What are the differences between British and American English?

Published on 29/04/2020

Despite being separated by a vast ocean, the United Kingdom and the United States are two sides of the same coin, two sister countries united by the same language but with very different cultural personalities. This is reflected in the way English is used to the extent that it can differentiate between British and American English.

These differences, far from being anecdotal, can cause confusion, lack of cohesion or misunderstanding in a translation, so it is very important to emphasize and delimit the corresponding uses of each variant. To some extent, the situation is similar to that of Spanish in Spain with respect to Latin America, or continental French with respect to Quebec.

1. English: from island to lingua franca

The language of the 20th century

1.1. The language of the 20th century

Without a doubt, one of the most remarkable linguistic phenomena of this last century has been the enormous expansion of English, which has managed to displace French and become the new lingua franca. A study by the European Commission's Eurobarometer (2006) Europeans and their languages shows that the majority of Europeans (56%) are able to hold a conversation in a language other than their mother tongue, i.e. they have knowledge of a second language. English tops this list with 38%, followed by French 14% and German 14%. This entrenchment of English was already evident years ago, for example, in 1900 the percentage of young Europeans whose second language was English was 42%, while 19% were French. The same has happened in the EU institutions, as shown by the study by David Fernández Vítoresof the Complutense University of Madrid. In 1986, 56% of European Commission texts were in French and 26% in English. However, this figure changes radically in just ten years, as we note that in 1996 45% were written in English and 26% in French.

1.2. How many millions of people speak English?

How many millions of people speak English

The growth of English internationally has been devastating in the last century. To give some figures to support this claim, a recent study from 2019 confirms that around 1.5 billion people speak English as a second language, making it the most widely spoken language in the world, ahead of Chinese and Hindi. In contrast, the number of native speakers is lower, only 375 million, from which we deduce that it has become the language of communication par excellence.

2. Main differences between British and American English

After noting the importance of English today, we ventured to translate them into their nature. Thus, we find lexical, phonetic, grammatical and, of course, cultural differences.

Main differences between British and American English

2.1 Lexical differences

Although in many cases we are not aware of it, there are countless lexical differences between the two varieties. We have probably seen or used both variants, mixing British and American English without giving it any importance, but this may be inappropriate in a formal or advertising communication context. Imagine for a moment that an advertisement aimed at the British market on a gastronomy website uses the word eggplant instead of aubergine or the word zucchini (US) instead of courgette (UK). Or, that on this same website, an incredible guacamole recipe is published telling you that it has coriander (US) instead of coriander (UK) or offers you a cookie (US) instead of a biscuit (UK). Although reactions vary from person to person, an opportunity will have been missed to create a truly thoughtful message for British visitors to the website.

Americans and British

Another field in which Americans and British use different words is that of transport. It won't do us any good to ask about the subway in this same city referring to it as Underground (UK) instead of Subway (US) or to call a taxi (UK) in the USA, since there they say cab (US). Similarly, while on one side of the Atlantic they refer to a truck as a truck (US), on the other they call it a lorry (UK), and the same is true of petrol, while in the United States they use gas or gasoline (US), in Britain they prefer to say petrol (UK).

Lexical differences are many and can sometimes be sources of communication problems. You can click here to see many more examples.

2.2 Phonetic differences

Even if we don't have an expert level of English, we all come to notice certain phonetic differences if we watch a movie in its original English version -films (UK) or movies (US).

Phonetic differences

2.2.1. R's are clearly pronounced in American English

First of all, the difference in pronunciation in words ending in "r" is very noticeable. While in American English we would pronounce the final consonant, in British English we would omit it. Thus, we can differentiate an American radio announcer, who is broadcasting a football match, from a British one depending on whether by saying corner pronounce the final -r or not. The same goes for words like computer, fear, your o hair

2.2.2. Open vowels versus closed vowels

Another big phonetic difference is found in the vowels. American English makes the most open vowel sounds. Therefore, while the British pronounce the vowel "o" in a similar way to ours, that is, closed, the Americans lengthen it, making it more like an "a". This variant is evident in words such as hospital o bottle.

2.2.3. Different accents depending on which words

Different accents depending on which words

Finally, the accentuation of wordsis also very significant. There are words in which the accent falls on different syllables depending on the variant we use. For example, with the word address o chocolate.

