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American and British English differences

This article outlines the differences between American English, the form of the English language spoken in the United States, and British English, which is used to denote what is more precisely known as Commonwealth English.

For the purposes of this article:

  • American English is the language spoken by U.S. government officials, network newscasters, etc. It does not include Canadian English, which falls outside of this definition of "American English". Canadian pronunciation is similar to that in the United States, but spelling more often than not takes the Commonwealth form. American English is also used by countries and organisations, such as Japan, Liberia, and the Organization of American States, whose use of English is most influenced by the United States.
  • British English is assumed to be the form of English spoken in southeast England and the BBC and understood in other parts of the United Kingdom. The section on pronunciation assumes the received pronunciation of British English, from which there are many regional variations.
  • Commonwealth English refers to the language written in most of the English-speaking world, including Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United Kingdom. The language may vary slightly from country to country or even between those countries' states, provinces and territories, but it is in all cases distinct from American English. Commonwealth English is mostly interchangeable with British English, and where "Britons" is used, "inhabitants of the Commonwealth" might be a more accurate, if more unwieldy, replacement. Commonwealth English is also used by countries and organisations, such as Ireland and the European Union, whose use of English is most influenced by the United Kingdom.


Contents

English in various countries

English usage in other countries has traditionally followed one model or the other. Throughout most of the Commonwealth, spoken English has its roots in the language as spoken in England, though local expressions abound. Canadian English is something of an exception, taking its cue from both the UK and the US. British English is also the dialect taught in most countries where English is not a native language, though there are a few exceptions where American English is taught, such as in the Philippines and in Japan. Ireland's version of English, sometimes described as Hiberno-English, differs in some respects from British English, in so far as phrases and terms often owe their origin to the original Irish language (Gaelic). English is one of the official languages of the European Union, and the form used within the EU follows usage in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Although American and British English are generally mutually intelligible, there are enough differences to occasionally cause awkward misunderstandings or even a complete failure to communicate. George Bernard Shaw said that the United States and United Kingdom are "two countries divided by a common language". A similar comment is ascribed to Winston Churchill.

Henry Sweet predicted in 1877 that within a century, American English, Australian English and British English would be mutually unintelligible, but it may be the case that increased world-wide communication through radio, television, the Internet, and globalisation has reduced the tendency to regional variation. This can result either in some variations becoming extinct (as, for instance, truck has been gradually displacing lorry in much of the world) or in the acceptance of wide variations as "perfectly good English" everywhere.

In addition to its use in English-speaking countries, English plays an important role as a technical language around the world, in medicine, computer science, air traffic control, and many other areas of concentrated expertise and formal communication among international professionals. Such speakers may be fluent in English within their discipline, but not generally fluent in English.

Spelling

Some words shared by all English speakers are spelled one way by Americans but are spelt differently in other English speaking countries. Many of the differences were introduced into the United States by Noah Webster's dictionary in an artificial attempt to restore “etymologically correct” Latin (or Greek) spellings, often to words which English had borrowed from French and which were spelled accordingly, thus L. color, center, Gk.διαλογος > Fr. couleur, centre, dialogue > E. colour, centre, dialogue. Although many of Webster's spellings became standardized in the U.S., they never spread to other English-speaking countries, which were more influenced by Samuel Johnson's dictionary. However, in some cases the American versions have become common Commonwealth usage, for example program (in the computing sense).

Latin-derived spellings

... -our / -or

American words ending in -or may end in -our in Commonwealth English. For example, in American English, one would use color, flavor, honor, whereas in Commonwealth English one would use colour, flavour and honour. In addition, Americans replace "ou" with "o" in derivatives and inflected forms such as favorite, savory in American English versus favourite, savoury in Commonwealth English. One exception to this distinction is glamour, which is usually spelled that way in American English as well as in Commonwealth usage. In both systems, the adjectival forms that end in -ous are spelled without the u in the stem (e.g. glamorous, vigorous, humorous and laborious) as are certain other compounds (invigorate, humorist but (Commonwealth) colourist). Words in which the stress falls on the "our", such as hour, our, flour, velour, sour, and soury, are the same in both usages.

... -re / -er

In Commonwealth English, some words of French or Greek origin end with a consonant followed by -re, with the -re unstressed and pronounced /ə(r)/. Most of these words have the ending -er in the US. This is especially true of endings -bre and -tre: fibre/fiber, sabre/saber, centre/center, spectre/specter. The ending -cre is retained in America: acre, massacre, etc. There are not many other -re endings, even in Commonwealth English: louvre, manoeuvre, meagre, ochre, ogre, sepulchre. In the US, ogre is standard, manoeuvre is usually maneuver, and the other -re forms listed are variants of the equivalent -er form.

Of course the above relates to root words; -er rather than -re is universal as a suffix for agentive (reader, winner) and comparative (louder, nicer) forms. One consequence is the Commonwealth distinction of meter for a measuring instrument from metre for the unit of measurement. However, while poetic metre is often -re, pentameter, hexameter, etc. are always -er.

