Substantive differences between American English and British English

Substantive differences between American English and British English

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Although the United States and the United Kingdom share the same language, many differences can be found in the vocabulary, the grammar or the pronunciation. On top of that, both countries have very different cultures, which can be found in the food, their history, the sports they play, or even the TV shows they usually watch.

In contrast, it’s true that they both share the mile system, but it is actually the only measurement system that they have in common! In short, it can be said that the two countries are divided by a common language! All of these points will be developed in this article (among many others), so if you’re interested to discover all the differences, they will be listed below!

Grammar in British and American English: what are the differences?

First things first, the basis of any language is grammar. You can’t begin to learn a language unless you know its alphabet and the basis of its grammar, as you generally build your sentences with verbs if you don’t want to speak like a robot!

Among all the differences, I’ll start with the irregular verbs. Yes, if you want to learn English or if you’re already struggling with irregular verbs, be aware that there are plenty of differences. For example, the widely used verb “get” is also irregular. You would say get, got, gotten in American English whereas you’d say get, got, got in British English. You can note that British English uses the past participle more often! You can also find differences in endings just like in the verbs “burn”, “learn”, or “dream”. In the past tense, you would add -ed in American English but a -t in British English.

You can find other spelling differences below, with a short explanation followed with examples:

“ou” (UK) vs. “o” (US): “colour” vs. “color” / “favourite” vs. “favorite”. The difference is that the American version gets closer to the way it is actually pronounced than the British one.

-re (UK) vs. -er (US): such as “theatre” or “theater”. The reason behind this difference is because British people have borrowed and adopted many French words, while keeping the French spelling. On the contrary, American English decided to make the word American and reversed the two final letters. Same reason for the following.

-nce (UK) vs. -nse (US): “licence” or “license”. For the noun, the British spelling will get into line with the French spelling. But the verb is “to license” in both English. Careful, this isn’t always the case! You have “defence” in British English but “defense” in American English!

You can also differentiate many verbs ending in -ise (UK) vs. -ize (US). Example: “organise” (UK) or “organize” (US).

Mum or Mom? Both are commonly used in British and American English respectively, but the first spelling “mum” can also refer to a flower.

Last but not least, the grammar section! Should you double the L between two vowels? Well, if you’re a British or you want to learn British English, then you should! You’d write “travelling”, “traveller”, “travelled”. Americans would only use one L though!

Careful: some exceptions exist and don’t double the L in “appealing”, “devilish”, “loyalist”, or “travelogue”.

Now, to express possession in English, you can find “have” VS. “have got”. In Britain, people tend to say “I’ve got” while an American will simply say “I have”. Both mean the same but the grammar differs slightly.

Finally, British people use A LOT of question tags, both in oral conversations and dialogs. It’s just natural for them to add “don’t you?”, “hasn’t it?” or “aren’t you” at the end of their sentences, even though they are not always asking a question. With “isn’t it” for instance, you could hear “The weather is so nice today, isn’t it?”. In America though, they tend to say “right?”, just like “The weather is so nice today, right?”.

Vocabulary and spelling in English: British vs. American

Until now, the differences listed above wouldn’t have caused any problem for a Brit or an American to understand you. They would have just noticed on which side of the ocean you’re standing! But it comes to different words, they might feel a bit destabilised. Many people would understand what you mean, especially because they know which differences exist now between the two languages. However, if you talk to a young child or an elderly person who doesn’t know the differences, for them, it might sound like you’re speaking a different language.

Let me give you an example. You have “garbage” in American English but “rubbish” in British English. Both mean the same, but an American would never say “rubbish” and vice-versa. You have SO many differences with simple words just like these. To be able to know and distinguish all of them, you’d have to live in these countries for some months. For now, you can find some of them in the following table:

 

AMERICAN ENGLISH

BRITISH ENGLISH

Faucet

Tap

Cotton candy

Candy floss

Stroller

Pushchair

Cart

Trolley

Front desk

Reception

(French)  fries

Chips (French fries for thinner ones)

Chips

Crisps

Apartment

Flat

Elevator

Lift

Closet

Wardrobe

Finally, you also have “subway” vs. “tube”/”underground” which express “metro”. In this case, people will understand what you’re talking about, although the tube can only refer to the London underground. So even within the UK, the different regions will use different words to express the same thing. Talking about regions, different pronunciations and accents can be found at the national level, but the main difference is found between the two countries.

