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American and British English differences
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American and British English differences

This article outlines the differences between American English, the form of the English language spoken in the United States, and British English. The latter is often used to denote what is more precisely known as Commonwealth English.

For the purposes of this article:

Table of contents
1 English in various countries
2 Spelling
3 Slight lexical differences
4 Grammar
5 Punctuation
6 Numbers
7 Vocabulary
8 Pronunciation
9 Miscellaneous
10 Building layout
11 See also
12 External links

English in various countries

English usage in other countries has traditionally followed one model or the other. Throughout most of the Commonwealth, spoken English has its roots in the British version, though local expressions abound. Canadian English is something of an exception, taking its cue from both the UK and the US. British English is also the dialect taught in most countries where English is not a native language, though there are a few exceptions where American English is taught, such as in the Philippines and in Japan. Ireland's version of English, sometimes described as Hiberno-English, differs in some respects from British English, in so far as phrases and terms often owe their origin to the original Irish language (Gaelic), which allowed for more variations in word structure. English is one of the official languages of the European Union, and the form used within the EU follows usage in the United Kingdom and Ireland.

Although American and British English are generally mutually intelligible, there are enough differences to occasionally cause awkward misunderstandings or even a complete failure to communicate. George Bernard Shaw said that the United States and United Kingdom are "two countries divided by a common language". A similar comment is ascribed to Winston Churchill.

Henry Sweet predicted in 1877 that within a century, American English, Australian English and British English would be mutually unintelligible, but it may be the case that increased world-wide communication through radio, television, the Internet, and globalization has reduced the tendency to regionalisation. This can result either in some variations becoming extinct (as, for instance, truck has been gradually displacing lorry in much of the world) or in the acceptance of wide variations as "perfectly good English" everywhere.

In addition to its use in English-speaking countries, English plays an important role as a technical language around the world, in medicine, computer science, air traffic control, and many other areas of concentrated expertise and formal communication among international professionals. Such speakers may be fluent in English within their discipline, but not generally fluent in English.

There are also many surviving dialects and local variations in English. Certainly the Alabama truck driver, the Highlands crofter, the Jamaican rapper, and the Harvard professor can all speak English, but they would have to work at it to talk among themselves. And the Finnish air traffic controller might still feel left out.

Spelling

Some words shared by all English speakers are spelled one way by Americans but are spelt differently in other English speaking countries. (The words in italics show just one example.) Many of the differences were introduced, somewhat artificially, into the United States by Noah Webster's dictionary, and have never spread to other English-speaking countries. In some cases, the American versions have become common Commonwealth usage, for example program (in the computing sense).

Words ending in ...

... -our / -or

American words ending in "or" may end in "our" in Commonwealth English. For example, in American English, one would use color, flavor, honor, whereas in Commonwealth English one would use colour, flavour and honour. In addition, Americans replace "ou" with "o" in derivatives and inflected forms such as favourite, savoury versus favorite, savory. One exception to this distinction is glamour, which is usually spelled that way in American English as well as in Commonwealth usage. In both systems, the adjectival forms that end in -ous are spelled without the penultimate u (e.g. glamorous, vigorous, humorous and laborious). Words in which the stress falls on the "our", such as hour, our, flour, velour, sour, and soury, are the same in both usages.

... -re / -er

Commonwealth centre, fibre, metre, theatre (betraying a French influence); American center, fiber, meter, theater. The adjectival forms of these words are the same in both conventions, however. Americans do not write centeral, fiberous, meteric or theaterical (adjectival forms derived as past participles, however, are written -ered, as in centered). Commonwealth English uses meter for a measuring device and metre for the unit of measure. The Commonwealth forms are recognizable by Americans and are occasionally found in American texts, though their usage may be considered an affectation. The Commonwealth spelling that has perhaps gained the most currency in American English is theatre. However, theater is still more common in everyday use, and theatre is generally reserved for more formal settings or for the names of specific venues (e.g. the Kodak Theatre).

... -gue / -g

Commonwealth analogue, catalogue, dialogue; American analog, catalog, dialog. However, the -gue forms are also relatively common in the United States. Some -gue forms are common in both Commonwealth and American usages, such as demagogue. Where the o sound is long, -gue is universal, e.g. vogue (vog would suggest a short o as in dog; voge might suggest a soft g as in lodge or a zh as in camouflage).

