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American vs British English- Basic Differences and Influences of Change

ImageAmerican English has grown steadily in international significance since World War II, parallel to the growth of U.S. political, economic, technological and cultural influence worldwide. American English is currently the dominant influence on "world English" (cf. British English) largely due to the following:

  1. Population: U.S. vs U.K. (SAE/SBE ca 70% vs 17% of all native English)
  2. Wealth of the U.S. economy vs. the U.K., & influences
  3. Magnitude of higher education in America vs the U.K.
  4. Magnitude of the publishing industry in America
  5. Magnitude of global mass media and media technology influence
  6. Appeal of American popular culture on language and habits

International political and economic position of the U.S. (cf. Kennedy)

American and British English are both variants of World English. As such, they are more similar than different, especially with "educated" or "scientific" English. Most divergence can be ascribed to differing national histories and cultural development (cf. Are Americans Ruining English? [PBS]), and the way in which the two national variants have changed correspondingly.

The following general categories of difference between standard American English (SAE) and standard British English (SBE) each have their own sociolectic value: 

I. Different Pronunciation, Although Same Spelling

  • Advertisement (advert, ad)
  • Controversy, laboratory, secretary
  • Leisure, schedule, dynasty, dance
  • Renaissance, oregano, migratory, clerk [bank, office], ate
  • 'PC'-influence problematics: harass & harassment, Uranus, etc.
    (Consistency? Predictability? — cf. 'horehound', etc.)

II. Different Spelling, Although Same Pronunciation

  • Axe — ax; plough — plow; colour — color, centre — center
  • Cheque — check (noun form [bank]; verb "to check" the same)
  • Defence — defense (noun form), licence (noun form) — license
  • Alright — all right; manoeuvre — maneuver; tyre — tire
  • Ageing — aging;   gaol — jail


III. Same Term, Different But Similar Spelling and Pronunciation

  • Aluminium — aluminum
  • Polythene — polyethylene
  • Maths — math (shortening of "mathematics")
  • Rise — raise (more money in salary, wages)


IV. Same Words, But Different or Additional Meanings

  • I married a homely girl. The opening of our new play was a bomb!
  • We all had tea and biscuits. (cf. Harry Potter, 'crumpets' vs 'English muffins', etc.)
  • The corn harvest was exceptional this year.
    (cf. US "maize" or "sweetcorn"; GB "any cereal" or "wheat", Scotland "oats", etc. & links one and two)
  • We needed a torch for the dark trail. (cf. flashlight, or GB 'electric torch', flaming torch)
  • IBM made over a billion dollars last year. (cf. "thousand million"; 'changing' GB standards)
  • The committee tabled the motion (GB: put it on the table).
  • Nigel and Trevor purchased 7-day Travelcard season tickets.
  • Ralph needs to write an essay for his university course.
  • GB 'trousers' = US 'pants'; US 'pants' = GB 'underwear pants'
    (cf. 'It was a tremendous storm; my pants got all wet')

V. Grammar, Syntax, Punctuation, General Usage


    • Date writing, number/word order (never use only numbers!)
    • Use of commas and periods inside quotation marks
    • Business letter salutations, colons vs commas
    • 'Honorifics': Mr. or Mrs. or Dr. Smith (U.S.) vs Mr or Mrs or Dr Smith (GB), etc.


5.                   (U.S.) Finnair has a flight to London today.
(G.B.) Finnair have a flight to London today. (large collective nouns)

6.                   (U.S.) England has (...) played well today, even if it lost.
(G.B.) England have played well today, even if they lost.

7.                   (G.B.) The Government are acting like themselves again.

8.                   (G.B.) Have you got your grade in history yet?
(U.S.) Have you gotten your grade in history yet?

9.                   (G.B.) He went on a course. How many were on the course?
(U.S.) He was in a course. How many were in the course?

10.               (G.B.) We lived in the High Street. (cf 'street people' ...)
(U.S.) We lived on Main Street ("on" plus article plus High/Main)

11.               (G.B.) He's in hospital with a broken leg.
(U.S.) He's in the hospital with a broken leg.

12.               (G.B.) I have got a car. vs. (U.S.) I have a car. I got a car. (different implications)

13.               (G.B.) We weren't able to catch him up
(U.S.) We weren't able to catch him, catch up with him, catch up [with him].

14.               One was different from/than the other.


VI. Same Concept, Different Terms or Expressions; (or)
Same Word, Differences in Style, Connotation and Frequency

  • Hire a car — rent a car (hire-purchase vs installment plan)
  • Petrol — gasoline; Saloon — sedan, Estate car — station wagon
  • Boot — trunk (storage area); silencer — muffler (to reduce exhaust noise); other auto terms
  • Fortnight — two weeks; Goods train — freight train
  • Barrister vs. solicitor ['brief', 'silk'] — lawyer, attorney, attorney-at-law
  • Sweet (vs "sweets") — dessert; red whortleberries — lingonberries, food terminology generally (see 'Localizations' of Food Terms in Children's Books)
  • See also Lost in Translation for US/GB 'changeability' [quite or very?] and other examples

VII. "Creativity": Spinoffs; Combos; Referencing of Current Events and Brands

  • Hamburger — cheeseburger, beefburger, fishburger, lobsterburger ..
  • Hotel, motel, floatel, boatel
  • Hardware, software, firmware, shareware, freeware, vaporware; "wetware" & "treeware"
  • Suburb, exurb, technoburb, cyburb — citizen, netizen — atmosphere, blogosphere
  • Copyright to "copyleft" (cf. 'Wiki' contributions, for example)

