thinner and rounder
trash can
garbage can
dustbin a container where you can put your garbage, trash or waste
movie theater cinema a place where you can watch movies in public
movie film moving images on a screen that tell a story
soda
pop
fizzy drink carbonated drinks that are usually sweet
apartment flat a small rented home in a larger building
soccer football a sport in which two teams use their feet to score goals with a ball
vacation holiday a trip to a different place as a break from school or work
sweater
sweatshirt
jumper a piece of clothing with long sleeves that you wear on the top of your body
elevator lift a machine that takes you from one floor of a building to another
truck
lorry a large vehicle that can carry cargo
math maths abbreviation for "mathematics"
cell phone mobile phone a small portable phone
diaper nappy a thing babies wear so they don't poop and pee all over the place
underwear
panties
pants a piece of clothing for your private area
pants trousers a piece of clothing that covers your legs
sidewalk pavement a place where people can walk, between the street and the buildings
gasoline petrol fuel that most cars use
mail post letters that are hand-delivered
stroller pram a small chair on wheels that you push around to transport a baby
line queue a group of people that form a line to wait for a service or to enter a place
to call to ring to use the telephone to contact someone
eraser rubber a small object that you rub on paper to remove pencil marks or mistakes
candy sweets treats made out of sugar
bathroom (private)
restroom (public)
toilet (general)
loo (informal)
a room where you do your "private business"
sneakers
tennis shoes
trainers athletic shoes
the subway the Underground
the Tube (London)
the transportation system of trains in underground tunnels
closet wardrobe a large piece of furniture where you can store your hanging clothes
z ("zee") z ("zed")the last letter of the English alphabet

 

So there you go! I hope that you learned something new or picked up an interesting tidbit or two from this post.

All the best in your English lessons and travels!

And One More Thing...

If you like learning English through movies and online media, you should also check out FluentU. FluentU lets you learn English from popular talk shows, catchy music videos and funny commercials, as you can see here:

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If you want to watch it, the FluentU app has probably got it.

The FluentU app and website 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.

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FluentU lets you learn engaging content with world famous celebrities.

For example, when you tap on the word "searching," you see this:

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FluentU lets you tap to look up any word.

Learn all the vocabulary in any video with quizzes. Swipe left or right to see more examples for the word you’re learning.

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FluentU helps you learn fast with useful questions and multiple examples. Learn more.

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Start using the FluentU website on your computer or tablet or, better yet, download the FluentU app from the iTunes or Google Play store. Click here to take advantage of our current sale! (Expires at the end of this month.)

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