American vs British English
Basic Differences and Influences of Change
"The Americans are identical to the British in all respects except, of course, language."
"We (the British and Americans) are two countries separated by a common language."
American 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:
Population: U.S. vs U.K. (SAE/SBE ca 70% vs 17% of all native English; Dibul #68)
- Wealth of the U.S. economy vs. the U.K., & influences
- Magnitude of higher education in America vs the U.K.
- Magnitude of the publishing industry in America
- Magnitude of global mass media and media technology influence
- 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, demographics, and cultural development, and the way in which national language has thus developed differently in parallel with the differing national needs.
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 examples: harass & harassment, Uranus, etc.
II. Different Spelling, Although Same Pronunciation
- 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; Whisky (Scotch) — whiskey (U.S. & Ireland)
- 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 (Top)
- 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.)
- 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'
- US 'It was a tremendous storm; my pants got all wet' would in GB refer to 'underwear pants' rather than 'outerwear pants' [trousers]
- GB 'Jumper' = US 'Sweater'; US 'Jumper' = GB Pinafore [dress].
- GB 'I'm getting warm; I think I'll take off my jumper' would refer in SAE to 'taking off my dress' instead of 'taking off my sweater'
- V. Grammar, Syntax, Punctuation, General Usage — (Top)
- 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. Grammar
- (U.S.) Finnair has a flight to London today.
- (G.B.) Finnair have a flight to London today. (large collective nouns)
- (U.S.) England has (...) played well today, even if it lost.
- (G.B.) England have played well today, even if they lost.
- (G.B.) The Government are acting like themselves again.
- (G.B.) Have you got your grade in history yet?
- (U.S.) Have you gotten your grade in history yet?
- (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?
- (G.B.) We lived in the High Street. (cf 'street people' ...)
- (U.S.) We lived on Main Street ("on" plus article plus High/Main)
- (G.B.) He's in hospital with a broken leg.
- (U.S.) He's in the hospital with a broken leg.
- (G.B.) I have got a car. vs. (U.S.) I have a car. I got a car. (different implications)
- (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].
- One was different from/than the other.
VI. Divergence and Overlap
- To post vs to mail a letter — an art gallery vs an art museum
- Autumn vs fall — tap vs faucet, luggage vs baggage, shop vs store, etc.
- VII. 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)
- Fortnight — two weeks; Goods train — freight train
- Barrister vs. solicitor — lawyer, attorney-at-law
- Sweet (vs "sweets") — dessert; red whortleberries — lingonberries
- VIII. "Inventiveness"; Spinoffs; Combinations; Allusions to Brand Names
- Hamburger — cheeseburger, beefburger, fishburger, lobsterburger ..
- Hotel, motel, floatel, boatel
- Hardware, software, firmware, shareware, freeware, vaporware; "treeware ..."
- Suburb, exurb, technoburb, cyburb; citizen, netizen
- Smoke/fog = smog; "to litter"/"to bug" = litterbug
- Cosmetics/pharmaceuticals = cosmeceuticals, pharmaceuticals/farming = pharming;
- Sexploitation, cityscape, zeroscaping (xeriscaping; xeric plants)(also 'hard landscaping' and 'soft landscaping' to 'hardscape' and 'softscape')
- "Metrosexual" — jetrosexual; magazine — fanzine; catalog — magalog
- "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"
IX. Euphemistic References — (Top)
- Senior citizen, emeritus professor
- 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 jargon generally)
- To deselect, dehire" employees; to "downsize, right-size" the company
X. "Equality" Vocabulary
Fireman — firefighter, Policeman — police officer
Mailman — mail carrier, Salesman — sales person
Manmade — artificial, synthetic, manufactured
Maid — house cleaner. Stewardess — flight attendant
Chairman — chairperson, Chair, presiding officer, (chairperchild — cf "PC jargon")
XI. "Politically Correct" Terminology (Jargon)
- Elderly or "old" people vs 'senior citizens'; seniors; 'older' adults, adults 55 & older
- Differently-abled or physically-challenged (vs "handicapped")
- "People of Color" vs "colored people" or "coloreds" or "blacks"
- "Canola" vs "rapeseed" oil
- Animal companion vs "pet", Native American vs "Indian"
- 'Stay-at-home mom' vs "housewife" (not 'married to one's house')
- International Wildlife Conservation Park (former Bronx Zoo — "zoo" connotations)
XII. "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, gig, cool!
1. The two major varieties of English
The two varieties of English most widely found in print and taught around the world are British and American - it is therefore important for teachers to be aware of the major differences between the two. And while lexical differences are the easiest ones to notice, a knowledge of grammatical and phonological differences can be useful not only for teachers to be aware of, but also to be able to deal with should they come up in class.
