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American Vs British English: What Are The Differences?

American vs British English: what are the differences?

Every language evolves and adapts over time, absorbing influences from different cultures, historical events, or technological advancements. English is a prime example of this dynamic process, particularly in its two most widely used versions: American and British English. Despite sharing a common origin, these two have grown distinct over the years, developing unique characteristics in vocabulary, pronunciation, spelling, and grammar.

Understanding the origins of American and British English

The divergence of American and British English dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries. In the early years of colonial America, immigrants from different regions in Britain brought various dialects and linguistic nuances with them. This led to a form of English that was already distinct from British English even before the American Revolution.

As the colonies grew and expanded, so did the influence of other languages on American English. The interactions between English settlers and Indigenous Americans resulted in the adoption of words and phrases from Indigenous dialects. For example, words like “canoe,” “tomahawk,” and “moccasin” found their way into the American English vocabulary, enriching the language with a unique cultural flavor.

Furthermore, the presence of enslaved people from Africa and the Caribbean introduced additional linguistic influences to American English. African languages and dialects, such as Gullah and Creole, left a lasting impact on the development of American English. Words like “gumbo,” “jazz,” and “yam” are just a few examples of African-origin words that have become integral parts of American English.

One significant factor in the divergence of American and British English was the simplification of spelling and grammar. Influential figures like Noah Webster played a key role in defining American English by advocating for spelling reforms. Webster’s renowned dictionary, first published in 1828, introduced Americanized spellings such as “color” instead of “colour” and “center” instead of “centre.” These changes not only simplified the language but also reflected the evolving cultural identity of the United States.

While American English was evolving, British English continued to develop in its own unique way. The influence of French, Latin, and other European languages on British English added layers of complexity to its vocabulary and grammar. British English also retained some archaic words and expressions that have since fallen out of common usage in American English.

Despite these differences, American and British English still share a common foundation and many similarities. The two variants continue to influence each other through cultural exchange and global communication. The spread of American media and the dominance of the internet have further blurred the lines between the two, with American English idioms and expressions finding their way into British English and vice versa.

Let’s take a look at some differences between American and British English! 

Comparing American and British vocabulary

One of the most evident differences between American and British English is in vocabulary. Everyday words can often differ dramatically, causing confusion and sometimes even amusement! Let’s take a look at some of the most common words that differ between these two varieties of English. 

American English British English
roommate flatmate 
trunk (of a car)boot
hood (of a car)bonnet
stroller buggy
diaper nappy
pacifier dummy
candy sweets
soccer football
sidewalk pavement
faucet tap
fall autumn
bangs fringe
pants trousers
sneakers trainers
closet wardrobe
trashcan dustbin
truck lorry 
line queue
cookie biscuit
flashlight torch
drugstore chemist
highway motorway
license plate numberplate
zip code postcode 
flashlight torch 
takeout takeaway 
robedressing gown 

So from this vocabulary, we can see that Brits go on holidays, while Americans take a vacation. In the UK, you’d put your luggage in the boot before filling your car with petrol. In the US, you’d put your baggage in the trunk, and use gas to fill the tank. 

The divergence in American and British vocabulary is a fascinating aspect of the English language. It is influenced by various factors, including cultural backgrounds, technological developments, historical events, and societal changes. These differences not only add richness and diversity to the English language but also provide insight into the unique experiences and influences of both American and British societies.

Pronunciation differences between US and UK English

Pronunciation is another intriguing aspect of the American-British English debate. The same word can sound different depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on. There’s even a song about the pronunciation differences, “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off”. Here are some examples of everyday words that are pronounced differently depending on whether you’re in York, or New York: 

American pronunciationEnglish pronunciation
tomato tuh-MEI-toutuh-MAA-tou
basil BEI-zilBA-zil
oregano uh-REH-ga-nouoh-ri-GAA-nou
privacy PRAI-vuh-siPRI-vuh-si
zebra ZI-braZEH-bra
garageGAH-raajGAH-rij or guh-RAAJ

Don’t worry too much if you make a mistake – people will still understand you! 

How American and British spelling differ

Perhaps the most well-known difference between American and British English is spelling. Noah Webster had a significant impact on spelling through his efforts to standardize and reform American English. His most notable contribution was the publication of the “American Dictionary of the English Language” in 1828. Webster’s influence can still be seen in American English spelling today, as many of his reforms have become accepted norms. Here are some examples: 

American spelling British spelling
Words ending in “-or” vs. “-our”color flavor laborcolour flavour labour
Words ending in “-er” vs. “-re”:center meter fibercentre metre fibre
Words ending in “-ze” vs. “-se”analyze realize apologizeanalyse realise apologise
Words ending in “-ed” vs. “-t”learned burned dreamedlearnt burnt dreamt
Words ending in “-og” vs. “-ogue”catalog dialog analogcatalogue dialogue analogue
Words with “-ense” vs. “-ence” endingsdefense offense licensedefence offence licence
Words with “L” after a voweltraveling canceled counselortravelling cancelled counsellor

These are just a few examples of the spelling differences which stem from Noah Webster’s desire to simplify English spelling, eliminate unnecessary letters, and establish an independent American language. However, it’s not always this simple, and there are exceptions that confuse even the most learned linguists!

The Difference Between American and British Grammar

Last but not least, grammar! Somewhat less noticeable but still significant are the distinctions in American and British grammar. An example is the use of the prepositions ‘at’ and ‘on’. In British English, you would say ‘I’ll meet you at the weekend’, while in American English, you will hear ‘I’ll meet you on the weekend’.

In addition, verb forms can also vary. Brits tend to use the irregular verb form more often than their American counterparts. They might say ‘I’ve just eaten’, while Americans are more likely to say ‘I just ate’. 

Have vs. take is another example. British English may use ‘have’ instead of ‘take’ in certain expressions like ‘have a shower’ , whereas in American English people say ‘take a shower’. 

How learners can navigate these differences

Despite their many differences, it’s essential to remember that American and British English are mutual intelligible variations of the same language. They reflect the rich history and cultural diversity that have shaped the English language over centuries. 

For English learners, the choice between American English and British English depends on your goals. Many learners are exposed to both through media and education, which can help them adapt to different accents and spellings. Additionally, the distinction between the two varieties is becoming less rigid due to globalization and digital communication. Thus, learners often develop a blend of language skills, allowing them to understand and communicate effectively in various contexts. And, after all, communication is the ultimate goal of learning a language! 

Practice your communication skills with ELSA AI, an AI tutor who gives you feedback on your pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar, helping you to communicate more clearly in English.  

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