more at SPELLING DIFFERENCES – section A

English: American or British?





English is spoken all over the world: it is the official language of about forty-five countries; used in the administrative and business transactions in several countries; the second language in some more countries; the ‘lingua franca’ of hundreds of thousands of establishments and households; and is learnt, studied, and used in everyday affairs by millions of people all over the world!

(According to the former British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, there are currently about two billion people learning, teaching or using English worldwide; while there are about 350 million speak English in India and 300 million in China! in the year 2010)

Therefore, it’s no wonder it has a number of variations.  Most of the variations are regional, religious, and mother-tongue-oriented.  There are however some variations that may be very confusing to the learners of English, especially those at the basics.

There are again several ‘Englishes’: English spoken by the British; English spoken by the Americans; English spoken by the Canadians; English spoken by the Australians; English used by the Africans and Asians, particularly by the people of the sub-continent; and English spoken and written by the educated and spoken by the uneducated native people; English used by non-native speakers living in countries where English is the mother tongue; English used in literary circles – native and non-native; English used by technicians and scientists and scholars; English used by the educated when they are at their professions and at their casual social get-together; and finally, English used by the uneducated street children who work for the tourists! And the list can go on and on!!

Furthermore, English used in America has different variations within the USA and is different from the one used in Australia; English used in Canada has different variations depending on the region, and is different from the one used in Britain; and English used in England has, in itself, different variations within the country and is different from the one used in any other part of the world!!!

The differences are found mostly in the pronunciation (accent), choice of words in some particular expressions and, to certain extent, spellings, and the collocation.(collocation = the way in which some words are often used together to express certain ideas)

In this course material we limit ourselves to the differences between British English and American English only because the English language most people around the world use is under the influence of either of these  variations.  Even in the Commonwealth countries, where British English has been used for years, American English is making inroads with the advent of the computers because the computer software is under the influence of the American IT industry, and consequently, some differences are bound to come up, and the learners and the users may find it difficult to follow them unless they have some awareness of the ongoing changes in the English language they are using.

The main purpose of this course material is to point out those differences to make the learners become aware of the differences and learn them and use them when and where they are needed.

Before going to analyse the minor and the major differences between British and American English, let’s have a look at how the people of the USA and the UK feel about the English language the other people use on either side of the Atlantic Ocean.

The following excerpt is taken from a prestigious English daily newspaper:

“Translating English into English


Scene in a hotel in Surrey:


“Do you have any cookies, please?” asks an elderly Englishman over the breakfast table as a young waitress pours him some tea.


“Pardon?” the waitress queries.  “Do you have any cookies, please?” the guest repeats pronouncing ‘cookies’ slowly.


“Oh! You mean you want to know who the COOK IS,” the waitress replies brightly.


“No, what he means is cookies –- ‘biscuits’,” explains an Indian guest who had (sic) been watching the exchange.


The English guest nods his head, the girl beams, and the Indian is left wondering if there could be greater irony than a foreigner helping the two English compatriots communicate with each other in their own mother tongue.”

A funny excerpt taken from a book with a special section ‘How the Americans talk English’:

“… there can be similar misunderstandings over the word ‘pants’, though most English people know that Americans call trousers ‘pants’.

American girl: I never wear pants.  They don’t suit me.

English girl   : Really?  Couldn’t that be a bit embarrassing?

American girl: Embarrassing?  Why?

English girl  : Well – that short skirt you’re wearing…

American girl: Oh, my!  But I wear panties!

In British English, ‘pants’ are undergarments.  However, young people in Britain do sometimes say ‘pants’ for ‘trousers’.  Serious English authors, without knowing it, use many phrases of American origin, e.g. a way of life; teenager; boyfriend and girlfriend; babysitter; TV; after ten years he visited his home town; he is a commuter, going up to his London office every day; he beat up the prisoner.”


