Differences between British and American English

English, like all languages, has variations, pronunciation differences, different accents, etc. What is particularly interesting is that English has two standard variants , each equally correct, and almost perfectly interchangeable: it is of course American English and British English !

Before we start, it is extremely important to clarify that the terms “American English” and “British English” are very vague! There are dozens of different American accents spoken in the United States and possibly even more variants of British English spoken in the United Kingdom.

Usually, when we talk about American English , we mean General American English , the American accent and dialect that we hear on the news, in most movies, but not exactly all Americans use. It is the standardized form of American English, the most neutral, that we learn in school and that we teach on BilingueAnglais and in Click & Speak .

The situation is similar (or “worse”) with British English . The term usually used to refer to the standardized form of British English, is called Received Pronunciation ; you can hear it…mostly on the BBC, in all honesty. Very few native speakers (about 2%) use this form of English and almost every city has its own dialect! In itself, the situation is not very different from French: there is metropolitan French, with its many accents, but also Quebec French, which is both similar and very different!

It may seem a little daunting to have so many kinds of English, but I promise you get used to it quickly, and before long you’ll be going even further and even getting interested in the different dialects . English spoken all over the world !

But one thing at a time. Today, we are going to introduce you to the main differences between American English and British English !

Phonetics

This is surely the biggest difference between the two accents General American and Received Pronunciation! You will immediately notice where the person in front of you is coming from, from the first Hello.

 

Differences in consonants

 

The Rs at the end of the word

Standard American English ( General American ), like the majority of American accents, pronounces the R’s at the end of words. (The accent is said to be rhotic ).

Conversely, in Standard British English ( Received Pronunciation ), as in most English accents , the R’s are NOT pronounced at the end of words. (The accent is said to be non-rhotic).

Compare instead:

FrenchAmerican EnglishBritish English
of all time; alreadyeverever
afterafterafter
otherotherother
to rememberrememberremember
anotheranotheranother
poorpoorpoor

This is one of the most distinctive points between these two accents.

 

/t/

In American English, when it is between two vowels, the sound /t/ becomes a kind of [d] (noted [ɾ] in fine phonetic transcriptions). A good example with this tongue twister :

Betty bought a bit of bitter butter.

In British English, the /t/ remains articulated in all contexts.

 

Differences in vowels

What also differentiates these two accents (and two accents, in general), are also and above all the vowels !

It is indeed the vowels that carry the melody of a language and an accent. Once you know which vowels the Americans or the English use, you will have no more problems distinguishing their accent!

Here are the different vowels and diphthongs (combinations of two vowels):

 

/ɑ/ and /ɒ/

Compare the vowel of these words in American English:

  • stop /st ɑ p/ = to stop
  • solve /s ɑ lv/ = to solve
  • honest /’ ɑ nɪst/ = honest

with the vowel in the same words, but this time in British English:

  • stop stɒp /
  • solve sɒlv /
  • honest /’ ɒ nɪst/

You can certainly guess the rule: if we have the sound /ɑ/ in American English, we will have the sound /ɒ/ in British English!

 

/æ/ and /ɑ/

Compare the vowel in these words in American English:

  • bath /b æ θ/ = bath
  • laugh læf / = to laugh
  • dance dæns / = to dance

with the vowel in the same words, but in British English:

  • bath  :θ/
  • laugh  :f/
  • dance dɑns /

In this category, where Americans say /æ/ , English people say /ɑ/ .

 

/ɑ/ and /ɔ/

Compare the vowel of these words in American English:

  • thought /θ ɑ t/ = thought
  • all ɑl / = all
  • autumn ɑ t əm/ = autumn

with the vowel in the same words, but in British English:

  • thought /θ ɔ :t/
  • all ɔ :l/
  • autumn ɔ :təm/

The rule in this category is that Americans often say /ɑ/ (this is called cot–caught merger ) where English people say /ɔ/ .

 

/з/ or /ɝ/

Compare the vowel in the following words (when followed by an R) in American English:

  • turn /t ɝ n/ = to turn
  • work /w ɝ k/ = to work
  • her /h ɝ / = she

And with the vowel in the same words in British English:

  • turn /t з: n/
  • work /w з: k/
  • her /h з: /

You have noticed ? The English do not pronounce the R at all!

