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American and British English differences

From Academic Kids

This article outlines the differences between American English, the form of the English language spoken in the United States, and British English, which is sometimes used to denote what is more precisely known as Commonwealth English.

For the purposes of this article:

Although American and British English are generally mutually intelligible, there are enough differences to occasionally cause awkward misunderstandings or even a complete failure to communicate. George Bernard Shaw once 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, and globalization has reduced the tendency to regional variation. This can result either in some variations becoming extinct (as, for instance, truck has been gradually displacing lorry in much of the world) or in the acceptance of wide variations as "perfectly good English" everywhere.

In addition to its use in English-speaking countries, English plays an important role as a technical language around the world, in medicine, computer science, air traffic control, and many other areas of concentrated expertise and formal communication among international professionals. Such speakers may be fluent in English within their discipline, but not generally fluent in English.

Contents

Spelling

Main article: American and British English spelling differences

Some words shared by all English speakers are spelled one way by Americans but are spelt differently in other English speaking countries.

Slight lexical differences

  • Miscellaneous lexical differences between British and American English
  • Verb past tenses with -t: Commonwealth dreamt, leapt, learnt, spelt; American dreamed, leaped, learned, spelled. As with the "tre" words, the t endings are occasionally found in American texts. The forms with -ed are also common in Commonwealth usage, and preferred by many as they are weak verbs. (The two-syllable form learnèd , usually spelled simply as learned, is still used to mean "educated", or to refer to academic institutions, in both British English and American English.)
  • Other verb past tense forms: Commonwealth fitted, forecasted, knitted, lighted, wedded; American fit, forecast, knit, lit, wed (but busted). The distinction is, however, not rigorous as the Commonwealth forms are also found in American, and both lit and forecast are standard in Commonwealth English.
    Also, the past participle gotten is rarely used in modern British English (although it is used in some dialects), which generally uses got (as do some Americans), except in old expressions such as ill-gotten gains. Commonwealth usage retains the form forgotten, though. Furthermore, according to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, "The form gotten is not used in British English but is very common in North American English, though even there it is often regarded as non-standard."
    Fitted is used in both conventions as an adjective ("fitted sheets" are the same size as the mattress) and as the past tense of fit ("to suffer epilepsy", for example, "Leavitt fitted" in The Andromeda Strain); however fit and fitting do not denote epileptic seizure in ordinary British use (though that usage is common within medical circles), as the same effect is achieved by to have a fit or to throw a fit.
    The past participle proven is frequently used in American English, although careful speakers usually avoid it, and it remains proved in British English (except in adjectival use; and usage is different in Scottish law). American English further allows other irregular verbs, such as thrive (throvethriven) or sneak (snuck), which remain regular in Commonwealth English, and often mixes the preterite and past participle forms (springsprang (U.S. sprung)–sprung), sometimes forcing verbs such as shrink (shrankshrunk) to have a further form, thus shrunkshrunken. (The Associated Press Stylebook in American English treats some irregular verbs as colloquialisms, insisting on the regular forms for the past tense of dive, plead and sneak.)
    See also: the list of irregular verbs.
  • Directional suffix -ward(s): English forwards, towards, rightwards, etc.; American forward, toward, rightward. The forms with -s are only used as adverbs or prepositions. In American English, the -s forms are fast disappearing, except afterwards. In British English, there is a semantic difference in the usage of the two possible forms. The Oxford English Dictionary states the following about forward and forwards: "/.../ the latter expresses a definite direction viewed in contrast with other directions. In some contexts either form may be used without perceptible difference of meaning; the following are examples in which only one of them can be used: 'The ratchet-wheel can move only forwards'; 'the right side of the paper has the maker's name reading forwards'; 'if you move at all it must be forwards'; 'my companion has gone forward'; 'to bring a matter forward'; 'from this time forward'."
  • In British English the word sat is often colloquially used to cover sat, sitting and seated: "I've been sat here waiting for half an hour." "The bride's family will be sat on the right side of the church." Not all British people do this, but it is not often heard outside Britain. Standard (British) English speakers would regard this usage as grammatically incorrect. Nevertheless, the colloquial usage is widely understood by British speakers. Similarly stood can be used instead of standing. To an American these usages may imply that the subject had been involuntarily forced to sit or stand.
  • In American English, "built-in" describes a feature integrated or included in a larger whole. The Commonwealth English equivalent adjective is "inbuilt" (without a hyphen).
  • A few "institutional" nouns take no definite article when a certain role is implied: for example, at sea [as a sailor], in prison [as a convict]. Among this group, Commonwealth English has in hospital [as a patient] and at university [as a student], where American English requires in the hospital and at the university. (A nurse, visitor, etc. would be in the hospital in both systems.) On the other hand, American English distinguishes in back of [behind] from in the back of; the former is unknown in Britain and liable to misinterpretation as the latter. Both however distinguish in front of from in the front of.
  • Commonwealth English allows agentive -er and attributive -ing suffixes for football (also cricket; often netball; occasionally basketball). American English always uses football player rather than footballer. Where the sport's name is usable as a verb, the suffixation is standard: for example, golfer.
  • English speakers everywhere occasionally make new words by eliding common phrases; for example, health care is now being replaced by healthcare on both sides of the Atlantic. However, American English has made certain words in this fashion which are still treated as phrases in Commonwealth countries. For example, Americans speak of "trademarks," but other countries speak of "trade-marks" or even "trade marks."
  • In compound nouns of the form <verb><noun>, sometimes American English favours the bare infinitive where British English favours the gerund. Examples include: fry pan / frying pan; jump rope / skipping rope; racecar / racing car; rowboat / rowing boat; sailboat / sailing boat; swimsuit / bathing suit. In each of these pairs, the former term is more common in America than Britain and the latter more common in Britain than America (although it is not necessarily the case that the former is more common than the latter in America or the latter more common than the former in Britain).

