British and American English

This page explains the differences between British and American English.


Those people who complain about the difficulties of learning German don't know how lucky they really are. They only have one language to master!

Admittedly, there are regional differences of dialect in German-speaking countries, but the non-native speaker who has learned Hochdeutsch (high or standard German) should have no problems in making himself understood by citizens of Germany, Austria or Switzerland.

The difficulty for the non-native learner of English on the other hand is that there is no standard English form. He is confronted with two main English dialects to learn: British English and American English (leaving aside Australian, Indian, South African English, etc.) And despite the many cross-cultural influences, it seems that the major differences in vocabulary, spelling and pronunciation of these two dialects will continue to exist.

To be consistent in his use of English and, more importantly, to be understood, the non-native speaker needs to know which words have distinct meanings and pronunciations depending on whether they are used by a Briton or an American. This is necessary not only for sake of communication, but also to avoid embarrassment.

For example, if a Londoner tells a resident of New York that she has left her child's dummy in the pram and its nappy in the boot , she will merely be greeted with a look of bewilderment. If the New Yorker then tells the London woman that she has nice pants, he may well wonder why she doesn't seem to take his remark as a compliment.

[In America dummies and nappies are called pacifiers and diapers ; prams and boots are called baby carriages and trunks . For Americans pants are trousers but for Britons pants are what you wear under your trousers.]

What follows are brief examples of the major areas of difference† between the two languages, together with some quiz questions.

Spelling differences

@In general, where there are differences between British English (BrE) and American English (AmE) spelling, it can be said that American English has the more economical and phonetic spelling.~ Unnecessary letters are left out and words are spelled how they sound. An obvious example is the omission in AmE of the letter u in words such as color, neighbor, honor, etc.

Compare also the AmE words traveling , jewelry and program with their BrE counterparts travelling , jewellery and programme. However, this rule does not always apply. For example, you would expect skilful to be the AmE spelling and skillful the BrE spelling, but unfortunately you would be wrong!

Quiz: In the following table, which words are spelled in American English and which in British English? Can you give the alternative spelling in each case?

Example: AmE - mustache : BrE - moustache



Here is a comprehensive Wikipedia article on American and British English spelling differences .

Pronunciation differences

There are of course great regional differences in pronunciation within both countries, but the following is a list of words which are pronounced differently by most Americans and most Britons. The difference lies either in using different vowel sounds or by stressing the word in a different place.

Quiz: How would an American and a Briton typically say the following words?

address (noun)

Americans and Britons agree in most cases on where a word in stressed. For example, everyone says pencil and relax, cinema and consider, but the following words from the table are stressed differently in the two dialects:

  • ballet - BrE   :   ballet - AmE
  • address - BrE   :   address * - AmE
  • garage - BrE   :   garage - AmE
  • advertisement - BrE   :    advertisement - AmE

The differences in pronunciation of the other words lie in the vowel sounds, not in differently-stressed syllables. They are therefore more difficult to illustrate in writing without recourse to phonetic script, which few people know. Their proununciations are illustrated therefore by reference to common words with the same sound

  • vase:   vars as in cars (BrE)   :    vace as in face (AmE)
  • route:   root as in shoot (BrE)   :    rout * as in shout (AmE)
  • buoy:   boy as in toy (BrE)   :   booey as in the French name Louis (AmE)
  • ate:   et as in let (BrE)   :   ate as in late (AmE)
  • tomato:   tomarto (BrE)  :   tomayto * (AmE)
  • leisure as in pleasure (BrE)   :   leesure (lee as in she) (AmE)

*  Some Americans pronounce these words as Britons do.

Vocabulary differences

As a percentage of the total English vocabulary the number of words which are used only in one or the other country is very small. But the problem for learners of English is that these words are among the most common in the language.

There are many words that are used almost exclusively by Americans which are understood by most Britons, and vice versa. But there are others which can cause difficulty.

For example, most Britons know that Americans call biscuits cookies and flats apartments , but not so many know what an alumnus or a fender is. Similarly, Americans know that what they call their yard is called a garden in Britain and that trucks are lorries, but common British English words like plimsolls or off licence may mean nothing to them.

Quiz: From the lists below, choose the pair of words that have the same meaning and identify them as American English or British English.

Example: AmE - cookie    =    BrE - biscuit

thumb tack
drawing pin

The AmE words are shown in red, the BrE words in blue:

closet - cupboard : vacation - holiday : fall - autumn : thumb tack - drawing pin : flashlight - torch : subway - underground : baggage - luggage : movie - film : drapes - curtains : elevator - lift : hood - bonnet : mailman - postman : check - bill : line - queue : candy - sweets : gas - petrol : trailer - caravan


British English and American English grammar are mostly in agreement. There are however some interesting variations. For example there are differences in certain verb forms. In AmE the past tense of fit is fit; in BrE it is fitted. Americans say I've gotten to know her well ; Britons I've got to know her well.