... -ise / -ize

Commonwealth colonise, harmonise, realise; American colonize, harmonize, realize (and derivatives and inflexions therefrom: colonisation - colonization). This is a somewhat artificial distinction, since the most authoritative British sources, the Oxford English Dictionary and Fowler's Modern English Usage, prefer -ize, and most British writers use either freely; however, British editors tend to enforce the use of -ise as the standard orthographical practice. Also: Commonwealth analyse; American analyze. It should also be noted that not all spellings are interchangeable; some words take the -z- form exclusively, for instance capsize, prize (to value), seize, size, whereas others take only -s-: advertise, advise, apprise, arise, circumcise, comprise, demise, despise, devise, disguise, exercise, franchise, improvise, incise, promise, poise, praise, raise, rise, supervise, surmise, surprise and televise.

... -xion / -ction

The spellings connexion, inflexion, deflexion, reflexion are now somewhat rare, perhaps understandably as their stems are connect, inflect, deflect, and reflect and there are many such words in English that result in a -tion ending. The more common American connection, inflection, deflection, reflection have almost become the standard internationally.

However, the Oxford English Dictionary lists the older spellings as the etymological form, since these four words actually derive from the Latin root xio.

In both forms, complexion is used in preference to complection, as it comes from the stem complex in British and in American English, just like crucifix and crucifixion. British Methodism retains the eighteenth century spelling "connexion" to describe its national organisation, for historical reasons.

Greek-derived words with ae or æ and oe or œ

Commonwealth American
anaemia anemia
anaesthesia anesthesia
diarrhoea diarrhea
foetus fetus
gynaecology gynecology
mediaeval medieval
encyclopaedia encyclopedia

Commonwealth manoeuvre seems to be a special case: its oe was not derived from Greek, but was apparently changed to maneuver in American English on the mistaken belief that it was. British aeroplane and American airplane is a special case in that it's not a straight ae → e substitution; in fact it is a different word rather than a different spelling. Some words retain the 'ae' in American usage, such as aesthetic and archaeology, although esthetic and archeology are also encountered. The spelling encyclopedia is commonly used in British English, although the earlier form encyclopaedia is also used.

Doubled consonants

Commonwealth English generally doubles final -l when adding suffixes that begin with a vowel, if -l is preceded by a single vowel, where American English doubles it only on stressed syllables. (Thus American English treats -l the same as other final consonants, whereas Commonwealth English treats it irregularly.) Commonwealth counsellor, equalling, modelling, quarrelled, signalling, travelled; American counselor, (but chancellor), equaling, modeling, quarreled, signaling, traveled. Commonwealth writers also use a single l before suffixes beginning with a consonant where Americans use a double: Commonwealth enrolment, fulfilment (but fulfilled), instalment, skilful; American enrollment, fulfillment, installment, skillful. The infinitives of these verbs are also different: in the Commonwealth, they are to enrol, fulfil and instal (although install is also common), whereas in the USA, they are to enroll, fulfill and install.

