Thanks to the entertainment industry, most English learners know that there are two main variants of English: American English (AmE) and British English (BrE).
While language learners may have a preference for one or the other, neither variant is right or wrong, and English speakers can understand both variants easily. Nonetheless, there are many key differences between AmE and BrE that English language learners should be aware of.
Pronunciation and Accents
The most obvious difference between BrE and AmE is the accent.
Firstly, it’s important to note that when we speak of AmE, we are referring to AmE spoken with General American pronunciation, which is the accent heard in 90 per cent of American films and television shows. When referring to BrE, this means English spoken with Received Pronunciation. Although only about five per cent of the British population speaks with Received Pronunciation, it closely resembles the Estuary English accent spoken throughout South-East England.
Below are just a few of the major pronunciation differences between General American pronunciation and Received Pronunciation:
- General American pronunciation is rhotic, so the ‘r’ is always pronounced, whereas Received Pronunciation is non-rhotic, so the ‘r’ is silent unless at the start of a word or before a vowel.
- In AmE, ‘t’ is often pronounced as a soft ‘d’ when positioned after a vowel, and depending on which part of the word is stressed. Examples include ‘butter’, ‘water’, ‘native’ and ‘Italy’. This is never the case in BrE.
- For multi-syllable words ending in ‘-ile’, such as ‘fertile’ and ‘versatile’, speakers of BrE pronounce them with a long ‘i’, while speakers of AmE pronounce them with a schwa plus the ‘l’ sound so that the word sounds more like ‘mo-bul’ than ‘mobile’.
- BrE speakers use a short ‘i’ in certain words such as ‘privacy’, ‘vitamin’, and ‘simultaneous’, but AmE speakers use a long ‘i’ for these words.
- For certain words, the emphasis in BrE and AmE differs drastically. For example, ‘garage’ is pronounced like ‘GAR-idge’ in BrE, but in AmE, it sounds more like ‘ga-RAHJ’. This also applies to words like ‘massage’, ‘advertisement’ and ‘inventory’.
Confused about getting the English accent right? Read more out more about our specialised Pronunciation and Accent Training Courses where we help English language learners improve their intonation, syllable stress and sound linkages to match the culture they are practicing in. This is especially helpful as an addition to a Business English course to really nail those nuances in a business context.
Now let us focus on some of the main grammatical differences between BrE and AmE.
The present perfect tense (‘have’/‘has’ + past participle) is commonly used in BrE, whereas Americans prefer to use the simple past tense. So where an Englishman would say ‘I have eaten’ and ‘I have already seen that play’, an American would say ‘I ate’ and ‘I already saw that play’.
Speakers of AmE use the ‘-en’ ending for some irregular verbs, but this is not done in BrE. For example, an American might say, ‘I have never gotten caught’ rather than ‘I have never got caught’.
Verbs may be conjugated regularly or irregularly depending on whether you’re using BrE or AmE. For example, in AmE, verbs such as ‘dream’, ‘spell’, and ‘spoil’ are conjugated regularly for past tenses and the past participle: they become ‘dreamed’, ‘spelled’, and ‘spoiled’. However, in BrE, the past tense and past participle are irregular for these verbs: ‘dreamt’, ‘spelt’, and ‘spoilt’.
On the other hand, verbs such as ‘fit’ and ‘quit’ are regular in BrE, but irregular in AmE. Both the irregular and regular conjugations will be understood with equal ease by any English speaker, so this shouldn’t be too much of a concern for English language students.
Verbs of perception
In BrE, verbs of perception (such as those linked to the senses) are typically used with ‘can’ or ‘could’, but in AmE, the verb is used independently. For example, a Brit is more likely to say ‘I could smell the rosemary’, while an American would probably say ‘I smelled the rosemary.’
Auxiliary verbs ‘support’ the main verb by adding information about time, voice, and modality. In certain cases, they are used differently in AmE and BrE.
- BrE speakers use ‘shall’ to express the future, but this is very rare in AmE, as Americans consider ‘shall’ extremely formal. AmE favours ‘will’, or if asking a question, ‘should’. For example, an Englishman would say ‘Shall we go?’ while an American would say ‘Should we go?’
- When replying to a question in BrE, the auxiliary verb ‘do’ is often used as a substitute for a verb. For example, if asked ‘Are you coming tomorrow?’ a Brit might respond, ‘I might do.’ This is not typically done in AmE.
- While Americans might say they ‘do not need to’, BrE speakers tend to use ‘needn’t’, which is very rare in AmE.
Thanks to the 18th-century American lexicographer Noah Webster, there are many spelling differences between AmE and BrE, even though the words are pronounced the same. Here are just a few of the key spelling differences:
- Words ending in ‘-our’ in BrE are spelt ‘-or’ in AmE. This includes words such as ‘neighbour’, ‘favour’, and ‘colour’.
- Certain words ending in ‘-re’ in BrE are spelt ‘-er’ in AmE, such as ‘centre’.
- Words ending in ‘-ise’ or ‘-isation’ in BrE are spelt ‘-ize’ or ‘-ization’ in AmE.
- BrE words spelt with ‘ae’ and ‘oe’ are spelt without the first vowel in AmE. So an American would write ‘oestrogen’ and ‘anaemic’ as ‘estrogen’ and ‘anemic’.
- Words with a double ‘l’ in BrE, such as ‘traveller’ and ‘tranquillity’, are spelt with a single ‘l’ in AmE.
- Certain words are spelt differently in BrE depending on whether they are being used as a verb or a noun, but in AmE, the spelling remains the same regardless of how the word is being used. For example, a BrE speaker would write ‘I’m going to the doctor’s practice’ but ‘I’m going to practise French’; an AmE speaker would write ‘I’m going to the doctor’s practice’ and ‘I’m going to practice French’. This also applies to the word ‘licence’/‘license’.
There are many more spelling differences, but the only way to become familiar with them is by regularly reading from British and American sources, and taking note of any spelling differences you encounter.
In both BrE and AmE, there are many different terms for the same concept. Here are a handful of examples:
BrE: Barrister / Solicitor AmE: Attorney / Lawyer
BrE: Estate Agent AmE: Realtor
BrE: Boot (of a car) AmE: Trunk
BrE: Jumper AmE: Sweater
BrE: Till AmE: Cash register
BrE: Post AmE: Mail
BrE: Lift AmE: Elevator
Although the list of differing vocabulary is extensive, most terms can be understood contextually. That being said, there are some terms that should be avoided altogether if you’re not certain of their usage in BrE and AmE
For example, ‘pants’ is used in AmE to refer to BrE ‘trousers’, but in the UK, ‘pants’ refers solely to underwear. The British slang word for cigarette, ‘fag’, should also be avoided by non-native speakers, as in AmE and most other English variants, this is an offensive term.
There are also some terms that are used in both BrE and AmE, but to refer to different concepts. For example, ‘chips’ in AmE are ‘crisps’ in the UK, but ‘chips’ in BrE are ‘French fries’ in AmE. The same is true of words like ‘braces’, ‘fancy’, ‘trainers’ and ‘biscuit’.
Mastering BrE and AmE
Hopefully, this overview of the differences between BrE and AmE has clarified any confusion surrounding the two variants. The key to understanding both with equal ease is to use learning tools from a diverse range of British and American sources. This will give a more rounded understanding of Standard English on the whole, and will also improve listening and communication skills across a wider range of English variations and dialects.