There is an old saying that America and Britain are “two nations divided by a common language.”
No one knows exactly who said this, but it reflects the way many British feel about American English.
But are American and British English really so different?
The most noticeable difference between American and British English is vocabulary. There are hundreds of everyday words that are different. For example, the British call the front of a car the bonnet, while Americans call it the hood.
Americans go on vacation, while British go on holidays or hols.
New Yorkers live in apartments; Londoners live in flats.
There are far more examples than we can talk about here. Fortunately, most Americans and British can usually guess the meaning through the context of a sentence.
There are a few grammatical differences between the two varieties of English. Let’s start with collective nouns. We use collective nouns to refer to a group of individuals.
In American English, collective nouns are singular. For example, staff refers to a group of employees; band refers to a group of musicians; team refers to a group of athletes. Americans would say, “The band is good.”
But in British English, collective nouns can be singular or plural. You might hear someone from Britain say, “The team are playing tonight” or “The team is playing tonight.”
Another grammar difference between American and British English relates to auxiliary verbs. Auxiliary verbs, also known as helping verbs, are verbs that help form a grammatical function. They “help” the main verb by adding information about time, modality and voice.
Let’s look at the auxiliary verb ‘shall’. The British sometimes use ‘shall’ to express the future.
For example, “I shall go home now.” Americans know what ‘shall” means but rarely use it in conversation. It seems very formal. Americans would probably use “I will go home now.”
In question form, the British might say, “Shall we go now?” while an American would probably say, “Should we go now?”
When Americans want to express a lack of obligation, they use the helping verb do with negative not followed by need. “You do not need to come to work today.” British drop the helping verb and contract not. “You needn’t come to work today.”
Past tense verbs
You will also find some small differences with past forms of irregular verbs.
The past tense of ‘learn’ in American English is learned. British English has the option of learned or learnt. The same rule applies to dreamed and dreamt, burned and burnt, leaned and leant.
Americans tend to use the –ed ending; British tend to use the -t ending.
In the past participle form, Americans tend to use the –en ending for some irregular verbs. For example, an American might say, “I have never gotten caught” whereas the British would say, “I have never got caught.” Americans use both got and gotten in the past participle. The British only use got.
Don’t worry too much about these small differences in the past forms of irregular verbs. People in both countries can easily understand both ways, although the British tend to think of the American way as incorrect.
There are hundreds of minor spelling differences between British and American English. You can thank American lexicographer Noah Webster for this.
He was frustrated by the inconsistencies in English spelling. Webster wanted to spell words the way they sounded. Spelling reform was also a way for America to show its independence from England.
You can see Webster’s legacy in the American spelling of words like color (from colour), honor (from honour), and labor (from labour). Webster dropped the letter u from these words to make the spelling match the pronunciation.
Other Webster ideas failed, like a proposal to spell women as wimmen. Since Webster’s death in 1843, attempts to change spelling rules in American English have gone nowhere.
Not so different after all!
British and American English have far more similarities than differences. We think the difference between American and British English is often exaggerated. If you can understand one style, you should be able to understand the other style.
With the exception of some regional dialects, most Brits and Americans can understand each other without too much difficulty. They watch each other’s TV shows, sing each other’s songs, and read each other’s books.