The e preceding the r is retained in US derived forms of nouns and verbs, e.g. fibers, reconnoitered, centering, which are, naturally, fibres, reconnoitred and centring respectively in Commonwealth English. It is dropped for other inflections, e.g. central, fibrous, spectral. Such dropping, however, cannot be regarded as proof of an -re Commonwealth spelling of words not taken from Latin and French, for, in analogy, angry is derived from anger, not angre.

... -ce / -se

Nouns ending in -ce with -se verb forms: American English retains the noun/verb distinction in advice / advise and device / devise (pronouncing them differently), but has lost the same distinction with licence / license and practice / practise that British English retains. American English uses practice exclusively for both meanings, and license for both meanings (although licence is an accepted variant spelling), and license as a noun is now becoming more common in the UK because of the influence of the US computer software industry. Also, Commonwealth defence, offence, pretence; American defense, offense, pretense.

... -xion / -ction

The spellings connexion, inflexion, deflexion, reflexion are now somewhat rare, perhaps understandably as their stems are connect, inflect, deflect, and reflect and there are many such words in English that result in a -tion ending. The more common American connection, inflection, deflection, reflection have almost become the standard internationally.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary lists the older spellings as the etymological form, since these four words actually derive from the Latin root -xio.

In both forms, complexion is used in preference to complection, as it comes from the stem complex in British and in American English, just like crucifix and crucifixion. (Etymologically, the spelling *crucifiction would in any case mean not “fixing to a cross” (Lat. figere) but “moulding into a cross” (Lat. fingere). British Methodism retains the eighteenth century spelling "connexion" to describe its national organisation, for historical reasons.

Greek-derived spellings

... -ise / -ize

Commonwealth colonise, harmonise, realise; American colonize, harmonize, realize (and derivatives and inflexions therefrom: colonisationcolonization). Although the most authoritative British sources, the Oxford English Dictionary and Fowler's Modern English Usage, prefer -ize, British editors tend to enforce the use of -ise as the standard orthographical practice.

Endings in -yze are possible only in American English. Thus, Commonwealth analyse, catalyse, hydrolyse, paralyse; American analyze, catalyze, hydrolyze, paralyze.

Mind that not all spellings are interchangeable; some verbs take the -z- form exclusively, for instance capsize, seize (except in the legal phrase to be seised of/to stand seised to), size and prize (to value: but prize "to lever open" is in the Commonwealth often prise), whereas others take only -s-: advertise, advise, apprise, arise, chastise, circumcise, comprise, compromise, demise, despise, devise, disguise, excise, exercise, (en)franchise, improvise, incise, merchandise, premise, promise, previse, poise, praise, raise, reprise, revise, rise, supervise, surmise, surprise, televise and uprise.

... -ogue / -og

Commonwealth analogue, catalogue, dialogue; American analog, catalog, dialog; and inflected forms: American cataloging, Commonwealth cataloguing. This applies with any consistency only to the various words ending in -log(ue) deriving from Greek λογος, although demagog is a possible U.S. variant spelling of demagogue. All the -gue forms are also relatively common in the United States, and other words ending in -gue in Commonwealth usage generally retain -gue in America; e.g. vogue, rogue, plague, monologue, intrigue, fugue, colleague, tongue, harangue, argue.

Greek-derived words with æ and œ

Commonwealth American
anæmia anemia
anæsthesia anesthesia
diarrhœa diarrhea
fœtus fetus
gynæcology gynecology
mediæval medieval
encyclopædia encyclopedia


The current trend seems to be to replace the ligatures æ and œ with ae and oe respectively. When so spelt and at the same time capitalised, as in at a beginning of a sentence, only the first letter is usually a majuscule: Aesthetic (but Æsthetic), Oenology (but Œnology).

Commonwealth manoeuvre seems to be a special case: its oe was not derived from Greek, but was apparently changed to maneuver in American English on the mistaken belief that it was. British aeroplane and American airplane is a special case in that it is not a straight aee substitution; in fact it is a different word rather than a different spelling. Some words retain the ae in American usage, such as aesthetic and archaeology, although esthetic and archeology are also encountered. (Conversely, some words which in Greek contained ae or oe have only e even in British, such as economics (the spelling œconomics is possible, but is now considered archaic). The spelling encyclopedia is commonly used in British English, although the earlier form encyclopaedia is also used.

Common suffixes

Commonwealth English generally doubles final -l when adding suffixes that begin with a vowel if -l is preceded by a single vowel, whereas American English doubles it only on stressed syllables. (Thus American English treats -l the same as other final consonants, whereas Commonwealth English treats it irregularly.) Commonwealth counsellor, equalling, modelling, quarrelled, signalling, travelled; American counselor (but chancellor), equaling, modeling, quarreled, signaling, traveled.

  • But compelled, excelling, propelled, rebelling in both (notice the stress difference); revealing, fooling (double vowel before the l); hurling (consonant before the l).
  • But Commonwealth fuelling, woollen; American fueling, woolen.
  • Commonwealth writers also use a single l before suffixes beginning with a consonant where Americans use a double: Commonwealth enrolment, fulfilment (but fulfilled), instalment, skilful; American enrollment, fulfillment, installment, skillful. The infinitives of these verbs are also different: in the Commonwealth, they are to enrol, fulfil and instal (although install is also common), whereas in the USA, they are to enroll, fulfill and install.
  • Commonwealth English often keeps silent e when adding suffixes where American English doesn't. British ageing, routeing; American aging, routing. Both systems retain the silent e when necessary to preserve a soft c or g: traceable, judgement (although judgment is also standard in American English).

