This is one of a series of articles about the differences between American English and British English, which, for the purposes of these articles, are defined as follows:
- American English (AmE) is the form of English used in the United States. It includes all English dialects used within the United States of America.
- British English (BrE) is the form of English used in the United Kingdom. It includes all English dialects used within the United Kingdom.
Written forms of American English are fairly well standardized across the United States and in the overwhelming majority of their grammatical forms they are in general agreement with standard written British English. An unofficial standard for spoken American English has developed because of the mass media and geographic and social mobility. This standard is generally called a General American or Standard Midwestern accent and dialect and can typically be heard from network newscasters, although local newscasters tend toward more parochial forms of speech. Despite this unofficial standard regional variations of American English have not only persisted but have actually intensified, according to William Labov.
Regional dialects in the United States typically reflect the elements of the language of the main immigrant groups in any particular region of the country, especially in terms of pronunciation and vernacular vocabulary. Scholars have mapped at least four major regional variations of spoken American English: Northern (really north-eastern), Southern, Midland, and Western (Labov, Ash, & Boberg, 2006). After the American Civil War, the settlement of the western territories by migrants from the east led to dialect mixing and levelling, so that regional dialects are most strongly differentiated in the eastern parts of the country that were settled earlier. Localized dialects also exist with quite distinct variations, such as in Southern Appalachia and New York City.
British English also has a reasonable degree of uniformity in its formal written form. The spoken forms though vary considerably, reflecting a long history of dialect development amid isolated populations. Dialects and accents vary not only between the countries in the United Kingdom, England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, but also within these individual countries.
There are also differences in the English spoken by different socio-economic groups in any particular region. Received Pronunciation (RP), which is "the educated spoken English of south-east England", has traditionally been regarded as "proper English"; this is also referred to as BBC English or the Queen's English. The BBC and other broadcasters now intentionally use a mix of presenters with a variety of British accents and dialects, and the concept of "proper English" is now far less prevalent.
British and American English are the reference norms for English as spoken, written, and taught in the rest of the world. For instance, the English-speaking members of the Commonwealth often closely follow British English forms while many new American English forms quickly become familiar outside of the United States. Although the dialects of English used in the former British Empire are often, to various extents, based on standard British English, most of the countries concerned have developed their own unique dialects, particularly with respect to pronunciation, idioms, and vocabulary; chief among them are Canadian English and Australian English, which rank third and fourth in number of native speakers.
The English language
was first introduced to the Americas
by British colonization
, beginning in the early 17th century. Similarly, the language spread to numerous other parts of the world as a result of British trade and colonization elsewhere and the spread of the former British Empire
, which, by 1921, held sway over a population of about 470–570 million people: approximately a quarter of the world's population at that time.
Over the past 400 years, the form of the language used in the Americas—especially in the United States—and that used in the United Kingdom and the British Islands have diverged in many ways, leading to the dialects now commonly referred to as American English and British English. Differences between the two include pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary (lexis), spelling, punctuation, idioms, formatting of dates and numbers, and so on, although the differences in written and most spoken grammar structure tend to be much more minor than those of other aspects of the language in terms of mutual intelligibility. A small number of words have completely different meanings between the two dialects or are even unknown or not used in one of the dialects. One particular contribution towards formalizing these differences came from Noah Webster, who wrote the first American dictionary (published 1828) with the intention of showing that people in the United States spoke a different dialect from Britain.
This divergence between American English and British English once caused George Bernard Shaw to say that the United States and United Kingdom are "two countries divided by a common language"; a similar comment is ascribed to Winston Churchill. Likewise, Oscar Wilde wrote, "We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, the language." (The Canterville Ghost, 1888) Henry Sweet predicted in 1877 that within a century, American English, Australian English and British English would be mutually unintelligible. It may be the case that increased worldwide communication through radio, television, the Internet, and globalization has reduced the tendency to regional variation. This can result either in some variations becoming extinct (for instance, the wireless, superseded by the radio) or in the acceptance of wide variations as "perfectly good English" everywhere. Often at the core of the dialect though, the idiosyncrasies remain.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that although spoken American and British English are generally mutually intelligible, there are enough differences to cause occasional misunderstandings or at times embarrassment for example, some words that are quite innocent in one dialect may be considered vulgar in the other.
Formal and notional agreement
In BrE, collective nouns
can take either singular (formal agreement
) or plural (notional agreement
) verb forms, according to whether the emphasis is, respectively, on the body as a whole or on the individual members; compare a committee was appointed...
with the committee were unable to agree...
. Compare also the following lines of Elvis Costello
's song "Oliver's Army": Oliver's Army are on their way / Oliver's Army is here to stay
. Some of these nouns, for example staff
, actually combine with plural verbs most of the time.
In AmE, collective nouns are usually singular in construction: the committee was unable to agree... AmE however may use plural pronouns in agreement with collective nouns: the team takes their seats, rather than the team takes its seats. The rule of thumb is that a group acting as a unit is considered singular and a group of "individuals acting separately" is considered plural. However, such a sentence would most likely be recast as the team members take their seats. Despite exceptions such as usage in the New York Times, the names of sports teams are usually treated as plurals even if the form of the name is singular.
The difference occurs for all nouns of multitude, both general terms such as team and company and proper nouns (for example, where a place name is used to refer to a sports team). For instance,
BrE: The Clash are a well-known band; AmE: The Clash is a well-known band.
BrE: New York are the champions; AmE: New York is the champion.
Proper nouns that are plural in form take a plural verb in both AmE and BrE; for example, The Beatles are a well-known band; The Giants are the champions.
- The past tense and past participle of the verbs learn, spoil, spell (only in the word-related sense), burn, dream, smell, spill, leap, and others, can be either irregular (learnt, spoilt, etc.) or regular (learned, spoiled, etc.). In BrE, the irregular and regular forms are current; in some cases (smelt, leapt) there is a strong tendency towards the irregular forms (especially by speakers using Received Pronunciation); in other cases (dreamed, leaned, learned) the regular forms are somewhat more common. In AmE, the irregular forms are never or rarely used (except for burnt and leapt).
Nonetheless, as with other usages considered nowadays to be typically British, the t endings are often found in older American texts. However, usage may vary when the past participles are actually adjectives, as in burnt toast. (Note that the two-syllable form learnèd /'lɜːnɪd/, usually written simply as learned, is still used as an adjective to mean "educated", or to refer to academic institutions, in both BrE and AmE.) Finally, the past tense and past participle of dwell and kneel are more commonly dwelt and knelt on both sides of the Atlantic, although dwelled and kneeled are widely used in the US (but not in the UK).
- Lit as the past tense of light is much more common than lighted in the UK; the regular form enjoys more use in the US, although it is somewhat less common than lit. By contrast, fit as the past tense of fit is much more used in AmE than BrE, which generally favors fitted.
- The past tense of spit "expectorate" is spat in BrE, spit or spat in AmE.
- The past participle of saw is normally sawn in BrE and sawed in AmE (as in sawn-off/sawed-off shotgun).
