Usage Differences: British & American English!

Section C

[some important differences in the usage and grammar]

The differences highlighted in this section C are not absolute.  Many speakers of British English use American expressions and vice versa!

1.

There are some PREPOSITIONS which differ in form in the two varieties in certain expression:

British —   American

aim at —  aim to

************

behind  —  in back of

e.g.

I put the car behind the shed. [British]

I put the car in back of the shed.  [American]

************

out of —  out

e.g.

She threw her bag out of the window.  [British]

She threw her bag out the window.  [American]

************

round [British]

around [American]

e.g.

We live just round the corner.   [British]

We live just around the corner.   [American]

************

to hand in (a ticket, papers, etc.)  —  to hand

************

to battle with/against —  to battle

************

to cater for  — to cater to

************

to check up on —  to check out

************

to fill in  — to fill out/up

************

to meet (someone)  —  to meet with

************

to be mad with (someone)  —  to be mad at

************

to protest at/against/over (a decision)  —  to protest

************

to stop (someone doing something)  —  to stop from

************

to talk to (someone)  —  to talk with/to

************

up to and include  —  through/thru

e.g.

Rows ‘F’ up to and including ‘J’ are reserved for handicapped.  [British]

Rows ‘F’ thru ‘J’ are reserved for handicapped.   [American]

************

to be in a team  —  to be on a team

************

to live in a street/in a road  —  to live on a street/on a road

************

to be in a sale  —  to be on sale

“On sale” in British English simply means ‘for sale’.

************

different from (or sometimes to)  —  different than

************

(something is done…)

on January 1stJanuary 1

{said: on January the first}  —  {said: January first}

e.g.

The sale started on January the first.   [British]

The sale started January first.   [American]

I will see them on Sunday.   [British]

I will see them Sunday.         [American]

I met him at the weekend.   [British]

I met him on the weekend.   [American]

On Saturdays she goes to her club.   [British]

Saturday she goes to her club.            [American]

He works by day and studies at night.   [British]

He works days and studies nights.          [American]

There is a party on Sunday next.   [British]

There is a party next Sunday.        [American]

You are given a week this Tuesday to finish the job.   [British]

You are given a week from this Tuesday to finish the job.   [American]

I haven’t seen them for weeks.   [British]

I haven’t seen them in weeks.     [American]

The aeroplane departed from London.   [British]

The airplane departed London.               [American]

2.

There are differences in ways of expressing ‘time’ in British and American English:

British:

5:05       five past five

5:30       half past five/half five

5:45       a quarter to six

5:55       five to six

American:

5:05       five after five

5:30       half after five

5:45       a quarter of/to/till six

5:55 five of six

3.

There are some variations in the usage of ARTICLES:

1.

British:

to be in hospital (as a patient)

to be at table (dining table)

to be at university (as a student)

to be in a class

to go to a class

sunburn

American:

to be in the hospital

to be at the table

to be at a/the university

to be in class

to go to class

a sunburn

2.

in future  [British]

in the future  [Amrican]

e.g.

In future, I’d like you to be punctual.  [British]

In the future, I’d like you to be punctual.   [American]

For the phrase ‘in future’ denoting a “future event”, both varieties use the article ‘the’!

3.

The vegetable ‘lettuce’ can be used both as a countable and an uncountable noun in British English; however, it is used only as uncountable in American English and takes a quantifier to indicate quantity:

British:

I like lettuce.

I cooked a lettuce.

I cooked two lettuces.

American:

I like lettuce.

I cooked a head of lettuce.

I cooked two heads of lettuce.

4.

There are some differences between British and American uses of certain verbs. “Have” is used as a Main Verb, and an Auxiliary (helping) Verb is used with Interrogative and Negative sentences in American English, whereas, no Auxiliary Verb is used in the British English:

British:

Have you got the time?

Has he got a car?(informal)

Has he a car? (formal)

Have you any money on you? (formal)

Have you got any money on you? (informal)

Yes, I have.