2. Which is better?
An important point to make is that different doesn?t mean wrong. Comments such as ?American English is inferior to British English?, or ?American English is better than British English? have no solid basis other than the speaker?s opinion. The truth is that no language or regional variety of language is inherently better or worse than another. They are just different. Students will often have very firm beliefs on which English they think is better/easier to understand/clearer etc. While it may be true for that particular individual, there is no evidence to suggest that one variety is easier to learn or understand than the other.
3. Materials and Varieties
If you are an American English speaker teaching with a British coursebook or vice versa, what do you say when the book is different from your English? The answer here is to point out the difference. The differences are not so numerous as to overload the students and often can be easily dealt with. For example, if you are an American English speaker using a lesson that has just included ?at the weekend? it takes very little time to point out that in American English people say ?on the weekend?. Accept either from your students then. If you decide to go along with the book and say ?at the weekend? yourself, you?ll probably sound unnatural, and ?on the weekend? might slip out anyway!
4. Exams and essay writing
In most international exams, both varieties of English are accepted. However, while writing for an international exam (or writing in English generally) students should try to remain consistent. That means if they favour (or favor) American spelling and grammar, they should stick to that convention for the whole piece of writing.
5. What role do other varieties of English have in the classroom?
Although British and American varieties are the most documented, there are of course many other varieties of English. Scotland, Ireland, South Asia, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, West Africa, the Caribbean, South Africa all have their own regional variations of English. The decision whether or not to highlight aspects of these Englishes would depend on two factors:
Which is which?
if the students are going to live, or are already living, in one of these places - in which case the need to understand specific aspects of that English is clear; or
if the teacher is from one of those places and therefore speaks a regional variation of English. In this case it could be useful to occasionally point out differences between your English and that of your coursebook (see point 3 above about using your own variety).
Activities in published EFL/ESL materials often present lists of words which students must classify as either American or British. These will tend to focus on lexis and spelling. To take account of grammatical differences, and present a more comprehensive activity, teachers could compare larger pieces of text and decide where they came from. Look at this sample exercise:
Scotland Yard police are looking for a famous American bank robber called Dirty Dan. Dirty Dan robbed a bank in London last Friday night. They are interviewing three different people. All three have British accents, but the police know that Dirty Dan can imitate a British accent. Read parts of each of the transcript. Can you identify Dirty Dan from the language he uses?
Suspect 1: I already said this. I didn?t do anything special on the weekend. Friday night I took a shower in my apartment and then went out to see a movie. It was a movie I had already seen, Matrix Revolutions. I really like action movies. I went with my girlfriend Samantha.
Suspect 2: I wasn?t in town at the weekend, and I certainly wasn?t anywhere near the bank on Friday night. I was at a hotel in Paris with a special friend of mine. Shall I give you the hotel phone number? You needn?t bother asking me any more questions. You?ve got the wrong man.
Suspect 3: I?ve already said this. On Friday night I went to see a film at the cinema. It was Matrix Revolutions. I don?t really like action films, but my friends really wanted to see it. It was rather boring. After that I went home and had a nice hot bath. I went to bed around midnight.
Answer: Suspect 1 is Dirty Dan. The American words and expressions are: already said this (British would use present perfect); on the weekend (British - at the weekend ); took a shower (British - had a shower ); movie (British - film ).
When looking at varieties of English, it might be useful to discuss different varieties of the students? own language. Here are some questions you could set for discussion which raise different issues about varieties and Standard language.
What is your native language? Where do people speak this language? What other countries use the same language that you do?
When the same language exists in more than one part of the world, there are often some differences between the two languages. These are called varieties of the language. Are there any varieties of your native language?
What differences in language are there in your own country? For example, do people in the capital city speak a different kind of language than people in the country?
What do you think of the different varieties of your own language?
Is there one standard variety of your own language? Is there one variety of your own language that people in your country dislike?
If I wanted to learn your native language, would it matter what variety I learn?
Test your knowledge of English around the world with this online quiz about different kinds of English.
Varieties of English quiz
http://www.onestopenglish.com/english_grammar/grammar_reference.htm - Grammar Reference
http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwesl/egw/jones/words.htm#Common%20words - Common Words in American and
http://www.scit.wlv.ac.uk/~jphb/american.html#condo - Notes on American English
http://www2.gsu.edu/~wwwesl/egw/jones/differences.htm#Spelling - Spelling differences between American and British English -