There is an old saying that America and Britain are “two nations divided by a common language.” While they are essentially the same, British and American English also differ a great deal, with some words holding completely different meanings depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on.

British English borrows plenty of words and phrases from American English and vice versa, and this helps to create an even richer array of words and phrases for us to liven up our conversations and writing with.

While pronunciation, grammar, and spelling are among the many differences between American and British English, perhaps the most difficult to navigate is the difference in American and British vocabulary and word choice.

Vocabulary

The most noticeable difference between American and British English is vocabulary. There are hundreds of everyday words that are different. For example, Brits call the front of a car the bonnet, while Americans call it the hood.

Americans go on vacation, while Brits go on holidays or hols.

New Yorkers live in apartments; Londoners live in flats.

American English

British English

antennaaerial
madangry
majordegree course
fallautumn
billbank note
attorneybarrister, solicitor
cookiebiscuit
hoodbonnet
trunkboot
suspendersbraces
janitorcaretaker
drug storechemist’s
french frieschips
the moviesthe cinema
rubbercondom
patrolmanconstable
stovecooker
wheatcorn, wheat
cribcot
threadcotton
wreckcrash
intersectioncrossroads
drapescurtains
checkersdraughts
grademark
semester, quarterterm
pacifierdummy
trashcan, garbage candustbin, rubbish-bin
checkcheque
garbage collectordustman
generatordynamo
motorengine
engineerengine driver
moviefilm
apartmentflat
overpassflyover
yardgarden
gear-shiftgear-lever
alumnusgraduate
boilergrill
first floorground floor
rubbersgumshoes, wellington boots
sneakersgym shoes, tennis-shoes
pursehandbag
billboardhoarding
vacationholiday
vacuum cleanerhoover
sickill
intermissioninterval
sweaterjersey, jumper, pullover, sweater
pitcherjug
elevatorlift
trucklorry
baggageluggage
raincoatmackintosh, raincoat
crazymad
highwaymain road
cornmaize
mathmaths
stingymean
freewaymotorway
diapernappy
vicious, meannasty
carttrolley
private hospitalnursing home
optometristoptician
liquor storeoff-license
keroseneparaffin
sidewalkpavement
peekpeep
gasolinepetrol
mailpost
mailboxpostbox
mailman, mail carrierpostman
potato chipspotato crisps
baby carriagepram
barpub
restroompublic toilet
blow-outpuncture
strollerpush-chair
linequeue
railroadrailway
railway carrailway carriage
spool of threadreel of cotton
round tripreturn (ticket)
call collectreverse charges
raiserise (in salary)
pavementroad surface
traffic circleroundabout
eraserrubber
garbage, trashrubbish
sedansaloon (car)
Scotch tapesellotape
storeshop
mufflersilencer
one-waysingle (ticket)
someplacesomewhere
wrenchspanner
facultystaff (of a university)
oil pansump
dessertsweet
candysweets
faucettap
spigottap (outdoors)
cabtaxi
dish-toweltea-towel
buffetsideboard
pantyhosetights
scheduletimetable
cantin
turnpiketoll motorway
flashlighttorch
hobotramp
pantstrousers
cuffsturn-ups
subwayunderground railway
shortsunderpants
shoulder (of road)verge (of road)
vestwaistcoat
closetwardrobe
wash upwash your hands
windshieldwindscreen
fenderwing
zipperzip

Spelling

There are hundreds of minor spelling differences between British and American English. You can thank American lexicographer Noah Webster for this. You might recognize Webster’s name from the dictionary that carries his name.

Noah Webster, an author, politician, and teacher, started an effort to reform English spelling in the late 1700s. He was frustrated by the inconsistencies in English spelling. Webster wanted to spell words the way they sounded. Spelling reform was also a way for 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 dropped the letter from these words to make the spelling match the pronunciation.

Other Webster ideas failed, like a proposal to spell women as wimmen. Since Webster’s death in 1843, attempts to change spelling rules in American English have gone nowhere.

Collective Nouns

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 group of individuals.

In American English, collective nouns are singular. For example, staff refers to a group of employees; band refers to a group of musicians; team refers to a group of athletes. Americans would say, “The band is good.”

But in British English, collective nouns can be singular or plural. You might hear someone from Britain say, “The team are playing tonight” or “The team is playing tonight.”

Auxiliary Verbs

Another grammar difference between American and British English relates to auxiliary verbs. Auxiliary verbs, also known as helping verbs, are verbs that help form a grammatical function. They “help” the main verb by adding information about time, modality and voice.

Let’s look at the auxiliary verb shall. Brits sometimes use shall to express the future. For example, “I shall go home now.” Americans know what shall means, but rarely use it in conversation. It seems very formal. Americans would probably use I will go home now.” In question form, a Brit might say, “Shall we go now?” while an American would probably say, “Should we go now?”

When Americans want to express a lack of obligation, they use the helping verb do with negative not followed by need. “You do not need to come to work today.” Brits drop the helping verb and contract not. “You needn’t come to work 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 the option 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 some irregular verbs. For example, an American might say, “I have never gotten caught” whereas a Brit would say, “I have never got caught.” Americans use both got and gotten in the past participle. Brits only use got.

Tag Questions

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 like him, do you?”

The tag includes a pronoun and its matching form of the verb behave or do. Tag questions encourage people to respond and agree with the speaker. Americans use tag questions, too, but less often than Brits.

British and American English have far more similarities than differences. We think the difference between American and British English is often exaggerated. If you can understand one style, you should be able to understand the other style.

With the exception of some regional dialects, most Brits and Americans can understand each other without too much difficulty. They watch each other’s TV shows, sing each other’s songs, and read each other’s books. They even make fun of each other’s accents.

 

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Devika Panikar has been teaching English Language and Literature for 14 years now. She is an Assistant Professor with the Directorate of Collegiate Education under the Government of Kerala. She teaches at the Government Colleges coming under this directorate and is now posted at the Department of English, H.H. The Maharaja’s Government College for Women, Thiruvananthapuram. This website is a collection of the lecture notes that she prepared by referring various sources, for her students’ perusal. It has been compiled here for the sake of future generations.

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