British and American English have many differences that can cause confusion among English language learners and their teachers. The different accents alone can be hard to understand for some learners, while clear differences in the pronunciation of the same words can also be baffling. However, the biggest difficulties often come when the two use entirely different words to say the same thing, covering both vocabulary and grammar. And just to make things that bit more difficult our students need to grapple with different spellings and a different date format.
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Probably the biggest differences, and the most confusion, surrounds vocabulary. There are a large number of words that mean different things in the two different language versions. When teaching English in the classroom you will naturally teach the words that make the most sense to you, however, it is important that your students are aware of the alternatives to avoid confusion later on.
The list of vocabulary difference is far too long to show here, but the following are a few of the more common ones you will need to be aware of when teaching English as a second language (American version in the first column):
Apartment = Flat
Candy = Sweet(s)
Elevator = Lift
French Fries = Chips
Garbage = Rubbish
Garbage Can = Dustbin
Hood (car) = Bonnet
Pants = Trousers
Sidewalk = Pavement
Sneakers = Trainers
Subway = Underground
Sweater = Jumper
Trunk (car) = Boot
Vacation = Holiday
Zucchini = Courgette
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(1)The present perfect
When it comes to tenses, the present perfect tense is used considerably less in American English than in British English. American English often uses the past simple instead, mainly in two specific situations:
- When talking about an action in the past that has an effect in the present
British Speaker: I have lost my hat. Have you seen it anywhere?
American Speaker: I have lost my hat. Did you see it anywhere?
- Sentences using just, already and yet
British Speaker: Have you tried this cake yet?
American Speaker: Did you try this cake yet?
In American English collective nouns are always followed by a singular verb. However, in British English a singular or plural verb can be used.
British Speaker: My favourite football team are winning the match.
American Speaker: My favorite soccer team is winning the match.
(Note: the examples above also show differences in spelling and vocabulary)
(3) Have and take
British English uses have more frequently, while American English often uses take instead.
British Speaker: I need to have a shower.
American Speaker: I need to take a shower.
Prepositions are commonly used differently in British English and American English.
British Speaker: What are you doing at the weekend? Were you at school today?
American Speaker: What are you doing on the weekend? Were you in school today?
(5) Past tense verbs
Many verbs have different past simple and past participle forms in British and American English, for example (American version in the first column):
Dove = Dived
Learned = Learnt
Smelled = Smelt
Gotten = Got
Spilled = Spilt
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Spelling differences are also common between the two forms of English.
(1) British English often has a u where the American version does not.
Behavior = Behaviour
Color = Colour
Humor = Humour
(2) British English often uses s where American English uses z.
Analyze = Analyse
Apologize = Apologise
Organize = Organise
(3) Many words end -re in British English, while in American they end in -er.
Center = Centre
Meter = Metre
Theater = Theatre
Another very confusing difference for language students (and many teachers) is the difference in the way dates are written. British English uses the form day-month-year, while the American version would be month-day-year. For example, 15 September 1972 would be written 15/9/1972 in British and 9/15/1972 in American.
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