Just How Different the American and the British English Actually Are


I came across a very “interesting” story a few days ago, in which the author—let’s just call her Miss Sillyseems disturbingly confident that the only difference between the British English and the American English is the accent. My initial reaction was simply a smirk, but as I went on to read all the stories Miss Silly shares on her blog and the only thing that I can assume after doing so is that Miss Silly must be trapped in a deep deep denial over her regrets and failure in live or that she simply lives in a fantasy world where she is the manifestation of the word “perfect”.

As a—self-proclaimed—nice guy, I have only been sharing my thoughts on Miss Silly with certain people. And to my surprise, everyone seems to be getting the same idea just by reading all her stories. On a more extreme note, I think the conversation even reached to the point where the conclusion was that there’s a very high probability that she is delusional. Or suicidal. You decide.

As much as I think that it would be a lot more fun to ruthlessly destroy Miss Silly’s little fantasy, I am considerably still a decent person; which is why I’m taking this chance to elaborate on something that will be more helpful and informative for my readers (assuming I have any).

So I was tweeting about Miss Silly (on a highly subtle choice of words, of course) and I got several responses that somehow managed to see the better sides of my satire.

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My guess is that Miss Silly consumes way too much movies instead of books that can actually enlighten her fantasy world. I seriously have never met anyone who is as obnoxious, as delusional, and—in my own definition—as misguided as her. It’s not that I am such an evil arrogant jerk, but Miss Silly is beyond my wildest fantasy of denial. I think she might have some sort of identity issue in the sense that she doesn’t feel like she is recognized for her accomplishment (she does have some, though) as much as she wants it to be. But I’m no psychologist, so you can just ignore the assumption.

I don’t want to bore you with anymore trashy-talks about Miss Silly, so let’s get to the real deal. Is the only difference between the British English (BE) and the American English (AE) is the accent?

The answer is, obviously, no. Big big no. Anyone who is convinced otherwise should really stop for a minute to learn more before making a fool of themselves.

Before I go on, let me make it clear to you that language is not a subject that anyone will be able to fully comprehend. Not even God (if there’s any). Grammar can’t even explain certain aspects of language, specifically English in this case, mostly because it evolves within an abstract environment. There has never been a universal agreement on whether it should be “there are a lot of things” or “there is a lot of things” simply because everyone defends any which they believe to be true and the logic is often acceptable. I have never liked it to be elaborating on how I understand English as a second language mostly because I don’t really understand it as much as people seem to think I do (and I do have some very reasonable reasons to say so).

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Image Source: LSIA Lessons

Since I was asked by some followers (on Twitter) to elaborate on how different BE and AE are, I can only provide answers that I know of. I cannot guarantee that this is a complete list of their differences, but I’m pretty sure that it’s elaborated enough. I just hope that more people would pay some extra times to at least get their facts straight before publicly embarrassing themselves by saying something in a very convinced manners when they cannot be more wrong.

Image Source: Ones Word Online

I personally mix the usage of both varieties a lot simply because it is painfully excruciating to stick to either one especially when English is not your first language. The least thing I can do is just to acknowledge the differences between them. Please do note that I have tried to make the list as simple as possible to avoid confusion and this is not, again, I repeat, a comprehensive list. I also have to say that most differences between BE and AE are just a matter of what’s more common and what’s less common rather than what’s more correct and what’s less correct.

