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American and British English differences

This article outlines the differences between American English, the form of the English language spoken in the United States, and British English, which for the purposes of this article is assumed to be the form of English spoken in southeast England, used by the British Government and the BBC and understood in other parts of the United Kingdom. The section on pronunciation assumes the received pronunciation of British English. Note that American English refers to the language spoken by Government officials etc, rather than regional dialects. It doesn't include Canadian English, which isn't regarded as 'American English' anyway. Pronunciation is mostly like in American, although spelling can vary.

Table of contents
1 English in various countries
2 Spelling
3 Slight lexical differences
4 Grammar
5 Punctuation
6 Numbers
7 Vocabulary
8 Pronunciation
9 Miscellaneous
10 See also
11 External links

English in various countries

English usage in other countries has traditionally followed one model or the other. Throughout most of the Commonwealth, the spoken English has its roots in the British version, though local expressions abound. Canadian English is something of an exception to this, taking its cue from both the UK and the US. British English is also the dialect taught in most countries where English is not a native language, though there are a few exceptions where American English is taught, such as in the Philippines and in Japan. Ireland's version of English is often described as Hiberno-English and differs in some respects from British English, in so far as phrases and terms often owe their origin to the original Irish language (Gaelic), which allowed for more variations in word structure.

Although American and British English are generally mutually intelligible, there are enough differences to occasionally cause awkward misunderstandings or complete failures to communicate. George Bernard Shaw said that the United States and United Kingdom are "two countries divided by a common language". A similar comment is ascribed to Winston Churchill.

Henry Sweet predicted in 1877 that within a century, American English, Australian English and British English would be mutually unintelligible, but it may be the case that increased world-wide communication through radio, television, the Internet, or globalization has reduced the tendency to regionalisation. This can result either with some variations becoming extinct (as, for instance, truck has been gradually displacing lorry in much of the world) or that wide variations are accepted as "perfectly good English" everywhere.

In addition to its use in English-speaking countries, English is used as a technical language around the world, in medicine, computer science, air traffic control, and many other such areas of concentrated expertise and international user populations. Such speakers may be fluent in English within their discipline, but not generally fluent in English.

There are also many surviving dialects and local variations in English. Certainly the Alabama truck driver, the Highlands crofter, the Jamaican rapper, and the Harvard professor can all speak English, but they would have to work at it to talk among themselves. And the Finnish air traffic controller might still feel left out.


Some words shared by all English speakers are spelled one way by Americans but spelled differently by Britons. In the case of spelling, the differences are not so much British vs American as International vs American, since many of the differences were introduced, somewhat artificially, into the United States by Noah Webster's dictionary, and have never spread to other English-speaking countries. In some cases, the American versions have become common international usage, for example program (in the computing sense).

The Wikipedia:Manual of Style accepts both British and American spelling, although recommending American spelling for American subjects and vice versa. Direct quotes and proper names -- for example 'Pearl Harbor' -- should go as written.

Words ending in ...

... -our/-or

American words ending in "or" may end in "our" in British English. For example, in American English, one would use "color, flavor, and honor," whereas in British English one would use "colour, flavour, and honour." In addition the Americans replace "ou" with "o" in derivatives and inflected forms such as favourite, savoury versus favorite, savory. One exception to this distinction is glamour, which is usually spelled that way in American English as well as British. Oddly enough, the adjectival form is usually spelled glamorous in both systems. Shorter words such as hour, our, flour, sour, and soury, however, are the same in both languages.

... -re/-er

British centre, fibre, metre, theatre (showing an influence from French); American center, fiber, meter, theater. The adjectival forms of these words are the same in both conventions, however; Americans do not write centeral, fiberous, meteric or theaterical. Britons use meter for a measuring device and metre for the unit of measure. The British forms are recognizable by Americans and occasionally found in American texts, though their usage may be considered an affectation. The British spelling that has perhaps gained the most currency in American English is theatre. However, theater is still more common in everyday use, and theatre is generally reserved for more formal settings.

