The differences between British and American English

The English language was first introduced to America in 1607 as a result of British colonisation. The language also spread to numerous other parts of the world as a result of British trade and the expansion of the former British empire, which by 1921 accounted for a population of 470-570 million people, approximately a quarter of the world’s population at the time.

The English colonisation of North America resulted in the creation of a distinct American variety of English. In some ways, American English is more like the English of Shakespeare than modern British English, and some expressions that the British label “Americanisms” are in fact originally British phrases that were preserved in the colonies while lost in time over here in the UK (for example trash, for rubbish, to loan as a verb instead of to lend, and fall for autumn). Differences between American English and British English include pronunciation, grammar, vocabulary, spelling and idioms, and a small number of words have completely changed meanings in the two versions or are even unknown or not used in one of the versions. One particular reason for this divergence is that when Noah Webster wrote the first American dictionary in 1828, he wrote with the specific intention of showing that Americans spoke a different dialect to the British, much like a regional accent, thus cementing the differences. Since then, the differences between the two languages have often been commented on for comic effect, for example by Oscar Wilde who famously wrote: “We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, the language” (The Canterville Ghost, 1888).

Some key differences between British and American English are:

  1. The use of the past participle ‘gotten’ which is never used in correct British English (BrE) but is common in North American English (AmE). The American dictionary Merriam-Webster lists ‘gotten’ as a standard past participle of ‘to get’. In AmE, ‘gotten’ emphasises the action of acquiring and ‘got’ tends to indicate simple possession (for example, ‘Have you gotten it?’ vs ‘Have you got it?’).
  2. Traditionally, BrE uses the present perfect to talk about an event in the recent past and with the words already, just and yet. The American tendency, however, is the use of just with the simple past. For example, compare the BrE: “I have just arrived home” to the AmE: “I just arrived home”. Similarly, compare the BrE: “I have already eaten” to the AmE: “I already ate”.
  3. The use of ‘do’ as a pro-predicate is almost exclusively British. So for example, when the Brits would say ‘I could do’, the Americans would say ‘I could have done’.
  4. Where a statement of intention involves two different activities, it is acceptable for speakers of American English to use to go + infinitive, whereas a speaker of British English would instead use to go + AND + infinitive. For example, the AmE phrase: “I’ll go take a bath” in British English would be “I’ll go and take a bath”. It is the same as ‘to come’, with American English speakers saying: “come see what I bought”, whereas British English speakers would say “come and see what I have bought” (notice the present perfect: a common British preference).
  5. When it comes to articles, American English omits, and British English requires, the definite articles in a few expressions, such as ‘tell (the) time’ and ‘play (the) piano’. Similarly, in British English, numbered motorways usually take the definite article (for example ‘the M4’) whereas in America the highways do not: “take route 66”. Dates usually include a definite article in British English such as ‘the eleventh of July’ or ‘July the eleventh’, whereas American speakers most commonly say ‘July eleventh’ or simply ‘7/11’.
  6. For names of American rivers, in most cases ‘river’comes after the name (for example, Colorado River) whereas in Britain it comes before (as in the River Thames). Of course there are exceptions for both, but notable exceptions in the US are the River Rouge and the River Raisin, both in Michigan and named by the French.
  7. The British tend to prefer the use of the gerund in compound nouns of the form ‘verb-noun’ whereas American English favours the bare infinitive. Examples include: rowing boat/row boat, dialling tone/dial tone, filing cabinet/file cabinet.
  8. Singular attributives in one country may be plural in the other, and vice versa. For example, the UK has a ‘drugs problem’ while the USA has a ‘drug problem’. Americans read the ‘sports’ section of a newspaper, but the British are more likely to read the ‘sport’ section. Finally, the British learn ‘maths’ whilst Americans learn ‘math’, even though both are abbreviations of mathematics.
  9. In the UK the term period for a full stop is not used; in AmE the term full stop is rarely, if ever, used for the punctuation mark. For example, Tony Blair was noted to have said, “Terrorism is wrong, full stop”, whereas in AmE he would have been quoted as, “Terrorism is wrong, period”.

Spanish also had an influence on American English (and subsequently British English), with words like canyonranchstampede and vigilante being examples of Spanish words that entered English through the settlement of the American West. French words (through Louisiana) and West African words (through the slave trade) also influenced American English (and also therefore, to an extent, British English).Today, American English is particularly influential, due to America’s dominance in cinema, television, popular music, trade and technology (including the Internet), but here at BLS we can happily translate into either British or American English.

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