- The past participle gotten is rarely used in modern BrE (although it is used in some dialects), which generally uses got, except in old expressions such as ill-gotten gains. 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." In AmE, gotten emphasizes the action of acquiring and got tends to indicate simple possession (for example, Have you gotten it? versus Have you got it?). Gotten is also typically used in AmE as the past participle for phrasal verbs using get, such as get off, get on, get into, get up, and get around: If you hadn't gotten up so late, you might not have gotten into this mess. Interestingly, AmE, but not BrE, has forgot as a less common alternative to forgotten for the past participle of forget.
- In BrE, the past participle proved is strongly preferred to proven; in AmE, proven is now about as common as proved. (Both dialects use proven as an adjective, and in formulas such as not proven).
- AmE further allows other irregular verbs, such as dive (dove) or sneak (snuck), and often mixes the preterit and past participle forms (spring–sprang, US also sprung–sprung), sometimes forcing verbs such as shrink (shrank–shrunk) to have a further form, thus shrunk–shrunken. These uses are often considered nonstandard; the AP Stylebook in AmE treats some irregular verbs as colloquialisms, insisting on the regular forms for the past tense of dive, plead and sneak. Dove and snuck are usually considered nonstandard in Britain, although dove exists in some British dialects and snuck is occasionally found in British speech.
- By extension of the irregular verb pattern, verbs with irregular preterits in some variants of colloquial AmE also have a separate past participle, for example, "to buy": past tense bought spawns boughten. Such formations are highly irregular from speaker to speaker, or even within idiolects. This phenomenon is found chiefly in the northern US and other areas where immigrants of German descent are predominant, and may have developed as a result of German influence (though in German, both are regular past participle forms, cf. kaufen, kaufte, gekauft (bought) and lesen, las, gelesen (read)). Even in areas where the feature predominates, however, it has not gained widespread acceptance as "standard" usage.
Use of tenses
- BrE uses the present perfect tense to talk about an event in the recent past and with the words already, just, and yet. In American usage, these meanings can be expressed with the present perfect (to express a fact) or the simple past (to imply an expectation). This American style has become widespread only in the past 20 to 30 years; the British style is still in common use as well.
- "I've just arrived home." / "I just arrived home."
- "I've already eaten." / "I already ate."
(Recently the American use of just with simple past has made inroads into BrE, most visibly in advertising slogans and headlines such as "Cable broadband just got faster".)
- Similarly, AmE occasionally replaces the pluperfect with the preterite. Also, US spoken usage sometimes, especially with the contracted forms, substitutes the conditional for the pluperfect (If I would have cooked the pie we could have had it for lunch), but this tends to be avoided in writing.
- In BrE, have got or have can be used for possession and have got to and have to can be used for the modal of necessity. The forms that include ‘‘got’’ are usually used in informal contexts and the forms without got in contexts that are more formal. In American speech the form without got is used more than in the UK, although the form with got is often used for emphasis.
Colloquial AmE informally uses got as a verb for these meanings – for example, I got two cars, I got to go.
- The subjunctive mood (morphologically identical with the bare infinitive) is regularly used in AmE in mandative clauses (as in They suggested that he apply for the job). In BrE, this usage declined in the 20th century, in favor of constructions such as They suggested that he should apply for the job (or even, more ambiguously, They suggested that he applied for the job). Apparently, however, the mandative subjunctive has recently started to come back into use in BrE.
- Shall (as opposed to will) is more commonly used by the British than by Americans.. Shan't is seldom used in AmE (almost invariably replaced by won't or am not going to), and very much less so amongst Britons. American grammar also tends to ignore some traditional distinctions between should and would; however, expressions like I should be happy are rather formal even in BrE.
- The periphrastic future (be going to) is about twice as frequent in AmE as in BrE.
The following verbs show differences in transitivity between BrE and AmE.
- agree: Transitive or intransitive in BrE, usually intransitive in AmE (agree a contract/agree to or on a contract). However, in formal AmE legal writing one often sees constructions like as may be agreed between the parties (rather than as may be agreed upon between the parties).
- appeal (as a decision): Usually intransitive in BrE (used with against) and transitive in AmE (appeal against the decision to the Court/appeal the decision to the Court).
- catch up ("to reach and overtake"): Transitive or intransitive in BrE, strictly intransitive in AmE (to catch sb up/to catch up with sb). A transitive form does exist in AmE, but has a different meaning: to catch sb up means that the subject will help the object catch up, rather the opposite of the BrE transitive meaning. In other words, the subject acts more like an indirect object.
- cater ("to provide food and service"): Intransitive in BrE, transitive in AmE (to cater for a banquet/to cater a banquet).
- claim: Sometimes intransitive in BrE (used with for), strictly transitive in AmE.
- meet: AmE uses intransitively meet followed by with to mean "to have a meeting with", as for business purposes (Yesterday we met with the CEO), and reserves transitive meet for the meanings "to be introduced to" (I want you to meet the CEO; she is such a fine lady), "to come together with (someone, somewhere)" (Meet the CEO at the train station), and "to have a casual encounter with". BrE uses transitive meet also to mean "to have a meeting with"; the construction meet with, which actually dates back to Middle English, appears to be coming back into use in Britain, despite some commentators who preferred to avoid confusion with meet with meaning "receive, undergo" (the proposal was met with disapproval). The construction meet up with (as in to meet up with someone), which originated in the US, has long been standard in both dialects.
- provide: Strictly monotransitive in BrE, monotransitive or ditransitive in AmE (provide sb with sth/provide sb sth).
- protest: In sense "oppose", intransitive in BrE, transitive in AmE (The workers protested the decision/The workers protested against the decision). The intransitive protest against in AmE means, "to hold or participate in a demonstration against". The older sense "proclaim" is always transitive (protest one's innocence).
- write: In BrE, the indirect object of this verb usually requires the preposition to, for example, I'll write to my MP or I'll write to her (although it is not required in some situations, for example when an indirect object pronoun comes before a direct object noun, for example, I'll write her a letter). In AmE, write can be used monotransitively (I'll write my congressman; I'll write him).
- The verbs prevent and stop can be found in two different constructions: "prevent/stop someone from doing something" and "prevent/stop someone doing something". The latter is well established in BrE, but not in AmE.
- Some verbs can take either a to+infinitive construction or a gerund construction (e.g., to start to do something/doing something). For example, the gerund is more common:
- In AmE than BrE, with start, begin, omit, enjoy;
- In BrE than AmE, with love, like, intend.
Presence or absence of syntactic elements
- Where a statement of intention involves two separate activities, it is acceptable for speakers of AmE to use to go plus bare infinitive. Speakers of BrE would instead use to go and plus bare infinitive. Thus, where a speaker of AmE might say I'll go take a bath, BrE speakers would say I'll go and have a bath. (Both can also use the form to go to instead to suggest that the action may fail, as in He went to take/have a bath, but the bath was full of children.) Similarly, to come plus bare infinitive is acceptable to speakers of AmE, where speakers of BrE would instead use to come and plus bare infinitive. Thus, where a speaker of AmE might say come see what I bought, BrE speakers would say come and see what I've bought (notice the present perfect tense: a common British preference).