Grammar

  • In British English, singular nouns that describe multiple people are often used with plural verb and complement, particularly where one is concerned with the people constituting the team, rather than with the team as an entity. The singular form is used in most cases in American. For example, British "the team are worried"; American "the team is worried". But, as in British English, the plural form can be used when the individual membership is clear, for example, "the team take their seats" (not "the team takes its seat(s)"), although it is often rephrased to avoid the singular/plural decision, as in "the team members take their seats". The difference occurs for collective nouns (such as team and company) and for singular proper nouns (for example, where a placename is used to refer to a sports team). Proper nouns which have plural form may take plural verb in America as in Britain. Examples:
    • British English: "The Clash are a well-known band." American English: "The Clash is a well-known band." But "The Beatles are a well-known band" is in both.
    • British English: "New England are the champions." American English: "New England is the champion." But "The Patriots are the champions" in both.
  • Differences in which nouns are the same in both their plural and singular forms, such as the word sheep. In American English, shrimp is such a word, but in British English the plural of shrimp is shrimps. (Shrimps is occasionally heard in the southern U.S., but is otherwise rare, apart from its colloquial use as a pejorative term for small people).
  • In names of American rivers, the word river usually comes after the name (for example, Colorado River), whereas for British rivers it comes before (as in River Thames).
  • Use of prepositions before days denoted by a single word. Where Britons would say "She resigned on Thursday", Americans often say "She resigned Thursday", but both forms are common in American usage. Occasionally, the preposition is also absent when referring to months: "I'll be here December" (although this usage is generally limited to colloquial speech). Intransitive verbs in American English often become transitive; for example, Britons say "I'll write to you" where Americans commonly say "I'll write you"; Commonwealth English: "The workers protested against the decision." American English: "The workers protested the decision."
  • The present perfect tense is much more common in British dialects than in American, where the preterite is usually used instead. For example, I've gone in British English; I went in American. Similarly, the pluperfect is often replaced by the preterite in the USA; this, even more than the dropping of the present perfect, is generally regarded as sloppy usage by those Americans who consider themselves careful users of the language.
  • On informal occasions, the British would use "have got", whereas Americans would say "have" or just "got". "Have" is the only form used in formal writing.
  • American English allows do as a substitute for have (the full verb, in the sense of possess), just as for other verbs such as "walk" or "think"; in the past, British English did not allow this, but it is becoming increasingly common. American: "Have you any food? [or, much more frequently, "Do you have any food?"] Yes, I do." British: "Have you (got) any food? Yes, I have." Note that such substitution is not possible in either American or British English for the auxiliary verb have: "Have you eaten? Yes, I have."
  • Similarly, in informal usage, American English often uses the form "did" + infinitive where British English would use "have/has" + past participle. "Did you brush your teeth yet?" would be usual American English whereas most British speakers would say "Have you cleaned your teeth yet?". The "have" form is regarded as correct in both countries, however, and is required in all formal contexts. "Did you clean your teeth yesterday?" would be correct in both countries.
  • Where a statement of intention involves two separate activities, it is acceptable for speakers of American English to use the simple continuous form "I am going". Speakers of British English are more likely to use the form "I am going to". So where a speaker of American English might say "I am going upstairs and taking a bath", British English speakers would say "I am going to go upstairs and have a bath", or "I am going upstairs to have a bath", which has a slightly different meaning.
  • The subjunctive mood is more common in American English in expressions such as: "They suggested that he apply for the job". British English would have "They suggested that he should apply for the job" or even "They suggested that he applied for the job". However, these British usages are also heard in the United States.
  • Singular attributives in one country may be plural in the other, and vice versa. For example, Britain has a drugs problem while the United States has a drug problem (although the singular usage is also commonly heard in Britain).

