What’s the difference between American & British English?
In this lesson, we’ll look at the main differences between Standard British English 🇬🇧 and Standard American English. 🇺🇸
We’ll find differences in:
- accent (obviously!)
Note: I am an Australian, hoping to provide an honest, objective discussion about some of the differences between the two most common forms of English! No need for a heated debate about who’s right and wrong!
What’s the difference between British English and American English?
Which one’s the best? It’s really confusing!
In my last lesson, I talked about which type of English you should learn. You can watch that right here if you missed it. But in this lesson, we are going to look at the main differences between standard British English and standard American English.
While it’s incorrect to say that one type of English is better than the other or that one is more correct than the other, it is important to be aware of the differences between British and American English.
And focus on the type of English that is most relevant for you. And that is what this lesson is all about. The main areas that you’ll notice differences between British and American English are accent, obviously, spelling, vocabulary and some areas of grammar including use of prepositions and use of collective nouns.
Now if you are studying for an English exam, applying for or studying at an English University or using English professionally for your job then this lesson is especially important for you! Usually in all of these situations, you need to pay attention to spelling and grammar rules because it can affect your score or even your reputation.
Okay so let’s talk about some of these differences. Starting with accent. It’s probably the most obvious difference. But the difference is not as simple as British and American accents, right?
Regional accents n both of these countries can differ dramatically. Someone from South London sounds very different than someone from Scotland. And both sound very different from the Queen of England. And it’s the same in America, the accent can vary significantly depending on where you are in the country.
That said, if we compare standard British English and standard American English accents, there are a few clear differences. There are differences in the way that vowels are pronounced.
Americans tend to pronounce a flap T when the letter T is between two vowel sounds. Like in these words.
The flap T is a flatter sound that actually sounds more like a D. Hear that flap T sound? Its also very common in my Australian accent as well. Standard American English clearly pronounces the R after a vowel sound where most British English speakers don’t. So for example:
You can hear some more of those examples in this video right here.
Okay so accent is one difference. But there are some more frustrating differences that can actually get you into trouble, like spelling. Americans spell English words differently to the rest of us.
Some of you may actually think that the American spelling is easier. It was changed only a few hundred years ago from the British way to a new American English way. And the reason was to make words look more phonetic. So words are actually spelt more like they sound. It makes a lot of sense right? Words that end in -our in British English so think about the words colour, honour, neighbour. They simply end in -or in American English.
In British English verbs that end in an L after a short vowel sound have a double L when -ed or -ing are added. Travelled or modelling for example. But in American English there is only one L.
Jewellery is another example of this though even more changes were made to make jewellery more phonetic. Words ending in -ise in British English end in -ize in American English. Like realise, organise.
Words ending in -re in British English end in -er in American English, most of the time. Like in the word centre. Words ending in -ence in British English end in -ense in American English like defence and license.
You’ll also find some small differences with past forms of regular verbs. So the past tense of learn in American English is learnt but in British English learned or learnt is possible. Though the -ed form is more common where I’m from.
Notice that the pronunciation is the same. The same rule applies for dreamt and burnt.
As an extra hint make sure you’re using a spellcheck tool that is set to the type of English that you’re learning, so that it’s correcting your spelling with the right type of English.
Vocabulary. The most frustrating difference between British and American English is surely vocabulary – even for native speakers! There are hundreds of everyday words that are just different. And to make matters worse, Australian English Canadian English, New Zealander English South African English, can also use different words for the same thing.
The difference is really obvious in nouns especially food, where each type of English has different nouns for the same thing.
So for example the herb coriander is called cilantro in America, nothing alike! And there are heaps of differences just like that. I made a whole video about it right here.
These differences in vocabulary are something that even native English speakers have to try and understand too. We don’t always know exactly what another English speaker is talking about because we use different words for the same thing. In those situations, we usually try to use the context of the sentence to understand what this new word is. And if we still don’t know, we just have to ask.
If you know what type of English you need, then I highly recommend finding a native English teacher who can help you to learn and understand the English vocabulary that is used in that place. Cambly is a really great place for you to do that because they’ve got native English teachers from all English-speaking countries.
So if you’re travelling to Canada, you can find a Canadian teacher to help you. If you’re applying for a university in the United Kingdom, then find a teacher who uses the accent, the vocabulary and the spelling rules that will get you really great results in your exams.
It will just make it so much easier for you once you arrive. And you can try a free 15-minute lesson with Cambly by using the link in the description just below this video. I’ve had a chat to a few different teachers there and they’ve been super friendly and helpful so I really recommend it!
Now, prepositions are confusing enough without me telling you that sometimes American and British English use prepositions differently. But don’t worry. Most of them are exactly the same but there’s just a few that you need to be aware of because they’re used differently.
“What are you doing on the weekend” is common in American English
Whereas “What are you doing at the weekend” is more commonly used in the UK. In Australia, we mostly use ‘on’.
When talking about a period in a week, ‘through’ is really common in American English.
- My brother works Monday through Friday.
Whereas ‘to’ is more common in British English and also Australian English.
- My brother works Monday to Friday.
These mean exactly the same thing. The good news is that native English speakers will understand you no matter what whichever one you choose. So it’s not a major problem, it’s just something that you need to be aware of.
When describing something that has recently occurred that affects the present moment, I would use the present perfect probably. But my American friends would likely use the past simple tense instead. So let me explain with an example.
If I’ve just eaten a big meal and someone asked if I wanted dessert, I’d say “No thanks I’ve eaten too much!” But an American would probably choose the past simple and simply say:
- No thanks, I ate too much!
Someone speaking British English would probably choose to use the present perfect tense in this situation choose to use the present perfect tense in this situation to a group of things.
Like a group of students is called a class or a group of colleagues working on the same project is a team. Or a group of cows is called a herd. A family, an audience, a crowd. These are all examples of collective nouns. And British English and American English treat these nouns differently in English sentences.
In American English, collective nouns are singular so they’re treated in the same way as other singular nouns are.
- The team has asked for more resources.
- The band is really good!
- The class is meeting at the library after lunch.
So even though there are many individuals that make up the class, grammatically, they’re treated as a single thing, as one.
In British English, collective nouns can be singular but they can also be plural nouns as well. So someone using British English could say either of these different options.
- The class is meeting at the library after lunch.
So referring to the class as a whole.
- The class are meeting at the library after lunch.
And that refers to all of the individuals that are part of the class. The difference is simply about whether the group is being referred to as a whole, as a single unit, or as a collection of individuals inside the group. Then it’s treated as plural.
- The team has asked for more resources.
So that’s the team as one unit.
- The team have asked for more resources.
The team as a group of individuals and the meaning is identical.
- The band is really good. Or the band are too tired!
The individual members of the band are too tired.
While this lesson makes it seem like there are lots of differences between American and British English, they are really only a tiny, tiny per cent of English. With the grammar and prepositions, the differences are less serious and less obvious because people will still understand you. The vocabulary and the spelling are the two main areas that you need to pay attention to.
On the whole, American English and British English are mostly very similar, we watch each other’s TV shows, we read each other’s books. We’re used to it. So really, the two types of English are not so different at all. If you’ve got any questions about this lesson then pop them in the comments box below this video so that I can get back to you.
Make sure that you subscribe to my channel by clicking that red button right there. And if you want, you can watch these two lessons right here, to learn more about the differences between British and American English.
Thanks for watching and I’ll see you next week. Bye for now!
Links mentioned in the video
English Pronunciation Lesson | -TION suffix
English Words: spelled the SAME, pronounced DIFFERENTLY!
Silent Letters | English Pronunciation & Vocabulary | PART 1