- Use of prepositions before days denoted by a single word. Where British people would say She resigned on Thursday, Americans often say She resigned Thursday, but both forms are common in American usage. Occasionally, the preposition is also absent when referring to months: I'll be here December (although this usage is generally limited to colloquial speech).
- In the UK, from is used with single dates and times more often than in the United States. Where British speakers and writers may say the new museum will be open from Tuesday, Americans most likely say the new museum will be open starting Tuesday. (This difference does not apply to phrases of the pattern from A to B, which are used in both BrE and AmE.) A variation or alternative of this is the mostly American the play opens Tuesday and the mostly British the play opens on Tuesday.
- American legislators and lawyers always use the preposition of between the name of a legislative act and the year it was passed, while their British colleagues do not. Compare Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 to Disability Discrimination Act 1995.
The definite article
- A few 'institutional' nouns take no definite article when a certain role is implied: for example, at sea (as a sailor), in prison (as a convict), and at/in college (for students). Among this group, BrE has in hospital (as a patient) and at university (as a student), where AmE requires in the hospital and at the university. (When the implied roles of patient or student do not apply, the definite article is used in both dialects.)
- Likewise, BrE distinguishes in future ("from now on") from in the future ("at some future time"); AmE uses in the future for both senses.
- AmE omits, and BrE requires, the definite article in a few standard expressions such as tell (the) time.
- In BrE, numbered highways usually take the definite article (for example "the M25", "the A14") while in America they usually do not ("I-495", "Route 66"). Southern California is an exception, where "the 5" or "the 405" are the standard. A similar pattern is followed for named roads, but in America, there are local variations and older American highways tend to follow the British pattern ("the Boston Post Road").
- AmE distinguishes in back of [behind] from in the back of; the former is unknown in the UK and liable to misinterpretation as the latter. Both, however, distinguish in front of from in the front of.
- Dates usually include a definite article in UK spoken English, such as "the eleventh of July", or "July the eleventh", while American speakers say "July eleventh".
Prepositions and adverbs
- In the United States, the word through can mean "up to and including" as in Monday through Friday. In the UK Monday to Friday, or Monday to Friday inclusive is used instead; Monday through to Friday is also sometimes used. (In some parts of Northern England the term while can be used in the same way, as in Monday while Friday, whereas in Northern Ireland Monday till Friday would be more natural.)
- British athletes play in a team; American athletes play on a team. (Both may play for a particular team.)
- In AmE, the use of the function word out as a preposition in out the door and out the window is standard to mean "out through". For example, in AmE, one jumps "out of a boat" by jumping "out the porthole," and it would be incorrect in standard AmE to "jump out the boat" or climb "out of the porthole." In BrE, out of is preferred in writing for both meanings, but out is common in speech. Several other uses of out of are peculiarly British (out of all recognition, out of the team; cf. above); all of this notwithstanding, out of is overall more frequent in AmE than in BrE (about four times as frequent, according to Algeo).
- The word heat meaning "mating season" is used with on in the UK and with in in the US.
- The intransitive verb affiliate can take either with or to in BrE, but only with in AmE.
- The verb enrol(l) usually takes on in BrE and in in AmE (as in "to enrol(l) on/in a course") and the on/in difference is used when enrolled is dropped (as in "I am (enrolled) on the course that studies....").
- In AmE, one always speaks of the street on which an address is located, whereas in BrE in can also be used in some contexts. In suggests an address on a city street, so a service station (or a tourist attraction or indeed a village) would always be on a major road, but a department store might be in Oxford Street. Moreover, if a particular place on the street is specified then the preposition used is whichever is idiomatic to the place, thus "at the end of Churchill Road", and thus also the lyric "our house, in the middle of our street" from "Our House" by the British band Madness, whose intended meaning is "halfway along our street" but is strange to many Americans—in AmE, the lyric suggests that the house is literally in the middle of the roadway
- BrE favours the preposition at with weekend ("at (the) weekend(s)"); the constructions on, over, and during (the) weekend(s) are found in both varieties but are all more common in AmE than BrE. See also Word derivation and compounds.
- Adding at to the end of a question requesting a location is common in AmE (especially in the Midwest and especially among the less well spoken), for example, "where are you at?", but would be considered superfluous in BrE.
- After talk American can use the preposition with but British always uses to (that is, I'll talk with Dave / I'll talk to Dave). The American form is sometimes seen as more politically correct in British organisations, inducing the ideal of discussing (with), as opposed to lecturing (to). This is, of course, unless talk is being used as a noun, for example: "I'll have a talk with him" in which case this is acceptable in both BrE and AmE.
- In both dialects, from is the preposition prescribed for use after the word different: American English is different from British English in several respects. However, different than is also commonly heard in the US, and is often considered standard when followed by a clause (American English is different than it used to be), whereas different to is the alternative common in BrE.
- It is common in BrE to say opposite to as an alternative to opposite of, the only form normally found in AmE. The use of opposite as a preposition (opposite the post office) has long been established in both dialects, but appears to be more common in British usage.
- The noun opportunity can be followed by a verb in two different ways: opportunity plus to-infinitive ("the opportunity to do something") or opportunity plus of plus gerund ("the opportunity of doing something"). The first construction is the most common in both dialects, but the second has almost disappeared in AmE and is often regarded as a Briticism.
- Both British and Americans may say (for example) that a river is named after a state, but "named for a state" would rightly be regarded as an Americanism.
- BrE sometimes uses to with near (we live near to the university), while AmE avoids the preposition in most usages dealing with literal, physical proximity (we live near the university), although the to reappears in AmE when near takes the comparative or superlative form, as in she lives nearer/nearest to the deranged axe murderer's house.
- In BrE, one calls (or rings) someone on his or her telephone number; in AmE, one calls someone at his or her telephone number.
- When referring to the constituency of a US Senator the preposition "from" is usually used: "Senator from New York," whereas British MPs are "for" their constituency: "MP for East Cleveland."
- In AmE, the phrases aside from and apart from are used about equally; in BrE, apart from is far more common.
- In the US, forms are usually but not invariably filled out, but in Britain they can also be filled in. However, in reference to individual parts of a form, Americans may also use in (fill in the blanks). In AmE the direction fill it all in (referring to the form as a collection of blanks, perhaps) is as common as fill it all out.
- Britons facing extortionate prices may have no option but to fork out, whereas Americans are more likely to fork (it) over or sometimes up; both usages are however found in both dialects.
- In both countries, thugs will beat up their victim; AmE also allows beat on (as both would for an inanimate object, such as a drum) or beat up on, which are often considered slang.
- When an outdoor event is postponed or interrupted by rain, it is rained off in the UK and rained out in the US.
Miscellaneous grammatical differences
- In AmE, some prescriptionists feel that which should not be used as an antecedent in restrictive relative clauses. According to The Elements of Style (p. 59), "that is the defining, or restrictive pronoun, which the nondefining, or nonrestrictive." This distinction was endorsed by Fowler's Modern English Usage, but the use of which as a restrictive pronoun is common in great literature produced on both sides of the Atlantic.