Prepositions

  • In the United States, the word through can mean "up to and including" as in Monday through Friday. This causes little confusion in Britain though it is rarely used by British speakers, who might instead say Monday to Friday inclusive, or simply Monday to Friday.
  • In Southern Britain the word whilst is used almost interchangeably with while. Whilst is more often used in instruction manuals, legal documents, etc. To Americans the word whilst, in any context, seems very archaic and/or pretentious. Similarly with amid(st), and to a lesser extent among(st). ("In one's midst" is a standard idiom in both).
  • The word while means until in some dialects of Northern England. 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.
  • In Britain, from is used with single dates and times more often than in the United States. Where British speakers and writers would say "the new museum will be open from Tuesday," Americans would more likely say "the new museum will be open starting Tuesday" or "the new museum will open Tuesday." (This difference, which is more a tendency than an absolute rule, does not apply to phrases of the pattern from A to B, which are used in both British and American English.)
  • American English uses with more often. Where an American will meet with someone and talk with them, a Briton can meet someone and talk to them.
  • American legislators and lawyers always use the preposition "of" between the name of a legislative act and the year it was passed, while their British equivalents do not. Compare Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 to Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

Punctuation

  • Full stops/Periods in abbreviations: Americans tend to write "Mr.", "Mrs.", "St.", "Dr." etc., while British will usually, but not always, write "Mr", "Mrs", "St", "Dr" (or even "D'r"), etc., following the rule that a period is used only when the last letter of the abbreviation is not the last letter of the complete word. However, many British writers would tend to write other abbreviations without a full stop, such as "Prof", "etc", "eg", and so on (so recommended by some Oxford dictionaries). The rationale behind this usage is that it is typographically more elegant, and that the omitted periods are essentially superfluous, as the reader recognizes the abbreviation without them. It also removes ambiguity by reserving the period for ending sentences. However, the "American" usage of periods after most abbreviations is also widely used in Britain. Note that in either case it is incorrect to put a period after units such as kg for kilogram or Hz for hertz, as these are considered unit symbols, not abbreviations.
  • It is sometimes believed that British English does not hyphenate multiple-word adjectives, such as "a first class ticket". This usage is rare, and often considered incorrect. The most common form is as in American English, such as "a first-class ticket".
  • Quoting: Americans start with double quotation marks (") and use single quotation marks (') for quotations within quotations. In general this is also true of British English but can be the opposite when used in book publishing, for example. In journals and newspapers, quotation mark double/single use is the same as American English.
  • Contents of quotations: Americans are taught to put commas and periods inside quotation marks, whereas Britons will put the punctuation inside if it belongs to the quote and outside otherwise. This means that direct speech retains punctuation inside inverted commas in British English also, with a full stop changing into a comma if followed by explanatory text.
    • Carefree means "free from care or anxiety." (American style)
    • Carefree means "free from care or anxiety". (British style)
    • "Hello world," I said. (both styles)
The American style was established for typographical reasons, having to do with the aesthetics of commas and quotation marks in typeset text. It also usefully eliminates the need to decide whether a period or comma belongs to the quotation. However, many people find the usage counterintuitive. Hart's Rules and the Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors call the British style "new" or "logical" quoting; it is similar to the use of quotation marks in many other languages (including Spanish, French, Italian, Catalan, Dutch, and German). This "logical" style is increasingly popular in America, although formal writing generally calls for the "American" style. In fact, the British style is often the de facto standard among Americans for whom formal or professional writing is not a part of their daily life; many are in fact unaware that they are supposed to place commas and periods within the quotation marks. (This rule of placing all punctuation inside quotation if but only if it belongs to the quotation is expressly prescribed by some American professional organisations such as the American Chemical Society. See ACS Style Guide) According to the Jargon File, American hackers have switched to using "logical" British quotation system, because including extraneous punctuation in a quotation can sometimes change the fundamental meaning of the quotation. More generally, it is difficult for computer manuals, online instructions, and other textual media to accurately quote exactly what a computer user should see or type on their computer.
  • Letter-writing: American students in some areas have been taught to write a colon after the greeting in business letters ("Dear Sir:") while Britons usually write a comma ("Dear Sir,") or make use of the so-called open punctuation ("Dear Sir"). However, this practice is not consistent throughout the United States, and it would be regarded as a highly formal usage by most Americans.

