Differences Between British
English and American English
Abstract: Today British English and American English are the two most important varieties or national standards of English. With the development of the two
countries—the U.S. and the U.K., the differences in some fields are clear and are also reflected in their languages. Even though there are many similarities in both variants, there are many differences because of different regions, social backgrounds, the ways of people’s thinking, etc. This paper discusses the differences between British English
and American English and their tendency through the historical development of the two variants.
Key words: American English; British English; difference
1. Historical background
Over the past 400 years, the form of the language used in the Americas —
especially in the United States — and that used in the United Kingdom have diverged
in a few minor ways, leading to the dialects now occasionally referred to as American English and British English. Differences between the two include pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary (lexis), spelling, punctuation, idioms, formatting of dates and numbers, and so on, although the differences in written and most spoken grammar structure tend to be much more minor than those of other aspects of the language in terms of mutual intelligibility. A small number of words have completely different meanings between the two dialects or are even unknown or not used in one of the dialects. One particular contribution towards formalizing these differences came from Noah Webster, who wrote the first American dictionary (published 1828) with the intention of showing that people in the United States spoke a different dialect from Britain, much like a regional accent.
This divergence between American English and British English once caused George Bernard Shaw to say that the United States and United Kingdom are "two countries divided by a common language"; a similar comment is ascribed to Winston Churchill. Likewise, Oscar Wilde wrote, "We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, the language" (The Canterville Ghost, 1888).
Henry Sweet incorrectly predicted in 1877, that within a century, American English, Australian English and British English would be mutually unintelligible. It may be the case that increased worldwide communication through radio, television, the Internet, and globalization has reduced the tendency to regional variation. This can result either in some variations becoming extinct (for instance, the wireless, superseded by the
radio) or in the acceptance of wide variations as "perfectly good English" everywhere. Often at the core of the dialect though, the idiosyncrasies remain.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that although spoken American and British English are generally mutually intelligible, there are enough differences to cause
occasional misunderstandings or at times embarrassment – for example, some words
that are quite innocent in one dialect may be considered vulgar in the other. 2. Vocabulary Differences Between American & British English
2.1 Clothing Vocabulary
The British describe many articles of clothing differently from Americans. While Americans use the word "pants" to describe jeans, khakis and slacks, pants refers to underwear in Britain. Likewise, the British word "nappy" refers to a baby's underwear or diaper. In Britain, a vest is an undershirt, while a waistcoat is a vest. A "zip" is the British word for a zipper, while a "bonnet" describes a hood.
2.2 Vocabulary describing People and Professions
British speakers use various terms to describe people and their professions. They refer to lawyers and attorneys as "barristers" and "solicitors." They call a Realtor an "estate agent," and call Girls Scouts "Girl Guides." A postman describes an American mail carrier, while a "dustman" is the British word for a garbage collector. 2.3 Food Vocabulary
foods often have different words in British and American English. In Britain, chips are French fries while crisps are potato chips. A "biscuit" is the British word for a cookie while "sweets" is the British word for candy. The British rarely use the word "candy" and describe candy bars as "chocolate bars."
2. 4 Vocabulary Describing Places
places, such as stores, buildings and transportation stations "Shops" are stores, and a "chemist's shop" is a pharmacy. They refer to the movies as the cinemas. The British have their own terms for their country's transportation stations. For instance, they
refer to subways as "tubes" and "undergrounds," and they call high ways "main roads." On the road, the British refer to intersections as "crossroads" and to overpasses as "flyovers."
3. Grammar Grammar
3.1.1 Formal and notional agreement
In BrE, collective nouns can take either singular (formal agreement) or plural
(notional agreement) verb forms, according to whether the emphasis is, respectively, on the body as a whole or on the individual members; compare a committee was
appointed with the committee were unable to agree. The term the Government always
takes a plural verb in British civil service convention, perhaps to emphasise the principle of collective responsibility. Compare also the following lines of Elvis Costello's song "Oliver's Army": Oliver's Army are on their way / Oliver's Army is here to stay. Some of these nouns, for example staff, actually combine with plural
verbs most of the time.