- 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). One exception present in BrE is the Fleet River, which is rarely called the River Fleet by Londoners outside of official documentation. Exceptions in the US are the River Rouge and the River Raisin, both in Michigan and named by the French. This convention is mixed, however, in some Commonwealth nations, where both arrangements are often seen.
- In BrE the word sat is often colloquially 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-hand side of the church. This construction is not often heard outside the UK. In the 1960s, its use would mark a speaker as coming from the north of England but by the turn of the 21st century this form had spread to the south. Its use often conveys lighthearted informality, as many speakers intentionally use an ungrammatical construction they would probably not use in formal written English. This colloquial usage is widely understood by British speakers. Similarly stood can be used instead of standing. To an American, these usages are passive, and may imply that the subject had been involuntarily forced to sit or stand, or directed to hold that location.
- In most areas of the United States, the word with is also used as an adverb: I'll come with instead of I'll come along. However, in some British Dialects, come with is used as an abbreviation of come with me, as in I'm going to the office – come with. This particular variant is also used by speakers in Minnesota and parts of the adjoining states: Want to come with? This is another expression possibly arising from German (kommst du mit?) in parts of the United States with high concentrations of German American populations. It is similar to South African English, where the expression comes from Dutch, and is used by Afrikaans speakers when speaking English.
- The word also is used at the end of a sentence in AmE (just as as well and too are in both dialects), but not so commonly in BrE, although it is encountered in Northern Ireland. Additionally, sentence ending as well is more formal in AmE than in BrE.
- Before some words beginning with h with the first syllable unstressed, such as hallucination, hilarious, historic(al), horrendous, and horrific, some (but not most) British writers prefer to use an over a (an historical event, etc.). American writers normally use a, although there are occasional uses of an historic(al) in AmE. Unlike BrE, AmE typically uses an before herb, since the h in this word is silent for most Americans.
Word derivation and compounds
- Directional suffix -ward(s): British forwards, towards, rightwards, etc.; American forward, toward, rightward. In both dialects, distribution varies somewhat: afterwards, towards, and backwards are not unusual in America; while in Britain forward is common, and standard in phrasal verbs like look forward to. The forms with -s may be used as adverbs (or preposition towards), but rarely as adjectives: in Britain as in America, one says "an upward motion". The Oxford English Dictionary in 1897 suggested a semantic distinction for adverbs, with -wards having a more definite directional sense than -ward; subsequent authorities such as Fowler have disputed this contention.
- AmE freely adds the suffix -s to day, night, evening, weekend, Monday, etc. to form adverbs denoting repeated or customary action: I used to stay out evenings; the library is closed Saturdays. This usage has its roots in Old English, but many of these constructions are now regarded as American (for example, the OED labels nights "now chiefly N. Amer. colloq."; but to work nights is standard in BrE).
- In BrE, the agentive -er suffix is commonly attached to football (also cricket; often netball; occasionally basketball). AmE usually uses football player. Where the sport's name is usable as a verb, the suffixation is standard in both dialects: for example, golfer, bowler (in Ten-pin bowling and in Lawn Bowls), and shooter. AmE appears to sometimes use the BrE form in baller as slang for a basketball player, as in the video game NBA Ballers. However, this is derived from slang use of to ball as a verb meaning to play a basketball.
- English writers everywhere occasionally (and from time immemorial) make new compound words from common phrases; for example, health care is now being replaced by healthcare on both sides of the Atlantic. However, AmE has made certain words in this fashion that are still treated as phrases in BrE.
- In compound nouns of the form <noun>, sometimes AmE favours the bare infinitive where BrE favors the gerund. Examples include (AmE first): jump rope/skipping rope; racecar/racing car; rowboat/rowing boat; sailboat/sailing boat; file cabinet/filing cabinet; dial tone/dialling tone.
- More generally, AmE has a tendency to drop inflectional suffixes, thus favoring clipped forms: compare cookbook vs. cookery book; Smith, age 40 vs. Smith, aged 40; skim milk vs. skimmed milk; dollhouse vs. doll's house; barbershop vs. barber's shop. This has recently been extended to appear on professionally printed commercial signage and some boxes themselves (not mere greengrocers' chalkboards): can vegetables and mash potatoes appear in the U.S.
- Singular attributives in one country may be plural in the other, and vice versa. For example, the UK has a drugs problem while the United States has a drug problem (although the singular usage is also commonly heard in the UK); Americans read the sports section of a newspaper, while the British are more likely to read the sport section. However, BrE maths is singular, just as AmE math is: both are abbreviations of mathematics.
Most of the differences in lexis or vocabulary between British and American English are in connection with concepts originating from the 19th century to the mid 20th century, when new words were coined independently. Almost the entire vocabularies of the car/automobile
/railroad industries (see Rail terminology
) are different between the UK and US, 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.
While the use of American expressions in the UK is often noted, movement in the opposite direction is less common. But such words as book
(meaning "to reserve") and roundabout
(otherwise called a traffic circle
) are clearly current in AmE, although often regarded as British. Some other "Briticisms", such as go missing
(as an alternative to disappear
), or run-up
(for "period preceding an event") are increasingly used in AmE, and a few (for instance, early on
) are now completely standard.
Words mainly used in a single form
Though the influence of cross-culture media has done much to familiarize BrE and AmE speakers with each other's regional words and terms, many words are still recognized as part of a single form of English. Though the use of a British word would be acceptable in AmE (and vice versa), most listeners would recognize the word as coming from the other form of English, and treat it much the same as a word borrowed from any other language. For instance, an American using the word chap or mate to refer to a friend would be heard in much the same way as an American using the Spanish word amigo.
Words mainly used in British English
- See also: List of British words not widely used in the United States
Some speakers of AmE are aware of some BrE terms, such as lorry, queue, chap, bloke, loo, and shag, although they would not generally use them, or may be confused as to whether someone intends the American or British meaning (such as for biscuit). They will be able to guess approximately what some others, such as “driving licence,” mean. However, use of many other British words such as naff (unstylish, though commonly used to mean "not very good"), risks rendering a sentence incomprehensible to most Americans.
Words mainly used in American English
- See also: List of American words not widely used in the United Kingdom
Speakers of BrE are likely to understand most AmE terms, examples such as sidewalk, gas (gasoline/petrol), counterclockwise or elevator (lift), without any problem although they would generally not use them. Terms which are heard less frequently in the UK, such as semi (articulated lorry), stroller (pram/pushchair) or kitty-corner/catty-corner (diagonally opposite) are highly unlikely to be understood by most BrE speakers.
Words with different meanings
- See: List of words having different meanings in British and American English
Words such as bill (AmE "paper money", BrE and AmE "invoice") and biscuit (AmE: BrE's "scone", BrE: AmE's "cookie") are used regularly in both AmE and BrE, but mean different things in each form. As chronicled by Winston Churchill, the opposite meanings of the verb to table created a misunderstanding during a meeting of the Allied forces; in BrE to table an item on an agenda means to open it up for discussion, whereas in AmE, it means to remove it from discussion.
- In the UK, the word whilst may be used as a conjunction (as an alternative to while, especially prevalent in some dialects), but while is used as a noun. In AmE only while is used in both contexts. For example, I will be a while versus whilst/while you were out, your friend called. To Americans the word whilst, in any context, seems very archaic or pretentious or both. In some regions of England, the word while is used to mean "until", so whilst may be used in spoken English to avoid confusion.