Miscellaneous spelling differences

Commonwealth American Remarks
aluminium aluminum The Commonwealth spelling is the international standard in the sciences (IUPAC), although many American scientists use the American spelling.
annexe annex To annex is the verb in both Commonwealth and American usage; however, when speaking of an annexe (the noun referring to an extension of a main building, not military conquest, which would be annexation), it is usually spelt with an -e at the end in the Commonwealth, but in the US it is not.
artefact artifact
carburettor carburetor
close closed Opposite of open in certain phrases only, such as "close season" (= the period when a certain sport is not played or when fishing and hunting is forbidden), which is "closed season" in the USA. Roads, shops and doors are closed everywhere (a "close street" is one that is nearby, not one that is not open); so too are friends close to one another irrespective of where they are.
cheque check For a bank cheque; however, the verb is still check.
cypher cipher Cypher (and such derivations as encypher and decypher) is used in the UK, and cipher is used in both the UK and the U.S. (both spellings are quite old).
disc disk In the U.S., disc is also a common spelling. In computing (among other fields), both spellings are used in both American and Commonwealth English — the two spellings are generally used mutually exclusively to refer to discs of different types.
draught draft Commonwealth English uses draught for a plan or sketch, for drinks stored in barrels ('draught lager'), for animals used for pulling heavy loads ("a draught horse"), for a current of air, and for a ship's minimum depth of water to float; it uses draft for a preliminary version of a document and an order of payment. American English uses draft in all these cases, as well as when speaking of what Commonwealth speakers refer to as military conscription. Commonwealth English also uses draught for the game of draughts (Americans call it checkers).
for ever forever In Commonwealth English, for ever means for eternity (or a very long time), as in "I have been waiting for you for ever." Forever means continually, always, as in "They are forever arguing."
furore furor
glycerine glycerin Glycerine is also commonly used in the US.
gaol jail British English uses jail and jailer more often than gaol and gaoler (except to describe a mediaeval building and guard).
grey gray American English uses both grey and gray.
jewellery jewelry
kerb curb Curb is used in Britain for the verb "to restrain" or "to control", but the edge of a roadway (the edge of a pavement [American English sidewalk]) is kerb.
maths math (mathematics); /θs/ is hard for Americans to rapidly pronounce.
mould mold
moult molt
plough plow
pyjamas pajamas
programme program program is always used in British English when referring to a computer program, perhaps inspired by American usage, but for other uses, programme is usual.
scepticism skepticism
speciality specialty
sport sports Americans use the term sports to refer collectively to all athletic contests, as in "the sports section of the paper" or "ABC's Wide World of Sports". The British typically use sport in this context, although they usually use sports as a plural when referring to specific competitions. Americans find the collective noun sport to be quite formal.
storey story When referring to levels of buildings; a tale is story everywhere. Note also the differing plural, storeys vs stories respectively.
sulphur sulfur The American spelling is the international standard in the sciences, although many British scientists use the British spelling.
tyre tire Tyre in Commonwealth English refers to the noun, a rubber ring on a wheel of a vehicle, whereas tire, a verb, in the sense of losing energy, is spelt so everywhere.
vice vise Americans use vise for the tool and vice for the sin; Commonwealth usage has vice for both.

In addition to these, the word lieutenant is spelt the same in both countries, but Americans pronounce it as /lu"tEn@nt/, whereas the British pronunciation is /lEf"tEn@nt/.

Slight lexical differences

See also: .

Grammar

Punctuation

The American style was established for typographical reasons, having to do with the aesthetics of commas and quotation marks in typeset text; however, it is counterintuitive to some people, and illogical to mutilate strings with characters that do not belong in them. Hart's Rules and the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors call the British style "new" or "logical" quoting. This returns British English to the style many other languages (including Spanish, French, Italian, Catalan, and German) have been using all along. This "logical" style is increasingly popular in America, although it is not generally suitable for formal writing. According to the Jargon file, American hackers have switched to using "logical" British quotating system, because including extraneous punctuation in a quotation can sometimes change the fundamental meaning of the quotation. Note: The Wikipedia:Manual of Style splits the difference here, suggesting British style for punctuation and quotation marks, and American style for double and single quotation marks.

Numbers

When saying or writing out numbers, the British will put an "and" before the last part, as in "one hundred and sixty-two" and "two thousand and three", whereas Americans go with "one hundred sixty-two" and "two thousand three". Americans also have a tendency to read numbers like 1,234 as "twelve thirty-four", which would be "one thousand, two hundred and thirty-four" or occasionally "twelve hundred and thirty-four" in Britain unless discussing the year 1234, when "twelve thirty-four" would be the norm. Similarily, for the house number (or bus number, etc) "272" Britons would tend to say "two seven two" while Americans would tend to say "two seventy two". The British do, however, commonly read numbers ending in round hundreds as, for instance, "sixteen hundred" instead of "one thousand six hundred" (and never as "one thousand and six hundred").

There is also a historical difference between billions, trillions. Historically, in the United States, one billion meant one thousand million (1,000,000,000) whereas in British English, it meant one million million (1,000,000,000,000), with one thousand million sometimes described as a milliard. However, the "American English" (both systems were actually invented by the French) version is now also used in the United Kingdom, particularly in business and government. The word milliard is disappearing from use.

This American version is out of sync with arithmetic and other European languages. A billion in arithmetic is a million to the power of 2 (2 = bi), a trillion is a million to the power of 3, and a million is a million to the power of 1.

