American English v UK English: 13 Differences

The difference between American English and British English once caused George Bernard Shaw to say that the United States and United Kingdom are “two countries divided by a common language.” So, how you avoid making mistakes when writing business documents for American readers?

13 Common Problems When Writing American English

…a porter in a British hotel comes upon an American tourist impatiently jabbing at the button for the lift.

“Sir, the lift will be here in a moment.”
“Lift? Lift?” replies the American. “Oh, you mean the elevator.”
“No sir, here we call it a lift.”
“Well, as it was invented in the United States, it’s called an elevator.”
“Yes sir, but as the language was invented here, it’s called a lift.”

The Reader’s Digest

1. Collective Nouns

Both languages are flexible on this but the difference occurs for all nouns of multitude, both general terms such as team and company and proper nouns, for instance where a place refers to a sports team.

British English: The Rolling Stones are a well-known band
American English: The Rolling Stones is a well-known band

British English: Brazil are the champions
American English: Brazil is the champion

2. Proper Nouns

Those which are plural in form take a plural verb in both American English and British English for example,

The Beatles are a well-known band
The Saints are the champions

There is an exception: in American English, it’s ‘the United States is’ never ‘the United States are.’

3. Past Tenses

I’m often scolded by American reader for writing ‘learnt’ as opposed to ‘learned’. Why?

The past tense and past participle of the verbs such as learn, spell, burn, can be either irregular (learnt, spoilt, etc.) or regular (learned, spoiled, etc.).

However, in British English, both irregular and regular forms are current, but for some words (such as smelt) there is a tendency towards the irregular forms.
In most accents of American English, the irregular forms are never or rarely used (except for burnt, leapt and dreamt). For example, burnt toast.

4. Double Negatives

If you’ve watched US movies, especially westerns, you may have heard one of the characters say, ‘It ain’t never gonna happen.’

Technically, this means it will happen.

What’s happening here is that the ‘ain’t’ is used to emphasize the never. In other words, it’s never, never going to happen.

5. Shall v Will

Shall is almost never used by Americans, especially in conversation. Whereas, it is more common with British speakers.

Shan’t is almost never used in American English. Instead they use won’t or am not going to.

6. Prepositions before days

British people say She resigned on Monday

Americans prefer to say She resigned Thursday

However, both forms are used in the US.

7. Highways

In British English, numbered highways usually take the definite article, for example “the M4”

In America they usually do not, for instance, “I-495″or “Highway 101”).

There are exceptions such as “the 33”, “the 5” or “the 10”.

In the UK, something similar is used for named roads, for example, Strand in London is almost always referred to as the Strand.

8. Dates

In the US, it’s May 5th or May 5.

In the UK (and in some former colonies) you are more likely to hear, ‘the fifth of May’.

9. On Teams v In Teams

In the US, you’ll be ‘on’ the team, whereas in the UK, you’re ‘in’ the team.

10. Hockey

In the UK, you play hockey on a field (grass), whereas in the US, it’s probably on ice.

11. Fall v Autumn

In the UK, fall is a verb, as in to fall over when hit by a ball.

Whereas in the US, it’s an alternative term for autumn.

Fall is never used in the UK in this sense.

12. Running Politicians

In the UK, politicians stand for election.

In the US, they’re more energetic and ‘run for office.’

13. Some other differences

UK v US

bonnet v hood

boot v trunk

car park v parking lot

estate car v station wagon

gearbox v transmission

lorry v truck

pavement v sidewalk

petrol v gas

anti-clockwise v counter-clockwise

Conclusion

Read American newspapers such as The New York Times to get a grasp of formal american english but… read local, less prestigious papers to get a real feel for how most american read/write. The Sacramento Bee is one example. Good quality publication with a local flavor.

What other examples would you add?

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