It should be noted that on the above point Canadian usage tends to follow the American rather than the British spelling.

Miscellaneous spelling differences

There is a tendency for new technical meanings of old words to be coined in America and then re-exported to the Commonwealth with the American spelling retained, thus creating a written distinction between the old and new meanings which does not exist in American English. See disk, program and possibly artifact. But compare also meter and discrete, in which an older English written distinction between etymologically related forms with different meanings was destroyed by regularization of American spellings.


Commonwealth American Remarks
aluminium aluminum The Commonwealth spelling is the international standard in the sciences (IUPAC), although many American scientists use the American spelling.
annexe annex To annex is the verb in both Commonwealth and American usage; however, when speaking of an annex(e) (the noun referring to an extension of a main building, not military conquest, which would be annexation), it is usually spelt with an -e at the end in the Commonwealth, but in the US it is not.
artefact artifact Commonwealth usage is mixed, but some speakers claim to write artefact to mean “a product of artisanry” but artifact when the meaning is “a flaw in experimental results caused by the experiment itself”. This may be an example of the American spelling becoming universal for the technical sense of a nontechnical word: compare disk, program.
axe ax Both noun and verb; both forms common in the U.S.
carburettor carburetor
close closed Opposite of open in certain phrases only, such as "close season" (= the period when a certain sport is not played or when fishing and hunting is forbidden), which is "closed season" in the USA. Roads, shops and doors are closed everywhere (a "close street" is one that is nearby, not one that is not open); so too are friends close to one another irrespective of where they are.
cheque check For a bank cheque; however, the verb is still check.
cypher cipher Cypher (and such derivations as encypher and decypher) is used in the UK, and cipher is used in both the UK and the U.S. (both spellings are quite old).
disc disk In the U.S., disc is also a common spelling. In computing (among other fields), both spellings are used in both American and Commonwealth English — the two spellings are generally used mutually exclusively to refer to discs of different types.
draught draft Commonwealth English uses draught for a plan or sketch, for drinks stored in barrels ('draught lager'), for animals used for pulling heavy loads ("a draught horse"), for a current of air, and for a ship's minimum depth of water to float; it uses draft for a preliminary version of a document and an order of payment. American English uses draft in all these cases, as well as when speaking of what Commonwealth speakers refer to as military conscription.

Commonwealth English also uses draught for the game of draughts (Americans call it checkers).

er uh In speech, an interjection denoting hesitation or uncertainty. Each is a locale-specific phonetic spelling for a range of sounds including [ʌ] /V/, [ɜ] or [ɝ] /3/, [ə] /@/.
for ever forever In Commonwealth English, for ever means for eternity (or a very long time), as in "I have been waiting for you for ever." Forever means continually, always, as in "They are forever arguing."
furore furor
glycerine glycerin Glycerine is also commonly used in the US.
gaol jail British English uses jail and jailer more often than gaol and gaoler (except to describe a mediaeval building and guard).
grey gray American English uses both grey and gray.
jewellery jewelry
kerb curb Curb is used in Britain for the verb "to restrain" or "to control", but the edge of a roadway (the edge of a pavement [American English sidewalk]) is kerb.
maths math (mathematics)
mould mold
moult molt
per cent percent Percentage is the same in both systems.
plough plow
pyjamas pajamas
programme program Program is used in British English when referring to a computer program, perhaps inspired by American usage, but for other uses, programme is usual.
sceptic(ism) skeptic(ism)
speciality specialty
sport sports Americans use the term sports to refer collectively to all athletic contests, as in "the sports section of the paper" or "ABC's Wide World of Sports". The British typically use sport in this context, although they usually use sports as a plural when referring to specific competitions. Americans find the collective noun sport to be quite formal.
storey story When referring to levels of buildings; a tale is story everywhere. Note also the differing plural, storeys vs stories respectively.
sulphur sulfur The American spelling is the international standard in the sciences, although many British scientists use the British spelling.
tyre tire Tyre in Commonwealth English refers to the noun, a rubber ring on a wheel of a vehicle, whereas tire, a verb, in the sense of losing energy, is spelt so everywhere.
vice vise Americans use vise for the tool and vice for the sin; Commonwealth usage has vice for both.
yoghurt yogurt Although both spellings are generally recognised throughout, Americans are more likely to spell the word without -h-. The Canadian spelling is, inspired by French, yoghourt. Note that the Commonwealth pronunciation is /ˈjɒg.ət/, whilst the American one is /ˈjoʊ.gɚt/.


Acronyms of four or more letters standing for entities are typically rendered by Commonwealth writers as simple names, with the initial initial capitalised if the construction can be pronounced as a word, having conveniently-placed vowels, as Nasa or Unicef whereas American writers capitialise every initial, as NASA or UNICEF.