... -gue/-g

British analogue, catalogue, dialogue; American analog, catalog, dialog. Although the -gue forms are also common in American. However some -gue forms are common in both British and American usages such as demagogue and vogue (otherwise it would be just vog).

... -ise/-ize

British colonise, harmonise, realise; American colonize, harmonize, realize. This is a somewhat artificial distinction, since the most authoritative British sources, the Oxford English Dictionary and Fowler's Modern English Usage prefer -ize, and most British writers use either freely. However British editors tend to enforce the norm is to use -ise as the standard orthographical practice. Derivatives and inflected forms: British realisation; American realization. Also: British analyse; American analyze. It should also be noted that not all spellings are interchangeable, for this is valid solely for words deriving from Greek. Some words take the z form exclusively, for instance capsize, prize (to value), seize, size, while others take only s: advertise, advise, apprise, arise, circumcise, comprise, demise, despise, devise, disguise, exercise, franchise, improvise, incise, promise, poise, praise, raise, rise, supervise, surmise, surprise and televise.

... -xion

The erratic spellings connexion, inflexion, reflexion are now rare, understandably as their stems are connect, inflect and reflect. The more common American connection, inflection, reflection have become the standard in British English. However complexion is still generally used in preference to complection, as it comes from the stem complex, as with crucifix and crucifixion. British Methodism retains the eighteenth century spelling "connexion" to describe its national organisation, for historical reasons.

Greek-derived words with ae or æ and oe or œ

{| border=0 !British||American |-- |aesthetic||esthetic |-- |amoeba||ameba |-- |anaemia||anemia |-- |anaesthesia||anesthesia |-- |archaeology||archeology |-- |diarrhoea||diarrhea |-- |foetus||fetus |-- |gynaecology||gynecology |-- |mediaeval||medieval |-- |encyclopaedia||encyclopedia |}

British manoeuvre seems to be a special case: its oe was not derived from Greek, but was apparently changed to maneuver in American English on the mistaken belief that it was. British aeroplane and American airplane is a special case in that it's not a straight ae → e substitution like the rest, it's in fact a different word rather than a different spelling. Some of the British forms are also common in American usage, particularly aesthetic and amoeba, although esthetic and ameba do appear as well. The spelling encyclopedia is sometimes used in British English, although encyclopaedia is also used.

Doubled consonants

British English generally doubles final -l when adding postfixes that begin with a vowel, where American English doubles it only on stressed syllables. (Thus American English treats -l the same as other final consonants, whereas British English treats it irregularly.) British counsellor, equalling, modelling, quarrelled, signalling, travelled, tranquillity; American counselor, equaling, modeling, quarreled, signaling, traveled, tranquility. But compelled, excelling, propelled, rebelling in both (notice the stress difference). British speakers also use a single l before postfixes beginning with a consonant where Americans use a double: British enrolment, fulfilment, instalment, skilful; American enrollment, fulfillment, installment, skillful.


{| !British || American || Remarks |-- |aluminium || aluminum |-- |artefact || artifact |-- |carburettor || carburetor |-- |cheque || check |-- |cypher || cipher|| (but see below) |-- |disc || disk |-- |draught || draft|| (see below) |-- |glycerine || glycerin |-- |gaol || jail|| (see below) |-- |grey || gray |-- |jewellery || jewelry |-- |kerb || curb || (see below) |-- |mould || mold |-- |plough || plow |-- |pyjamas || pajamas |-- |programme || program|| (see below) |-- |speciality || specialty |-- |sport || sports|| (see below) |-- |sulphur || sulfur |-- |Taleban || Taliban |-- |tyre || tire |}

The word curb is used in British for the verb meaning "to restrain" or "to control", but the edge of a roadway is always a kerb. British English uses both draught and draft, depending on the sense, and uses jail and jailer more often than gaol and gaoler (except to describe a medieval building and guard). The form program is always used in British English when referring to a computer program, but for other uses programme is usual. Americans use the term "sports" to refer collectively to all athletic contests, as in "the sports section of the paper" or "ABC's Wide World of Sports." The British typically use "sport" in this context, although they usually use "sports" as a plural when referring to specific competitions. Cypher (and such derivations as encypher and decypher) is used in the UK, and cipher is used in both the UK and the US (both spellings are quite old).