Titles and headlines

In American English and Commonwealth English, the words in titles of publications, newspaper headlines, as well as chapter and section headings are often capitalised in the same manner as in normal sentences (sentence case). That is, only the first word is capitalised, along with proper nouns, acronyms, etc.

However, both Commonwealth and U.S. publishers sometimes require additional words in titles and headlines to be capitalised, for added emphasis, as it is often perceived as appearing more professional. The exact rules differ between publishers and are often ambiguous; a typical approach is to capitalise all words other than short articles, prepositions, and conjunctions. This should probably be regarded as a common stylistic difference, rather than a linguistic difference, as neither form would be considered incorrect or unusual in either Britain or the U.S. Many British newspapers use fully capitalised headlines for impact, as opposed to readability (examples include The Sun, The Daily Sport, News of the World).

  • The decline and fall of yet another empire (Common British newspaper headline)
  • The Decline and Fall of Yet Another Empire (Common U.S. newspaper headline)

Numbers

When saying or writing out numbers, the British will insert an "and" before the tens and units, as in "one hundred and sixty-two" and "two thousand and three", whereas Americans will typically drop the "and" as in "two thousand three"; however, "two thousand and three" is also common. Americans are more likely than the British to read numbers like 1,234 as "twelve thirty-four", instead of "one thousand, two hundred and thirty-four" unless discussing the year 1234, when "twelve thirty-four" would be the norm. Similarly, for the house number (or bus number, etc) "272" Britons would tend to say "two seven two" while Americans would tend to say "two seventy-two". Between 1100 and 1900 the British commonly read numbers ending in round hundreds as, for instance, "sixteen hundred" instead of "one thousand six hundred", but from 2000 upwards usage like "thirty-two hundred" would be replaced by "three thousand two hundred".

There is also a historical difference between billions, trillions, and so forth. Americans use "billion" to mean one thousand million (1,000,000,000), whereas in Britain, until the beginning of the 21st century, it was almost exclusively used to mean one million million (1,000,000,000,000), with one thousand million sometimes described as a "milliard", the definition adopted by most other European languages. However, the "American English" version has since been adopted for all published writing, and the word "milliard" is obsolete in English, as are billiard, trilliard and so on.

Nevertheless, the majority of people have no direct experience with manipulating numbers this large, so a significant proportion of international readers will interpret "billion" as 1012, even if they are young enough to have been taught otherwise at school. For this reason, defining the word may be advisable when writing for the general public. However, all major British publications and broadcasters, including the BBC, which long used "thousand million" to avoid ambiguity, now use "billion" to mean thousand million.

See long scale for a more detailed discussion of the evolution of these terms in English and other languages.

Finally, when referring to the numeral 0, Britons would use "zero", "nought", or "oh" normally, or "nil" in instances such as sports scores and voting results. Americans use the term "zero" most frequently; "oh" is also often used, and occasionally slang terms such as "zilch" or "zip". Phrases such as "the team won two-zip" or "the team leads the series, two-nothing" are heard when reporting sports scores. The digit 0, for example, when reading a phone or account number aloud, is nearly always pronounced "oh" in both languages for the sake of convenience.

