American English vs. British English

American English vs. British English – The Major Differences

We’re not sure whether you’ve noticed, but there’s a pretty big election going on over there in the States this week. The Republican Donald Trump, a shy and retiring type, is going up against Democrat Hilary Clinton, who, if successful, will become the first female President of the United States.

The wall-to-wall media coverage has made us think just how different the US and the UK are. You can say what you like about our political system, and the perceived weakness of some of the parties at the moment, but at least we’re not likely to elect a crazed megalomaniac anytime soon, are we?

Despite the very obvious differences between the two countries, one similarity must people cite is the language. There is an old saying that America and Britain are “two nations divided by a common language.” But while American and British English might sound the same, apart from the respective volume each is spoken, on paper it’s a whole different ball game.

So what are the major differences between these two variations on a common theme?

1. Spelling

One of the obvious differences most of us would immediately point to is spelling. Noah Webster, an American lexicographer who gave his name to the Webster Dictionary, now the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, is the one man you can thank for the discrepancies.

Having become infuriated with the many inconsistencies in the English language, Mr Webster set about reforming the American spelling in the late 1700s. Perhaps sensibly, he wanted words to be spelt the way they sounded. In many cases this involved dropping the U so the spelling matched the pronunciation. Colour became color; honour became honor; and labour became labor.

He also proposed the word ‘women’ should become ‘wimmen’, but that proved to be a step too far.

2. Vocabulary

The differences in American and British vocabulary are the source of plenty of derision between the two countries. Some of the most well-known variations include:

British English American English
Trousers Pants
Flat Apartment
Bonnet/Boot Hood/Trunk
Caravan Trailer
Crisps Potato chips
Drawing pin Thumbtack
Lift Elevator
Pavement Sidewalk
Pub Bar
Maths Math

We could go on, but I think we’ve made our point. While there are clear differences, most Americans and Brits can usually guess the meaning of a word through the context of the sentence. However, that doesn’t prevent the look of bewilderment you invariably receive when you invite an American to the pub.

3. Grammar

There’s no grammatical gulf in the American and British use of the English language, but there are some noteworthy quirks. For example, in respect to irregular past tense verbs (we’re going back to school now), in British English we have the choice of dreamed or dreamt, burned or burnt, leaned or lent, while in America they would always opt for the –ed ending.

There are also slight differences in our use of collective nouns, which are used to refer a group of individuals. In American English, collective nouns are singular, so they would say “the band is good”, or “the team is playing tonight”. In British English, collective nouns can be singular or plural, so you could say “the team are playing tonight”, or “the staff are happy with how it went.”

The final difference relates to auxiliary verbs, which add information to the main verb. In this case, Brits tend to use the word shall to express the future. For example, “I shall go home” or “shall we go?”. In America, the word shall is very formal and is rarely used in conversation. They would be more likely to say “I will go home now” or “Should we go?”

Far more similar than you might think

While you might think a linguistic chasm exists between American English and British English, there are actually many more similarities than differences. Our accents certainly exaggerate the few differences there are.

So, whatever happens on election day, we better get used to the fact that we’ll always have at least one thing in common with our American neighbours. And, if Mr Trump wins, at least we can enjoy his interesting take on the English language more often.

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