  • The spelling differences are the most common ones that often cause confusion.
    • Words that end with “-our” (BE) and “-or” (AE). Examples: colour/color, flavour/flavor, rumour/rumor, neighbour/neighbor, humour/humor, honour/honor. Exceptions: contour, velour, paramour, troubadour.
    • Words that end with “-re” (BE) and “-er” (AE). Examples: centre/center, fibre/fiber, theatre/theater, calibre/caliber. Exceptions: words that end with “-cre” such as massacre, acre, mediocre.
    • Words that end with “-ce” (BE) and “-se” (AE). Examples: advice/advise, device/devise, licence/license, defence/defense, offence/offense, pretence/pretense.
    • Words that end with “-ise” (BE) and “-ize” (AE). Examples: organise/organize, recognise/recognize, realise/realize. Exceptions: advise, devise, disguise, exercise, televise, incise. etc.
    • Words that end with “-yse” (BE) and “-yze” (AE).Examples: analyse/analyze, hydrolyse/hydrolyze, catalyse/catalyze, paralyse/paralyze.
    • Words that end with “-ogue” (BE) and “-og” (AE).Examples: catalogue/catalog, demagogue/demagog, synagogue/synagog, analogue/analog, dialogue/dialog, pedagogue/pedagog, monologue/monolog.
    • Words that end with “-ae” or “-oe” (BE) and “-e” (AE). Examples: anaemia/anemia, anaesthesia/anesthesia, encyclopaedia/encyclopedia, leukaemia/leukemia, oesophaus/esophagus, archaelogy/archeology, haemophilia/hemophilia, oestrogen/estrogen, palaentology/paleontology, paediatric/pediatric, etc.
    • Doubled consonants are present both in BE and AE. Please refer to this Vivian Cook article for further explanations.
    • Dropped “e” are also present both in BE and AE. Please refer to this Pearson Education article for further explanations.
    • Different spellings for different meanings, such as: dependant/dependent, enquiry/inquiry, disc/disk, ensure/insure, insurance/assurance, matt/matte, programme/program, tonne/tone  (BE/AE).
    • Different spellings for different pronunciations, such as: aeroplane/airplane, arse/ass, moustache/mustache, mummy/mommy, whilst/while, pyjamas/pajamas, speciality/specialty (BE/AE).
    • Miscellaneous spelling differences, such as vise/vice, annexe/annex, artefact/artifact, grey/gray, liquorice/licorice, omelette/omelet (BE/AE).
    • Compounds and hyphens, present in both variants, such as: any more/anymore, for ever/forever, near by/nearby (Please note that every time/everytime is not a case. Every time is the correct spelling whilst everytime is simply a common error.)
    • Acronyms and Abbreviations. Examples (BE/AE): Dr/Dr., Ms/Ms., Mrs/Mrs., Jr/Jr., St/St., Ave/Ave.
    • Punctuation. Single quatation marks (She is my ‘friend with benefits’) is more common in BE but double quotation marks (She is my “friend with benefits”) is more common in AE.
  • In BE, putting an “and” between a set of numbers when spoken is the correct way to say it. In AE, the “and” is considered unnecessary. Therefore, both “two thousand and three” (BE) and “two thousand three” (AE) are correct.
  • I was born on 14-09-1992 or “[the] fourteenth of September” (BE). I was born on 09-14-1992 or “September [the] Fourteen” (AE). Some exceptions may happen for certain dates. The independence day of the United States, for example, is widely referred to as the fourth of July” (BE) instead of “July fourth” (AE). The same thing happens to the September 11 attack, which is generally known as 9/11 or the “September eleventh” (AE) attack worldwide, including in the UK where it should be the “eleventh of September” (BE).
  • The 24-hour time format is commonly used in BE, but not in AE where the 12-hour time format is more common.
  • The wedding is on 10.15, spoken as “a quarter past ten” (more common in BE) or “a quarter after ten” (more common in AE).
  • The Civil Wars are a country-folk duo (BE). The Civil Wars is a country-folk duo (AE).
  • I’m not sure how to group the difference between BE and AE when it comes to the past and past principle tenses of certain verbs. To make it easy, here are some examples of which is more common and which is less common on both variants: smelt, leapt, dreamed, leaned, dwelt, knelt, learned (BE) and smelled, leapt, burnt, dreamt, leaned, dwelled, kneeled (AE). The “t” endings were widely used by older American texts, but is now rarely—if not never—used any longer. I would like to emphasize that none forms should be valued as correct or incorrect. Some are just more common than the others, vice versa. Due to the very high complexity, I strongly recommend anyone who is interested to know more about the preference towards regular and/or irregular forms in BE and AE to learn more elsewhere since I am not going to elaborate further. What I mean by this is, for instance, both fit and fitted or lit and lighted are used in AE but in different senses.
