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  • Writer's pictureTom Garside

American English and British English - what are the main differences?

Among the many varieties of English in the world, the two most taught versions are American English (USEng) and British English (BrEng). Within these two varieties, there are many different accents, dialects and varieties - in the UK, accents and dialects are so varied that different words can be heard to describe the same things within walking distance. When we talk about ‘American English’ and ‘British English’, we are usually referring to the ‘standard’ forms of these accents and dialects. Here are some of the main language differences between these two varieties:





  1. Pronunciation differences


Perhaps the most noticeable point of difference between any two varieties of English is accent. The phonology of American English is quite similar to that of British English, with the following sound changes which are strong identifiers of the US variety:


The short /ɔ/ sound in words like ‘hot’ and ‘often’ is longer in US English, produced as a rounded version of /ɑ:/


The US English accent is rhotic, meaning that the /r/ sound is always pronounced as spelt. In British English, however, /r/ is only pronounced before a following vowel, as in ‘protect’ and ‘remember’ (where the first /r/ is pronounced, the second is not), but not in ‘part’ or ‘far’.


In British English, a /r/ sound at the end of a word is pronounced if the first sound of the following word is a vowel, as in:


‘Far’ (/r/ not pronounced)

‘Far away’ (/r/ pronounced due to following vowel in ‘away’)


As a result of the /r/ pronunciation difference, spellings with a vowel + /r/ (ir, er, ur) shown using a different phoneme in American English as compared to British English. As the vowel+/r/ becomes a single, rhotic sound, is is shown as either the short /ɚ/, at the end of words like ‘teacher’, baker’, etc., and the longer /ɝ/, in words like ‘her’ and ‘bird’. In British English, the shorter /ɚ/ sound is pronounced as a weak form: schwa, shown as /ə/.


Schwa (/ə/) is by far the most common sound in British English, which gives it a stuttering, guttural-sounding rhythm to non-British English speakers. Up to 75% of vowel sounds in British English can be represented as schwa in weak syllables.


In American English, the letter t is often pronounced with voice when it appears between vowels, as /d/, whereas in British English, this happens much less commonly in most accents, though in many British English accents, the glottal stop /ʔ/ is used in place of the /t/ sound, especially in the South-East of the UK. This leads to differences in words like:


Butter (USEng: /budɚ/  BrEng: /bʌtə/ or  /bʌʔə/)

Fitter (USEng: /fɪdɚ/    BrEng: /fitə/ or /fiʔə/)

Heater (USEng: /hiːdɚ/   BrEng: /hiːtə/ or /hiːʔə)


(Notice the use of the rhotic vowel /ɚ/ for the US English -er endings)

  


2) Vocabulary differences


Perhaps the most-taught area of British and American English is the vocabulary differences between the two varieties. The synonyms between British and American English come from different points in the history of English, when the two dialects split in the 16th to 18th centuries as different groups of people moved to the US at points in history when different words were used in their places of origin. The most frequent word differences are:


USEng

BREng

USEng

BREng

mad

angry

french fries

chips

anyplace

anywhere

the movies

the cinema

fall

autumn

intersection

crossroads

bill

bank note

drapes

curtains

attorney

barrister, solicitor

trash, garbage

rubbish

cookie

biscuit

apartment

flat

hood

bonnet

yard

garden

trunk

boot

first floor

ground floor

sick

ill

sneakers

trainers

elevator

lift

purse

handbag

drug store

chemist's

vacation

holiday

truck

lorry

baggage

luggage

crazy

mad

liquor store

off-license

math

maths

gasoline

petrol

diaper

nappy

mail

post

chips

crisps

line

queue

shorts

underpants

railroad

railway


In addition, American English is more likely than British English to use trademarked names for objects, which were developed by companies, for example ‘Kleenex’ (USEng) vs. ‘tissues’ (BREng), or ‘Hoover’ (USEng) vs ‘vacuum cleaner’ (BREng)



3) Grammatical differences


There are also several grammatical differences between British and American English, the most noticeable being:


Past participle use: Past participles and perfect tenses (as in ‘I’ve never visited Thailand’, or ‘I’ve never seen Titanic’) are less commonly used in US English, with the past simple being used instead, as in ‘I never went to Thailand’ or ‘I never saw Titanic’


The past participle of the verb ‘get’ is different in British and American English, with British English using ‘got’, as in ‘I’ve got better at driving since I passed my test’ and US English using ‘gotten’ (I’ve gotten better at driving…’).


Use of ‘would’ in conditional sentences: In US English, ‘would’ can be used in both parts of a conditional sentence such as ‘If I would have seen you, I would have told you’. In British English, the past simple or perfect tenses are preferred, as in ‘If I had seen you, I would have told you’.


Tag questions: British English speakers use short ‘tag’ questions to confirm what they are saying with a listener, or to check that something is correct, as in ‘It’s a hard exam, isn’t it’. In US English, tag questions are replaced by the question-toned ‘right?’, as in ‘it’s a hard exam, right?’



In summary, the differences between British and American English go beyond the different words we use for things, and the pronunciation of /r/. There are many other regional differences, but those shown above are a good starting point for teachers and students who want to work with these important varieties of English.


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