Another funny excerpt from the same book:

American policeman meets English motorist

{The readers are asked to fill in the gaps with the phrases given below.}

“I’m afraid I don’t understand”/ “just repeat what you said, please”/“Could you say that again, please?”/“Yes, but please explain what you mean by ‘trunk’”/ “Oh, is that what you call it?”

Use the phrases above to fill in the gaps in the following dialogue:


American policeman: I want to see inside your trunk.

English woman: ………..

American policeman: Lady, you heard me!  Open your trunk.

English woman: ………..

American policeman: Cut it out, lady!  You understand English.

English woman: ………..

American policeman: No funny business.  Just open your trunk.

English woman: Are you trying to be funny?

American policeman: (goes to the back of the car) Just give me your trunk key.

English woman:       Oh.  In England we call it the “boot”.

*One meaning for ‘trunk’ in British English and also in American English is ‘a large case for carrying things when travelling’.


A serious piece of writing by an English author on how the Americans speak English – taken from “Proficiency Plus” by Michael MaCarthy, Alistair Maclean, and Patric O’ Malley, published by Basil Blackwell Limited … pages 175, 178 & 180.

{This is a long piece of writing with about 250 lines, but is abridged for our convenience, and so, if any of the readers find it difficult to follow, it is best to leave it for the time being and come back to it when they are thorough with the rules and important points given in this part.}

I Say Tomahto,

You Say Tomayto

By Keith Waterhouse

[‘tomato’   a vegetable]

Linguistically tolerant though  I am, I don’t mind them saying “tomayto” when we say “tomahto”… It is all right by me if they want to call the elevator where I would summon the lift, or if their womenfolk wear pantyhose where ours wear tights… I might twitch an eyebrow if I didn’t happen to know that what they call suspenders we call braces… Not only is American different from English – it’s getting longer. I felt as proud of myself if I’d just had a conversation in fluent Mandarin… But then, when you have been trapped in a New York traffic jam with the cab driver making such observations as,“I guess transportation in this city is reaching totality,”… It will pass, I hope (or do I mean “hopefully”?), this tendency to stretch out the language like bubble-gum.  One day, when they want to say “now”, the Americans will go back to using two simple little words like “right now”.  One day, all that absurd moon-speak (which is largely what it is: that one step for mankind was, I’m afraid, a gigantic, jaw-breaking step for pseudo-technological jargon) will return to speaking as they used to before they talked themselves into this viable-meaningful-situation.  That is to say colourfully – but incomprehensibly… For never forget that, even in its saner moments, American is a foreign tongue. … Take – to pluck a widely misunderstood expression out of the pit of embarrassment into which it has so often fallen – the phrase “knocked up”.  If the Americans had had the grace to print the Ks backwards and N upside down, it would have gone some way to warning English-speaking strangers that in the United States a lady who has been knocked up is not one who has been called from her bed – rather, in fact, the reverse…{And this jibing continues for some two hundred more lines!} High Life (British Airways in-flight magazine)

This excerpt, a subtle one, is from Practical English by Michael Swan, English Language Book Society, Oxford University Press…

These two varieties of English have both changed a good deal in the last three hundred years or so, and naturally they have not developed in exactly the same way.  However, the differences between them are not very great.  Most British and American speakers can understand each other quite easily (though pronunciation can cause a few problems), and the written language is very similar indeed in the two countries.  The main differences are as follows:



(a)  Americans (US) use a simple past tense in some cases where British (GB) use present perfect tense.


US: He just went home.


GB: He’s just gone home.                 (He has just gone home.)”

Now let’s get to the serious business of knowing the differences between American and British English. First and the foremost is the pronunciation – the way how we say a word, which we are going to add to this course material soon; for the time being, however, we make do with the written-spellings.

more at SPELLING DIFFERENCES – section A

About the Author:BC Kumar

BC Kumar, an English Language Teacher, taught in numerous countries including Ethiopia, Oman and India, shares his knowledge and passion for the English Language. Disclaimer: This is a free educational website and all content has been compiled by the author. All copyrights to images and videos belong to their respective owners.

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