What are the main differences between American and British English?

The primary distinctions between American and British English lie in pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar, spelling, and date formats. Notably, while accents vary significantly, learners often find the differences in vocabulary and grammar more challenging. American and British English frequently use different terms for the same concepts, adding to the complexity. Additionally, variations in spelling and date formats between the two can further complicate understanding for English language learners.

Table of Contents

Differences in vocabulary

Differences in grammar

Differences in spelling

Differences in dates

Differences in vocabulary

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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Differences in grammar

(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?
(2)Collective nouns

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.

(4) Prepositions

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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Differences in spelling

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

Differences in dates

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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