Slight lexical differences

  • Verb past tenses with -t: Commonwealth dreamt, leapt, learnt, spelt; American dreamed, leaped, learned, spelled. As with the "tre" words, the t endings are occasionally found in American texts. The forms with -ed are also common in Commonwealth usage. (The two-syllable form learnèd /"l3:nId/ /'lɜ:nɪd/, usually spelled simply as learned, is still used to mean "educated", or to refer to academic institutions, in both British English and American English.)
  • Other verb past tense forms: Commonwealth fitted, forecasted, knitted, lighted, wedded; American fit, forecast, knit, lit, wed (but busted). The distinction is, however, not rigorous as the Commonwealth forms are also found in American, and both lit and forecast are standard in Commonwealth English.
    Also, the past participle gotten is never used in modern British English, which uses got (as do some Americans), except in old expressions such as ill-gotten gains. Commonwealth usage retains the form forgotten, though. Furthermore, according to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, "The form gotten is not used in British English but is very common in North American English, though even there it is often regarded as non-standard."
    Fitted is used in both conventions as an adjective ("fitted sheets" are the same size as the mattress) and as the past tense of fit ("to suffer epilepsy" e.g. "Leavitt fitted" in The Andromeda Strain); however fit and fitting do not denote epileptic seizure in ordinary British use (though that usage is common within medical circles), as the same effect is achieved by to have a fit or to throw a fit.
    American English favours the past participle proven, whereas it remains proved in England (except in adjectival use sometimes; and usage is different in Scottish law). American English further allows other irregular verbs, such as thrive (throve - thriven), which remain regular in Commonwealth English, and often mixes the preterite and past participle forms (spring - sprang (US sprung) - sprung), sometimes forcing verbs such as shrink (shrank - shrunk) to have a further form, thus shrunk - shrunken.
    See also: the list of irregular verbs.
  • Adverbs and adjectives of direction with -wards: British forwards, upwards, afterwards, etc.; American forward, upward, afterward. The -s forms are adverbs only; the forms without -s are both adjectives and adverbs. In American English, the -s forms are fast disappearing; in British English, there is a semantic difference in the usage of the two possible forms. The Oxford English Dictionary states the following about forward and forwards: "/.../ the latter expresses a definite direction viewed in contrast with other directions. In some contexts either form may be used without perceptible difference of meaning; the following are examples in which only one of them can be used: 'The ratchet-wheel can move only forwards'; 'the right side of the paper has the maker's name reading forwards'; 'if you move at all it must be forwards'; 'my companion has gone forward'; 'to bring a matter forward'; 'from this time forward'."
  • In British English the word sat is often informally used to cover sat, sitting and seated: "I've been sat here waiting for half an hour." "The bride's family will be sat on the right side of the church." Not all British people do this, but it is not often heard outside Britain. Similarly stood can be used instead of standing. To an American these usages may imply that the subject had been involuntarily forced to sit or stand.
  • In American English, "built-in" describes a feature integrated or included in a larger whole. The Commonwealth English equivalent adjective is "inbuilt" (without a hyphen).
  • The Commonwealth English (adjectival?/prepositional?) phrase "in hospital" baffles speakers of American English who would expect "in the hospital" to appear in the same context. Likewise, the British English phrase "at university" suggests to American ears a vaguely Slavic penchant for dropping the definite article.

Grammar

  • Collective nouns such as team and company that describe multiple people are often used with the plural form of a verb in British English, particularly where one is concerned with the people constituting the team, rather than with the team as a corporate entity; the singular form is used in most cases in American, for example, British "the team are concerned"; American "the team is concerned". But, as in British English, the plural form can be used when the individual membership is clear, for example, "the team take their seats" (not "the team takes its seat(s)"), although it is often rephrased to avoid the singular/plural decision, as in "the team members take their seats". Another example:
    • British English: "The Clash are a well-known band."
    • American English: "The Clash is a well-known band."
  • Differences in which nouns are the same in both their plural and singular forms, such as the word sheep. In American English, shrimp is such a word, but in British English the plural of shrimp is shrimps. (Shrimps is occasionally heard in the southern U.S., but is otherwise rare, apart from its colloquial use as a pejorative term for small people).
  • In names of American rivers, the word river usually comes after the name (for example, Colorado River), whereas for British rivers it comes before (as in River Thames).
  • Use of prepositions before days denoted by a single word. Where Britons would say "She resigned on Thursday", Americans often say "She resigned Thursday". Occasionally, the preposition is also absent when referring to months: "I'll be here December" (although this usage is generally limited to colloquial speech). Intransitive verbs in American English often become transitive; for example, Britons say "I'll write to you" where Americans commonly say "I'll write you"; Commonwealth English: "The workers protested against the decision." American English: "The workers protested the decision."
  • The present perfect tense is much more common in British dialects than in American, where the preterite is usually used instead. For example, I've gone in British English; I went in American. Similarly, the pluperfect is often replaced by the preterite in the USA; this, even more than the dropping of the present perfect, is generally regarded as sloppy usage by those Americans who consider themselves careful users of the language.
  • On informal occasions, the British would use "have got", whereas Americans would say "have" or just "got". "Have" is the only form used in formal writing.
  • American English allows do as a substitute for have (the full verb, in the sense of possess), just as for other verbs such as "walk" or "think"; in the past, British English did not allow this, but it is becoming increasingly common. American: "Have you any food? [or, much more frequently, "Do you have any food?"] Yes, I do." British: "Have you any food? Yes, I have." Note that such substitution is not possible in either American or British English for the auxiliary verb have: "Have you eaten? Yes, I have."
  • Similarly, in informal usage, American English often uses the form "did" + infinitive where British English would use "have/has" + past participle. "Did you brush your teeth yet?" would be usual American English whereas most British speakers would say "Have you cleaned your teeth yet?". The "have" form is regarded as correct in both countries, however, and is required in all formal contexts. "Did you clean your teeth yesterday" would be correct in both countries.
  • Where a statement of intention involves two separate activities, it is acceptable for speakers of American English to use the simple continuous form "I am going". Speakers of British English are more likely to use the form "I am going to". So where a speaker of American English might say "I am going upstairs and taking a bath", British English speakers would say "I am going to go upstairs and have a bath", or "I am going upstairs to have a bath", which has a slightly different meaning.
  • The subjunctive mood is more common in American English in expressions such as: "They suggested that he apply for the job". British English would have "They suggested that he should apply for the job" or even "They suggested that he applied for the job". However, these British usages are also heard in the United States.
  • Singular attributives in one country may be plural in the other, and vice versa. For example, Britain has a drugs problem while the United States has a drug problem.