- In the UK, generally the term fall meaning "autumn" is obsolete. Although found often from Elizabethan to Victorian literature, continued understanding of the word is usually ascribed to its continued use in America.
- In the UK, the term period for a full stop is now obsolete. For example, Tony Blair said, "Terrorism is wrong, full stop", whereas in AmE, "Terrorism is wrong, period.
- Media domination has seen American vocabulary encroaching on British in recent decades, so that (for example) truck is now increasingly heard in the UK instead of lorry, and line is used as well as queue – so that the verb queue up or queue is now sometimes replaced with stand in line.
- See also: Names of numbers in English
When saying or writing out numbers, the British will typically insert an and before the tens and units, as in one hundred and sixty-two or two thousand and three. In America, it is considered correct to drop the and, as in two thousand three; however, this is rarely heard in everyday speech, two thousand and three being much more common.
Some American schools teach students to pronounce decimally written fractions (e.g. .5) as though they were longhand fractions (five tenths), such as five hundred thirteen and seven tenths for 513.7. This formality is often dropped in common speech. It is steadily disappearing in instruction in mathematics that is more advanced and science work as well as in international American schools. In the UK, 513.7 would generally be read five hundred and thirteen point seven, although if it were written 513 , it would be pronounced five hundred and thirteen and seven tenths.
In counting, it is common in both varieties of English to count in hundreds up to 1,900 so 1,200 may be twelve hundred. However, Americans use this pattern for much higher numbers than is the norm in British English, referring to twenty-four hundred where British English would most often use two thousand four hundred. Even below 2,000, Americans are more likely than the British are to read numbers like 1,234 as twelve hundred thirty-four, instead of one thousand two hundred and thirty-four. In BrE, it is also common to use phrases such as three and a half thousand for 3,500, whereas in AmE this construction is almost never used for numbers under a million.
In the case of years, however, twelve thirty-four would be the norm on both sides of the Atlantic for the year 1234. The year 2000 and years beyond it are read as two thousand, two thousand (and) one and the like by both British and American speakers. For years after 2009, they are frequently said twenty ten, twenty twelve etc. by the BBC.
For the house number (or bus number, etc.) 272, British people tend to say two seven two while Americans tend to say two seventy-two.
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 the UK, until the latter part of the 20th century, it was used to mean one million million (1,000,000,000,000). It is believed that Margaret Thatcher started the change on advice from the Bank of England. The British prime minister, Harold Wilson, in 1974, told the House of Commons that UK government statistics would now use the short scale; followed by the Chancellor, Denis Healey, in 1975, that the treasury would now adopt the US billion version. Although historically such numbers were not often required outside of mathematical and scientific contexts. One thousand million was sometimes described as a milliard, the definition adopted by most other European languages. However, the "American" version has since been adopted for all published writing, and the word milliard is obsolete in English, as are billiard (but not billiards, the game), trilliard and so on. However, the term yard, derived from milliard, is still used in the financial markets on both sides of the Atlantic to mean "one thousand million". All major British publications and broadcasters, including the BBC, which long used thousand million to avoid ambiguity, now use billion to mean thousand million.
Many people have no direct experience with manipulating numbers this large, and many non-American readers may interpret billion as 1012 (even if they are young enough to have been taught otherwise at school); also, usage of the "long" billion is standard in some non-English speaking countries. For these reasons, defining the word may be advisable when writing for the public. See long and short scales for a more detailed discussion of the evolution of these terms in English and other languages.
When referring to the numeral 0, British people would normally use nought, oh, zero or nil in instances such as sports scores and voting results. Americans use the term zero most frequently; oh is also often used (though never when the quantity in question is nothing), and occasionally slang terms such as zilch or zip. 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, for example, when reading a phone or account number aloud, is nearly always pronounced oh in both language varieties for the sake of convenience. In the internet age, the use of the term oh can cause certain inconveniences when one is referencing an email address, causing confusion as to whether the character in question is a zero or the letter O.
When reading numbers in a sequence, such as a telephone or serial number, British people will usually use the terms double or triple/treble followed by the repeated number. Hence, 007 is double oh seven. Exceptions are the emergency telephone number 999, which is always nine nine nine, and the apocalyptic "Number of the Beast", which is always six six six. The directory inquiries prefix 118 is also one one eight in Britain. In the US, 911 (the US emergency telephone number) is usually read nine one one, while 9/11 (in reference to the September 11, 2001 attacks) is usually read nine eleven.
- Monetary amounts in the range of one to two major currency units are often spoken differently. In AmE one may say a dollar fifty or a pound eighty, whereas in BrE these amounts would be expressed one dollar fifty and one pound eighty. For amounts over a dollar, an American will generally either drop denominations or give both dollars and cents, as in two-twenty or two dollars and twenty cents for $2.20. An American would not say two dollars twenty. On the other hand, in BrE, two pounds twenty would be the most common form. It is more common to hear a British-English speaker say one thousand two hundred dollars than a thousand and two hundred dollars, although the latter construct is common in AmE. The term twelve hundred dollars, popular in AmE, is frequently used in BrE but only for exact multiples of 100 up to 1900. Speakers of BrE very rarely hear amounts over 1900 expressed in hundreds, for example twenty-three hundred.
- The BrE slang term quid is roughly equivalent to the AmE buck and both are often used in the two respective dialects for round amounts, as in fifty quid for £50 and twenty bucks for $20. A hundred and fifty grand in either dialect could refer to £150,000 or $150,000 depending on context.
- A user of AmE may hand-write the mixed monetary amount $3.24 as $324 or $324 (often seen for extra clarity on a check); BrE users will always write this as £3.24, £3·24 or, for extra clarity on a cheque, as £3—24. In all cases there may or may not be a space after the currency symbol, or the currency symbols may be omitted depending on context.
- In order to make explicit the amount in words on a check, Americans write three and (using this solidus construction or with a horizontal division line): they do not need to write the word dollars as it is usually already printed on the check. UK residents, on a cheque, would write three pounds and 24 pence, three pounds ‒ 24 or three pounds ‒ 24p, since the currency unit is not preprinted. To make unauthorized amendment difficult, it is useful to have an expression terminator even when a whole number of dollars/pounds is in use: thus Americans would write three and or three and on a three-dollar check (so that it cannot easily be changed to, for example, three million) and UK residents would write three pounds only, or three pounds exactly.
- The term pound sign in BrE always refers to the currency symbol £, whereas in AmE pound sign means the number sign, which the British call the hash symbol, #. (The British telephone company BT, in the 1960s–1990s, called this gate on telephone keypads.)
- In BrE, the plural of the word pound is often considered pound as opposed to pounds. For example, three pound forty and twenty pound a week are both legitimate British English. This does not apply to other currencies, however, so that the same speaker would most likely say three dollars forty, twenty dollars a week in similar contexts.
- In BrE, the use of p instead of pence is common in spoken usage. Each of the following have equal legitimacy: three pounds, twelve p, three pounds and twelve p, three pounds, twelve pence, three pounds and twelve pence, as well as just eight p or eight pence.