When using hugely large numbers, it is recommended that SI units be used (1,000,000,000 = 1 Giga-unit), or standard form (1,200,000,000 = 1.2 × 109), which removes possible confusion entirely (as do phrases such as "thousand million" and "million million", e.g. 1,200,000,000 = "one thousand two hundred million" as opposes to "one point two billion"). See English language numerals for details.

Finally, when referring to the number 0, Britons would use "zero", "nought", or "oh" normally, or "nil" in instances such as sports scores and voting results. Americans use the term "zero" almost exclusively, though phrases such as "the team won two-zip", "the team leads the series, two-nothing" or "after the second inning, it was oh-and-two" are heard when reporting sports scores. (The digit 0, e.g. when reading a phone or account number aloud, is nearly always pronounced "oh" in both languages for the sake of convenience.)

When reading numbers in a sequence, such as a telephone number, Britons will use the terms double or triple. Hence the emergency telephone number in Britain is 'triple-nine' (or even 'treble-nine') 999, while 911 is 'nine-one-one' in America and not 'nine double-one'

Vocabulary

Most of the differences are in connection with concepts originating from the nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century, where new words were coined independently; almost the entire vocabularies of the car/automobile and railway/railroad industries (see Rail terminology) are different between Britain and America, for example. Other sources of difference are slang or vulgar terms, where frequent new coinage occurs, and idiomatic phrases, including phrasal verbs. The differences most likely to create confusion are those where the same word or phrase is used for two different concepts. Regional variations even within the US or the UK can create the same problems.

It should also be noted that most American words can be freely interchanged with their British versions within the United Kingdom without leading to confusion, though they may cause irritation. It tends to be only when the situation is reversed that real problems of understanding occur. However, there are some exceptions, such as dumpster, gas and stroller (in the sense of pushchair) which would be misunderstood by speakers of British English. There are, however, many pitfalls that Americans can fall into without realising it. Be sure you know what you are talking about when talking about a woman's fanny in Britain, since the word indicates the buttocks in the US versus the vagina in the UK. And use caution in the US when asking to be knocked up – in the UK it means to be awakened as with a knock on the door whereas in the US it means to be impregnated.

Words used only in British English

In Southern Britain the word whilst is used almost interchangeably with while. Whilst is more often used in instruction manuals, legal documents, etc.

The word while means until in some dialects of Northern England. There is an apocryphal story that because of this, railway crossings with signs saying "do not cross the track while the lights are flashing" had to be changed after several fatalities occurred.

See List of British English words not used in American English.

Words used only in American English

Speakers of British English are generally aware of the American English term, but would not generally use it.

See List of American English words not used in British English.

Words with different meanings in British and American English

See List of words having different meanings in British and American English.

Pronunciation

Britons and Americans pronounce some instances of t and d differently. In British pronunciation, the two sounds are always distinct and prounounced as /t/ and /d/ respectively. In American English, when either a 't' sound or a 'd' sound occurs between two vowels and before an unstressed syllable, it changes to an alveolar flap, similar to the 'r' in Spanish 'pero'. Consequently, to a speaker of both dialect groups, an American's pronunciation of atom and Adam are homophonous in casual speech. Many Americans, however, slightly aspirate this sound when it derives from a 't' and follows a short i (/I/) or long a (/eI/) sound, thus bitter and rated are distinguishable from bidder and raided. See linguistics and allophones for more information on this category of phenomenon.

Though most British accents pronounce the T's in words as a distinctive T, it is common, particularly in Estuary English, to replace the T with a glottal stop.

The vowels are also somewhat different. American English generally has a simplified vowel system as compared to the British dialects. In particular, many Americans have lost the distinction between the vowels of awl and all, as well as caught and cot, the so-called cot-caught merger tending to pronounce all of these with something between a long form of the sound in cot and the "a" of father (those two sounds being distinct in British English.

The long "a" of father, the famous British broad A, is used in many British RP words, especially common ones, in two phonetic situations. Firstly, before three of the four voiceless fricatives, as in path, laugh, pass, past, though not before sh. Secondly, before some instances of n and another consonant, as in aunt, plant, dance. In most northern dialects, not to mention Scotish and Irish, though, the short "a" is the norm. (Australian usually follows RP in the first case, though castle and graph, among others, often have the short vowel, and aunt and can't invariably have the broad one.) An "a" at the beginning of a word (such as "ant") is usually short throughout the country, just as in the American.

