Most of the differences between the English of the UK (which we shall call BrE) and the English of North America (which we shall call AmE) are vocabulary differences and differences in pronunciation and spelling. However, there are some differences in the way grammar is used. Almost all of the structures in this book are used in both varieties, but there are often differences in how common a structure is in one variety or the other. There are fewer differences in writing than in speaking.
Grammar is always changing, and many new ways of using grammar in BrE come from AmE, because of the influence of American popular culture, American media and the Internet.
British and American English: verbs
Be going to
AmE speakers often use be going to (and the informal short form gonna) when giving street directions, which is not a typical use in BrE. BrE speakers normally use imperatives (with and without you), and present simple or future forms with will:
You’re gonna go three blocks and then you’re gonna see an apartment building on the left with 1228 above the door.
Take this street here on the right, then go about two hundred yards till you come to a set of traffic lights.
You turn left at the lights, go about another hundred yards and you’ll see the station.
Great. Thanks very much.
Burn, learn, dream, etc.
In BrE, we can spell the past simple and -ed participle of verbs such as burn, dream, lean, learn, smell, spell, spill with either -ed (learned, spilled) or -t (learnt, spilt). AmE prefers the -ed ending:
She had dreamt of being a dancer when she was young. (or She had dreamed …)
As a boy, he had dreamed about being on the basketball team.
He learnt to speak fluent Spanish and Portuguese. (or He learned …)
She learned to play the violin.
In BrE, the past simple form of fit is usually fitted. In AmE, the past simple form of fit is most often fit:
The sweater fitted her perfectly.
[a woman is remembering her poor childhood, AmE]
But we always looked nice. You know. We were always very clean. The clothes were clean and they fit.
In BrE, the three forms of get are get (base form), got (past simple) and got (-ed form). In AmE, get has an -ed form gotten:
The weather has gotten colder this week and we’re expecting snow.
Get + to-infinitive is common in AmE to refer to achievements, meaning ‘manage to’ or ‘be able to’. This usage is less common in BrE:
[talking about American football, AmE]
Did you get to go to very many games?
I went to four games this year, actually.
[talking about a camping trip in the forest, AmE]
We got to see a lot of deer.
Have and have got
The present simple form of have got referring to possession or relationships is much more common in spoken BrE than in AmE. AmE speakers often prefer to use the verb have on its own:
I’ve got a picture of you when you were a teenager. D’you want to see it?
I have two cousins in Ohio.
Have got to and have to
Have got to is much more common in BrE than AmE. Have to (without got) is more common in AmE than in BrE:
We’ve got to take my mother back to the hospital a week on Friday.
We have to be back in San Francisco next Sunday to fly home again.
Substitute verb do
BrE speakers often add the substitute verb do to short clauses with modal verbs, especially in short answers. AmE speakers prefer to use the modal verb on its own:
[a group of students talk about the grades they might get in an exam, BrE]
I don’t reckon I’ll get all As this time.
I might do, but I doubt it.
Yeah, so you think you might get an exercise bicycle?
Oh, I might. I have a regular bicycle out in the garage, but it’s been kind of raining and stuff around here lately.
British and American English: verb tense forms
The present perfect
The present perfect is less common in AmE than BrE. AmE speakers often use the past simple in situations where BrE speakers use the present perfect, especially with words such as already and yet:
We’ve already booked our holiday for next year.
What do you do with your free time? Did I already ask you that? (BrE: Have I already asked you that?)
Have you had a reply from the bank yet?
Did they pick the golf team yet? (BrE: Have they picked the golf team yet?)
The past perfect
The past perfect is more common in AmE than in BrE, especially in situations where the speaker sees one event as happening before another in the past:
[talking about a TV series shown over several nights, AmE]
Did you watch it?
We had watched it, uh, I guess Sunday night and Monday night, but we didn’t get to watch it tonight.
We watched the news, then we watched a documentary.
[A is asking B about his past, AmE]
You had said your family is from back east?
Then they’ve moved out here for business reasons?
Yeah. My dad’s in banking. He got moved to Seattle and then moved here.
[A is asking B about his past, BrE]
You said your father died when he was quite young?
Well, he was, as far as I can remember, he was thirty-eight.
British and American English: prepositions
At the weekend/on the weekend
BrE prefers at the weekend; AmE prefers on the weekend:
What are you doing at the weekend? D’you want to get together for some music?
So we’ll get together and barbecue on the weekend.
That sounds good.
In + period of time after a negative
AmE uses in + a period of time after a negative verb in situations where BrE prefers for:
I haven’t really read anything like that in years. (BrE preferred form: for years)
I haven’t talked to my brother in three years. (BrE preferred form: for three years)
In and on with street names
BrE uses in with street names. AmE prefers on:
They were a lovely family. They lived in Walton Street.
I used to live on Perot Street.
AmE uses through in many situations where BrE prefers to or till when referring to the end points of periods of time:
Actually she leaves the house at eleven and gets home at four so …
And that’s Monday through Friday? (BrE preferred form Monday to Friday)
[an elderly woman is talking about her working life, BrE]
I was doing twelve hours a day from Monday till Friday and twelve and a half on a Saturday. (AmE preferred form Monday through Friday)
And how old were you?
