What are the main differences between American English (AE) and British English (BE)?

During the Second World War, the British wanted to discuss an urgent matter with their American allies and asked them if they could table it (in British English (BE), table = propose at a meeting). The Americans thought the British were asking for it to be put aside (in American English (AE), table = postponed to the agenda of another meeting). There was a long argument before both parties realized that they wanted the same thing!

So what about today? Do you need to be worried about the differences between the two languages? Probably not, unless you are a politician! In reality, the two languages have many more things in common than they have differences. In this post, we will focus on some of the few differences that might cause a minor misunderstanding. Let’s start with vocabulary.

Waiter: Will that be French fries or chips, sir?

The Irish playwright, George Bernard Shaw, is reputed to have said: “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.” In fact, speakers on both sides of the Atlantic love to point out the differences; however, there are few misunderstandings. The first European settlers in the US were from England, and they imported the language of the time – Shakespeare’s. When the first census was taken in 1790, there were around four million people, 90% of whom were from England.

These settlers found that the vocabulary they had brought with them from England didn’t necessarily cover all the new things they found and created in their new home – such as eggplant, war path, raccoon, prairie and popcorn. New settlers arrived from other parts of Europe and from South America, and this can be seen in the creation of words such as ranch (yes, like TextRanch!) which came from the Spanish (rancho – a group of people eating together, or a group of farm huts, which then took on today’s meaning of a country house); and also zucchini which was clearly introduced by Italian immigrants. Interestingly, several words and phrases that the British associate with Americanisms were actually common in England centuries before America was ‘discovered’ – for example, gotten (past participle of to get), mad (as in the meaning of angry) and I guess.

One area of difference between the two languages is food:  

candysweets(French) frieschips
cookiebiscuitpotato chipscrisps

I just ate some candy or I have just eaten some sweets?

There’s a very limited number of grammar differences and these are unlikely to affect your understanding; neither will they confuse your listener if you use the AE form rather than the BE form or vice versa. There are a few irregularities in the irregular verbs:

– AE: dove, gotten, proven, snuck, stricken;
– BE: dived, got, proved, sneaked, struck.

Two common differences in the use of prepositions are:

– BE: live in a street (AE: on)
– BE: at the weekend (AE: on)

The past simple has a wider coverage in AE, particularly with already, just and yet:

Did you have your dinner yet?Have you had your dinner yet?
I just ate.I have just eaten.
I did it already.I have already done it.

Many AE speakers use would in both parts of the third conditional (and this is becoming common in the UK too):

AE: I would have done it if you would have asked me (BE: if you had asked me).

Ain’t, as a non-standard substitute of am not or have not, is also common in the US and certain regions of the UK.

Other differences:

 – Monday through Friday (AE) vs Monday to Friday (BE);
 – real good (AE) vs very / really good (BE);
 – ten after nine (09.10) (AE) vs ten past nine (BE).

Realise or realize?

In 1768, Benjamin Franklin, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, proposed A Scheme for a New Alphabet and a Reformed Mode of Spelling. Franklin’s dream of a simpler spelling system, with a more strict relation between sound and spelling, was put into action by Noah Webster (creator of Webster’s Dictionary) who introduced theater (BE: theatre), check (BE: cheque), favor (BE: favour), and many more. Webster’s American Spelling Book even had an influence on the way words were pronounced – generally more logically than in British English.

When you use Microsoft Word to check your spelling, you may have noticed that when you have set your document to, for instance, US English, the software then highlights any words that are not in its US spelling dictionary. Some of the words it does not recognize may simply be because they are British English. 

Thanks to Webster, US spellings are often shorter: traveled vs travelled, catalog vs catalogue, color vs colour, program vs programme. US spelling prefers –er to –re, for example: center vs centre, meter vs metre. In some cases where AE has the same spelling for a noun and its verb form, BE has two spellings: license (noun, verb) vs licence (noun), license (verb). Although Microsoft Word tells us that –ize is AE and –ise is BE, both forms are acceptable in BE.

You like tomato / And I like tomato… 

An English traveler to the US in the early 1820s wrote: “As far as pronunciation is concerned, the mass of people speak better English than the mass of people in England”. 

There is far less variety in pronunciation in the US than in the UK. This is because people in the US traveled much more around their country than did the British, thus harmonizing the pronunciation, in much the same way as the advent of television helped standardize the way our language is spoken. 

There are a lot of pronunciation differences between the two types of English (in the examples that follow, the AE form is given first):

  • Several differences are due to the different stress put on multisyllable words (e.g., ADDress vs aDDRESS, deTAIL vs DEtail, INquiry vs inQUIRy).
  • Some are due to different vowel sounds (e.g., AE – privacy (praivasi) vs BE – privacy (PRIV-a-see))
  • Others are due to consonant sounds (e.g., 20 = twenny vs twenty).
  • One of the most famous differences is in the Gershwin song danced to by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in the 1937 musical, Shall We Dance, which contains the celebrated “You like tomato (təˈmeɪtə) / And I like to-mah-to (təˈmɑːtə)”.

In any case, you cannot categorically state that BE is easier to understand than AE, or vice versa – it depends on which one you become familiar with first.