  • Metrosexual, retrosexual, übersexual, 'metronatural' (source #2), etc., vs 'jetrosexual'
  • "Climate canary," "to be YouTubed, to be Plutoed," etc. (cf. WOTY2006 [PDF])
  • The "boingg" effect (cf. 'sproingg', etc.) (N.E. Journal of Medicine 1981, then 21st century)

  • Smoke/fog = smog; cf. cosmetics/pharmaceuticals = cosmeceuticals; pharmaceuticals/farming = pharming
  • Sexploitation, cityscape, zeroscaping (xeriscaping; xeric plants)

  • "Could you tell me where Waterloo Station is?" (UK); "Would you be able to use one of these?" (AU);
    "yes/no" vs expected cultural response

  • 'Brand name' recognition — cf. "Half and half"; "A six-pack of PBR tallboys"
  • "Let's go and visit the Colonel ...." (Colonel Sanders & KFC vs military)
  • (Roz, on Frasier): "I'm going to climb into a hot tub with my good friends Ben and Jerry"

VIII. Euphemistic References

  • Security officer, hair stylist, household manager
  • Powder room, ladies' lounge; motion discomfort bag
  • A "pre-owned" car (cf "used car" & "used-car salesman")
  • "The loved one..." (cf. death and funeral references generally)
  • "To deselect, dehire" employees; to "downsize, right-size" the company
  • "Terror" and "insurgency" vs "resistance" and "struggle";
    "suicide bombing" vs "commando attack" or "a paradise operation"

IX. "Equality" Vocabulary

  • Fireman/firefighter, policeman/police officer, mailman/mail carrier
  • Stewardess/flight attendant, salesman/salesperson, etc.
  • Chairman — chairperson, chair, presiding officer
  • Manmade — artificial, synthetic, manufactured

X. "Politically Correct" References

  • Seniors; 'older' adults (55 & older) vs. "elderly" or "old" people
  • African Americans vs 'black Americans' or 'blacks' or 'people of color'
  • 'Stay-at-home mom' vs "housewife" (not 'married to one's house')
  • "Canola" vs "rapeseed" oil; animal companion vs "pet", Native American vs "Indian"
  • Recent controversies: an 'articulate' black politician? A 'niggardly' budget?

XI. 'Ethnolects': "Black English" (specific terminology in cultural context)

  • Everybody look down at they feet; I ain't afraid of nuthin'
  • You ugly, man; I the baddest cat around; He be good.
  • Boy, nigger, soul food, honkie, rapping (cf the 'rapping Granny' [YouTube])

XII. Yiddish and Ethnic Jewish Influence (lexical & structural) on SAE

  • Schlep, goy, schlemiel, schlock, chutzpa, nebbish, shtik
  • I should have such luck!   He's complaining yet!   This I need?   What's not to like?
  • "Schm-/shm' reduplication," from the Yiddish koyfn, shmoyfn (to buy, not to buy; who cares?)
    e.g. 'fat-shmat, so long as she's happy,' 'fancy-schmancy' (pretentious) or 'Oedipus, schmoedipus — as long as he loves his mother!')

XIII. Various Jargons; Changing Cultural References...

  • Computer culture: fonts, multitasking, up/downloading, blogging, lurking, flaming, etc.
  • Technoculture: technocrat, technopeasant, techno-potato; a virtual corporation
  • Infoculture: telecommuting, edutainment, 'terrestrial' TV (vs cable, satellite); [broadcasting to] 'narrowcasting', broadband vs narrowband, digital vs analogue watches
  • "Gay" culture: (drag, closet, fairy, fruitcake, 'to out' — 'he was outed')
  • Drugs: Cocaine (coke, leaf, snow, angel dust); crack, valise, kilos, brick, 'trips'
  • Social 'Trendiness' (status): Yuppie, Buppie, Puppie, Dinks, Woofs
  • Business: Power breakfast, Valium picnic, warm fuzzies
  • Youthisms: dork, nerd, geek, dweeb; psyched, pumped, barf

XIV. Regional Variation, Identity, Stereotyping

Variation in Terminology

  • Soda vs Soda Pop vs Pop vs Coke vs 'tonic', etc. (see map from
  • 'Ice cream soda' vs 'milk shake' vs 'shake' vs frappe vs cabinet
  • 'Rubber band' vs 'gumband' (Pittsburgh region), etc.

Terms for general, 'anonymous' or 'stereotypical' persons

  • "Uncle Sam" (U.S.) vs "John Bull" (U.K.)
  • John Doe, John Q. Public, Joe Citizen, Joe Senior
  • Joe Blow, Joe Shmoe, Joe Six-Pack, "brother", "sister"
  • "Southern" names: Billy Bob, Jimmy Joe, Bubba and Beauregard

Varying implications (region, education, ethnic) of "non-grammatical" language

  • (a) "He ain't done nothin' yet" (uneducated, rural?)
  • (b) "He done et over at th' Hatfields" (hillbilly...)
  • (c) "You be late...the food be cold." (Black English)

XV. "Four-letter words", Obscenities and Implied Obscenities

  • Damn, fart, piss, crap, turd, shit, fuck, cunt; vs GB bloody, bugger, bollocks, sod, tosser, etc.
  • His daughter was a thespian who matriculated at the state college. She came to the party with a homo sapiens! The dean said he was an extrovert. He masticated throughout the meal.