In addition to the spelling differences above, British use storey for a level of a building and story for a tale; Americans use story for both. Americans use vise for the tool and vice for the sin, while British use vice for both. The spelling grey is invariable in Britain, and not uncommon in America, but gray is more common in America. Lieutenant is spelled the same in both countries, but America pronounces it as "loo-tenant" whereas the British pronunciation is "lef-tenant".

Slight lexical differences



Note: The Wikipedia:Manual of Style splits the difference here, suggesting British style for punctuation and quotation marks, and American style for double and single quotation marks.


When saying or writing out numbers, the British will put an "and" before the last part, as in "one hundred and sixty-two" and "two thousand and three", whereas Americans go with "one hundred, sixty-two" and "two thousand, three". Americans also have a tendency to read numbers like 1234 as "twelve thirty-four", which would be "one thousand, two hundred and thirty-four" in Britain unless discussing the year 1234, when "twelve thirty-four" would be the norm.

There is also a historical difference between billions, trillions. Historically, in the United States one billion meant one thousand million (1,000,000,000) whereas in British English, it meant one million million (1,000,000,000,000), with one thousand million sometimes described as a milliard. However, the "American English" (both systems were actually invented by the French) version is now generally used in the United Kingdom and among other non-US English speakers. The word milliard has disappeared from use. When using hugely large numbers, it is recommended that SI units be used, (1,000,000,000 = 1 Giga-unit) which removes possible confusion entirely. See English language numerals for details.

Finally, when referring to the number 0, Americans use the term "zero" almost exclusively, whereas Britons would use "nought" or "oh" as well, or "nil" in instances such as sports scores and voting results. (The digit 0, e.g. when reading a phone or account number aloud, is nearly always pronounced "oh" in both languages for the sake of convenience.)


Most of the differences are in connection with concepts originating from the nineteenth century to the mid twentieth century, where new words were coined independently; almost the entire vocabularies of the car/automobile and railway/railroad industries are different between Britain and America, for example. Another source of difference is slang or vulgar terms, where frequent new coinage also occurs. The differences most likely to create confusion are those where the same word is used for two different concepts. Regional variations even within the US or the UK can create the same problems.

It should also be noted that most American words can be freely interchanged with their British versions within the United Kingdom without leading to confusion, though they may cause irritation. It tends to be only when the situation is reversed that real problems of understanding occur. However, there are some exceptions, such as dumpster, gas and stroller (in the sense of pushchair) which would be misunderstood by speakers of British English. There are, however, many pitfalls that Americans can fall into without realising it. Be sure you know what you are talking about when complimenting a British woman on the shape of her fanny! And use caution in the US when asking to be knocked up -- in the UK it means to be awakened as with a knock on the door whilst in the US it means to be impregnated.

Words only used in British English

In Southern Britain the word whilst is used almost interchangeably with while. Whilst is more often used in instruction manuals, legal documents, etc.

The word while means until in some Northern English dialects. There is an apocryphal story that because of this, railway crossings with signs saying "do not cross the track while the lights are flashing" had to be changed after several fatalities occurred.

List of British English words not used in American English

Words only used in American English

Speakers of British English are generally aware of the American English term, but would not generally use it.

List of American English words not used in British English

Words with different meanings in British and American English

List of words having different meanings in British and American English


Americans pronounce T's differently to Britons, often changing T sounds into softer D sounds between two vowels. More precisely, in American English, when either a 't' sound or a 'd' sound occurs between two vowels, it changes to a flap, similar to the 'r' in Spanish 'pero'. Consequently, to a speaker of both dialect groups, an American's pronunciation of atom and Adam are homophonous in casual speech. See linguistics and allophones for more information on this category of phenomenon.