Fourteen years old.
Adjectives and adverbs
In informal spoken AmE, speakers often use real instead of really before an adjective. This is considered non-standard by many AmE speakers:
That’s real funny! (BrE preferred form really funny)
I thought it was a real good movie. (BrE preferred form really good film)
Well and good
AmE speakers often use good where BrE prefers well. However, the AmE form is becoming more common in BrE, especially after greetings such as How are you?, How’s it going?:
How are you?
I’m good. (BrE preferred form I’m well or I’m fine)
It all worked out real good. (BrE preferred form really well)
AmE allows the use of likely as an adjective (in the same way as probable, possible, etc.), or as an adverb (in the same way as probably, possibly, etc.). In BrE, likely is normally only used as an adjective:
There will likely be other announcements before the end of this year. (likely as an adverb; BrE preferred form There are likely to be)
The focus on the economy will likely continue when the new President takes office. (BrE preferred form is likely to continue)
And what’s likely to happen? (likely as an adjective, also common in BrE)
Question tags are much more common in BrE than in AmE, but a wide range of question tags are used in both varieties:
She’s Swedish, isn’t she?
Elvis wasn’t your favourite rock star, was he?
In informal situations, AmE speakers often use a tag with rising intonation in responses which show surprise or emotional involvement. The tag has the same form as the statement the speaker is responding to (affirmative statement → affirmative tag; negative statement → negative tag). This is not common in BrE:
I took the Chinese course last semester.
Oh, you di↗d? (BrE preferred form Oh, did you? with fall-rise or rising intonation)
My sister still lives with my mom.
She does? (BrE preferred form Does she?)
Tags at the end of affirmative statements which have an affirmative form occur in both varieties but are quite rare in AmE:
He works really hard, he does.
And so when she went to a nursing home, in the beginning, I think she kind of liked it. She did art work there, she did, yeah.
Both varieties use the tag right, but it is more common in AmE:
She’s studying geography, right?
Spelling Differences Between Br. and Am. English
On paper, the most obvious difference between British and American English is the spelling (just as when speaking, the most obvious difference is pronunciation).
The spelling differences first arose because at the time of the British colonization of North America, English spelling wasn’t yet fixed. Standardized spelling of English came about in the 18th century, after the American Colonies had already declared independence.
Further spelling differences came when Noah Webster (founder of Webster’s Dictionary) attempted to simplify English spellings in America. Many of his suggestions – like plow – took hold and became standard American spelling. Others – like tung (for “tongue”) – did not.
Below we have listed the main spelling differences that exist between British and American English.
-ae- v –e-
Many words that come from Ancient Greek have an –ae– in British English but only –e- in US English. Most of these words are scientific, medical, or technical words.
Sometimes British spelling requires a doubled consonant, for example in the past participle of certain verbs, where American spelling omits it. In other places, it is US English that has the doubled consonant; in certain verbal infinitives, or to preserve the root word of certain adjectives.
-ence v –ense
Many nouns that end in –ence in British English end in –ense in the US. UK English only uses –ense for the corresponding verb; for example, you can license someone to do something, after which they hold a licence to do it.
On both sides of the Atlantic, English is famous for the “silent” –e at the end of many words. Where both American and British English have this, in words such as name, make, or have, it comes from an Old English inflection. But many final –e spellings come from French loanwords,where often the consonant before the final –e is doubled. American English tends to omit these in accordance with Noah Webster’s spelling reforms.
BritishAmericanannexeannexglycerineglyceringrammegramgrille(noun)grillprogrammeprogramtonnetonThe words axe (UK) and ax (US) follow this pattern, though the word comes from Germanic (not French) roots. The word judgement (UK) and judgment (US) can also be taken as an example of this if we discard the suffix –ment.
-oe- v –e-
Like –ae- above, British English preserves the –oe- digraph in words derived from the Classical languages, while US English has simplified it to –e-.
-our v –or
This is one of the more famous spelling differences between British and American English, and comes from French influence. Nearly all of these words originally come from Latin, and had the plain –or ending.
-re v –er
Like –our, the –re spelling originally comes from French. In the United States it was replaced with –er to better reflect American pronunciation.
-ize v –ise and -yse v –yze
One of the most famous spelling differences isn’t really a difference at all. It’s a common misconception that in the the US you must use spellings like civilize (which is true) but in the UK you must use spellings like civilise (which is not true). In fact, both the –ize and –ise spellings are valid in the UK. Many British people use –ise spellings exclusively, but this is a convention, not a rule. You cannot use –ise spellings in the US.
By contrast, the –yze ending in words like analyze and paralyze is only acceptable in US English. In the UK you must use analyse and paralyse.
Many American spellings do owe their existence to Noah Webster’s spelling reforms, which sought to simplify spelling and bring it closer to common American pronunciation.
Of course, thanks to the impact of globalised media and the internet, the lines are becoming increasingly blurred for many. In fact, you could argue that both varieties of English are being overtaken by textspeak which has no boundaries…