American vs. British English (spelling, grammar, vocabulary)

American and British flags

During the English colonization period, the British sent their language to many different parts of the world. The colonists reached North America in the early 17th century, and from then on, a new dialect of English, the American English, began to develop. To this day, American and British English differ in more than one way. Most of these differences are related to pronunciation, vocabulary, and idioms, but differences of spelling and grammar also exist. Let’s take a closer look at how these two varieties of English differ.

Spelling 

One of the most distinctive spelling differences applies to words that end in –or in American English. Many of these words end in –our in British English (e.g. flavor – flavour). Words that end in –er in American English, typically end in -re in British English (e.g.  theater – theatre).

Another difference exists in verbs ending in -ize in American English. In British English these words typically end in -ise (e.g. generalize – generalise). Words ending in –og in American English sometimes end in –ogue in British English (e.g. dialog – dialogue). Additionally, many verbs that end in –el in American English have a single l in the past tense. In British English, however, the l doubles when we add the –ed ending to the verb (e.g. canceled – cancelled). Many more spelling differences apply to just individual items as well (e.g. tire – tyre). 

Grammar

England, vintage suitcase with British flag; Shutterstock ID 626470919; Amministratore Fatturazione: Martina Nordio; Progetto: Pagina Riconnessioni; Dipartimento: Marketing; ISBN/Progetto: WF155 N1604

While grammatical differences between American and British English also exist, they are rather scarce. Some verbs have different simple past and/or past participle forms. For instance, the past participle of get in American English is gotten; in British English, it’s got (I haven’t gotten his reply yet. / I haven’t got his reply yet.) Also, verbs such as dream, burn, and learn are regular in American English (i.e. their respective simple past / past participle forms are dreamed, burned, and learned). In British English, however, these same verbs are irregular. Their simple past and past participle forms are dreamt, burnt, and learnt. Another grammatical difference concerns possessive constructions with have. American English prefers have to have got (Do you have Instagram? / Have you got Instagram?) Yet another difference pertains to the negative form of the verb need in the present tense. In American English, we would say don’t need to, while in British English we would likely say needn’t. Last but not least, the present perfect tense is far less commonly used in American English than in British English (I just wrote an email to my boss. / I have just written an email to my boss.

Vocabulary

Needless to say, lexical differences between the two varieties of English are quite abundant. Very often, different words are used to represent the same thing. Take a look at the list below:

truck (Am. E.) – lorry (Br. E.)

elevator (Am. E.) – lift (Br. E.)

apartment (Am. E.) – flat (Br. E.)

cookie (Am. E.) – biscuit (Br. E.)

can (Am. E.) – tin (Br. E.)

stroller (Am. E.) – pram (Br. E.)

statue of liberty

Sometimes the same word has different meanings in the two dialects. For instance, the word pants means trousers in American English, but in British English, it means underpants. The word mad means angry in American English; in British English the word mad means crazy. The word jumper in American English refers to a type of dress. In British English, jumper describes what is called a sweater in American English. 

Luckily, despite all the linguistic differences, speakers of American English and British English understand each other quite well. Sometimes they even joke about each other’s “accents”.

Which variety of English are YOU learning? Which one do you prefer and why?


Joanna Rodzen-Hickey

Joanna Rodzen-Hickey has been an ESL teacher and consultant for nearly 20 years. She has taught English at numerous universities and community colleges in New Jersey and currently teaches at the Hackettstown High School in Hackettstown, NJ.