When reading numbers in a sequence, such as a telephone or serial number, Britons will use the terms double or triple/treble. Hence 007 is "double oh seven". Exceptions are the emergency telephone number 999, which is always "nine nine nine" and the apocalyptic "number of the beast" which is always "six six six". Compare this to American English's "Nine ninety-nine" and "six sixty-six." Some Americans will say "six six six" for the number of the beast, and the emergency phone number in the USA is "nine one one", while "nine eleven" means 11 September 2001.

See also: How to name numbers in English

Vocabulary

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 (see Rail terminology) are different between Britain and America, for example. Other sources of difference are slang or vulgar terms, where frequent new coinage occurs, and idiomatic phrases, including phrasal verbs. The differences most likely to create confusion are those where the same word or phrase is used for two different concepts. Regional variations even within the U.S. 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 and English-speaking Commonwealth nations 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 gas (as in gasoline), and stroller (in the sense of pushchair) which would be misunderstood by speakers of English, as well as common trademark names unknown in the other country, such as Dumpster (U.S.) or Sellotape (UK). There are, however, many pitfalls that Americans can fall into without realising it. Be sure you know what you are talking about when talking about a woman's fanny in Britain, since the word indicates the buttocks in the U.S. versus the vagina in the UK. Speakers of Commonwealth English should be cautious when asking for a fag (cigarette) in America, as the term refers to a homosexual in the U.S., although nowadays these alternate meanings are understood in the UK as their U.S. version, dependant on context. Residents of North and South Carolina beaches should be wary of inviting their British guests to "go out shagging," (a type of dance), for the term in British English refers to sexual intercourse. Similarly, avoid telling Australians that what team you root for, as the Australian meaning is obscene.

Another source of confusion is the different usage of the word college. In the U.S., this refers to a post high school institution such as a university, whilst in the UK and most Commonwealth countries it refers primarily to a tertiary institution between high school and university (normally referred to as a "Sixth Form College" after the old name in secondary education for Years 12 and 13, the "6th form") where intermediary courses such as A Levels or NVQs can be taken and GCSE courses can be retaken, with the interchangability of college with high school being rare but not unknown. Americans may be surprised to hear of a 14 year old attending college in the UK, mistakenly assuming it is at the university level. In both the U.S. and UK, college can refer to some division within a university such as a "college of mathematics and science." Institutions in the U.S. that offer two to four years of post high school education often have the word college as part of their name, while those offering more advanced degrees (for example, masters, doctorate) are called a university. However, Americans attending either a college or university are often collectively called "college students," and the institutions themselves "colleges," regardless of their status. The words freshman, sophomore, junior, and senior refer to the first, second, third, and fourth year respectively of both high school and college (university) students in the U.S. It is critically important that the context of either high school or college first be established, or else it must be stated directly (that is, "She is a high school freshman." "He is a college junior.") In the UK, 1st year university students are called freshers, but there are no specific names for those in other years, or for school pupils.

In the UK, the U.S. equivalent of a high school, is often referred to as a secondary school regardless of whether it is public or private.

Words used only in British English

Speakers of American English are generally aware of some British English terms, such as lorry, biscuit, chap, and shag although they would not generally use them, or may be confused as to whether one means the American or British meaning of some (such as biscuit). They will be able to guess approximately what is meant by some others, such as candy floss or driving licence. However, use of as many other British words, such as semi (semi-detached house), naff (not good), or busk (to play a musical instrument in public with the hope of getting donations from passers-by), risks rendering a sentence incomprehensible to most Americans.

See List of British English words not used in American English.

Words used only in American English

Speakers of British English are generally aware of some American English terms, such as sidewalk, gas, cookie, elevator although they would not generally use them. They will be able to guess approximately what is meant by some others, such as cotton candy. However, use of some other American words risks rendering a sentence incomprehensible to most Britons.

Note that, largely through the influence of Hollywood, the chance of a given Americanism being understood by a British person is significantly greater than in the reverse case.

See List of American English words not used in British English.

Words with differing meanings

See List of words having different meanings in British and American English.

Pronunciation

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Consonants

Britons and Americans pronounce some instances of t and d differently. In most British accents, the two sounds are distinct and pronounced as and respectively. In American English, when either a /t/ or a /d/ phoneme occurs between a sonorant phoneme and an unstressed vowel phoneme, it is realized as an alveolar-flap allophone (the IPA symbol is called fishhook r), 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. Many Americans, however, slightly aspirate this sound when it derives from a 't' and follows a short i () or long a () sound, thus bitter and rated are distinguishable from bidder and raided. See linguistics and allophones for more information on this category of phenomenon.

