British and American English; 4 most important differences

British and American English are different in many ways. They differ in grammar, vocabulary, spelling, pronunciation, cultural rules, structures, etc. There are so many differences between the two English language versions that you can easily tell British and American English speakers or writers apart.

In the past, the official standard International language was British English. The English language was first introduced to the United States between 16th to 17th centuries and then it has undergone a lot of noticeable changes over the past four hundred years in America. However, most people tend to use American English as an international communication means these days.

ESL students need to choose one of the English language versions to learn and communicate in English well. This paper aims to present the outstanding differences between the two versions of the English language (British and American English) so that ESL students can make a wise choice for proceeding in their English learning process. Although British and American English have many similarities, they are different in many aspects stated in the following:

Differences between American and British English:

Pronunciation

The English language has many accents. The variety of accents depends on the determining factors such as region, level of education, age, etc. The two common English versions used in most English dictionaries are “General American English or American accent” and “BBC pronunciation or British accent.” The differences between British and American English are too much and tangible to easily distinguish the two accents quickly. The main differences between British and American English in terms of pronunciation are as follows:

The production of vowels

American English has tense and lax monophthongs. American English speakers tighten the muscles of their lips and tongue to utter tense or long vowels, such as /uː/ in “you” and /ɒː/ in “tall” and relax the muscles to utter lax or short vowels like /e/ in “desk” or /I/ in “bill.” Compared to BBC pronunciation, vowel length has less importance in American English.

There are seven short vowels including /e,

æ, I, ʌ, ɒ, u, and ə/ in BBC pronunciation. American English has all the short vowels but /ɒ/; instead, it has the tense vowel /a:/. That is, the words “box, hot, lot, and not” which are pronounced with the rounded /ɒ/ vowel in the British accent, must be produced with unrounded tense /a:/ vowel in American English speeches.

Although the long vowel /a:/ is sometimes uttered the same in the articulation of British and American English vocabulary, such as father, palm, balm, part, start, large, and card, it is one of the distinctive signs with which you can tell British speakers with American English speakers apart easily. The words such as “laugh, class, ask, answer, advance, and last” are pronounced with the long vowel /a:/ in BBC pronunciation while such words must be articulated with the short vowel /æ/ in General American English.

When it comes to the articulation of the long vowel /ɔː/, British speakers utter the sound much more back rounded and longer. In General American, such vowel in words like “author, walk, daughter, and autumn” a bit loses its roundedness and is articulated as /å:/ sound and that is why most dictionaries alternatively use /a:/ instead of /ɔː/ for General American English.

In addition, the pronunciations of /ə/ and /I/ British and American English are sometimes different. The difference between such unstressed sounds is sometimes blurry in the two versions of the English language. In the following, there is a table showing the difference between British and American English:

wordsGeneral AmericanBBC pronunciation
rabbit/ˈræbɪt//ˈræbət/
pocket/ˈpɒkɪt//ˈpɒkət/
notice/ˈnəʊtɪs//ˈnəʊtəs/
chocolate/ˈtʃɒklɪt//ˈtʃɒklət/

Diphthongs

There are three diphthongs including /ə/, /əu/, and /ɪə/ in BBC pronunciation. But, there is not any separate phonemic diphthong ending in /ə/ in General American English. You can see this underlying main difference in the following table:

wordGeneral AmericanBBC pronunciation
Here/hɪr//hɪə/
Pure/pjʊr//pjʊə/
Europe/ˈjʊrəp//ˈjʊərəp/

In addition, General American lacks the diphthong /əu/; instead, it has the sound /ou/. The pronunciations of the words go, row, and don’t is more back and rounded in American English. In the following, there are some simple English words as examples indicating this difference:

wordsGeneral AmericanBBC pronunciation
Go/ɡoʊ//ɡəʊ/
Show/ʃoʊ//ʃəʊ/
So/soʊ//səʊ/

Consonants

There is not much difference in the consonantal systems of British and American English. The difference is just related to phonetic realization and its distribution. Unlike the vowel differences, British and American English have the same number of consonants.

One of the consonant differences is the realization of the sound /t/ when the sound comes between vowels. In American English speeches, this sound is articulated most like the /d/ sound. But, British speakers pronounce this sound (/t/) as it is.

In American English speeches, the sound /r/ is pronounced, unlike BBC pronunciation. That is, British speakers do not pronounce the /r/ sound although it is included in the spelling of the word; for example, the pronunciations of the words “car, more, better, and care” are “/kå:/, /mɔː/, /betə/, and /keə/ in BBC pronunciation. The articulation of the consonant /r/ occurs when it comes before a vowel; for example, the production of the word ” cry” is /kraɪ/ in BBC pronunciation.