- AmE uses words like nickel, dime, and quarter for small coins. In BrE, the usual usage is 10-pence piece or 10p piece for any coin below £1, with piece sometimes omitted, but pound coin and two-pound coin. BrE did have specific words for a number of coins before decimalisation.
Fifteen minutes after the hour is called quarter past in British usage and a quarter after or, less commonly, a quarter past in American usage. Fifteen minutes before the hour is usually called quarter to in British usage and a quarter of, a quarter to or a quarter till in American usage; the form a quarter to is associated with parts of the Northern United States, while a quarter till is found chiefly in the Appalachian region. Thirty minutes after the hour is commonly called half past in both BrE and AmE. In informal British speech, the preposition is sometimes omitted, so that 5:30 may be referred to as half five (by contrast, in the German halb fünf is half-an-hour before five, i.e. 4:30). Half after used to be more common in the US. The AmE formations top of the hour and bottom of the hour are not commonly used in BrE. Forms like eleven forty are common in both dialects. See below for variation in written forms.
Selected lexical differences
Levels of buildings
There are also variations in floor numbering
between the US and UK. In most countries, including the UK, the "first floor" is one above the entrance level while the entrance level is the "ground floor". On lift (elevator) buttons in the UK the Ground Floor is often denoted by the letter G, or the number 0. Normal American usage labels the entrance level as the "first floor" or the "ground floor", the floor immediately above that is the "second floor".
Figures of speech
Both BrE and AmE use the expression "I couldn't care less" to mean the speaker does not care at all. Speakers of AmE sometimes incorrectly state this as "I could
care less", literally meaning precisely the opposite. Intonation
no longer reflects the originally sarcastic
nature of this variant, which is not idiomatic
in BrE and might be interpreted as anything from nonsense (or sloppiness) to an indication that the speaker does
In both areas, saying, "I don't mind" often means, "I'm not annoyed" (for example, by someone's smoking), while "I don't care" often means, "The matter is trivial or boring". However, in answering a question like "Tea or coffee?", if either alternative is equally acceptable, an American may answer, "I don't care", while a British person may answer, "I don't mind". Either sounds odd to the other.
In BrE, the phrase I can't be arsed (to do something) is a vulgar equivalent to the British or American I can't be bothered (to do something). This can be extremely confusing to Americans, as the Southern British pronunciation of the former sounds similar to I can't be asked..., which sounds either defiantly rude or nonsensical.
Older BrE often uses the exclamation "No fear!" where current AmE has "No way!" An example from Dorothy L. Sayers:
- Q.: Wilt thou be baptized in this faith?
A.: No fear!
- — from A Catechism for Pre- and Post-Christian Anglicans
This usage may confuse users of AmE, who are likely to interpret and even use "No fear!" as enthusiastic willingness to move forward.
A number of English idioms that have essentially the same meaning show lexical differences between the British and the American version; for instance:
||American English |
|not touch something with a bargepole
||not touch something with a ten-foot pole |
|sweep under the carpet
||sweep under the rug |
||knock on wood |
|see the wood for the trees
||see the forest for the trees |
|throw a spanner (in the works)
||throw a (monkey) wrench (in the works) |
also two pennies' worth, two pence worth, two pennyworth,
two penny'th, or (using a different coin) ha'penny'th)
|two cents' worth |
|skeleton in the cupboard
||skeleton in the closet |
|a home from home
||a home away from home |
|blow one's trumpet
||blow (or toot) one's horn |
|a drop in the ocean
||a drop in the bucket |
|storm in a teacup
||tempest in a teapot |
|flogging a dead horse
||beating a dead horse |
|haven't (got) a clue
||don't have a clue or have no clue |
|a new lease of life
||a new lease on life |
|if the cap fits (wear it)
||if the shoe fits (wear it) |
|lie of the land
||lay of the land |
In some cases, the "American" variant is also used in BrE, or vice versa.
In the UK, a student is said to study
, or, at Oxford
, to read
a subject (read
is now more commonly being used in reference to other universities). In the US, a student studies
or majors in
a subject (although concentration
is also used in some US colleges or universities to refer to the major subject of study). To major in
something refers to the student's principal course of study, while to study
may refer to any class being taken. Students may also major
in a subject in the UK as a part of degrees with two subjects, one major and the other minor; this usage is rarely required since examples of such a situation are uncommon in the UK (the majority of degree courses either do not incorporate study outside of a single subject area, or include two subjects on an equal basis).
At the tertiary or university level in BrE, a module is taught by a lecturer (whose job title may nonetheless be professor), while in AmE, a class is generally taught by a professor (at some institutions, professor is reserved for tenure-track faculty with other members of the faculty referred to as lecturers or instructors, more closely corresponding to the BrE usage). At the primary and secondary levels, the term teacher is used instead in both BrE and AmE. The term lecturer, in an educational context, would be perceived in AmE as denoting anyone, professor or special guest, giving an actual lecture before a class.
- "She studied history at Cambridge."
- "She read history at Oxford."
- "She majored in history at Yale."
- "He majored in history at Princeton."
The word course in American use typically refers to the study of a restricted topic (for example, a course in Early Medieval England, a course in Integral Calculus) over a limited period of time (such as a semester or term) and is equivalent to a module at a British university. In the UK, a course of study is likely to refer to a whole program of study, which may extend over several years, and made up of any number of modules.
In the UK, a student is said to sit or take an exam, while in the US, a student takes an exam. The expression he sits for an exam also arises in BrE, but only rarely in AmE; American lawyers-to-be sit for their bar exams, and American master's and doctoral students may sit for their comprehensive exams, but in nearly all other instances, Americans take their exams.
When preparing for an exam, students revise (BrE)/review (AmE) what they have studied; the BrE idiom to revise for has the equivalent to review for in AmE.
Examinations are supervised by invigilators in the UK and proctors (or (exam) supervisors) in the US. In the UK, a teacher sets an exam, while in the US, a teacher writes or gives an exam.
- "I sat my Spanish exam yesterday."
- "I plan to set a difficult exam for my students, but I don't have it ready yet."
- "I took my exams at Yale."
- "I spent the entire day yesterday writing the exam. I'm almost ready to give it to my students."
Another source of confusion is the different usage of the word college. (See a full international discussion of the various meanings at college.) In the US, this refers to a post-high school institution that grants bachelor's degrees, while in the UK it refers primarily to an institution between secondary school and university (normally referred to as a Sixth Form College after the old name in secondary education for Years 12 and 13, the 6th form) where intermediary courses such as A Levels or NVQs can be taken and GCSE courses can be retaken. College may sometimes be used in the UK or in Commonwealth countries as part of the name of a secondary or high school (for example, Dubai College). It should be noted, however, that in the case of Oxford, Cambridge, London and Durham universities, all members are also members of a college which is part of the university, for example, one is a member of St. Peter's College, Oxford and hence the University.