Though most British accents pronounce the t in words as a distinctive t, it is common, particularly in Estuary English, to replace the t with a glottal stop.

Most American dialects have not lost the non-prevocalic r. That is, "standard" American English preserves the sound of "r" in all occurrences, whereas many British accents preserve it only when followed by a vowel (see rhotic). However, this holds true neither 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 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 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-diphthongized) vowels.

Vowels

American English generally has a simplified vowel system as compared to the British dialects. In particular, many 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 (those two sounds being distinct in British English).

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 Scottish and Irish, though, the short "a" is the norm (Australian usually follows RP in the first case, though dance and graph, among others, often have the short vowel, aunt and can't invariably have the broad one, and castle has both depending on where a speaker comes from). An "a" at the beginning of a word (such as "ant") is usually short throughout the country, just as in the American. However, South Australians generally use the broad A in those words just like RP.

British Received Pronunciation has generally lost the long as in boat, replacing it with a diphthong that is close to . Some British speakers still have , but it appears only as a result of a lost , in words like force. More northerly and westerly British speech preserves . The British diphthong is enunciated as or sometimes as in general American.

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

  • Patriot, the a rhymes with the a in gate
  • Zenith, the e rhymes with the ee in seen
  • Vitamin, the i rhymes with the i in bite

In British English the short vowel sound is usually employed:

  • Patriot, the a rhymes with the a in sat
  • Zenith, the e rhymes with the e in bet
  • Vitamin, the i rhymes with the i in sit

In British English, the prefix "anti-" is pronounced "antee", while in American it is "antigh"; however the British pronunciation is also considered acceptable in many situations and often used.

In both British and American English a double consonant ending the first syllable usually means the short vowel sound is used.

  • Bitter, the first i rhymes with the i in sit

[u] vs [ju] etc.

Commonwealth speakers insert before (a glide) after more consonants than do American speakers. Both distinguish coot from cute, but most Americans do not distinguish do from due or dew. The major exception among American English is in the Southern dialect, which closely follows the Commonwealth usage. The relevant consonants are .

  • Many Commonwealth speakers no longer insert after or , or after initial or . This is called yod dropping. For them as for Americans 'lute' usually sounds like 'loot' (), and 'sue' like 'Sioux' (); but for all Commonwealth speakers 'assume' is , not as in America.
  • and tend to mutate to and except in careful speech. This is called yod coalescence. Thus Commonwealth 'tune' becomes rather than . Both contrast with American .
  • The British–American distinction only applies to stressed syllables. Americans and Commonwealth speakers alike say for continue. Combining this with yod coalescence, many Commonwealth speakers will pronounce residual as and statue as , the same way as Americans. The is preserved even if lack of stress alters the quality of the vowel so it is not , for example, penury .
  • In Commonwealth English, the glide never applies where is spelt 'oo' or 'ou'. Hence 'noon' and 'douche', like 'coot' and 'mousse', sound the same in Britain as in America.
  • Reversing the general pattern, American English, but not Commonwealth English, has [j] in 'figure', and (for some speakers) 'Houston' and 'coupon'.

Stress

For some words, British speakers stress a different syllable from American speakers. This is true in particular for many loanwords from French, where Americans retain final-syllable stress while Britons have an anglicized first-syllable stress. Such words include adultA1,B2, ballet, beret, bidet, blasé, brevet, brochureB2, caféA1, chaletA1, chiffon, cliché, detailA1, flambé, frappé, garage, gateau, gourmet, lamé, montage, pastel, paté, sachet, salon, soupcon ; also some French names, including Calais, Degas, Manet, Monet, Renault, RenéB2. By extension, trisyllabic words may have second-syllable stress in British as opposed to first- and third-syllable stress in American usage, as in exposé and Renaissance.

Conversely, address (in the sense of designating a location; the oration has final-syllable stress everywhere), m(o)ustache and cigarette always have final-syllable stress in Britain, but have first-syllable stress for some Americans. Likewise limousine and magazine always have first-syllable stress in America, but either first- or last-syllable stress is possible in Britain.