 

Differences in diphthongs

Now let’s look at the diphthongs:

 

/eɪ/ or /ɛɪ/

Listen to the diphthong in the following words in American English:

  • face /f  s/ = face
  • wait /w  t/ = to wait
  • they /ð  / = they

Now with the diphthong in the same words, but in British English:

  • face /f ɛɪ s/
  • wait wɛɪt /
  • they /ð ɛɪ /

Usually, when we have the diphthong /eɪ/ in American English, we will rather have the diphthong /ɛɪ/ in British English.

 

/oʊ/ or /əʊ/

Compare the diphthong in the following words in American English:

  • note /n  t/ = note
  • so /s  / = then/ so much
  • though /ð  / = however

with the one in the same words in British English:

  • note nəʊt /
  • so /s əʊ /
  • though /ð əʊ /

When Americans say /oʊ/ , English people say /əʊ/ instead .

There are still others, but we have toured the most common diphthongs and especially those for which the difference is the most marked!

 

Tonic accent and pronunciation

Very often, American English and British English use the same words, but we stress a different syllable , or, quite simply, we pronounce the words differently. Unfortunately, there is no rule. Here are some common examples:

FrenchAmerican EnglishBritish English
laboratorylaboratory /ˈlæb rə tɔ ri/laboratory /ləˈbɒr ə t(ə)ri/
planningschedule /ˈske dʒu:l/schedule /ˈʃɛd ju:l/
privacyprivacy /ˈpraɪ vəs i/privacy /ˈprɪ vəs i/
tomatotomato /təˈmeɪ toʊ/tomato /təˈmɑ: təʊ/
vitaminvitamin /ˈvaɪ tə mɪn/vitamin /ˈvɪ tə mɪn/

? If the question of the tonic accent is not clear to you, see our article The rules of the tonic accent , complete and rich in examples.

 

The vocabulary

Sometimes Americans and English people speak two completely different languages! The vocabulary used in both countries is so varied that there are even British English-American English dictionaries!

Imagine the following scenario: a gentleman from London is on vacation in the United States and he would like to order fries in a restaurant. So he asks Excuse me, can I have some chips, please? . And the waiter gives him…chips.

If you say crisps in the UK, they’re fries and if you want the same in the US, you’d have to use the word (French) fries . Yes, “French fries”…

So there are words that exist in both dialects but mean different things, but also words that only exist in one country. These are the only cases where the two variants are not interchangeable.

Another interesting example is the word fag : a vulgar term for a homosexual in the US, but in the UK…it’s just a cigarette!

There are even social experiments that show that sometimes the differences between American English and British English can end up in real misunderstandings!

Here is a list of the 10 most common words that completely differ between the US and UK:

FrenchAmerican EnglishBritish English
apartmentapartmentflat
biscuitcookiesbiscuit
chipschipscrisps
elevatorelevatorlift
friesfrieschips
queue, queuelinetail
trainerssneakerstrainers
soccersoccersoccer
subwaySubwayunderground
holidaysholidayholiday

Is it chips or crisps ?Differences between British and American English

NB In the United States, if you hear football , it means American football.

What Americans Call FootballDifferences between British and American English

 

spelling

Another major difference is spelling : English people and Americans write differently, which can be confusing for learners.

There have been several attempts to reform spelling in North America throughout history, such as writing masheen instead of machine , for example. However Webster ‘s Reform of 1828 was the most influential: it suggested that U should no longer be written in words like honor and humour , to name a few.

A general rule is that British English kept the original spelling of words when they entered the English language, whereas the American dialect prefers a spelling closer to the way one speaks.

Here are the main spelling differences between British English and American English:

 

-our or -or

In words that end in -or in American English, a U is added in British English, resulting in an ending in -our .

Observe:

FrenchAmerican EnglishBritish English
colorcolorcolor _ _
favorfavorfavor _ _
moodhumorhumor _ _
worklaborlabor _ _
preferfavoritefavorite rite _
neighbourneighborneighbor _ _

So an American would ask you: What’s your favorite color? ;
An Englishman would ask you: What’s your favorite colo u r ? .

? Have you noticed that most of these words are of French origin ? For words that end in -eur , we can see that the English have decided to keep the U of the French spelling, while the Americans prefer the spelling closer to the English pronunciation!

 

-re or -er

For words ending in -re in French, the English keep the same spelling, while the Americans write -er :

FrenchAmerican EnglishBritish English
center rehundred stcenter re
kilometer rekilometer stkilometer re
meter reput onput back

…or just talk in miles ! ?

