What Are The Differences Between American And British English?

Are the Brits and Americans really “separated by a common language”? How different are these two versions of English, actually?
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Americans often find the way people from the United Kingdom speak and write amusing, and vice versa. The slight variations in spelling, the delightfully silly words used for common objects, and of course, accents. But we also have a lot of questions about the differences between American and British English. How did the same language diverge in such a distinct way? Why do we spell things differently? And what’s the deal with “soccer” versus “football”?

In the video above, we had an American and Brit attempt to answer some of the most commonly Googled questions about the differences between American and British English. Here we’ll answer them with a bit more detail, with sources for you to dive even deeper.

How Do You Speak With A British Accent?

It depends which British accent you want; there are “loads” to choose from! A common accent in pop culture you’ve probably heard is the Cockney accent, which is primarily spoken by working class people in London. Some key features are pronouncing “TH” sounds as “F” sounds and dropping the “H” at the beginning of words (i.e. ‘oliday instead of “Holiday”). The Cockney way of speaking also used an elaborate rhyming slang.

You may also enjoy a more proper or “posh” English accent — what’s known as Received Pronunciation or the Queen’s English. Historically, this accent has been a signal of superior social status. The indicators of this accent include a clear pronunciation of the “H” at the beginning of words, an inaudible “r” sound within words (like “heart”), and long vowels (making “darling” sound like “dahhhhhling”).

Why Does America Call Football “Soccer”?

While it’s probably obvious why other parts of the world call the sport “football” (what with all the kicking of balls), you may wonder why the United States calls it “soccer” instead. Believe it or not, the word “soccer” actually originated in Great Britain

In the 1800s, British universities began playing different variations of the medieval game known as football. One of these versions of the game was called “association football,” which Brits called “soccer” for short. When the game was brought over to America, it was still called “soccer” and that name stuck. The Brits used “soccer” and “football” interchangeably to describe the game between 1960 and 1980, but then switched almost exclusively to “football” due to the American connotations associated with “soccer,” ironically enough.

Why Does American English Drop The “U”?

One of the most common and noticeable spelling differences between American and British English is the use (or lack of use) of the letter “u” in words like “colour” and “honour.” To Americans, the “u” seems unnecessary and a bit old fashioned. How did this change occur? It was all thanks to a man whose name you’ve almost definitely heard: Noah Webster.

Webster wanted to make American English more distinct, in order to take control of the language from the British. In his earliest dictionaries, Webster removed the extra “u” from words and switched “re” to “er” at the end of words like “theater.”

What Is British Pudding?

When people search this question, they are probably referring to “black pudding,” which is a type of blood sausage popular in the United Kingdom and Ireland. It’s generally made from pork blood, pork or beef fat, as well as cereal grains or oats. Black pudding is a staple of the traditional “full English breakfast” or “fry-up,” which usually also includes fried eggs, sausages, back bacon, tomatoes, mushrooms, baked beans, potatoes and toast.

What Are The Differences Between British And American English?

We’ve already described some of the key differences in the answers above, but there are many other features that set the two dialects apart. Let’s dive deeper into some of these differences.

Accent

It’s difficult to make clear distinctions between U.S. and U.K. accents when there is such a wide variety of accents within both the U.S. and the U.K. A Texan and a New Yorker are both Americans, but have very different accents. The same goes for British accents in London, Manchester and Glasgow.

However, some very general distinctions can be made. Americans usually pronounce every “r” in a word, while the British tend to only pronounce the “r” when it’s the first letter of a word.

There are also differences between American and British English in the areas of spelling, vocabulary and grammar. Here are just some of the examples.

Spelling

American English British English
color colour
behavior behaviour
theater theatre
meter metre
organize organise
traveled travelled

Vocabulary

American English British English
apartment flat
college university
theater theatre
vacation holiday
chips crisps
(french) fries chips
the movies the cinema
soda / pop / coke / soft drink soft drink / fizzy drink
sneakers / tennis shoes trainers
sweater jumper
mailbox postbox
band-aid plaster
drugstore chemist’s
soccer football
cookie biscuit

Grammar

Prepositions

The differences below are only a general rule. American speech has influenced Britain via pop culture, and vice versa. Therefore, some prepositional differences are not as pronounced as they once were.

American English British English
I’m going to a party on the weekend. I’m going to a party at the weekend.
What are you doing on Christmas? What are you doing at Christmas?
Monday through Friday. Monday to Friday.
It’s different from/than the others. It’s different from/to the others.

Past Simple vs Present Perfect

Americans tend to use the past simple tense when describing something that has recently occurred, while people in the U.K. are more likely to use the present perfect tense.

American English British English
I ate too much. I’ve eaten too much.
I went to the store. I’ve been to the shop.
Did you get the newspaper? Have you got the newspaper?

The past participle of get

In the U.K., “gotten” as the past participle of “get” is considered archaic and was abandoned long ago in favor of “got.” However, in the U.S. people still use “gotten” as the past participle.

American English British English
get — got — gotten get — got — got
I haven’t gotten any news about him. I’ve not got any news about him.

Collective nouns: singular or plural?

In British English, a collective noun (like committee, government, team, etc.) can be either singular or plural, but more often is plural, emphasizing the members of the group. Collective nouns in the United States, by comparison, are always singular, emphasizing the group as one whole entity.

American English British English
The government is doing everything it can during this crisis. The government are doing everything they can during this crisis.
My team is winning. My team are winning.

Regular or irregular verbs?

This is a subtle difference that can be easily overlooked in speech, but is much more apparent in written form. Many verbs that are irregular in the past tense in Britain (leapt, dreamt, burnt, learnt) have been made regular in America (leaped, dreamed, burned, learned).

As the most-spoken second language on the planet, English has to be flexible. After all, it’s not solely spoken in the countries we’ve detailed above. So whether you speak English like a Brit or like an American, this shouldn’t be an obstacle when communicating with people on the opposite side of the pond, or anywhere else in the world.

Nuno Marques also contributed to this article.

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