A1 indicates some Americans have first-syllable stress.
B2 indicates some Britons have final-syllable stress

Affixes

-ile

Words ending in -ile (fertile, docile, missile) are pronounced rhyming with freestyle in Commonwealth English (), and in American with a short, reduced schwa (rhyming with turtle (), and with fossil and whistle respectively), although exceptions can be found, such as crocodile, profile, reptile, textile, senile, and reconcile. In some cases, both forms are common in American English, such as juvenile, hostile, projectile, and versatile.

-ine

Some multisyllabic words such as iodine and melamine are pronounced with the last syllable sounding the same as dean or mean in Commonwealth English (), and like dine or mine in American ().

-ary

Where the syllable preceding -ary is unstressed, Americans pronounce the suffix as two syllables, with secondary stress on the first of these. British speakers elide the a to give a single unstressed syllable. So military is American and British .

Words ending in -rary form an exception in British English, where in careful speech some may feel obliged to distinguish the two r's. Thus arbitrary would be pronounced rather than ; Americans would further expand the schwa to a fully-fledged .

Adjectives ending -ary form adverbs ending -arily. Formerly the British-American distinction carried over to these, but nowadays most British speakers adopt the American practice of shifting the stress to the antepenultimate syllable: militarily is thus rather than .

Miscellaneous pronunciation differences

This table lists words pronounced differently but spelled the same. See also the table of words with different pronunciation reflected in the spelling.

The square brackets normally used to enclose phonetic (not phonemic) transcriptions have been omitted from the following table to improve legibility.

Spelling UK IPA U.S. IPA Notes
beta Other Greek letters, such as eta, theta and zeta, are pronounced correspondingly. The Commonwealth pronunciation is more naturalised than the American, which is more in keeping with the ancient Greek.
buoy The U.S. pronunciation would be unrecognised in the UK. The British pronunciation occurs in America, more commonly for the verb than the noun, and is usual in cognates buoyant, buoyancy.
chartreuse Similarly masseuse and Betelgeuse; the British pronunciation retains the original pronunciation of these imported French words.
clerk The derived clerical is pronounced everywhere.
deity  
diverge In American English, vowels like /ɝ/ are lenghtened before voiced consonants like the /dʒ/ affricate.
envelope (1) 
(2) 
Many Americans use the Commonwealth pronunciation of this word.
entrepreneur (1) 
(2) 
Similarly chauffeur, connoisseur, and liqueur
garage (1) 
(2) 
The U.S. pronunciation is more in keeping with the original French one. The two Commonwealth pronunciations may represent distinct meanings for some speakers; for example, "a subterranean garage for a car" (1) vs "a petrol garage" (2).
herb The American pronunciation of the name "Herb" includes the initial phone, which not all Americans drop in the first place. Those who do not say in herb will not in herbal either, but most will in herbaceous, herbicide, herbivore.
lieutenant (1)  
(2)  
The 2nd British pronunciation is restricted to the Royal Navy.
of  
often (1) 
(2) 
(1) 
(2) 
 
privacy The American pronunciation is also often used by Commonwealth speakers. The Commonwealth pronunciation is the naturalised one, a consequence of the so-called trisyllabic laxing.
route The Commonwealth pronunciation is very common in the United States, especially in the North and South, but not the West.
schedule The American pronunciation is frequently encountered in the U.K.
scone  
shone Past tense of shine
suggest The Commonwealth pronunciation is a common variant in America.
thorough (1) 
(2) 
The difference between UK and U.S. pronunciations of borough is analogous.
want (1)
(2)
(3)
 
was (1)
(2)
 
what  
z (the letter) The spelling of this letter as a word corresponds to the pronunciation: thus Commonwealth zed and American zee.

See also

Miscellaneous

General trends

While the use of American expressions in English is often noted in Britain, movement in the opposite direction is less common. But recent examples exist, including the idiom "to go missing," which had been a distinctively British expression but is used increasingly in American English, at least in journalism, and the noun "queue" and verb "queue up," which seem to be making inroads in the U.S. as well. (The usual American equivalent of "to go missing" is "to disappear" and that of "queue (up)" is "line (up).")

Figures of speech

Both English and American English use the expression "I couldn't care less" to mean the speaker does not care at all. In American English, the phrase "I could care less" (without the "n't") is synonymous with this in casual usage. Intonation no longer reflects the originally sarcastic nature of this variant, which is not idiomatic in British English and might be interpreted as anything from nonsense to an indication that the speaker does care.