The accent: do you speak like a British or like an American?

The American pronunciation follows the “General American English” whereas the “Received Pronunciation” is followed by the British English people. The major differences of pronunciation are obviously found in consonants and vowels. You’ll be able to notice them once you’ve watched enough episodes of your favourite Anglophone series on Netflix! It is actually the best option to learn if you don’t have the opportunity to go and stay in an English-speaking country! So keep your ears wide open!

What is the most striking is the -t pronunciation. It is almost a [d] in American English when placed between two vowels. But in British English, it remains a -t sound. Example for the word “twitter”: TwiTTe: (UK) vs TwiDeR (US).

In addition, the final -r in American English is pronounced, but not in British English. For example, the word “car”, you can hear a “caR” (US) or a “ca:” (UK). Also, when placed between a vowel and a consonant, the British -r isn’t pronounced either. You’d say “tu:n” for “turn” to a British.

The two diphthongs /oʊ/ or /əʊ/ also differentiates the two languages. As the phonetic spelling indicates, Americans rather pronounce the “o” contrary to the “e” for the Brits. For the word “close”, you’d say “clOse” in American but “clOEse” in a British accent.

The units of measure in British and American English

You may be quite at a loss when it comes to units of measurements and conversions, as both countries do not use the International System of Units (SI). The US uses the customary units while the U.K uses Imperial units. Actually, it is quite hard to remember them all, except if you learn them by heart. Here is a list summarising the ones you should know:

  • 1. The temperature outside: Fahrenheit (US) vs Celcius (UK)
  • 2. To measure your ingredients while cooking: cup (US) vs. grams/liters (UK)
  • 3.To measure liquids like petrol(UK)/gasoline(US): US gallon vs. Imperial gallon

But for distances (miles, yards, inches, feet), volumes (cubic foot, cubic yard), weight (LBS) and for areas (square inch, square mile etc): it’s the same and thank god for that!

To finish a bit more lightly: the two countries culture

The two countries’ history at the time of the colonial period

The US was a British colony before they gained their independence from the UK in 1776. Since, they’ve been building their own society and laws, to become one of the most powerful countries in the world.

Westminster vs. Washington: the political structures

The English monarchy is highly followed and admired in the UK. It is one of the three branches of the Westminster Parliament: House of Commons, House of Lords, Monarch. The Prime Minister rules the country, but the Queen always has to give her consent for a measure to be passed. In the US, you have three different branches within the Government: the judiciary (Supreme Court), the legislative (Congress) and the executive, with the President ruling the country.

Entertainment in the UK vs. the USA

According to TV shows, series and cinema in general, American entertainment is much more watched worldwide. But it didn’t stop English series like Peaky Blinders, Chernobyl, or Downtown Abbey to reach high success!

In sports, American people play soccer, referring to what is commonly known as football. When they say “American football”, it’s actually not played with your feet like football/soccer but with your hands.

The top 3 most popular sports in the UK are: 1. Football; 2. Cricket; 3. Rugby.

The top 3 most popular sports in the US are: 1. American football; 2. Baseball; 3. Basketball.

Typical day of an American and a British

 

 

BRITISH LIFE

AMERICAN LIFE

Time of work/week

Up to 48h/week

42,5h/week average

Up to 40h/week

30h/week average

Currency

Pound 

Dollar

Supermarkets

Tesco, Waitrose, M&S, Sainsbury’s

Target, Wal-mart, Whole food, Costco

Food

On-the-go sandwiches

Marmite 

Chips and gravy 

Fish & chips

 Cream tea

Bagels

English pie, Toad on the hole, pudding

Hamburger

Peanut butter

Texas barbecue

Deep-dish pizza

Apple pie 

Hot-dogs

Fried chicken, buffalo wings, BBQ ribs

Degrees

A-Levels

AP examinations

Temperature

Celcius

Fahrenheit

This is now the end of this article but if you’re a fighter and you’ve read through it, then high 5! Thank you for reading!

You haven’t had enough? If you want to be a badass in British English and learn some specific British slang, then go check out this website British English slang. There is also American English slang vocabulary list available and many others! Try Vocapp, a different new way of learning. Get fun while learning thanks to the use of flashcards and completely unusual courses that will make you learn the language as a true native speaker.

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