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Differences Between British and American English

March 4th, 2009

If you’ve ever spoken with a British person or visited the United Kingdom, you’ve probably noticed that, although we’re speaking the same language, there are some pretty significant differences between American English and British English.  The British colonization of America in the 17th century brought the English language to North America, although the language has since evolved into two separate dialects – American English and British English.  When looking at these two dialects, you’ll see some significant differences in how they spell their words, the pronunciation that is used, and variances of grammar between them.

Apart from these differences, you’ll also find that some words have totally different meanings between the two versions of English.  There are some words that one dialect may use that the other may not – for example, what Americans call an “apartment,” a British citizen would call a “flat.”   Noah Webster set out to highlight these differences and prove that the United States spoke a different language than the British, resulting in what is now known as the American Directory.  Although American English and British English share many similarities, you may find yourself confused by the difference in the meanings of some of the words.

The following is a list of common American English to British English translations (courtesy of the Georgia State University website):

American British  Argument Row  Baby carriage Pram  Band-aid Plaster  Bathroom Loo or WC  Can Tin  Chopped beef Mince  Cookie Biscuit  Corn Maize  Diaper Nappy  Elevator Lift  Eraser Rubber  Flashlight Torch  Fries Chips  Gas Petrol  Guy Bloke or chap  Highway Motorway  Hood (car) Bonnet  Jello Jelly  Jelly Jam  Kerosene Paraffin  Lawyer Solicitor  License plate Number plate  Line Queue  Mail Post  Motor home Caravan  Movie theater Cinema  Muffler Silencer  Napkin Serviette  Nothing Nought  Overpass Flyover  Pacifier Dummy  Pant Trouser  Parking lot Car park  Period Full stop  Pharmacist Chemist  Potato chips Crisps  Sausage Banger  Sidewalk Pavement  Soccer Football  Sweater Jumper  Trash can Bin  Truck Lorry  Trunk (car) Boot  Vacation Holiday  Vest Waistcoat  Windshield (car) Windscreen  Zip code Postal code

In addition to these differences in vocabulary, there are several changes to grammatical rules as well.  In British English, collective nouns can take either singular or plural verb forms, while this is not the case in American English.  In American English, collective nouns are used in singular verb form using plural pronouns at times for agreement.  For example, in British English, the irregular form of a verb is commonly used as in the words “learnt and spoilt”, while in American English, irregular verb forms are generally not used.

If you’re planning a trip to the United Kingdom in the near future, you might find it helpful to study some of these differences before leaving.  Even if you aren’t familiar with British English, you’ll still be able to make yourself understood speaking American English – unlike traveling to a country that speaks Spanish or another foreign language.  However, knowing these differences will help to minimize confusion while abroad, leading to a much more enjoyable travel experience.