In both the US and UK, college can refer to some division within a university such as the "college of business and economics". Institutions in the US that offer two to four years of post-high school education often have the word college as part of their name, while those offering more advanced degrees are called a university. (There are exceptions, of course: Boston College, Dartmouth College and The College of William and Mary are examples of colleges that offer advanced degrees.) American students who pursue a bachelor's degree (four years of higher education) or an associate degree (two years of higher education) are college students regardless of whether they attend a college or a university and refer to their educational institutions informally as colleges. A student who pursues a master's degree or a doctorate degree in the arts and sciences is in AmE a graduate student; in BrE a postgraduate student although graduate student also sometimes used. Students of advanced professional programs are known by their field (business student, law student, medical student, the last of which is frequently shortened to med student). Some universities also have a residential college system, the details of which may vary from school to school but generally involve common living and dining spaces as well as college-organized activities.
"Professor" has different meanings in BrE and AmE. In BrE, it is the highest academic rank, followed by Reader, Senior Lecturer and Lecturer. In AmE "Professor" refers to academic staff of all ranks, with (Full) Professor (largely equivalent to the UK meaning) followed by Associate Professor and Assistant Professor.
There is additionally a difference between American and British usage in the word school. In British usage "school" by itself refers only to primary (elementary) and secondary (high) schools, and to sixth forms attached to secondary schools if one "goes to school", this type of institution is implied. By contrast, an American student at a university may talk of "going to school" or "being in school". US law students and med students almost universally speak in terms of going to "law school" and "med school", respectively. However, the word is used in BrE in the context of higher education; to describe a division grouping together several related subjects within a university, for example a "School of European Languages" containing departments for each language, and also in the term "art school". It is also the name of some of the constituent colleges of the University of London, e.g. School of Oriental and African Studies, London School of Economics.
Among high school and college students in the United States, the words freshman (or the gender-neutral term frosh or first year), sophomore, junior and senior refer to the first, second, third, and fourth years, respectively. For first-year students, "frosh" is another gender-neutral term that can be used as a qualifier, for example "Frosh class elections". It is important that the context of either high school or college first be established, or else it must be stated directly (that is, She is a high school freshman. He is a college junior.). Many institutions in both countries also use the term first-year as a gender-neutral replacement for freshman, although in the US this is recent usage, formerly referring only to those in the first year as a graduate student. One exception is the University of Virginia; since its founding in 1819, the terms "first-year", "second-year", "third-year", and "fourth-year" have been used to describe undergraduate university students. At the United States military academies, at least those operated directly by the federal government, a different terminology is used, namely "fourth class", "third class", "second class", and "first class" (note that the order of numbering is the reverse of the number of years in attendance). In the UK, first year university students are often called freshers, especially early in the academic year; however, there are no specific names for those in other years, or for school pupils. Graduate and professional students in the United States are known by their year of study (a "second-year medical student" or a "fifth-year doctoral candidate." Law students are often referred to as "1L", "2L", or "3L" rather than "nth-year law students"; similarly medical students are frequently referred to as "M1", "M2", "M3", or "M4").
While anyone in the US who finishes studying at any educational institution by passing relevant examinations is said to graduate and to be a graduate, in the UK only degree and above level students can graduate. Student itself has a wider meaning in AmE, meaning any person of any age studying at any educational institution, whereas in BrE it tends to be used for people studying at a post-secondary educational institution.
In the UK, the US equivalent of a high school is often referred to as a secondary school regardless of whether it is state funded or private. Secondary education in the United States also includes middle school or junior high school, a two or three year transitional school between elementary school and high school.
A public school has opposite meanings in the two countries. In the US this is a government-owned institution supported by taxpayers. In England and Wales, the term strictly refers to an ill-defined group of prestigious private independent schools funded by students' fees, although it is often more loosely used to refer to any independent school. Independent schools are also known as private schools, and the latter is the correct term in Scotland and Northern Ireland for all such fee-funded schools. Strictly, the term public school is not used in Scotland and Northern Ireland in the same sense as in England, but nevertheless, Gordonstoun, the Scottish private school which Charles, Prince of Wales attended, is sometimes referred to as a public school. Government-funded schools in Scotland and Northern Ireland are properly referred to as state schools but are sometimes confusingly referred to as public schools (with the same meaning as in the US); whereas in the US, where most public schools are administered by local governments, a state school is typically a college or university run by one of the states.
Speakers in both the United States and the United Kingdom use several additional terms for specific types of secondary schools. A prep school or preparatory school is an independent school funded by tuition fees; the same term is used in the UK for a private school for pupils under thirteen, designed to prepare them for fee-paying public schools. An American parochial school covers costs through tuition and has affiliation with a religious institution. In England, where the state-funded education system grew from parish schools organised by the local established church, the Church of England (C.of E., or C.E.), and many schools, especially primary schools (up to age 11) retain a church connection and are known as church schools, C.E. Schools or C.E. (Aided) Schools. There are also faith schools associated with the Roman Catholic Church and other major faiths, with a mixture of funding arrangements.
In the US, a magnet school receives government funding and has special admission requirements: students gain admission through superior performance on admission tests. The UK has city academies, which are independent privately sponsored schools run with public funding, and which can select up to 10% of pupils by aptitude. Also, in the UK some Local Education Authorities maintain Grammar Schools (State funded secondary schools) which admit pupils according to performance in an examination(known as the 11+). Admission is usually restricted to the top 10% or less of those who sit the exam.
Americans refer to transportation, while British people refer to transport. As transportation in Britain was a penalty for a crime, that is, deportation, the British use the word communication to include goods and persons, whereas in America the word primarily refers to messages sent by post or electronics. The British devised the term telecoms for this last use; it is not quite standard in America.
Differences in terminology are especially obvious in the context of roads. The British term dual carriageway, in American parlance, would be a divided highway. Central reservation on a motorway in the UK would be a median on a freeway, expressway, highway, or parkway in the US. The one-way lanes that make it possible to enter and leave such roads at an intermediate point without disrupting the flow of traffic are generally known as slip roads in the UK, but US civil engineers call them ramps, and further distinguish between on-ramps (for entering) and off-ramps (for leaving). When American engineers speak of slip roads, they are referring to a street that runs alongside the main road (separated by a berm) to allow off-the-highway access to the premises that are there, sometimes also known as a frontage road – in the UK this is known as a service road.
In the UK, the term outside lane refers to the higher-speed overtaking lane (passing lane in the US) closest to the center of the road, while inside lane refers to the lane closer to the edge of the road. In the US, outside lane is only used in the context of a turn, in which case it depends on which direction the road is turning (i.e., if the road bends right the left lane is the outside lane, but if the road bends left the right lane is the outside lane). Both also refer to slow and fast lanes (even though all actual traffic speeds may be at or even above the legal speed limit). UK traffic officials, firefighters and police officers refer to Lanes 1, 2 and 3 as slow, middle and fast lanes respectively. In the US the meanings are exactly reversed, with Lane 1 referring to the fast lane and so on.