British Received Pronunciation has generally lost the long /O:/ as in boat, replacing it with a diphthong that is close to /@U/. Some British speakers still have /O:/, but it appears only as a result of a lost /r/, in words like force. More northerly and westerly British speech preserves /O:/. The British diphthong /@U/ is enunciated as /oU/ or sometimes as /o/ in general American.

American speech usually does not soften consonants /n/, /t/ and /d/ with /j/, unlike British pronunciation in certain cases. This is particularly noticeable in words such as new, tune and dual; these are pronounced something like "nyoo" /nju:/, "tyoon" /tju:n/ and "dyooal" /"dju:@l/ respectively in Britain, but "noo" /nu:/, "toon" /tu:n/ and "dool" /"du:(@)l/ in America.

Most American dialects have not lost the non-prevocalic r. That is, "standard" American English preserves the sound of "r" in all occurrences, whereas British English only preserves it when it is followed by a vowel (see rhotic). However, this holds true neither for all American dialects nor for all British dialects; the dialects of New England and the American South both exhibit a similar sound change found in southern England. In England, however, when a former syllable final /r/ appeared before a consonant not at a word boundary, a schwa was substituted for it, giving British English a new class of falling diphthongs. The non-rhotic North American dialects do not show this. This phenomenon also partially accounts for the interlocution of 'r' between a word ending in a vowel and one beginning with a vowel (such as "the idear of it") exhibited both in some dialects of Britain and in the Boston (USA) dialect of American English. Most other American dialects interpose a glottal stop where "r" appears in the Boston example, and appears to perform the same function of separating adjacent (non-dipthongized) vowels.

In American English, words of two or more syllables, where the first syllable ends with a single consonant, usually use the long vowel sound:

In British English the short vowel sound is usually employed: In both British and American English a double consonant ending the first syllable usually means the short vowel sound is used. Words ending in -ile and -ine (fertile, docile, missile) are pronounced with the last syllable sounding the same as isle for the -ile words in British English, and with a short, reduced i (rhyming with turtle) in American (although exceptions can be found, such as reptile and turbine, which are pronounced by most Americans so that the last syllable rhymes with style and wine, respectively).

Some multisyllabic words such as iodine and melamine are pronounced with the last syllable sounding the same as dean or mean in British English, and with the last syllable sounding like dine or mine in American.

The name of the letter Z is pronounced zed in British English (as well as Commonwealth English and most other European languages), as opposed to zee in American English, though the words are normally only spelled out when noting the difference, like here. Some Greek letters are also pronounced differently. For example, the British pronunciation of beta sounds like "beeta" whereas the American pronunciation sounds like "baita", similarly, epsilon is /Ep"saIl(@)n/ to Britons and /"Eps@%lOn/ to Americans, though pi is "pie" to both. The American is more in keeping with the ancient Greek; the British reflects sound changes in English since the borrowing.

There are various other words which are pronounced differently, without any apparent pattern. For example, the first syllable of schedule is pronounced "sked" /"skedZu:l/ in the US, but shed /"Sedju:l/ in the UK and Canada. The word "route" is pronounced "root" /ru:t/ in the UK but "rowt" /raUt/ in some parts of North America.

Miscellaneous

Both British and American English use the expression "I couldn't care less" to mean the speaker does not care at all. In American English, the ironic "I could care less" (without the "n't") is synonymous with this, while in British English, "I could care less" is most certainly not synonymous with this, and might be interpreted as anything from nonsense to an indication that the speaker does care.

In his history of the Second World War, Winston Churchill records that differences in the interpretation of the verb "to table" caused an argument between British and American planners. The British wanted a matter tabled immediately because it was important, and the Americans insisted it should not be tabled at all because it was important. In British English, the term means "to discuss now", whereas in American English it means "to defer".

In a similar vein, the verb "to slate" means "to schedule" in the US but (informally) "to disparage" in the UK. Thus a headline such as "Third Harry Potter Film Slated" has two very different interpretations.

Building layout

American English and British English differ in how they describe the floor levels of buildings, a distinction that often causes confusion in each other's countries.

Location American English British English
Bottom floor at ground level First floor Ground floor
One floor above ground level Second floor First floor
Two floors above ground level Third floor Second floor

Put simply:

Most European countries and Commonwealth Nations follow the same convention as the British.

See also

External links