2.2.4. "Ts" that sound like "Rs"

"Ts" that sound like "Rs"

One of the very rare peculiarities of the American accent is the pronunciation of the spelling "t" as a sound that is assimilated to the "r" sound when the "t" is in the middle of a word. Thus the pronunciation of the word "water" will be very different in American English or British English, as the "t" is pronounced as "r" in American and the final "r" is not pronounced in British.

2.3. Spelling differences

As mentioned earlier, the American Dictionary of the English Language made some notable changes from British English, particularly in terms of spelling. Among these changes, we highlight three that surely correspond to the best known.

Spelling differences

2.3.1. Words ending in "-tre" or "-ter"

First, American English changed the spelling of some words ending in "-tre " (UK) to words ending in "-ter " (US). Therefore, an American will go to the theater or the city center. This seems insignificant, but it's not. In a translation of a technical text, for example, we must know exactly whether it is American English or British English, as we will use metre or metre depending on this.

2.3.2. Words ending in "-ce" or "-se"

Secondly, in many words of American English, the ending "-ce" is replaced by "-se". Examples are the words defense, offense or license.

2.3.3. Words ending in "-our" or "-ur"

The British words ending in "-our" should also be noted. In this case, American English chooses to delete the "u". Thus, words like color, honor, humour, labour or neighbour, in a text written in American English would be written color, honour, humour , labour and neighbour.

2.3.4. Words that are written with "-ise" or "ize"

Finally, we will mention the difference with the British words ending in "-ise " such as customise, organise, specialise or apologise, as many of them change their ending to "-ize" when it comes to the American version, giving rise to customise, organise, specialise or apologise.  Thanks to this, for example, we know that the music group One Republic is American, as one of their best-known songs indicates: Apologize

2.4. Grammatical differences

Although we did not find many grammatical differences between the two variants, there are some notable cases that should be mentioned.

2.4.1. Use of different verb tenses

First, British English prefers to use the present perfect, while Americans tend to use the past simple:

UK: I have bought this album yesterday in a music shop.

US: I bought this album yesterday in a music store.

2.4.2. Variety of prepositions

The use of prepositions is also a grammatical difference that can be misleading. When we refer to the always longed-for weekend, the British use at theweekend, while the Americans use on the weekend. Another example, when talking about academic institutions, British English does so with the preposition "at", while American uses "in":

UK: She studies law at the university.

US: She studies law in the university.

2.4.3. Have and Have got

Another very common difference, which can go almost unnoticed, is the difference between have and have got. Both are used to express possession, but while British English usually uses have got, American English is more common to use simply have.

UK: I have got two brothers and a sister.

US: I have two brothers and a sister.

2.4.4. Should we use take or have?

Finally, there are differences in the use of have and take when describing an action. For example, if we are in the United Kingdom, we would say I will have a nape, while in the United States we would say I will take a nape. The same goes for have a shower or have a bath.

2.5. Cultural Differences

As a translation company, we know that when translating, not only do purely linguistic aspects matter, but cultural aspects also play a crucial role in extracting the right meaning from the source text or adapting the text to the target audience.

2.5.1. We don't all measure in meters

Anglo-Saxon system of units

Britain and the United States share a common language and inevitably have cultural traits in common that set them apart from the rest of the world, such as the Anglo-Saxon system of units. This point particularly strikes me, since the United States wanted to differentiate itself once again from the United Kingdom by introducing a series of modifications to the imperial system used by the United Kingdom. The main modification is found in the measurement of the gallon, a unit of volume used to measure, for example, gasoline in the United States and in some American countries such as Puerto Rico, Panama or Peru. The British or Imperial gallon corresponds to 4.54 liters, while the American gallon corresponds to 3.78 liters.

2.5.2. The order of the dates

Order of dates

Even so, we can mention other examples of differentiation that are clearer and of particular importance for translation. A very practical and everyday case is the treatment of dates. In the United States the month is placed first and then the day, while in the United Kingdom the Spanish model is followed, first the day and then the month. So, if we are looking at an American document dated 05/02/2019, we should be aware that it refers to 2 May 2015, whereas if we find the same date in a document written in British English we should read 5 February 2019.

2.5.3. The "billion" question

The "billion" question

In a country with as many inhabitants as the United States (328.2 million to be precise), it is very common to speak of large figures, as in the case of federal budgets, using the billion, which, by the way, in Spanish is not equivalent to "billón", but to "millard" or "billions". Thus, what appears to us to be a million million (1012), in the United States and the United Kingdom is actually a billion (109). What is curious is not this cultural difference between Spanish and English, but that this has not always been the case, since in British English, billions used to correspond to one million (1012). The United Kingdom was this time the one that adapted to the United States and in 1974 adopted the American version of billion. The old British billion, (1012) then became known as the trillion.