Prepositions

  • In the United States, the word through can mean "up to and including" as in Monday through Friday. This is intolerable in Britain (and even more so if the word is spelled thru). The British translation of this example would be Monday to Friday inclusive, or simply Monday to Friday.
  • In Southern Britain the word whilst is used almost interchangeably with while. Whilst is more often used in instruction manuals, legal documents, etc.
  • The word while means until in some dialects of Northern England. There is an apocryphal story that because of this, railway crossings with signs saying "do not cross the track while the lights are flashing" had to be changed after several fatalities occurred.

Punctuation

  • Full stops/Periods in abbreviations: Americans tend to write "U.S.", "U.N.", "Mr.", "Mrs.", "St.", "Dr." etc., while most British will write "US", "UN", "Mr", "Mrs", "St", "Dr" (or even "D'r"), etc., following the rule that a period is used only when the last letter of the abbreviation is not the last letter of the complete word. However, many British writers would tend to write other abbreviations without a full stop, such as "Prof", "etc", "eg", and so on (so recommended by some Oxford dictionaries).
  • It is sometimes believed that British English does not hyphenate multiple-word adjectives, viz: "a first class ticket". This is rare, and considered incorrect. The most common form is as in American English, viz: "a first-class ticket".
  • Quoting: Americans start with double quotation marks (") and use single quotation marks (') for quotations within quotations. British do the opposite, but not on every occasion.
  • Contents of quotations: Americans are taught to put commas and periods inside quotation marks, whereas Britons will put the punctuation inside if it belongs to the quote and outside otherwise. This means that direct speech retains punctuation inside inverted commas in British English also, with a full stop changing into a comma if followed by explanatory text.
    • Carefree means "free from care or anxiety." (American style)
    • Carefree means "free from care or anxiety". (British style)
    • "Hello world," I said. (both styles)
The American style was established for typographical reasons, having to do with the aesthetics of commas and quotation marks in typeset text; however, it is counterintuitive to most people to insert punctuation characters into strings that do not belong in them. Hart's Rules and the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors call the British style "new" or "logical" quoting. This returns British English to the style many other languages (including Spanish, French, Italian, Catalan, Dutch, and German) have been using all along. This "logical" style is increasingly popular in America, although it is not generally suitable for formal writing. In fact, the British style is often the de facto standard among Americans for whom formal or professional writing is not a part of their daily life. According to the Jargon File, American hackers have switched to using "logical" British quotation system, because including extraneous punctuation in a quotation can sometimes change the fundamental meaning of the quotation. More generally, it is difficult for computer manuals, online instructions, and other textual media to accurately quote exactly what a computer user should see or type on their computer.
  • Letter-writing: American students in some areas have been taught to write a colon after the greeting ("Dear Sir:") while Britons usually write a comma ("Dear Sir,") or make use of the so-called open punctuation ("Dear Sir"). However, this practice is not consistent throughout the United States, and it would be regarded as a highly formal usage by most Americans.

Note: The Wikipedia:Manual of Style splits the difference here, suggesting British style for punctuation and quotation marks, and American style for double and single quotation marks.

Numbers

When saying or writing out numbers, the British will put an "and" before the tens and ones, as in "one hundred and sixty-two" and "two thousand and three", whereas Americans go with "one hundred sixty-two" and "two thousand three". Americans also have a tendency to read numbers like 1,234 as "twelve thirty-four", which would be "one thousand, two hundred and thirty-four" or occasionally "twelve hundred and thirty-four" in Britain unless discussing the year 1234, when "twelve thirty-four" would be the norm. Similarly, for the house number (or bus number, etc) "272" Britons would tend to say "two seven two" while Americans would tend to say "two seventy-two". The British do, however, commonly read numbers ending in round hundreds as, for instance, "sixteen hundred" instead of "one thousand six hundred".