No, I haven’t.

American:

Do you have the time?

Does he have an automobile?

Do you have any money on you?

Yes, I do.  — No, I don’t.

5.

The verbs ‘dare’ and ‘need’ are less commonly used as Modal Auxiliary Verbs in American English:

British:

I daren’t do it.

You needn’t go there.

Need you be so rude?

American:

I don’t dare do it.

You don’t have to go there.

Do you need to be so rude?

6.

There is a tendency not to use “ought to” and “used to” as Modal Auxiliaries in American English:

Ought I to go?  [British]

I oughtn’t to have gone.   [British]

*He usedn’t to be cross.   [British]

Should I go?    [American]

I shouldn’t have gone.  [American]

He didn’t use to be cross.  [American]

*It is to be noted that many British English speakers prefer ‘didn’t use’ to “usedn’t to”!

7.

In American English, ‘will’ is more commonly used than “shall”, and the verb “shall” is tending to be limited to proclamations and suggestions, for example, ‘There shall be…’ and ‘Shall we?’, etc.:

British:

I shan’t do it.

We shall have to leave.

American:

I won’t do it.

We will have to leave.

8.

The speakers of American English are less likely to use “to infinitive” and sometimes ‘and’ after such verbs as ‘come’, ‘go’, ‘help’ and ‘order’:

British:

Come to see me next week.

They’ll come to see you soon.

He went to give it back.

You should help to clean the room.

Go and mend the car now.

American:

Come (and) see me next week.

They’ll come see you soon.

He went and gave it back.

You should help clean it.

Go fix the automobile now.

9.

There is a tendency to use more Subjunctive Mood in American English:

They advised them that he should be set free.  [British]

They advised them that he be set free.  [British]

It is important for him to be notified.  [American]

It is important that he be notified.  [American]

10.

The speakers of American English tend to use the “simple past tense” form of the Verb for recently completed events, whereas the speakers of British English prefer ‘present perfect tense’ form:

So she has finally arrived?                       So she finally arrived!

Have you finished it yet?                                  Did you finish it yet?

We have seen it already.                                    We saw it already.

11.

Some noun forms – singular and plural – and some pronouns are used differently in American English and British English.  Some common variations are:

1.

Inning”, the period of time in which a team game is divided, has the plural form “innings” in American English.  In British English, however, the singular form “innings” and the same form is used as plural:

e.g.

There is one innings left to play.   [British]

There is one inning left to play.    [American]

There are two innings in a Test Cricket game.   [British]

There are two innings in a Test Cricket game.   [American]

2.

Although the word “accommodation” is an abstract uncountable noun in both varieties, it is used as plural in American English:

e.g.

Cheap accommodation is hard to find in this city.   [British]

Cheap accommodations are hard to find in this city.  [American]

3.

The speakers of British English tend to use the pronoun ‘one’ to indicate “any person”, but the speakers of American English prefer to used “you” in such contexts.  However, when American English speakers use ‘one’ they use “he/she” or ‘you’ in some cases in the other part (subsequent clause) of the sentence:

e.g.

One should do as one is told.   [British]

One should do what he/she is told.   [American]

One can’t be too careful all the time, can one?   [British]

One can’t be too careful all the time, can you? [American]

4.

The pronoun “one another” is preferred in British English and “each other” in American English:

e.g.

We really loved one another deeply.   [British]

We really loved each other deeply.      [American]

In British English, however, there is a rule which says: use “one another” when the persons involved are more than two; but when the persons involved are only two, use “each other”.  Therefore, we understand that we have to use “one another” or “each other” depending on the context and people involved!

5.

The pronoun “it” is omitted in some expressions in British English:

The soup has cabbage in.  [British]

The soup has cabbage in it.  [American]

He wants some white paper with lines on. [British]

He wants some white paper with lines on it.  [American]

That jacket has a button off.  [British]

That jacket has a button off it.  [American]

I would like toast with butter on.  [British]

I would like toast with butter on it.  [American]

12.

