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Differences Between British and American English

The Most Important Differences Between British and American English

Ирина Пономарева (Irina Ponomareva)

It’s no secret that there are a number of differences between the two most widespread variations of the English language, both in the way they are spoken and in the way they are written. Most people get used from birth to their own dialect of English and are happy with that, but to professional copywriters and technical writers the ability to write both like Britons and like Americans - and switch at will - can prove very useful.

This skill is much easier to develop for non-native speakers of English who learn it as L2, since they have no emotional attachment to either dialect or spelling system. All you need to achieve is to memorize the most important differences. So let us look at them all in turn.

Spelling

The most often encountered discrepancy is the one concerning the words that end in -our in the UK and -or in the USA. For example, an English person will write colour, honour or valour, but in America these words will become color, honor and valor respectively. That’s not hard to remember, but it’s just the beginning.

Things get a bit more complicated with words like realise/realize or analyse/analyze. Which letter to use? An American will always spell them with a Z, but if you are writing according to the UK standard, you face a dilemma. People who adhere to the old traditions will appreciate an S there, but you will see both variations in print, and Z is also used in Oxford and in the British Academy. Children who learn English as a foreign language outside the English-speaking part of the world will very likely be taught the British variety but with a Z in words like realize and memorize.

But you should be careful, since there are several words spelt always with an S, even in the USA. Advertise is just one of them. So, unless you are a hundred percent sure that you know how to spell a word, always look it up.

Now things are getting really interesting. There is a very simple word practice, which can be either a noun or a verb. That is, it can be in America, but in the UK you have to spell it practise if you want it to be a verb. To confuse you even more, for another similarly common word, advice, it works differently. To become a verb, it needs an S (as in advise) on both sides of the pond.

Then there is the famous word tire, which can be a verb (as in “to get tired”) or a noun (a rubber covering of the car’s wheel). A lot of puns have been based upon it, but they won’t work in the UK, because in this country (and some others) the noun is spelt as tyre.
Now let us add British travelling vs American traveling. This could make you think that Britons prefer always two L’s where Americans would be happy with one, but you would be wrong, because British fulfilment and American fulfillment prove just the opposite.

Lastly, it’s prologue, dialogue and monologue in the UK, but prolog, dialog and monolog in the USA.

That is as far as spelling goes, and the list is definitely incomplete, but should see you through the majority of situations. Now let us look a some lexical differences.

The lexical aspect

Apart from the above mentioned differences in spelling, British and American English often use different words to name the same things. The most often encountered discrepancies are given in the table below.

 

British American Comments
tap faucet Noun only
lift elevator Only applied to the noun that means “a permanent construction with a built-in platform that is lifted vertically, used to transport people and goods"
flat apartment Again, noun only
Autumn fall Some Americans understand Autumn too, but to be on the safe side, always say fall.
full stop period Only when it means the tiny dot at the end of the sentence.
biscuits cookies Some say they are different things, but dictionaries disagree
got gotten Past participle for get

There are many more, for example, people in the know advise to be very careful with the word pants, which has different meanings in the two dialects. It’s easy to find yourself in an awkward situation, should you disregard this.

As for the multiple differences in the pronunciation of certain words, they are outside the scope of this article, since they don’t apply to writing, and the purpose of this little piece is to help writers who would like to work with both American and British customers. Also note that Canadian and Australian spelling systems as well as that of New Zealand are very close to the British standard.