In AmE, collective nouns are usually singular in construction: the committee was
unable to agree. AmE, however, may use plural pronouns in agreement with collective nouns: the team take their seats, rather than the team takes its seats. The
rule of thumb is that a group acting as a unit is considered singular and a group of "individuals acting separately" is considered plural. However, such a sentence would most likely be recast as the team members take their seats. Despite exceptions such as
usage in the New York Times, the names of sports teams are usually treated as plurals even if the form of the name is singular.
The difference occurs for all nouns of multitude, both general terms such as team
and company and proper nouns (for example, where a place name is used to refer to a sports team). For instance,
BrE: The Clash are a well-known band; AmE: The Clash is a well-known band.
BrE: Spain are the champions; AmE: Spain is the champion.
Proper nouns that are plural in form take a plural verb in both AmE and BrE; for example, The Beatles are a well-known band; The Saints are the champions.
3.2.1 Verb morphology
The past tense and past participle of the verbs learn, spoil, spell, burn, dream,
smell, spill, leap, and others, can be either irregular (learnt, spoilt, etc.) or regular
(learned, spoiled, etc.). In BrE, both irregular and regular forms are current, but for some words (such as smelt and leapt) there is a strong tendency towards the irregular forms, especially by users of Received Pronunciation. For other words (such as dreamed, leaned, and learned )the regular forms are somewhat more common. In AmE, the irregular forms are never or rarely used (except for burnt and leapt).
The t endings may be encountered frequently in older American texts. Usage may vary when the past participles are used as adjectives, as in burnt toast. (The
two-syllable form learnèd /ˈlɜrnɪd/, usually written without the grave, is used as an adjective to mean "educated" or to refer to academic institutions, in both BrE and AmE.) Finally, the past tense and past participle of dwell and kneel are more
commonly dwelt and knelt in both standards, with dwelled and kneeled as common
variants in the US but not in the UK.
Lit as the past tense of light is more common than lighted in the UK; the
regular form is used more in the US, but is nonetheless less common than lit.
Conversely, fit as the past tense of fit is more widely used in AmE than BrE,
which generally favours fitted.
The past tense of spit "expectorate" is spat in BrE, spit or spat in AmE. AmE
typically has spat in figurative contexts, e.g. "He spat out the name with a
sneer", or in the context of expectoration of an object that is not saliva, e.g. "He spat out the foul-tasting fish" but spit for "expectorated" when it refers
only to the expulsion of saliva.
3.2.2 Use of tenses
Traditionally, BrE uses the present perfect to talk about an event in the recent past and with the words already, just, and yet. In American usage, these
meanings can be expressed with the present perfect or the simple past . This American style has become widespread only in the past 20 to 30 years; the British style is still in common use as well. Recently, the American use of just
with simple past has made inroads into BrE, most visibly in advertising slogans and headlines such as "Cable broadband just got faster".
"I've just arrived home." / "I just arrived home."
"I've already eaten." / "I already ate."
Similarly, AmE occasionally replaces the past perfect with the simple past.
In BrE, have got or have can be used for possession and have got to and
have to can be used for the modal of necessity. The forms that include ‘‘got’’
are usually used in informal contexts and the forms without got in contexts
that are more formal. In American speech the form without got is used more
than in the UK, although the form with got is often used for emphasis.
Colloquial AmE informally uses got as a verb for these meanings – for
example, I got two cars, I got to go.