Some important miscellaneous points:

1.

When referring to someone’s living quarters, the American speakers use the modifier form with noun while the British speakers use the nominal form:

e.g.

Can she come round to yours today?   [British]

Can she come around to your place today?   [American]

We left hers about two hours ago.   [British]

We left her house about two hours ago.   [American]

2.

In writing the names of the rivers, the speakers of American English use the name of the river before the actual word ‘River’, whereas, the speakers of British English use word ‘River’ before the actual name of the river:

e.g.

the River Avon   [British]

the River Thames  [British]

the Hudson River    [American]

the Mississippi River   [American]

EXCEPTION:

It is to be noted that there are a few rivers in America which have the word River before their actual names, and a couple of rivers in Britain which have the word River after their actual names; therefore, we are advised to check the list of rivers for better understanding!

3.

In British English, the adverbs “directly” and “immediately” can function as subordinators.  In American English, however, they should modify a subordinating conjunction, such as ‘after’:

e.g.

Immediately he went out, it began to rain.   [British]

Come to my office directly you arrive.        [British]

Immediately after he went out, it began to rain.   [American]

Come to my office directly after you arrive.        [American]

4.

In the written standard, especially in newspaper writings, the personal attributes are placed after the name of the person in British English, whereas in American English they are placed before the name of the person, and often without the definite article:

e.g.

Mike Tyson, the famous veteran boxer, won another match yesterday. [British]

Famous veteran boxer Mike Tyson won another match yesterday. [American]

5.

There is some amount of confusion and overlap on the part of British and American English speakers with regard to the usage of certain words.  The common sets which need to be dealt separately are given below:

The American English usage is spreading among the British English speakers, especially among the young.

a)

Bath” is used as a verb in British English to mean ‘to wash oneself or someone else’ usually in a bathtub.  The speakers of American English, however, would prefer “bathe” in such contexts, and also to mean ‘to give a bath to’ and ‘apply a liquid to something’ in order to clean, e.g. a wound.

Bathe” in British English is ‘to go swimming’ usually in the sea.  But this considered old-fashioned in the present usage.  The alternative expressions for the act of going for a swim is ‘go for a swim’, ‘have a swim’ or ‘go swimming’.

b)

ill  —  sick (both words are related to bad health)

Ill” is the preferred usage in British English and covers the state of discomfort or nausea, short or long term bad health.

Sick” in British English is used to imply vomiting, a chronic bad health, and in such fixed expressions as ‘one sick leave’, a sick joke’, etc.

In American English usage, “sick” covers a wider range of bad health than it does in British English, and has also been extended metaphorically to mean ‘tired of’:

e.g.

He felt quite ill when he saw the dead lady.

She is seriously ill and there is no hope of recovery.

I am going to be sick.

He’s just been sick on the floor.  (vomited; threw up)

Our cook is on sick leave.

My brother is sick.

I’m sick to my stomach.

She is a sick woman.

I’m sick of chess.   (I’m sick of playing chess.)

c)

like   —  as

In British English, “like” is a preposition and it is followed by a noun or a pronoun, and “as” is a subordinate conjunction and is followed by a clause. In American English, ‘like’ is often used as a conjunction, but this usage is considered to be wrong or loose colloquialism in British English:

e.g.

She behaved like a mad person. [British]

Why has she talked like that?  [British]

Please do as she told you.   [British]

She goes for a walk as he (does).  [British]

She behaved like a mad person. [American]

Please do like she told you.  [American]

She goes for a walk like he (does).  [American]

d)

lie  —  lay

When referring to the position of a land – the landscape – speakers of British English use “let”, whereas the speakers of American English prefer “lay”:

e.g.

You have to study the lie of the land before trying to develop it. [British]

You got to study the lay of the land before trying to develop it. [American]

e)

loan  —  lend

Loan” is a noun and “lend” is a verb in British English, though “loan” is used as a verb in formal situations implying a long period.  In American English, however, ‘loan’ is quite acceptable as a verb:

e.g.