There is also a historical difference between billions, trillions, and so forth. Americans use "billion" to mean one thousand million (1,000,000,000), whereas in Britain, until the mid-late 20th century, it meant one million million (1,000,000,000,000), with one thousand million sometimes described as a "milliard". However, the "American English" version has since been adopted for all published writing, and the word "milliard" is obsolete in English, as are billiard, trilliard and so on, although most other European languages retain the "British" system.

Nevertheless, the majority of people have no direct experience with manipulating numbers this large, so a significant proportion of lay readers will interpret "billion" as 1012, even if they are young enough to have been taught otherwise at school. For this reason, avoiding the word may be advisable when writing for the general public.

Instead, one can write in terms of the unambiguous word "million", e.g. "thousand million" and "million million". Thus, 1,200,000,000 = "one thousand two hundred million" as opposed to "one point two billion". Alternatively, either SI prefixes (1,200,000,000 units = 1.2 Giga-units) or scientific notation (1,200,000,000 = 1.2 × 109) can be used.

See long scale for a more detailed discussion.

Finally, when referring to the numeral 0, Britons would use "zero", "nought", or "oh" normally, or "nil" in instances such as sports scores and voting results. Americans use the term "zero" almost exclusively, though phrases such as "the team won two-zip" or "the team leads the series, two-nothing" are heard when reporting sports scores. The digit 0, e.g. when reading a phone or account number aloud, is nearly always pronounced "oh" in both languages for the sake of convenience.

When reading numbers in a sequence, such as a telephone or serial number, Britons will use the terms double or triple. Hence 007 is "double oh seven". Exceptions are the emergency telephone number 999, which is always "nine nine nine" and the mythological "number of the beast" which is always "six six six".

See also: How to name numbers in English

Vocabulary

Most of the differences are in connection with concepts originating from the nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century, where new words were coined independently; almost the entire vocabularies of the car/automobile and railway/railroad industries (see Rail terminology) are different between Britain and America, for example. Other sources of difference are slang or vulgar terms, where frequent new coinage occurs, and idiomatic phrases, including phrasal verbs. The differences most likely to create confusion are those where the same word or phrase is used for two different concepts. Regional variations even within the US or the UK can create the same problems.

It should also be noted that most American words can be freely interchanged with their British versions within the United Kingdom and English-speaking Commonwealth nations without leading to confusion, though they may cause irritation. It tends to be only when the situation is reversed that real problems of understanding occur. However, there are some exceptions, such as dumpster, gas, and stroller (in the sense of pushchair) which would be misunderstood by speakers of British English. There are, however, many pitfalls that Americans can fall into without realising it. Be sure you know what you are talking about when talking about a woman's fanny in Britain, since the word indicates the buttocks in the US versus the vagina in the UK. And use caution in the US when asking to be knocked up – in the UK it means to be awakened as with a knock on the door whereas in the US it means to be impregnated. Caution should also be used when asking for a fag (cigarette) in America, as a fag there refers to a homosexual. Residents of North and South Carolina beaches should be wary of inviting their British guests to "go out shagging," (a type of dance), for the term in British English refers to sexual intercourse.

Words used only in British English

Speakers of American English are generally aware of some British English terms, such as lorry, biscuit, chap, and shag although they would not generally use them, or may be confused as to whether one means the American or British meaning of some (such as biscuit). They will be able to guess approximately what you mean by some others, such as candy floss or driving licence. However, use of as many other British words, such as semi, naff, or busk, risks rendering your sentence incomprehensible to most Americans.

See List of British English words not used in American English.

Words used only in American English

Speakers of British English are generally aware of some American English terms, such as sidewalk, gas, cookie, elevator although they would not generally use them. They will be able to guess approximately what you mean by some others, such as cotton candy or driver's license. However, use of as many other American words risks rendering your sentence incomprehensible to most Britons.

See List of American English words not used in British English.

Words with differing meanings

See List of words having different meanings in British and American English.

Pronunciation

Consonants

Britons and Americans pronounce some instances of t and d differently. In British pronunciation, the two sounds are always distinct and prounounced as /t/ and /d/ respectively. In American English, when either a 't' sound or a 'd' sound occurs between two vowels and before an unstressed syllable, it changes to an alveolar flap, similar to the 'r' in Spanish 'pero'. Consequently, to a speaker of both dialect groups, an American's pronunciation of atom and Adam are homophonous in casual speech. Many Americans, however, slightly aspirate this sound when it derives from a 't' and follows a short i (/I/) or long a (/eI/) sound, thus bitter and rated are distinguishable from bidder and raided. See linguistics and allophones for more information on this category of phenomenon.

Though most British accents pronounce the t in words as a distinctive t, it is common, particularly in Estuary English, to replace the t with a glottal stop.

Most American dialects have not lost the non-prevocalic r. That is, "standard" American English preserves the sound of "r" in all occurrences, whereas British English only preserves it when it is followed by a vowel (see rhotic). However, this holds true neither for all American dialects nor for all British dialects; the dialects of New England and the American South both exhibit a similar sound change found in southern England. In England, however, when a former syllable final /r/ appeared before a consonant not at a word boundary, a schwa was substituted for it, giving British English a new class of falling diphthongs. The non-rhotic North American dialects do not show this. This phenomenon also partially accounts for the interlocution of 'r' between a word ending in a vowel and one beginning with a vowel (such as "the idear of it") exhibited both in some dialects of Britain and in the Boston (USA) dialect of American English. Most other American dialects interpose a glottal stop where "r" appears in the Boston example, and appears to perform the same function of separating adjacent (non-dipthongized) vowels.