In BrE the present perfect tense is used for situations in which AmE would typically use the past simple. For example using the words just or already , Britons would be more likely to say: I've just seen him or I've already done it whereas in AmE it would be common to hear I just saw him or I already did it.

As another example, Americans are much more likely to be technically correct in the agreement of collective noun and verb form than Britons. So in standard AmE it would be: The team is playing well this season whereas in BrE it is common and acceptable to say The team are playing well. Similar differences can be seen in the use of words like government, committee, etc.: The government is... (AmE), The government are... (BrE).

A further difference is in the greater likelihood that an American will use the subjunctive where a Briton would typically use the indicative or a modal.

So, for example, an American might say It is important that you be at the airport by 6am. A Briton would probably say It is important that you are at the airport by 6am or It is important that you should be at the airport by 6am.

Quiz: The following sentences are typically AmE. What would the typical Briton say?

  • Do you have any siblings?
  • It is important that they be told.
  • The jury has not yet reached its decision.
  • Go fetch your book.
  • He dove into the water.
  • You must come visit me real soon.
  • Her doctor recommended that she drink more water.
  • AmE - Do you have any siblings?
    BrE - Have you got any brothers or sisters?
  • AmE - It is important that they be told.
    BrE - It is important that they are told.
  • AmE - The jury has not yet reached its decision.
    BrE - The jury have not yet reached their decision.
  • AmE - Go get your book.
    BrE - Go and fetch your book.
  • AmE - He dove into the water.
    BrE - He dived into the water.
  • AmE - You must come visit me real soon.
    BrE - You must come and visit me really soon.
  • AmE - Her doctor recommended that she drink more water.
    BrE - Her doctor recommended that she drank more water.
    BrE - Her doctor recommended that she should drink more water.


There are countless other small and interesting differences between AmE and BrE, which come under the heading of usage.

Take the useful expression used in AmE through, meaning up to and including. E.g. The exhibition is showing March through June. The equivalent expression in BrE is from March to June , but this is ambiguous. Does the exhibition close at the end of May or the end of June? To avoid any misunderstanding, it is necessary to say something like The exhibition is showing from March to the end of June.

As another example: for Americans the number billion has 9 zeros (a thousand million); for most Britons it has 12 zeros (a million million). Zero itself is a more common word in AmE than in BrE, where nought is more widespread. Americans are likely to say the number 453 as four hundred fifty three, whereas in Britain it would almost always be said four hundred and fifty three. And so on!

Quiz: Are the following sentences more likely to be said (or written) by an American or a Briton?

  • I'll try and visit you on the weekend.
  • Please write me when you arrive.
  • Call me as soon as you get there.
  • Most everyone has a telephone and a refrigerator these days.
  • If you make a mistake, you'll just have to do it over.
  • He was born 3/27/1981.
  • The soccer team won two to nothing (2-0).
  • She arrived at twenty of two.
  • The secretary said, "Mr. Clinton will see you soon."

This was a trick question because in fact all of the sentences are more likely to be said or written by an American than a Briton! Here they are again with their British English equivalents:

  • AmE - I'll try and visit you on the weekend.
    BrE - I'll try to visit you at the weekend.
  • AmE - Please write me when you arrive.
    BrE - Please write to me when you arrive.
  • AmE - Call me as soon as you get there.
    BrE - Ring me (phone me) as soon as you get there.
  • AmE - Most everyone has a telephone and a refrigerator these days.
    BrE - Almost everyone has a telephone and a fridge these days.
  • AmE - If you make a mistake, you'll just have to do it over.
    BrE - If you make a mistake, you'll just have to do it again.
  • AmE - He was born 3/27/1981.
    BrE - He was born on 27/3/1981.
  • AmE - The soccer team won two to nothing (2-0).
    BrE - The soccer team won two-nil (2-0).
  • AmE - She arrived at twenty of two.
    BrE - She arrived at twenty to two.
  • AmE - The secretary said, "Mr. Clinton will see you soon." (comma)
    BrE - The secretary said: "Mr Clinton will see you soon." (colon)

The difference in the last two sentences is in the punctuation.


It is clear that the poor non-native speaker has an almost impossible task to keep the two languages separated. The best he can do is to acquire a good reference book. Two books that I can recommend on this topic are:

  • Practical English Usage, M. Swan (1995) , Oxford University Press
  • The Right Word at the Right Time (A guide to the English language and how to use it) (1985) Readers Digest

You can do an interactive quiz on American and British English: Quiz 1 | Quiz 2 | Quiz 3.