The Duke lent some of his paintings to the Art Gallery.  [British]

I have asked him for a loan of fifty pounds.  [American]

The oil tycoon loaned some of his paintings to the Art Gallery.  [American]

f)

raise  —  rise   —  rear

Raise” as a verb in both the British and American English means ‘lift or set something in an upright position’ and “rise” means ‘to assume an upright position, to come up, to increase in size, volume, etc.’  However, these words have different distributions in British and American English. ‘Raise’ is a transitive verb and needs an object after it; ‘rise’ is an intransitive verb and does not need any object after it:

e.g.   raise – raised – raised     rise – rose – risen

He raised his hand. (‘his hand’ – a noun phrase – the object of the verb ‘raised’ – ‘raised’ – transitive verb)

He rose from his seat. ‘his seat – a  noun  phrase of the preposition — ‘from’; ‘rose’ – intransitive verb)

Raise” in American English can mean an increase in wages or in a gambling stake, and it can also be used to mean ‘to bring up, foster children

e.g.

Her aunt raised her.

The staff got a raise of 15%.

But in British English, “rise” is preferred to mean ‘an increase in pay’, and word “rear” is used to mean ‘bring up, foster’.

e.g.

She reared her family single-handed.

They have been promised a rise of 15%.

EXCEPTION:

Although “raise” is not used as a noun in the normal sense in British English, there are a few place names that take it:

e.g.

I live near Dunmail Raise.

g)

speciality  —  specialty

Speciality” is the word more widely used in British English; “specialty” in American English.  In both varieties, “speciality” can mean (i) a particular quality or skill (ii) a branch of knowledge in which one specializes.

But ‘specialty’ (without the letter ‘i’) is the word used in American English to mean ‘a product for which a person or place is renowned’, whereas in British English, it is carried by “speciality”:

e.g.

Mutton joint is the “speciality” of this restaurant.  [British]

Mutton roast is the ‘specialty’ of this restaurant.    [American]

h)

thousand  —  million  —  billion

The symbol for ‘a thousand’ is “K”, for ‘a million’ is “m”, and for ‘a billion’ it is “bn”.  A ‘thousand’ is 1,000, i.e. the figure one is followed by three zeros; a ‘million’ is 1,000,000, i.e. the figure one followed by six zeros.

A ‘billion’, however, has different meanings in British and American usages: in American English, a ‘billion’ means ‘one thousand million’ – 1,000,000,000, i.e. the figure one followed by nine zeros; in British English, a ‘billion’ means ‘a million million’ – 1,000,000,000,000, i.e. the figure one is followed by twelve zeros.

Therefore, ‘a billion’ in British English is one thousand times more than ‘a billion’ in American English.

The American meaning of ‘a billion’ is gradually replacing the British meaning, even in school books and the government documents.

i)

vacation  —  holiday

In British English “vacation” is used for the weeks of rest from work when universities and courts of law are not working, for example, Christmas vacation, the Easter vacation, summer vacation, etc.  School have “holidays”, not “vacation”, and also people have “holidays” at the seaside, abroad, in the mountains, etc., when they take rest from work. In American English any period of rest from normal work is “vacation”, even the verb form “vacationing” is very common these days!

Thus, when the speakers of British English are “on holiday”, the speakers of American English are “on vacation”!!

J)

Writing Dates

There is a slight difference in writing of dates in both varieties:

e.g.

6th December, 1973.

6 December, 1973.

December 6, 1973.

6 December 1973

And while writing the date in figures, the speakers of American English prefer ‘month’ first and the ‘day’ second; whereas, the speakers of British English prefer ‘day’ first and the ‘month’ second:

e.g.

(day—month—year) [British]

8-10-2009

8-X-2009

8/10/08

(month—day—year) [American]

10-8-2009

10/8/08

i.e. 8th October, 2009. — October 8, 2009.

k)

names of illnesses and articles (a/an the)

Names of illnesses are usually uncountable, and we talk about them with no article:

e.g.