In both areas, saying "I don't mind" often means "I'm not annoyed" (for example, by someone's smoking), while "I don't care" often means "the matter is trivial or boring". However, in answering a question like "Tea or coffee?", if either alternative is equally acceptable, an American may answer "I don't care", while a Briton may answer "I don't mind". Either sounds odd to the other.

Business

In his history of the Second World War, Winston Churchill records that differences in the interpretation 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" (the issue is brought to the table), whereas in American English it means "to defer" (the issue is left on the table).

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

One usage of the word "bomb" causes similar confusion: in the U.S. "the show bombed" means it was a total failure; in the UK "the show went down a bomb" means it was a great success. The American slang phrase "the bomb," however (perhaps inspired by African American Vernacular English), almost always indicates positivity. For example, the phrase, "That show was the bomb," would mean that the show was outstanding.

Education

In the UK, a student is said to "read" or to "study" a subject, while in the U.S., a student either "studies" the subject or "majors" in it. The latter refers only to the student's principal course of study, while the former may be refer to any class being taken.

"She read history at Oxford".
"She majored in history at Yale."

In the UK, a student "revises" or "does revision" for an examination, while in American English, the student "studies" for it. When "taking" or "writing" the examination, a student in the UK would have that examination supervised by a "invigilator" whereas in American English it would be a "proctor".

In the UK, a student is said to "sit" or "take" an exam, while in the U.S., a student "takes" an exam. In the UK, a teacher "sets" an exam, while in the U.S., a teacher "writes" or "gives" an exam. The expression "he sits for" an exam also arises in British English, but only rarely in American English; American lawyers-to-be "sit for" their bar exams, but in nearly all other instances, Americans "take" their exams.

"I took my exams at Yale."
"I spent the entire day yesterday writing the exam. At last, it's ready for my students."
"I plan to set a difficult exam for my students, but I haven't got it ready yet."

Numbers

In the UK, "a couple of" tends to refer to exactly two of something, even though the term is informal. In American English, it often means a few (maybe rather more than two) and the "of" is frequently omitted.

There are also variations in floor numbering between the two linguistic systems — the standard international usage maintains that the "first floor" is one above the entrance level while the entrance level is the "ground floor"; whereas normal American usage labels the entrance level as the "first floor" and does not use "ground floor." Some American buildings have a "ground floor," usually as part of a plan to cater to cosmopolitan persons.

Dates

Date formats are usually written differently in the short (numerical) form. Christmas Day 2000, for example, is 25/12/00 in Britain and 12/25/00 in the U.S., although occasionally other formats are encountered, such as the ISO 2000-12-25, popular among programmers.

When writing long-form dates, the format "December 25, 2000" is generally encountered in the U.S., and widely encountered in the U.K.; however, the British are more likely than Americans to use the format "25th December 2000" although it is acceptable in both countries, and the American grammarians Strunk and White, among others, recommend it. Similarly, in American speech, "December twenty-fifth" is the most likely form, and "the twenty-fifth of December" is also not uncommon. In Britain the latter is more likely, and even when the month is presented first the definite article is still inserted in speech, thus "December the twenty-fifth".

Transport

Americans refer to transportation, while Britons refer to transport.

Differences in terminology are especially obvious in the context of roads. The British term dual carriageway, in American parlance, would be a divided highway. central reservation on a motorway in the U.K. would be a median on a freeway or expressway in the U.S. The one-way lanes that make it possible to enter and leave such roads at an intermediate point without disrupting the flow of traffic are generally known as slip roads in the U.K., but U.S. civil engineers call them ramps, and further distinguish between on-ramps (for entering) or off-ramps (for leaving). When American engineers speak of slip roads, or slip ramps, they are referring to an on-ramp and off-ramp that have been rearranged (through use of a grade separation) to minimize weaving on a freeway segment between two interchanges that are too close together.

In the U.K., the term outside lane refers to the higher-speed passing lane closest to the centre of the road, while inside lane refers to the lane closer to the edge of the road; these terms have the opposite meanings in American English, with the outside lane being the one near the edge and the inside lane being the one closer to the median — it is worth noting that Americans also drive on the opposite side to Britons, so that the British inside lane is, like the American one, the leftmost one (going in any given direction).

See also

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