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.