I think I’ve got measles.  (without any article)

He’s had appendicitis.     (without any article)

But “headache” is a normal countable noun.

However, when expressing ‘other aches’ there is some difference in the use of Article between American and British variations.

In British English, these ‘aches’ are more common as uncountable nouns and are used without the indefinite article a/an or with no plural. In American English, these ‘aches’ are countable and are used with the indefinite article a/an.

e.g.

She has got toothache.  [British]

She has a toothache.     [American]

She has got stomach ache.  [British]

She has a stomach ache.  [American]

I’ve got a headache.     [British]

I have a headache.                   [American]

Toothache is horrible.  [British & American]

l)

The complex subordinators “as…as” and “so…as” are used with different frequencies in the two varieties.  “So…as” is fairly infrequent in American English, being used mainly at the beginning of a clause, while in British English it tends to be used more than “as…as”:

e.g.

It’s not so far as I thought it was.  [British]

It’s not as far as I thought it was.  [American]

So long as you’re happy, we’ll stay.   [British]

As long as you’re happy, we’ll stay.   [American]

Now we don’t go there so often.   [British]

Now we don’t go there as often.   [American]

That one isn’t so nice.   [British]

That one isn’t as nice.   [American]

In cases where “as…as” is preferred in British English and used at the beginning of a clause, the first “as” may be dropped.

e.g.

Strange as it may seem…  [British]

As strange as it may seem…  [American]

Much as I’d like to go…   [British]

As much as I’d like to go…   [American]

m)

words related to commerce

A sum of borrowed or lent money is called “capital”  [British]

A sum of borrowed or lent money is called “principal”  [American]

Banks do not pay interest on ‘current accounts’, but pay interest on ‘deposit accounts’ which are designed for people to save money for some considerable period of time  [British]

People save money in “savings account”   [American]

When a limited company sells its assets to pay its debts, it goes into ‘liquidation’; but when private individuals or partnerships do the same, they go ‘bankrupt’  [British]

When companies or private individuals sell their assets to their debts, they go ‘bankrupt’ or go into ‘bankruptcy’ [American]

A supplier ‘quotes’ a price for goods or gives a ‘quotation’   [British]

A supplier ‘quotes’ a price for goods or gives a ‘quote’   [American]

n)

With certain verbs, there is a tendency in British English usage to opt (choose) the “—t” ending when the verb is to be taken literally (in real sense):

e.g.

I dreamt all night.  [in the real sense]

I leant against the pole.  [in the real sense]

But the “—ed” ending when the same verb is used metaphorically (imaginative way to describe something):

e.g.

We dreamed of peace and prosperity.  [in the imaginative way]

She leaned on me to repay the debt. [in the imaginative way – she did not actually fall on him, did not take any physical support; she depended on him – took money]

0)

Gotten”, the American past participle form of the verb ‘get’, can be used in all meanings except with “have” when it means ‘must’, in which case the British form “got” is used:

e.g.

She has got me into troubles again.  [British]

They have gotten home late.   [America]

She had already gotten off the bus when it was hit.  [American]

But…

It’s already late; I have got to go now.   [American – I must go]

_______________

After having learnt all these rules, we are bound to get a couple of questions, such as…

1. Which spelling system do I use: British English or American English?

And the answer given by many an expert in this field is:

If you are going to write to Americans or to take an examination in any American Institution, learn or use American English, and if there is anything to do with the British use British English!

2. Which will be the most useful to me as an English language learner – American English or British English?

And the answer given by many an expert in this field is:

f you are going to speak mostly to Americans then standard American English will be more useful.  If you are going to speak to British people then standard British English will be more useful.  Certainly at present, speakers of standard British English and speakers of standard American English have no real problems communicating with each other.  The important thing to remember is that they are not two separate languages, they are one language with some differences.  If you speak one form quite well then you will not have problems understanding the other.

But the most important thing is not to mix the two varieties; use one or the other, not mixed!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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