Dialect AdviceDialect, Advice
ServiceScape Incorporated
ServiceScape Incorporated
2010

British English vs. American English

Playwright George Bernard Shaw once claimed, England and America are two countries divided by a common language. Since the Americas were colonized over 400 years ago, the form of English used in the United States has deviated from that used in the United Kingdom. Therefore, the form of English used in the United Kingdom is called British English, and the form of English used in the United States is called American English.

During the course of writing, you may be asked to write in your non-native format. For example, some academic journals require articles to be formatted in a particular style. Therefore, it is important to be aware of the ways in which the two forms differ. It is also important to point out that the differences in style extend beyond what your spell check may highlight. This article will address the differences between the two forms, including spelling, punctuation, grammar, vocabulary, idioms, and formatting of dates and numbers.

Spelling

For spelling issues, the safest option is to consult a dictionary. Use the Oxford Dictionary for British English and the Merriam Webster Dictionary for American English. A few common differences are listed below.

  • American English "or" vs. British English "our":
    Examples include color/colour and favorite/favourite.
  • American English "ze" vs. British English "se":
    Examples include analyze/analyse and criticize/criticise.
  • American English "ll" vs. British English "l":
    Examples include enrollment/enrolment and skillful/skillful.
  • American English "er" vs. British English "re":
    Examples include center/centre and meter/metre.
  • American English "e" vs. British English "oe" or "ae":
    Examples include encyclopedia/encyclopaedia and maneuver/manoeuvre.

Punctuation

The most important difference involves the use of quotation marks. Double quotation marks are used as primary quotes in American English, whereas single quotation marks are used in British English.

For quotes within quotes, single quotation marks are used in American English, and double quotations marks are used in British English.

To add to the confusion, periods and commas are generally placed inside closing quotes in American English and placed outside closing quotes in British English. In both styles, question marks and exclamation points are placed inside the quotation marks if they belong to the quotation and outside otherwise.

The following sentences highlight the key differences.

My father always said, "Be careful what you wish for." (American English)
My father always said, 'Be careful what you wish for'. (British English)

Another difference appears in letter writing. In American English, a comma follows the salutation in an informal letter (Dear John,), and a colon follows the salutation in a business letter (Dear John:). In British English, a comma follows the salutation in all letters.

Writers should also be careful when using the term "i.e." as the punctuation that follows also differs. In American English, a comma follows "i.e." or "e.g." No comma is used in British English.

Abbreviations may also be expressed differently. In American English, a period is typically used with abbreviations (Ph.D and Mr.), but in British English, no period is used (PhD and Mr).

Finally, it is also worthwhile to note that "( )" marks are referred to as brackets in British English. In American English, "( )" marks are referred to as parentheses (singular parenthesis), whereas "[ ]" are called brackets.

Grammar

Will/Shall

In British English, it is fairly common to use shall with the first person to talk about the future. Americans rarely use shall.

I will never forget this favour. (American English)
I shall/will never forget this favour. (British English)

Collective Nouns

Collective nouns like "jury," "team," "family," and "government" can take both singular and plural verbs in British English. In American English, they normally take a singular verb.

The committee meets tomorrow. (American English)
The committee meets/meet tomorrow. (British English)

Vocabulary

The greatest difference between the two forms may be in vocabulary. Some differences in usage and/or meaning can cause confusion or embarrassment:

Apartment vs. Flat
Area code vs. Dialing code
ATM vs. Cashpoint
Baby carriage vs. Pram
Bathroom vs. Loo/water closet
Cookie vs. Biscuit
Elevator vs. Life
Period vs. Full stop

There are also a few differences in preposition use, including the following:

American English "on the weekend" vs. British English "at the weekend"
American English "on a team" vs. British English "in a team"

Idioms

There are a number of English idioms that have essentially the same meaning but show lexical differences between the American and British version, for instance:

Knock on wood vs. Touch wood
A drop in the bucket vs. A drop in the ocean
Beating a dead horse vs. Flogging a dead horse
Lay of the land vs. Lie of the land

Dates and numbers

In American English, the date is expressed as "April 17, 1978." Conversely, in British English, the date is expressed as "17 April 1978."

The time may also be expressed differently in British English since the 24-hour clock (18:00 or 1800) is routinely used in the UK and Europe in applications including air, rail, and bus timetables; however, it is largely unused in the US outside of military, police, and medical applications.

Finally, in most cases, British English and American English can be used interchangeably. However, in formal writing, it is important to know the distinctions and apply them appropriately.

Get in-depth guidance delivered right to your inbox.
Subscribe
Chat With Us