  • You have got to go to school” is more common in BE, but not in AE where “You have to go to school” is more common though the use of “got” is also common as an emphasis on the modal of necessity.
  • Taylor Swift sings the song “I’d lie” and Trisha Yearwood sings the song “You would’ve loved me anyway.” Shortening “I would” and “would have” are common in the US (AE) but is considered colloquial in the UK though some may be accepted when used in counterfactual conditions like when Florence + the Machine sings “…and would you leave me If I told you what I’d become…” on one of my favorite song from their sophomore album, “No Light, No Light” (BE).
  • She has already gone to the airport” is more common in BE. “She already went to the airport” is more common in AE. It is true, indeed, that the present perfect tense is more preferred in BE while simple past tense is more preferred in AE. Other sentences that comply with this preference: “I have taken the chances and failed” (BE) and “I took the chances and failed” (AE).
  • “I shall kill you for badmouthing my mother” or “I shan’t steal from anyone” (BE). “I will  (am going to) kill you for badmouthing my mother” or “I won’t (am not going to) steal from anyone” (AE).
  • “I write to my mom” (BE). “I write my mom” (AEl not acceptable in BE). This is a subject of transitivity. Please refer to this Linguistic Mystic article for further explanations.
  • “I started to have nightmares since the accident” or “I stopped her from making a fool of herself” (BE). “I started having nightmares since that accident” and “I stopped her making a fool of herself” (AE). This is a subject of complementation. Please refer to this Furman University article for further explanations.
  • Now this is a very interesting case for an IR student like me. Anyone who is observant enough should’ve noticed that the American often use the preposition “of” while the British prefer not to have any prepositions at all when naming their legislative acts or documents. See “The Declaration of Independence of 1776” (AE) and “The 1917 Balfour Declaration” (BE).
  • As with dates, AE and BE differ a lot on when to use or when to not use the definite article “the“. Please refer to this English Stack Exchange article for further explanations.
  • “David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister…” (BE). “Prime Minister Cameron is the UK head of government.” (AE)
  • Sat is often used to cover all sat, sitting, and seated in BE, but not in AE. “I’ve been sat here all day” (BE). “I’ve been sitting here all day” (AE).
  • The use of “an” before a word that begins with an unstressed “h” is only common in BE. An hotel, an historical finding, an hallucination, an hilarious joke (BE). A hotel, a historical finding, a hallucination, a hilarious joke (AE).
  • “He’s so cynical towards my works” (BE) “He’s so cynical toward my works (AE). Towards” is considered more definitive than “toward” in a directional sense.
  • BE freely adds the suffix “-er” as in “footballer” while “football player” is more common in AE. If the noun could work as a verb as well, then both AE and BE adds the suffix as in “golfer” (to golf), “shooter” (to shoot), “painter” (to paint), but not in “baseball player” because there is no “to baseball” (verb).
  • Unlike AE, BE does not distinguish non-restrictive and restrictive modifiers. “The house which we bought last year was damaged by the tornado” (BE). “The house, which we bought last year, was damaged by the tornado” (AE).
  • No fear” in BE is similar to “No way!” in AE  “I don’t mind” in BE is similar to “I don’t care” in AE. This is a subject of figure of speech. Please refer to this About.com article for further explanations.
  • “I am enrolled on the Global Economy class” (BE). “I am enrolled in the Global Economy class” (AE). “Bastian Schweinsteiger plays in Bayern Munich” (BE). “Bastian Schweinsteiger plays on Bayern Munich (AE). “I am affiliated with/to the production company” (BE). “I am affiliated with the production company” or “I am an affiliate of the production company” (AE). These all are the subject of prepositions and adverbs. Please refer to this English Practice article for more examples.
  • The River Thames (BE). The Mississippi River (AE).

There are still many other differences between both variants, but I don’t feel like listing them all here. It would really take a lot of time to do so and I can only spend so much time focused on one single article.

If you found any mistake or simply want to give a feedback, just leave a comment.■

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