In conditional sentences, US spoken usage often substitutes would and
would have (usually shortened to [I]'d and [I]'d have) for the simple past and
for the pluperfect (If you'd leave now, you'd be on time. / If I would have
[I'd've] cooked the pie we could have [could've] had it for lunch). This tends
to be avoided in writing because it is often still considered non-standard although such use of would is widespread in spoken US English in all sectors of society. Some reliable sources now label this usage as acceptable US English and no longer label it as colloquial. (There are, of course, situations where would is used in British English too in seemingly counterfactual conditions, but these can usually be interpreted as a modal use of would: If you
would listen to me once in a while, you might learn something. In cases in
which the action in the if clause takes place after that in the main clause, use of would in counterfactual conditions is, however, considered standard and correct usage in even formal UK and US usage: If it would make Bill happy,
I'd [I would] give him the money.
The subjunctive mood (morphologically identical with the bare infinitive) is regularly used in AmE in mandative clauses (as in They suggested that he
apply for the job). In BrE, this usage declined in the 20th century, in favour of constructions such as They suggested that he should apply for the job (or even,
more ambiguously, They suggested that he applied for the job). Apparently,
however, the mandative subjunctive has recently started to come back into use
3.2.3 Verbal auxiliaries
Shall (as opposed to will) is more commonly used by the British than by Americans. Shan't is almost never used in AmE (almost invariably replaced by won't or am not going to), and is increasingly rare in BrE as well. American grammar also tends to ignore some traditional distinctions between should and
would; however, expressions like I should be happy are rather formal even in
The periphrastic future (be going to) is about twice as frequent in AmE as
The verbs prevent and stop can be found in two different constructions: prevent/stop someone from doing something and prevent/stop someone doing something". The latter is well established in BrE, but not in AmE. Some verbs can take either a to+infinitive construction or a gerund construction (e.g., to start to do something/to start doing something). For
example, the gerund is more common:
In AmE than BrE, with start, begin, omit, enjoy;
In BrE than AmE, with love, like, intend.
3.3 Presence or absence of syntactic elements
Where a statement of intention involves two separate activities, it is acceptable for speakers of AmE to use to go plus bare infinitive. Speakers of BrE would instead use to go and plus bare infinitive. Thus, where a speaker of AmE might say I'll go take a bath, BrE speakers would say I'll go and have a
bath. (Both can also use the form to go to instead to suggest that the action may fail, as in He went to take/have a bath, but the bath was full of children.)
Similarly, to come plus bare infinitive is acceptable to speakers of AmE, where speakers of BrE would instead use to come and plus bare infinitive.
Thus, where a speaker of AmE might say come see what I bought, BrE
speakers would say come and see what I've bought (notice the present perfect:
a common British preference).
Use of prepositions before days denoted by a single word. Where British people would say She resigned on Thursday, Americans often say She
resigned Thursday, but both forms are common in American usage.
Occasionally, the preposition is also absent when referring to months: I'll be
here December (although this usage is generally limited to colloquial speech).
In the UK, from is used with single dates and times more often than in the
United States. Where British speakers and writers may say the new museum
will be open from Tuesday, Americans most likely say the new museum will be
open starting Tuesday. (This difference does not apply to phrases of the
pattern from A to B, which are used in both BrE and AmE.) A variation or
alternative of this is the mostly American the play opens Tuesday and the
mostly British the play opens on Tuesday.
American legislators and lawyers always use the preposition of between
the name of a legislative act and the year it was passed; their British compeers
do not. Compare Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 to Disability
Discrimination Act 1995.
British English and American English are the two major varieties of English in the world at present. They are belong to the same language -- English, there is there're common ground between them. Due to they developed independently with the different historical backgrounds, geography and culture. Of course, there are also many differences between them. As the English learners, it is necessary for us to get somewhat acquainted with the differences between them to help our study and keep us from unnecessary troubles. Because someone who don't know British and American English clearly, have a prejudice about British and American English, like that "which is better?" This thesis makes an analysis and comparison of British English and American English in terms of history, pronunciation, spelling, vocabulary and grammar, hoping to help you completely and objectively know the differences between British and American English.
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 Peters, Pam (2004). The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-62181-X.