Though most English accents pronounce the T's in words as a distinctive T it is common, particularly in Estuary English to replace the T with a glottal stop.

The vowels are also somewhat different. American English generally has a simplified vowel system as compared to the British dialects. In particular, with the exception of New England, Americans have lost the distinction between the vowels of awl and all, as well as caught and cot, the so-called cot-caught merger tending to pronounce all of these with something between a long form of the sound in cot and the "a" of father.

The long "a" of father, the famous British broad A, is used in many British RP words, especially common ones, in two phonetic situations. Firstly, before three of the four voiceless fricatives, as in path, laugh, pass, past, though not before sh. Secondly, before some instances of n and another consonant, as in aunt, plant, dance. In most northern dialects, not to mention Scotish and Irish, though, the short "a" is the norm. (Australian usually follows RP in the first case, though castle and graph, among others, often have the short vowel, and aunt and can't invariably have the broad one.) An "a" at the beginning of a word (such as "ant") is usually short throughout the country, just as in the American.

British Received Pronunciation has generally lost the long /o:/ as in boat, replacing it with a diphthong that is close to /@u/. Some British speakers still have /o:/, but it appears only as a result of a lost /r/, in words like force. More northerly and westerly British speech preserves /o:/, as does general American.

Most American dialects have not lost the non-prevocalic r. That is, "standard" American English preserves the sound of "r" in all occurrences, whereas British English only preserves it when it is followed by a vowel (see rhotic). However, this does not hold true for all American dialects nor for all British dialects; the dialects of New England and the American South both exhibit a similar sound change found in southern England. In England, however, when a former syllable final /r/ appeared before a consonant not at a word boundary, a schwa was substituted for it, giving British English a new class of falling diphthongs. The non-rhotic North American dialects do not show this. This phenomenon also partially accounts for the interlocution of 'r' between a word ending in a vowel and one beginning with a vowel (such as "the idear of it") exhibited both in some dialects of Britain and in the Boston (USA) dialect of American English. Most other American dialects interpose a glottal stop where "r" appears in the Boston example, and appears to perform the same function of separating adjacent (non-dipthongized) vowels.

In American English, words of two or more syllables, where the first syllable ends with a single consonant, usually use the long vowel sound:

In British English the short vowel sound is usually employed: In both British and American English a double consonant ending the first syllable usually means the short vowel sound is used. Words ending in -ile and -ine (fertile, docile, missile, turbine) are pronounced with the last syllable sounding the same as isle in British English, and with a short, reduced i (rhyming with turtle) in American.

The name of the letter Z is pronounced zed in British English (and most other European languages) as opposed to zee in American English, though the words are normally only spelled out when noting the difference, like here. Some Greek letters are also pronounced differently. For example, the British pronunciation of beta sounds like "beata" whereas the American pronunciation sounds like "baita", similarly phi is "fie" to Britons and "fee" to Americans, though pi is "pie" to both. The American is more in keeping with the ancient Greek.


Both British and American English use the expression "I couldn't care less" to mean the speaker does not care at all. In American English, the ironic "I could care less" (without the "n't") is synonymous with this, while in British English, "I could care less" is most certainly not synonymous with this, and might be interpreted as anything from nonsense to the speaker's expressing that he or she does care.

In his history of the Second World War, Winston Churchill records that differences in the intepretation of the verb "to table" caused an argument between British and American planners; The British wanted a matter tabled immediately because it was important, and the Americans insisted it should not be tabled at all because it was important. (In British English, the term means "to discuss now", whereas in American English it means "to defer")

In a similar vein, the verb "to slate" means "to schedule" in the US but (informally) "to disparage" in the UK. Thus a headline such as "Third Harry Potter Film Slated" has two very different interpretations.

See also

External links