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.

Grammar Tuesdays (with Joanna): Irregular Nouns, part 2

Irregular nouns, part 2

There several irregular nouns in English whose singular form ends in –um or –on. These nouns end in ‘-a’ in the plural. Take a look at the examples below:

addendum – addenda

bacterium – bacteria

curriculum – curricula

datum – data

memorandum – memoranda

medium – media

phylum – phyla

stratum – strata

phenomenon- phenomena

criterion – criteria

The plural forms of some of these nouns are more common than their singular forms. For instance, medium, bacterium, and datum are not used nearly as frequently as their plurals: media, bacteria, and data.

Memorial Day

Soldier and Veterans Saluting at Memorial Day Ceremony; Shutterstock ID 1174867879; isbnproject: 10502; title: Holiday Post-Memorial Day Update-Organic Social; line: Broad Market Campaign; invoiceadmin: Katherine Wilson

Have you ever wondered why so many American holidays are observed on Monday? Well, the answer is simple: Americans love three-day-weekends! Memorial Day is one of the many Monday holidays. Americans observe this holiday on the last Monday in May, and its purpose is to honor the brave men and women who died in military service. 

Memorial Day officially became a national holiday in 1868 by order of General John Logan. Initially, Memorial Day was a celebration in memory of soldiers who were killed in the Civil War; however, eventually, it became a celebration of honoring all Americans who died in any war.  The holiday’s original name was Decoration Day, as on this day Americans would “decorate” soldiers’ graves with flowers. 

Nowadays, the major official Memorial Day celebrations take place near Washington, D.C. At the Memorial Day ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery, the president honors dead soldiers by placing a wreath on the Tomb of the Unknowns, where the remains of unidentified soldiers lie at rest. Many Americans attend this event.

Unfortunately, over the years, the way Memorial Day is observed has changed, and some traditional celebrations have lost ground. Many Americans do not observe Memorial Day the way their grandparents did. Instead, they see this holiday as merely a day off from work or school. In order to remind Americans about the true meaning of Memorial Day, in December 2000, Congress passed the National Moment of Remembrance. This resolution asks for all Americans to “voluntarily and informally” pause for a minute at 3 p.m. to pay tribute to the fallen American soldiers. 

In addition to being an important national holiday, Memorial Day also marks the unofficial beginning of the summer for Americans. It is on this day that most beaches and public swimming pools and parks open for the season. Americans like warm and sunny weather on Memorial Day. Many people go to the beach; others attend picnics and barbeques. The foods typically eaten on this day include hotdogs, hamburgers, and cold salads, such as coleslaw and potato salad. But some Americans still engage in more traditional Memorial Day activities, such as attending parades, and decorating the graves of their relatives and friends with flowers and small American flags. 


Let’s try this comprehension exercise:

  1. Memorial Day is celebrated on the first Monday in May. T / F 
  2. Memorial Day honors only the soldiers who were killed in the Civil War. T / F 
  3. The Tomb of the Unknowns is located at Arlington National Cemetery. T / F 
  4. The National Moment of Remembrance calls for Americans to pause for three minutes at 1 p. m. to pay tribute to the American soldiers who lost their lives serving their country. T /
  5. Many Americans have barbecues on Memorial Day. T /

Answer key:

1. F; 2. F; 3. T; 4. F; 5. T


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.

Grammar Tuesdays (with Joanna): Irregular –sis / -ses Nouns

Irregular –sis / -ses Nouns

As you know, for most English nouns, making them plural is as simple as adding -s or -es to them. However, there are nouns in English whose singular form ends in –sis, and the rule of adding -s / -es does not apply. These words come from Greek or Latin, and they are what we call irregular nouns.  To make them plural, change -sis to ­-ses. Take a look at the examples below:

analysis – analyses

axis – axes

basis – bases

crisis – crises

diagnosis – diagnoses

ellipsis – ellipses

parenthesis – parentheses

prognosis – prognoses

synopsis – synopses

thesis – theses

Note that we pronounce the singular ending –sis as /sɪs/, and the plural ending –ses as /siz/. 


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.