In an American English accent, the sound /j/ is not pronounced when it proceeds the alveolar consonants such as /t/, /d/, and /n/ in a stressed syllable. Moreover, The consonant /ʃ/ is voiced in BBC pronunciation, but this sound is mostly pronounced as /ʒ/ in many cases in American English as you can see in the following table:

wordsGeneral AmericanBBC pronunciation
Version/ˈvɜːrʒən//ˈvɜːʃən/
Persian/ˈpɜːrʒən//ˈpɜːʃən/

The articulation of suffixes

The suffix “_ile” is pronounced as /aɪl/ in BBC pronunciation. But, American English speakers pronounce this suffix with the weak vowel/əl/ or /l/. The suffixes “–ary, -very, -very, -many” are articulated with a weak vowel in the BBC pronunciation whereas these suffixes are uttered strongly in General American as you can see in the following:

wordsGeneral AmericanBBC pronunciation
Testimony/testɪməni or -moʊni//ˈtestəməni/
Mandatory/ˈmændətɔːri//ˈmændətəri/
Ceremony/ˈserɪməni or -moʊni//ˈserəməni/

Stress pattern

Some words do not have the same stress pattern in British and American English. For example, the stress of many verbs ending with the suffix “_ate” is on the suffix in the British accent. On the other hand, the stress of such verbs is on the first syllable in General American.

Different articulation

The pronunciation of some words is different in British and American English. The pronunciation of such words should be memorized so that ESL students can understand both accents well. In the following, there are more examples of the differences in British and American English pronunciations:

wordsGeneral AmericanBBC pronunciation
Either/ˈiːðər//ˈaɪðə/
Nourish/ˈnɜːrɪʃ//ˈnʌrɪʃ/
Schedule/ˈskedʒʊl//ˈʃedjuːl/

Overall, there are plenty of accrual variations in British and American English. There are six differences in the two accents of the English language. ESL learners should know the difference by heart to be completely fluent in English listening and speaking skills.

Vocabulary

Some words have different meanings in British and American English. Some words are even not common or used; or, some words may contain negative connotations and be used as an insult in one of the two versions of English. In the following, there is a list showing the differences of meanings of words in British and American English.

WordsMeaning in American EnglishMeaning in British English
BillMoney, The visor of a capNote
To tableTo suspend or delay discussionTo open something up for discussion
HockeyIce hockeyThe field of hockey
PantsTrousersUnderpants
KnickersA variety of half-length trousersFemale underpants
QuiteVerySomewhat
NaffThis word is not used in American EnglishNot very good
FallAutumnThis word is obsolete in British English
WhilstThis word is not used in American EnglishWhile
LemonadeNon_carbonated drinkClear, carbonated drink
Life preserverLife vest, a personal flotation devicea sort of weapon for self-defense
CampsiteA particular area for certain people to camp inArea or a park for camping in
CarnivalA traveling circus having amusing ridesa kind of street festival
BiscuitA sort of savory sconeA chocolate biscuit
BracketsReferring to square bracketsReferring to round brackets
CasualtyA killed personAn injured person
GasGasolineThe natural gas
MadAngryCrazy
ProfessorsAll the lectures taught in a universityIt refers to the very top members of the academic staff
PurseA shoulder bagA small female’s wallet
RiderA person traveling on a vehicleA person riding a vehicle
SubwayThe underground trainA pedestrian underpass
SurgeryAn opening theatreThe office of a doctor
HomelyUnattractiveHomey
JumperA sleeveless dressA sweater
TrolleyAn electric vehicle running along the metal tracks of a roadA shopping cart
RubberA condomAn eraser
PlasterA bandageA kind of material stuck onto the skin for covering a small wound

As you can see in the examples, some words do not have the same meanings in British and American English. If you do not know the differences between British and American English in terms of vocabulary, you will get into trouble and confusion on your way to English immersion.

There are some words that have specific meanings in British and American English as shown in the following table; For example, you can live in an apartment to study in a university in the UK, but you can live in a flat to study in a college in the USA.

American EnglishBritish English
TrainersSneakers
CandySweets
ZipcodePost code
Parking lotCar park
ElevatorLift
Public schoolState school
DrapesCurtains
CVResume
Sickill
Garbage canDustbin
HolidayVacation
ChipsCrisps
MailboxPostbox
SoccerFootball
DrugstoreChemist’s
MovieFilm
JanitorCaretaker
StoveCooker
ThreadCotton
MotorEngine
YardGarden
BoilerGrill
TruckLorry
HighwayMain road
FreewayMotorway
BarPub
StoreShop
ScheduleTime table
LineQueue
GasolinePetrol
AnyplaceAnywhere
StingyMean
Driver’s LicenseDriving license
CanTin
SubwayUnderground railway
ClosetWardrobe
WindshieldWindscreen
CabTaxi
FacultyStaff

Overall, there is a huge difference between British and American English in terms of vocabulary as you saw in the two tables. The list of the differences is too much to mention in this paper. ESL students need to learn the differences in British and American English vocabulary by heart to acquire one of the main English accents so that they can be fluent at speaking with near native_like English accent and listening to different English accents.