 

-ise or -ize

Most of the words in this category are verbs , and there are plenty of them. You can write them with the suffix -ize if you prefer American English, or with -ise if you prefer British English:

FrenchAmerican EnglishBritish English
arrangeorganize _ _organized _ _
apologizeapologi z eapologi s e
recognizerecogni z erecognized _ _
 

-nce or -nse

The English generally tend to have a spelling closer to French, but in this category, it’s more complicated than that!

FrenchAmerican EnglishBritish English
defensedefense _ _defense _ _
license/permitlicense _ _license _ _
offenseoffense _ _offense _ _
 

vowel + L

And finally, here’s a pretty short category, but it’s something that particularly troubled me when I was learning English! This concerns verbs that end in a vowel followed by the letter L in the infinitive: in their longer forms (conjugated or nouns), the English double the L, unlike the Americans:

FrenchAmerican EnglishBritish English
having traveledcross the edtravel ll ed
tripstrave ling _travelling _ _
travelertravel the sttravel _ _

You might be wondering: what spelling do Canadians, Australians and other native English speakers use? The British spelling is mainly used not only in the United Kingdom, but also in Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and India. Canadians use British spelling for the most part, but there are also some rules of American spelling, such as the ending -ize instead of -ise .

What the Americans call cookies and the English: biscuitsDifferences between British and American English

 

The grammar

 

Irregular verbs

As you already know, the main way to form Past Simple in English is to add -ed to the end of the verb stem. As in French, there are verbs that do not follow this rule and are therefore called irregular .

Yet the English and Americans disagree on which verbs are regular and which are not. Here are some verbs that conjugate regularly in American English, but have irregular endings in British English:

FrenchVerbPast Simple Form in American EnglishForm in Past Simple in British English
dreamdreamdream eddream t
learnlearnlearn edlearn t
to spellspellspell edspell t
burnburnburn- edburn t

And now, let’s take care of a rather special verb: the get verb . Its forms in British English are:

getgotgot ;

while in American English the following forms are used instead:

getgotgotten
 

Modal verbs

There are two modal verbs which are used quite often in the UK and very little in the US. First, let’s talk about the form needn’t , the opposite of need , which translates to “it’s not necessary”.

  • You needn’t worry about it! = No need to worry about it!

Shall is anotherfairly common modal verb in British English, but not in American. Its main use is to make a suggestion:

  • Shall I close the window? = Do you want me to close the window?
  • Shall we go home now? = Maybe we should go home now?
 

The Past Simple vs. the Present Perfect

There are a few constructions that are used differently in British English and American English. Especially when it comes to the use of the words yet (already/still), already (already) and just (just done). When one of these words is used, English people often prefer Present Perfect , while Americans prefer Past Simple .

Look instead:
Am.E. : I just finished reading this great article.
Br.E. : I’ve just finished reading this great article.
These two sentences mean “I just finished reading this awesome article. “.

Another example:
Am.E. : I told you many times already!
Br.E: : I have told you many times already!
Translation: “I’ve already told you many times!” “.

So, if you ask an English speaker if he wants to watch a movie with you, he can answer you:
I already saw that movie. , whether he’s American or
I’ve already seen that film. , if he is English.
Notice that there are both grammatical and vocabulary differences in this sentence!

 

Prepositions

When it comes to time, the English prefer to use the preposition at , while the Americans tend to say on . For instance :

Am.E.: on the weekend
Br.E.: at the weekend

Am.E.: on Christmas
Br.E.: at Christmas

 

have vs have got

Here are two ways to express possession in English:

  • I have … in American English
  • I have got … in British English

The meaning of both constructions is the same, the only difference is the frequency of use in both countries !

 

question tags

Question tags are much more commonly used in British English. Buildings like:

  • He has been to France before, hasn’t he ? = He has already been to France, hasn’t he?
  • You’re going there on Thursday, aren’t you ? = You’re going Thursday, right?
  • They like the city, don’t they ? = They like the city, don’t they?

Instead of these question tags , we tend to just say right? in American English. When you arrive in the United States, you may hear, for example:

  • Hello! It seems like it’s not the first time you’re traveling to the States, right ? = Hello, it seems that this is not the first time that you come to the United States, right ?

That’s it, we’ve covered the main differences between American English and British English! You may now understand why it is sometimes said that the United States and the United Kingdom are…

two countries divided by a common language

Keep in mind that both shapes are standard so whichever you choose, you just have to start!