Wednesday, 21 October 2009

British English vs American English

Nations divided by a common language?
Trousers or pants? Lift or elevator? Colour or color? Are you confused by the differences between British and American English? Here’s a handy guide to help you understand and use English on both sides of the Atlantic:

It is often said that Britain and America are two nations divided by a common language. Yes, we both speak English: but sometimes there seem to be more differences than similarities between the way the language is used on either side of the Atlantic.

Trousers or pants?
One of the most common areas of confusion is in the words we use for clothes. For example, an Englishman wears trousers, while an American wears pants. In Britain ‘pants’ are what you wear under your trousers, but American men wear shorts. But just to make things really confusing, ‘shorts’ are what the English wear when they play sport, while in the US people wear short pants.

Just as confusing is what you wear to work. In Britain an executive wears a jacket; but in America this would be called a coat. Now, an English person also wears a coat – but this is the long garment you wear over your suit in the winter. Some men wear a waistcoat in Britain (a “jacket” without sleeves) under their jacket; Americans wear a vest. As you can see, lot of the confusion comes from the fact that the same words are used on both sides of the Atlantic with different meanings.

Chips with everything
Food words can cause a lot of problems as well. The English, as everyone knows, enjoy eating fish and chips. But if you ask for chips in America you will get thin slices of potato fried in oil in a bag, which we call crisps. To get (British) chips in the United States you should ask for fries (or French fries).Our biscuits are called cookies in America, and what we call jam (preserved fruit you put on bread) is jelly in the US. (Our ‘jelly’ is American jello – a wobbly dessert often served at children’s parties).

Drive my car (or automobile)
Americans have two words for a car: the word ‘car’ itself (which we use) and the rather grand-sounding automobile which is hardly ever used here. (An old-fashioned word for car in Britain is motor-car, but no American would use this). If you want to look at the engine of the car you need to open the bonnet (at the front); an American opens the hood. At the back there is the boot (English) or the trunk (American) where you put your luggage. And if you want to go anywhere you need to put petrol in your car here in Britain, while “over there” in the States you need gas (or gasoline).

The first thing to note about buildings in the US and the UK is that American buildings are one floor shorter than British ones. (Or to be more precise, our ground floor is their first floor, our first floor is their second floor, etc). English people who live in the city usually have a flat; the equivalent in the States is an apartment. To reach your flat / apartment you might climb the stairs – but it’s quicker if you take the lift (GB) or the elevator (US). Oh – and if you need to “answer the call of nature”, ask your host for the toilet (UK) or the bathroom (US). (This can be quite confusing for Brits, as it sometimes sounds like their American guests want to take a bath. It gets even more confusing when Americans ask for the rest room – which is just another way of avoiding saying the word ‘toilet’, which many Americans find very embarrassing).

Just seen or just saw?
Most of the differences between British and American English are differences of vocabulary. There are, however, some small but important grammatical differences as well. The main one is that while an English person would say, “I have just seen him” (present perfect), an American can say, “I just saw him” (past simple). (If you say this in a British English class, your teacher will probably correct you – because we don’t use the past simple with words like just and already – we use the present perfect.

How do you spell that?
There are also some important spelling differences. Some nouns that end in –our in British English (e.g. colour, honour, humour, labour, etc) lose the ‘u’ in American English: color, honor, humor, labor. Travelling in Britain is traveling (with one ‘l’) in America. You will also find that some verbs ending in –ise in British English (e.g. specialise) nearly always end in –ize in American English (specialize). (Although you can spell specialize with a ‘z’ in British English as well).

A game of two halves
Both Britons and Americans have a game called football. Our game (played by nearly every country in the world) uses a round ball and you kick the ball into a net. In America this is called soccer. American football is more like rugby, with an oval-shaped ball that you can touch with your hand. While rugby has yet to make any impact in America (probably because American football is so well-established), soccer is becoming increasingly popular (especially since David Beckham joined LA Galaxy). Soccer in America is seen mainly as a game for children (who are often taken to matches by soccer moms – middle class women with children). A significant cultural difference between our two countries is that the concept of the football hooligan doesn’t yet exist in the US.

Global language
As you can see, there are quite a few differences between British and American English – and with more new words being added to the language almost every day, the list of differences keeps growing. Of course, British English is like every other language in the world since many American English expressions (e.g. coffee-shop rather than cafĂ©, and movie as an alternative to the more British film) are becoming standardised in the language. (Or should that be ’standardized’?)

© Robert Dennis 2007


  1. I really enjoyed your article. If I could add further comment and confusion to the English dilemma, I would invite people across the American border to Canada, where we have, in many ways, held onto our British language form, such as spelling (colour, neighbour, honour, etc. And yet we have been influenced by our 'neighbours' over the border when it comes to grammar and food words. In reference to your grammar example, Canadians would accept both "just seen" and "just saw".

    Once again, I truly enjoyed your article. I, for one as a Canadian ESL teacher in Sao Paulo, Brazil, have been taking note of the language commonalities and differences shared across the 3 English speaking countries. Your article, if you permit, would come in handy. Thanks for sharing,

    Gordon Bagshaw

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