In the UK, drink driving is against the law, while in the US the term is drunk driving. The legal term in the US is driving while intoxicated (DWI) or driving under the influence of alcohol (DUI). The equivalent legal phrase in the UK is drunk in charge of a motor vehicle (DIC), or more commonly driving with excess alcohol.
is explicitly mentioned in a greeting, the universal phrasing in North America is Merry Christmas
. In the UK, Happy Christmas
is also heard. It is increasingly common for Americans to say Happy Holidays
, referring to all winter holidays (Christmas, Yule
, New Year's Day
, St. Lucia Day
) while avoiding any specific religious reference. Season's Greetings
is a less common phrase in both America and Britain.
On British television each year of a show is referred to as a series, while on American television each year is referred to as a season. Additionally, the entire run of a show is called a series in American English and several series can take place in the same fictional universe.
In the early 18th century, English spelling
was not standardized. Different standards became noticeable after the publishing of influential dictionaries
. Current BrE spellings follow, for the most part, those of Samuel Johnson
's Dictionary of the English Language
(1755). Many of the now characteristic AmE spellings were introduced, although often not created, by Noah Webster
in his An American Dictionary of the English Language
Webster was a strong proponent of spelling reform for reasons both philological and nationalistic. Many other spelling changes proposed in the US by Webster himself, and, in the early 20th century, by the Simplified Spelling Board never caught on. Among the advocates of spelling reform in England, the influences of those who preferred the Norman (or Anglo-French) spellings of certain words proved decisive. Subsequent spelling adjustments in the UK had little effect on present-day US spelling, and vice versa. While, in many cases, AmE deviated in the 19th century from mainstream British spelling; on the other hand, it has also often retained older forms.
- Full stops/Periods in abbreviations: Americans tend to write Mr., Mrs., St., Dr. etc., while British will most often write Mr, Mrs, St, Dr, etc, following the rule that a full stop is used only when the last letter of the abbreviation is not the last letter of the complete word; this kind of abbreviation is known as a contraction in the UK. Many British writers would tend to write other abbreviations without a full stop, such as Prof, etc, eg, and so forth (as recommended by OED). The 'American' usage of periods after most abbreviations can also be found in the UK although publications generally tend to eschew the extreme use of punctuation found in US publications. Unit symbols such as kg and Hz are never punctuated.
- It is sometimes believed that BrE does not hyphenate multiple-word adjectives (e.g. "a first class ticket"). The most common form is as in AmE ("a first-class ticket"), but some British writers omit the hyphen when no ambiguity would arise.
- Quoting: Americans start with double quotation marks (") and use single quotation marks (') for quotations within quotations. This can also occur in BrE, but is most often the opposite in more formal circumstances such as book publishing. In journals and newspapers, quotation mark double/single use depends on the individual publication's house style.
- Contents of quotations: Americans are taught to put commas and periods inside quotation marks (except for question marks and exclamation points that apply to a sentence as a whole), whereas British people will put the punctuation inside if it belongs to the quotation and outside otherwise.
- Carefree means "free from care or anxiety." (American style)
- Carefree means "free from care or anxiety". (British style)
- The American style was established for typographical reasons, a historical holdover from the days of the handset printing press. It also eliminates the need to decide whether a period or comma belongs to the quotation. However, many people find the usage counterintuitive. Hart's Rules and the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors call the British style "new" or "logical" quoting; it is similar to the use of quotation marks in many other languages (including Portuguese, Spanish, French, Italian, Catalan, Dutch, and German). For this reason, the more "logical" British style is increasingly used in America, although formal writing still generally calls for the "American" style. 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; many are in fact unaware that the normative American usage is to place commas and periods within the quotation marks. (This rule of placing all punctuation inside quotation if and only if it belongs to the quotation is expressly prescribed by some American professional organizations such as the American Chemical Society; see ACS Style Guide.) 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 if they follow American punctuation conventions.
- In both countries, the "British" style is used for quotation around parentheses, so in both nations one would write:
"I am going to the store. (I hope it is still open.)"
"I am going to the store (if it is still open)."
- Letter-writing: American students in some areas have been taught to write a colon after the greeting in business letters ("Dear Sir:") while British people 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.
Titles and headlines
Use of capitalization
Sometimes, the words in titles of publications, newspaper headlines, as well as chapter and section headings are capitalized in the same manner as in normal sentences (sentence case). That is, only the first letter of the first word is capitalized, along with proper nouns, etc.
However, publishers sometimes require additional words in titles and headlines to have the initial capital, for added emphasis, as it is often perceived as appearing more professional. In AmE, this is common in titles, but less so in newspaper headlines. The exact rules differ between publishers and are often ambiguous; a typical approach is to capitalize all words other than short articles, prepositions, and conjunctions. This should probably be regarded as a common stylistic difference, rather than a linguistic difference, as neither form would be considered incorrect or unusual in either the UK or the US. Many British tabloid newspapers (such as The Sun, The Daily Sport, News of the World) use fully capitalized headlines for impact, as opposed to readability (for example, BERLIN WALL FALLS or BIRD FLU PANIC). On the other hand, the broadsheets (such as The Guardian, The Times, and The Independent) usually follow the sentence style of having only the first letter of the first word capitalized.
Dates are usually written differently in the short (numerical) form. Christmas Day 2000, for example, is 25/12/00 or 25.12.00 (dashes are occasionally used) in the UK and 12/25/00 in the US, although the formats 25/12/2000, 25.12.2000, and 12/25/2000 now have more currency than they had before the Year 2000 problem
. Occasionally other formats are encountered, such as the ISO 8601
2000-12-25, popular among programmers, scientists, and others seeking to avoid ambiguity, and to make alphanumerical
order coincide with chronological
order. The difference in short-form date order can lead to misunderstanding. For example, 06/04/05 could mean either June 4, 2005 (if read as US format), 6 April 2005 (if seen as in UK format), or even 5 April 2006 if taken to be an older ISO 8601-style format where 2-digit years were allowed.
A consequence of the different short-form of dates is that in the UK many people would be reluctant to refer to "9/11", although its meaning would be instantly understood. On the BBC, "September the 11th" is generally used in preference to 9/11. However, 9/11 is commonplace in the British press to refer specifically to the events of September 11, 2001.
Phrases such as the following are common in Britain and Ireland but are generally unknown in the U.S: "A week today", "a week tomorrow", "a week on Tuesday", "a week Tuesday", "Tuesday week" (this is found in central Texas), "Friday fortnight", "a fortnight on Friday" and "a fortnight Friday" (these latter referring to two weeks after "next Friday"). In the US the standard construction is "a week from today", "a week from tomorrow" etc. BrE speakers may also say "Thursday last" or "Thursday gone" instead of "last Thursday".
The 24-hour clock
), which, in the UK, is considered normal in many applications (for example, air/rail/bus timetables), is largely unused in the US outside of military, police, or medical applications.
- See: British and American keyboards
- Algeo, John (2006). British or American English?. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-37993-8.
- Hargraves, Orin (2003). Mighty Fine Words and Smashing Expressions. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-515704-4
- McArthur, Tom (2002). The Oxford Guide to World English. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-866248-3.
- Peters, Pam (2004). The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-62181-X.
- Trudgill, Peter and Jean Hannah. (2002). International English: A Guide to the Varieties of Standard English, 4th ed. London: Arnold. ISBN 0-340-80834-9.