Spelling

One of the key doors to achieving mastery in English writing is learning the different spelling in British and American English. There are many words whose spellings are not the same, such as the ones in the following table, in British and American English

American EnglishBritish English
ColorColour
TheaterTheatre
BehaviorBehaviour
MeterMetre
OrganizeOrganise
MathMaths
RumorRumour
SkillfulSkilful
OffenseOffence
ProgramProgramme
TonTonne
ArmorArmour
FavorFavour
CenterCentre
CheckCheque
GrayGrey
JewelryJewellry
LicenseLicence
AnalyzeAnalyse
FiberFibre
LiterLitre
CatalogCatalogue
TireTyre
ApologizeApologise
PrologPrologue
LusterLustre
ViseVice
KaratCarat
PediatricianPaediatrician
AgingAgeing
LikableLikeable
TravelerTraveller
DialogDialogue
NeighborNeighbour
BurnedBurnt
TowardTowards
MoldMould
PlowPlough
SkepticalSceptical

Overall, “correct spelling” is one of the requirements of having an advanced level in English writing. A professional writer knows the differences between British and American English very well in terms of spelling. The above table helps ESL students to know some spelling differences in British and American English. Moreover, the students can take advantage of the Oxford dictionary, for learning British, and the Webster dictionary, for learning American English.

Grammar

British and American English have fewer things in common when it comes to grammatical rules. The structures used by British speakers are sometimes far different from the ones used by American English speakers. Here, we are going to mention a few differences in the grammar of British and American English.

Verbs:

The forms of verbs are not the same in British and American English. As mentioned in the spelling part, the forms of the verb ” to burn”, like many other verbs such as “to dream, bust, and learn” is different in British and American English. The past tense and past participant of “burnt” are “learned” in British English and “burned” in American English. However, these verbs can sometimes be used interchangeably in the two versions.

Prepositions

In American English, the preposition “on” is used before the noun “weekend”. the preparation ” than” can be used with the word “different”. ” to” can be eliminated when it comes after the verb “write”.

In British English, the preposition “at” proceeds places, institutions, and time expressions. The preposition “to” always proceeds with the verb “write”. The prepositions ” to and from” are used before the adjective “different”.

Auxiliaries and modals

The auxiliary verb ” do” can be used in the answer as a substitute for the main verb in British English. For example, if a person asks the question ” Are you coming to my birthday party tonight?”, a British speaker can reply “Yes, I might do”. Moreover, ” needn’t” can be used as a substitute for the phrase “do not need to” only in British English.

The auxiliary verb “shall” is used in British English whether to make a request formally or ask a formal question. But, this verb is not used in American English. Instead, the auxiliary verb “should” is used for asking questions, such as “Should I leave the class earlier?”, and the auxiliary verb ” will” is used for making a request, like “Will you please open the window?” in American English.

The use of present perfect

Compared to British English, the use of present perfect is less common in American English. American English uses simple past instead of the present perfect in their communications under the following conditions:

  1. For the action that is over, but the effect has remained. For examples:

a) I ate the chocolate cake so I am full.

b) I watched the movie and it was great.

c) I am ready for the exam because I read the textbook last night.

  1. When the sentence includes the words ” yet” and “already”.

a) I did not do my homework yet.

b) I already met Jack in the shop.

c) The class is over but the teacher did not finish her speech yet.

Collective nouns

In American English, the verb coming after collective nouns, such as people, cattle, etc., is always singular. On the other hand, the form of such verbs depends on the meanings carried by the collective nouns in British English. That is, if the collective noun refers to a certain idea or item, the proceed verb must be singular in British English; if not, the form of the verb must be plural.

Examples for American English:

a) The team are losing the game.

b) The people are waiting for the king to come.

c) The cattle are hungry.

Examples for British English:

a) My family always gives me valuable gifts on my birthday.

b) I am happy to see my team is winning.

c) The group is talking together to make a wise choice.

Conclusion

In short, the two general varieties of English taught at most educational institutions around the globe are British and American English. ESL students should pick whether British English or American English to fulfill their English learning process successfully; moreover, they should know the differences to understand and use the two common English accents; in this way, they considerably get ahead of other ESL learners. There are eight differences between British and American English that the five most important differences are explained in this paper.

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