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?

11 thoughts on “American English v UK English: 13 Differences

  1. Karla Marsh says:

    I can’t believe you left off football! In the US, we have football and we have soccer. Not the same thing. I didn’t know the one about “in” vs “on” the team. There are also many differences in how we punctuate (e.g., periods always, always, always go inside quotation marks in the US). Using American newspapers as examples, though, is shaky–many so-called journalists do not have a firm grasp of grammar and punctuation, let alone word usage, and many publications are doing away with their copy editors to save money. #1 drives me crazy when I’m watching a Canadian or British show and they say “The team are now going to…” ARGH!! (LOL!)

    • Ivan Walsh says:

      You mean soccerball 🙂 yes, hard to know how I forgot that.

      What used to drive me nuts when I lived in the states was when people would say, ‘I’ll write you.’

      I couldn’t get my head around that til I heard Margaret Thatcher saying she was ‘going theater’, ie to the theatre 🙂

  2. Bill Kerschbaum says:

    Great article, Ivan, as usual – and fun. Some thoughts:
    1. “Burnt” is used more as an adjective (“The toast is burnt”) and “burned” is the verb (“I burned the toast”).
    2. I almost always say “on Monday,” etc. Sounds horribly awkward without that “on.” Perhaps it’s a regional thing.
    3. I always wondered what the difference is between shall and will. How do British use “will”? Or don’t they?
    4. Ah! So that’s why I keep seeing British drivers on the sidewalk here!

  3. Womensselfhelp says:

    Tap V Faucet
    Swede V Rutabaga
    Courgette V Zucchini
    Bum bag V Fanny Bag. (In fact the American term is considered rude over here.)

    • Ivan Walsh says:

      I’d forgotten those. I thought ‘Rutabaga’ was some type of walrus or sea lion 🙂

      …and the fourth one can be real tricky. seen people get very embarrassed about that over here.

  4. Womensselfhelp says:

    Tap V Faucet
    Swede V Rutabaga
    Courgette V Zucchini
    Bum bag V Fanny Bag. (In fact the American term is considered rude over here.)

  5. Helseykc says:

    1) I am somewhat confused by your first two problems:

    American English: The Rolling Stones is a well-known band
    BUT
    Both: The Beatles are a well-known band

    Why are The Beatles plural but not the Rolling Stones?

    2) centre v(s!) center
    3) aubergine v(s!) eggplant

    (Not sure if “v” vs “vs” is a Brit vs American thing but it jumped out at me! Is that an entirely personal rather than regional preference?)

  6. Des Walsh says:

    Good one, Ivan.

    Love the lift/elevator story.

    Yes, in this former colony, Australia (further south than Arnie’s place of origin), we still say fifth of May and write it that way. So 5/5/11 is clear enough, but if I write today’s date as 11.8.11 I am not getting ahead of myself but my American cousin could be forgiven for thinking that.

    Also pronunciation, although I realise/realize that’s not the point of your post. Skedule not shedule, tomaytoes of course. zee not zed.

    • Ivan Walsh says:

      Hi Des,

      Pronunciation is tricky isn’t it? Like trying to explain why the N is silent in government.

      Must be a real head-wrecker for non-natives speakers 🙂

  7. Des Walsh says:

    Good one, Ivan.

    Love the lift/elevator story.

    Yes, in this former colony, Australia (further south than Arnie’s place of origin), we still say fifth of May and write it that way. So 5/5/11 is clear enough, but if I write today’s date as 11.8.11 I am not getting ahead of myself but my American cousin could be forgiven for thinking that.

    Also pronunciation, although I realise/realize that’s not the point of your post. Skedule not shedule, tomaytoes of course. zee not zed.

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