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Comparison of American and British English

Many English speakers and do not realize the vast differences between American English and British English. Some might falsely assume that the two are filled with more similarities than differences, and that the rules separating American English and British English are simply finicky points that are arguable and not especially noteworthy. The fact remains that what might be considered inconsequential to some readers can be taken as serious grammatical errors when crossing the Atlantic divide.


Take, for example, the use of punctuation within quotes. Many American middle and high school students consistently confuse the rules associated with punctuating quotations. The uncertainty is so rampant, that the mystery tends to remain a significant issue during, and even after, the college years. So just where does that period go when there are quotes involved? The answer to this question changes, depending if you are looking at American English or British English grammar rules.

In American English, it is standard for periods and commas to be placed within quotations:

Their teacher dismissed them with a curt "class dismissed."

There is one dominant exception to this rule, and that is if the quotation is followed by a parenthetical source reference:

The political game, according to Smith, seemed "far less evasive than the candidates themselves" (24).

According to British English grammar rules, however, the punctuation is only placed within the quotation marks if it is punctuation that is a part of, or is related to, the quoted text. For example, notice the differences in which the following sentences would commonly be written, depending if the author is following American English or British English grammar rules.

American English:
A sign on the front door announced that the owners were "out to lunch."
The names given to the characters were "Anabelle," "Zach," and "Cody."

British English:
A sign on the front door announced that the owners were "out to lunch".
The names given to the characters were "Anabelle", "Zach", and "Cody".

With both American English and British English, semi-colons and colons are placed outside of the quotation. Writers and editors who are often confused between the two distinct sources of grammar rules will be happy to find that at least there is agreement with this one aspect of punctuation.


Beyond punctuation, there are several rules relating to spelling that are significant to note. First, words that end in "–er" in American English typically end in "–re" in British English ("theater" vs. "theatre"). Additionally, words that end in "–or" in American English typically end in "–our" in British English ("honor" vs. "honour"). Finally, one of the most common differences in spelling is with American English words that contain the suffixes "–ize" or "–yze" (also "–ization"). Such words are generally spelled with "–ise" or "–yse" (or "–isation") in British English. As with any grammar rule, there are exceptions, and any writer or editor who often switches between American English and British English would benefit from studying these instances in depth.

Also, one of the little-known rules regarding discrepancies between American and British grammar is with verbs that end in a vowel plus "l." In British English, the "l" in such verbs is doubled before the addition of a suffix that begins with a vowel ("travel" = "traveller"). In American English, this is not the case, and the "l" remains a single letter ("travel" = "traveler"). This is an issue that many spell-checker programs will not catch, especially if the program is created within the US.

Some words, however, are spelled differently within British English and American English, depending on their usage. For example, while American English uses "practice" to denote both the noun and verb form of the word ("She practiced piano often" and "The doctor's practice was busy"), British English uses "practice" as the noun form and "practise" as the verb form ("She practised piano often" and "The doctor's practice was busy"). Similarly, while American English uses "license" as both a noun and verb, British English spells the noun form as "licence" and the verb form as "license."

In many cases with these particular words, the American English version of spelling is acceptable in the UK, as likewise the British English version is acceptable in the US. Most seasoned readers have seen the words spelled in both the British English and American English form, and understand them regardless of which continent they consider as home.

Words commonly confused

In addition to punctuation and spelling, there are words that are commonly confused between British English and American English. The list below is from the Oxford Dictionary:

Jumper/Pinafore Dress
French Fries/Chips

A "garden" in the UK is the same thing as a "yard" in the US, and a "lounge" in Britain is the same as a "living room" in America. Such discrepancies as these abound between the two, and complete lists can be found online.

Words not used

There are many words commonly used in American English that are not used in British English, and vice versa. Words such as "burglarize" and "co-ed" are not standard in British English writing, and could confuse audiences when used without contextual clarification. Conversely, some commonly used words in British English can lose their meaning for American audiences (for example, "lorry" and "loo"). Anyone who writes or edits for both British and American audiences should study the extensive lists of words that hold different meanings between the two forms of English language usage.

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