2.5.4. Changes in the age of majority

The difference in the age of majority in each country is also curious. Obviously, different countries have different laws, but as far as the age of majority is concerned, we are not aware that it can change, since in most countries of the world, including the United Kingdom, it is acquired at the age of 18. In contrast, in the United States it is from the age of 21, which may come as a shock to us, since its legislation allows teenagers to get their driving license when they turn 16. Be that as it may, this slight difference can be key in legal translation.

2.5.5. Are the British and Americans laughing about the same thing?

The British and the Americans are laughing about the same thing

Finally, it is worth mentioning a very characteristic feature of each culture: humour. Every culture perceives life differently and in the case of the British, they generally do so in a pragmatic and negative way. This is reflected in his sense of humor which is usually dry, very sarcastic and with intellectual touches. However, Americans, who are considered more optimistic, have a more banal and less ironic mood. If you want to have a good time checking the differences first hand, I invite you to compare the two versions (British issued in 2001 and American issued in 2005) of the series The Office.

3. Origin of the differences between British and American English

3.1. Distance separates us

Distance separates us

In order to explain the reasons that have led to the recognition of the British and the American as two variants of English, we should break down, case by case, each example, since, on many occasions, there are several reasons that can lead to the creation of such variations. What is clear is that geographical distance is an incentive for these differences to be accentuated. Although there are many dialects in the United Kingdom, for example Sheffield English and Norwich English, these differences are not so vast and are more focused on pronunciation, as they share the same geographical territory.

3.2. Everyone has their own story

Given its historical background, the United States is a multiethnic country, composed of many peoples and cultures. This has shaped American English which, compared to British English, has been more directly and recently influenced by other cultures. For example, one of the greatest incidences observed in American English is the influence of African-American English, the dialect of the African-American population, which represented 12.4% of the total populationin 2014. Some linguists such as John McWhorter argue that this dialect, in principle stereotyped and associated with the more unfavourable classes, should have a status of its own and that it should not be seen as an influence of standard American English. Still, what is certain is that this dialect will continue to grow and play a crucial role in the evolution of American English.

3.3. Customized dictionaries

Development of the dictionaries

Another key cause is the development of American and British dictionaries . Noah Webster, author of the American Dictionary of the English Language, advocated distancing himself and marking independence with the United Kingdom through language, thus changing some aspects of British spelling and pronunciation. Hence, for example, the change in the "-ise" ending we mentioned earlier.

4. Details do matter

After analysing some differences between British and American English, we concluded, once again, that translation is a lover of details and the enemy of improvisation. Hence the great need for translators with extensive linguistic and cultural knowledge.

Using automatic translation tools

Furthermore, we note, once again, that it is not advisable to use automatic translation tools for specialized translations, since we will not know precisely which variant they take as a reference. Using a translation company that has a team of translators capable of recognizing these variations and applying them correctly in each case can be decisive in achieving a professional and quality result.

5. Bibliography

Acosta Urbano, Lourdes (2015). British English versus American English: grammatical differences. INESEM digital magazine. Recovered from: https://www.onestopenglish.com/support-for-teaching-grammar/differences-in-american-and-british-english-grammar-article/152820.article

Donesch-Jezo, Eva (2012). English for Specific Purpose: What does it mean and why is it different from teaching General English? Recovered from: https://bit.ly/35hH9HY

Eurobarometer (2006). Europeans and their Languages. European Commission. Recovered from: https://ec.europa.eu/commfrontoffice/publicopinion/archives/ebs/ebs_243_en.pdf

Maxwell, Kerry; Clanfield, Lindsay. Differences in American and British English grammar - article. One stop English. Recovered from: http://www.onestopenglish.com/grammar/grammar-reference/american-english-vs-british-english/differences-in-american-and-british-english-grammar-article/152820.article

Sitzman, Ryan. The difference between British and American English: the ultimate guide. FluentU. Recovered from: https://www.fluentu.com/blog/english/differences-between-american-and-british-english/

Zoe Lorente's picture
Zoe Lorente

Licenciada en traducción a falta de Trabajo Fin de Carrera. Gestora de Proyectos y traductora del francés y alemán al español en prácticas universitarias de septiembre 2019 a junio 2020.

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