Vowels

American English generally has a simplified vowel system as compared to the British dialects. In particular, many Americans have lost the distinction between the vowels of awl and all, as well as caught and cot, the so-called cot-caught merger tending to pronounce all of these with something between a long form of the sound in cot and the "a" of father (those two sounds being distinct in British English).

The long "a" of father, the famous British broad A, is used in many British RP words, especially common ones, in two phonetic situations. Firstly, before three of the four voiceless fricatives, as in path, laugh, pass, past, though not before sh. Secondly, before some instances of n and another consonant, as in aunt, plant, dance. In most northern dialects, not to mention Scotish and Irish, though, the short "a" is the norm. (Australian usually follows RP in the first case, though castle and graph, among others, often have the short vowel, and aunt and can't invariably have the broad one.) An "a" at the beginning of a word (such as "ant") is usually short throughout the country, just as in the American.

British Received Pronunciation has generally lost the long /O:/ as in boat, replacing it with a diphthong that is close to /@U/. Some British speakers still have /O:/, but it appears only as a result of a lost /r/, in words like force. More northerly and westerly British speech preserves /O:/. The British diphthong /@U/ is enunciated as /oU/ or sometimes as /o/ in general American.

In American English, words of two or more syllables, where the first syllable ends with a single consonant, usually use the long vowel sound:

  • Patriot, the a rhymes with the a in gate
  • Zenith, the e rhymes with the ee in seen
  • Vitamin, the i rhymes with the i in bite

In British English the short vowel sound is usually employed:

  • Patriot, the a rhymes with the a in sat
  • Zenith, the e rhymes with the e in bet
  • Vitamin, the i rhymes with the i in sit

In both British and American English a double consonant ending the first syllable usually means the short vowel sound is used.

  • Bitter, the first i rhymes with the i in sit

/u/ vs /ju/ etc.

Commonwealth speakers insert /j/ before /u/ (a glide) after more consonants than do American speakers. Both distinguish coot from cute, but most Americans do not distinguish do from due or dew. The major exception among American English is in the Southern dialect, which closely follows the Commonwealth usage. The relevant consonants are /t/, /d/, /θ/, /s/, /z/, /n/, /l/.

  • Many Commonwealth speakers no longer insert /j/ after /l/ or /θ/, or after initial /s/ or /z/. This is called yod dropping . For them as for Americans 'lute' usually sounds like 'loot' (/luːt/), and 'sue' like 'Sioux' (/suː/); but for all Commonwealth speakers 'assume' is /əˈsjuːm/, not /əˈsuːm/ as in America.
  • /dj/ and /tj/ tend to mutate to /dʒ/ and /tʃ/ except in careful speech. This is called yod coalescence . Thus Commonwealth 'tune' becomes /tʃu:n/ rather than /tju:n/. Both contrast with American /tuːn/.
  • The British-American distinction only applies to stressed syllables. Americans and Commonweath speakers alike say /kənˈtɪnˌjuː/ for continue. Combining this with yod coalescence, many Commonwealth speakers will pronounce residual as /rɛˈzɪdʒuəl/ and statue as /ˈstæˌtʃuː/, the same way as Americans. The /j/ is preserved even if lack of stress alters the quality of the vowel so it is not /u/, e.g. penury /ˈpɛnjəri/.
  • The glide never applies where /u/ is spelled 'oo' or 'ou': as with 'coot' and 'mousse', so with 'doom' and 'toupée'. (As an exception, the glide can be found in certain U.S. accents in the first syllable of the word 'coupon'.)

Affixes

-ile

Words ending in -ile (fertile, docile, missile) are pronounced with the last syllable sounding the same as isle in Commonwealth English (/ˈfɜːtaɪl/), and in American with a short, reduced schwa (rhyming with turtle (/ˈfɝɾəl/), and with fossil and whistle respectively), although exceptions can be found, such as reptile.

-ine

Some multisyllabic words such as iodine and melamine are pronounced with the last syllable sounding the same as dean or mean in Commonwealth English (/ˈaɪədiːn/), and like dine or mine in American (/ˈaɪədaɪn/).

-ary

Where the syllable preceding -ary is unstressed, Americans pronounce the suffix as two syllables, with secondary stress on the first of these. British speakers elide the a to give a single unstressed syllable. So military is American /ˈmɪlɪˌtɛri/ and British /ˈmɪlɪtri/.

Words ending in -rary form an exception in Commonwealth English, where in careful speech some may feel obliged to distinguish the two r's. Thus arbitrary would be prnounced /ˈɑːbɪtrəri/ rather than /ˈɑːbɪtri/; Americans would further expand the schwa to a fully-fledged /ɛ/: /ˈɑːrbətrɛri/.

Adjectives ending -ary form adverbs ending -arily. Formerly the British-American distinction carried over to these, but nowadays most British speakers adopt the American practice of shifting the stress to the antepenultimate syllable: militarily is thus /ˌmɪlɪˈtɛrɪli/ rather than /ˈmɪlɪtrɪlɪ/.

