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American English vs. British English

The English language has a global reach, mostly thanks to two main varieties: American English and British English.

Although both versions have a shared history, they have slowly grown apart and their differences cause a lot of debate (and sometimes confusion) between their respective speakers. To make things even more complicated, modern technology (like global TV stations and social media) have made it easy for both varieties of English to borrow words, phrases and grammar from each other again!

In this blog, we’ll be looking at some of the main differences between American English and British English.

Tell us in the comments about any interesting examples you think we’ve missed!

Why is American English and British English spelling different?

An easy way to tell the difference between American and British writing is the spelling. This is because, in the 1700s, an American man called Noah Webster wrote a new dictionary that used his own ideas to standardise spelling. Webster thought spelling could be made easier and more logical, but also wanted to help make American independent from British.

Webster made lots of changes, but the most common ones include:

  • Changing ‘-ise’ to ‘-ize’ (realise becomes realize, apologise becomes apologize)
  • Changing ‘-re’ to ‘-er’ (theatre becomes theater, centre becomes center)
  • Removing the ‘u’ in words like colour, flavour or mould
  • Not using a double ‘l’ in the middle of words, so travelling is traveling

Do American English and British English have different grammar?

British and American grammar is largely the same, but there are some exceptions.

One common example is the verb get. In British English, the past tense of get is always got (“the room has got warmer”). In American English, it’s correct to say “the room has gotten warmer”.

Another difference is in the preposition choice. An American might tell you what they’re doing on the weekend, but a British person is more likely to say at the weekend.

You might be surprised to learn that American English sometimes has more rigid grammar rules than British English.

For example, when you’re using collective nouns (like team, family or band), followed by a verb. In American English, the verb should always be singular (the team has ten points, my family eats meat, the band plays together). However, in British English, it’s acceptable to treat the collective noun as a singular or as a plural and say: the team has/have ten points, my family eats/eat meat, the band plays/play together.

Different American and British words

Sometimes, Americans and Brits use different words entirely. There are too many examples to count, but here are some common ones:

British EnglishAmerican English
jumpersweater
trainerssneakers
post, postbox, postmanmail, mailbox, mailman
fringe (hairstyle)bangs
the undergroundthe subway
rubbishtrash/garbage
courgettezucchini

Fortunately, all of these words will usually be understood on either side of the Atlantic. There are a couple of examples that get a bit more confusing though!

For example, what the Brits call football, Americans think of as soccer. In the USA, football is a completely different sport (that is known as ‘American football’ in the UK… are you keeping up?)

When you’re ordering food in the UK, crisps are a thinly sliced potato snack that come in a packet, but chips are thick strips of potato, deep-fried and served hot (thin strips might be called fries). Americans call the packet-snack chips and the hot food fries (thick-cut ‘fries’ are less popular).

Is it better to learn British English or American English?

While there are lots of differences between American English and British English, they are so similar that you will almost always be understood, whichever you use. A teacher might highlight the differences to help you with your accuracy, but it’s unlikely that anyone will comment in casual conversation.

There isn’t much evidence to show that one type of English is easier to learn than the other, either. So, don’t worry too much about the variety of English you learn, or memorising the ways in which it’s different to English spoken elsewhere.

Remember there are lots of variations of English - British and American are just the ones most likely to be taught. If you study English in a different English-speaking country (like Scotland, Canada, New Zealand, the Caribbean or many other places), you might notice other differences in the way people speak and write.