Miscellaneous pronunciation differences

The slashes normally used to enclose phonetic transcriptions have been omitted from the following table to improve legibility.


Spelling UK SAMPA US SAMPA UK IPA US IPA
beta "bi:[email protected] "[email protected] ˈbiː.tə ˈbeɪ.tə
Other Greek letters, such as eta, theta and zeta, are pronounced correspondingly. The Commonwealth pronunciation is more naturalised than the American, which is more in keeping with the ancient Greek.
buoy bOI "bu:i bɔɪ ˈbu:i
The US pronunciation would be unrecognized in the UK.
clerk klA:k kl3`:k klɑːk klɝːk
The derived clerical is pronounced /ˈklɛr.ɪ.kəl/ everywhere.
deity "deI.I.ti "di:[email protected] ˈdeɪ.ɪ.ti ˈdiː.ə.ti
 
diverge %daI"v3:dZ dI"v3`:dZ ˌdaɪˈvɜːdʒ dɪˈvɝːdʒ
 
envelope "[email protected]@Up "A:[email protected] ˈɛn.və.ləʊp ˈɑːn.və.loʊp
Many Americans use the Commonwealth pronunciation of this word.
garage (1) "g{r.IdZ
(2) "g{r.A:Z
[email protected]"A:Z (1) ˈgær.ɪdʒ
(2) ˈgær.ɑːʒ
gərˈɑːʒ
The US pronunciation is more in keeping with the original French one. The two Commonwealth pronunciations may represent distinct meanings for some speakers; eg, "a subterranean garage for a car" (1) vs "a petrol garage" (2).
herb h3:b 3:rb hɜːb ɜːrb
The American pronunciation of the name "Herb" includes the initial /h/ phone, which not all Americans drop in the first place.
often (1) "[email protected]
(2) "Qfn
"O:fn (1) ˈɒf.tən
(2) ˈɒfn
ˈɔːfn
 
lieutenant lEf"[email protected] lu:"[email protected] lɛfˈtɛn.ɘnt luːˈtɛn.ɘnt
 
privacy "[email protected] "[email protected] ˈprɪv.ə.si ˈpraɪ.və.si
The American pronunciation is also often used by Commonwealth speakers. The Commonwealth pronunciation is the naturalised one, a consequence of the so-called trisyllabic laxing.
route ru:t raUt ruːt raʊt
The Commonwealth pronunciation is very common in the United States, especially in the North.
schedule "SEd.ju:l "skE.dZUl ˈʃɛd.juːl ˈskɛ.dʒʊl
 
thorough "[email protected] "TV.roU ˈθʌ.rə ˈθʌ.roʊ
The difference between UK and US pronunciations of borough is analogous.
z (the letter) zEd zi: zɛd ziː
The spelling of this letter as a word corresponds to the pronunciation: thus Commonwealth zed and American zee.


See also

Miscellaneous

Both British and American English use the expression "I couldn't care less" to mean the speaker does not care at all. In American English, the phrase "I could care less" (without the "n't") is synonymous with this, while in British English, "I could care less" is most certainly not synonymous with this, and might be interpreted as anything from nonsense to an indication that the speaker does care.

In his history of the Second World War, Winston Churchill records that differences in the interpretation of the verb "to table" caused an argument between British and American planners. The British wanted a matter tabled immediately because it was important, and the Americans insisted it should not be tabled at all because it was important. In British English, the term means "to discuss now", whereas in American English it means "to defer".

In a similar vein, the verb "to slate" means "to schedule" in the US but (informally) "to disparage" in the UK. Thus a headline such as "Third Harry Potter Film Slated" has two very different interpretations.

In the UK, a student is said to "read" a subject, while in the US, a student either "studies" the subject or "majors" in it.

"She read history at Oxford".
"She majored in history at Harvard."

In the UK, a student is said to "write" an exam, while in the US, a student "takes" an exam. In the UK, a teacher "sets" an exam, while in the US, a teacher "writes" an exam. The expression "he sits for" an exam also arises in British English, but never in American English.

"I wrote my exams at Oxford".
"I took my exams at Harvard."
"I spent the entire day yesterday writing the exam. At last, it's ready for my students."
"I plan to set a difficult exam for my students, but I haven't got it ready yet."

Building layout

American English and British English differ in how they describe the floor levels of buildings, a distinction that often causes confusion in each other's countries.

Location American English British English
Bottom floor at ground level First floor Ground floor
One floor above ground level Second floor First floor
Two floors above ground level Third floor Second floor

Put simply:

  • American English floor number minus 1 = British English name
  • British English floor number plus 1 = American English name

In North America, some buildings may have entrances on two different floors, such as those built into a hill. In these cases, the ground floor is the lower and the first floor is the upper.

Most European countries and Commonwealth Nations follow the same convention as the British, although Russia and some countries of East Europe follow the American convention.

Some U.S. high-rise buildings follow the British system, often out of a desire on the part of the building's architect or owners to suggest a posh U.K./European setting.

See also

External links



Last updated: 01-14-2005 16:09:10