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British vs. American English: Some Differences

British and American English are more similar than different, most would agree, but the two dialects vary in areas like pronunciation, spelling, and grammar. This essay will focus on these differences.

Amy Koerner
Amy Koerner
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English was brought to America from the UK in 1607 when the first English colony was established in Jamestown, Virginia. British and American English are more similar than different, most would agree, but the two dialects vary in areas like pronunciation, spelling, and grammar. This essay will focus on these differences.

Pronunciation

Some examples of pronunciation differences in British and American English are as follows:

The British “r” sound comes off much softer than that of British English. Odd as it is, given the origins, Americans follow the more traditional pronunciation pattern. This is because British English was developed by the aristocracy in British society, so the softening of the “r” was done to come across as more fashionable. This is why in comparison with American English, most people agree that a British accent comes across as more fancy sounding and only applies when it is located near the end of the word. “Rabbit,” for example, is pronounced the same in both dialects because the “r” is located at the beginning of the word. However, in the word “heart,” Americans pronounce the “r” clearly, and the British pronounce the “r” so softly that it is hardly pronounced at all.

“T” in some words, like “water,” sounds like a “t” in Britain but a “d” in America. So, in America, it is often pronounced like “wa-der,” whereas Britain is “wa-ter.” Similarly, the word “totally” is pronounced like “to-dally” in America, whereas in the UK, it is pronounced “to-tally.” This is known as the alveolar flap. The pattern can be found in 4 scenarios.

1. Alveolar flap between 2 vowel sounds

Examples:

batter, city, letter, meter, relative, sweater, whatever.

2. Alveolar flap after a vowel + r sound

Examples:

barter, comforting, dirty, quarter, thirty.

3. Alveolar flap before syllabic /l/; aka, before the unstressed “ul” sound (International Phonetic Alphabet: /əl/)

Examples:

battle, bottle, capital, fatal, hospital, metal, turtle.

4. In a phrase or sentence, before the stressed vowel at the start of the next word

Examples:

“know it all,” “meet Alice,” “not on,” “what are you doing?”

Syllable emphasis

Another major difference between American and British pronunciation can be found in the syllable emphasis area of different words.

Some examples of this include:

1. Address

British: ad-DRESS, American: AD-dress.

Note: In the US, the stress on the word will change depending on whether it’s used as a noun or a verb.

2. Debut

British: de-BUT, American: DE-but.

Note: A pattern can be found in English words with French origins that British people stress the first syllable, while American people stress the second.

3. Ice cream

British: ice CREAM, American: ICE cream

Note: Compound nouns also follow this pattern that Americans usually stress the first syllable, while the British usually stress the second.

Spelling

Another major difference between American English and British English is their spelling. This might be traced back to the original formation of American English when Noah Webster created the first American English dictionary. He purposely changed the spelling of words to promote cultural independence from Britain.

Some words that were affected by this appear to be Webster’s attempt at a simplification of the British word. To name a few:

British: doughnut, American: donut.
British: chequerboard, American: checkerboard.
British: aeroplane, American: airplane.

Another difference between British English and American English can be found in the words’ endings “-ise” in British and “-ize” in American. This can be seen in words like:

British: organise, familiarise, civilise
American: organize, familiarize, civilize.

Similarly, words ending in this same sound, but with the “y” being an “i” instead, follow the same pattern.

British: analyse, paralyse.
American: analyze, paralyze.

The origins of this pattern have to do with British English having more influence coming from French words, while the influence of more American English comes from Spanish English words.

A last common difference between British and American English can be found in words ending in the British “re” or American “er.” Some examples of this include:

British: calibre, centre, theatre.
American: caliber, center, theater.

This, too, has its roots predominantly found in the British version of these words being truer to the French ending that is exemplified in words like “chambre” (chamber room), and “metre” (meter/about 3 feet).

Grammar

One major difference between American and British grammar can be seen in sentences that talk about an action in the past that has taken effect in the present. This is usually expressed still in the past tense among Americans, but the British more often use the past participle tense in this situation. Some examples are listed below.

American:

Jenny feels ill. She ate too much.
I can’t find my keys. Did you see them anywhere?
They already saw the movie.
No, I didn’t read that book yet.

British:

Jenny feels ill. She’s eaten too much.
I can’t find my keys. Have you seen them anywhere?
They’ve already seen the movie.
No, I haven’t read it yet.

Another difference grammatically that is common between British and American English is in the use of the verbs “to have” and “to take,” also known as delexical verbs. A delexical verb is used in contexts with little meaning in the word itself, but accompanies an action verb. Americans typically use take in this context, whereas the British tend to prefer have.

American:

I’d like to take a bath.
Why don’t you take a break?

British:

I’d like to have a bath.
Why don’t you have a break?

Auxiliaries and modals are another areas where British and American English tend to differ. An auxiliary verb is a verb that doesn’t show action in itself but helps the action word. (i.e, “am,” “do,” “shall,” “have to,” “may”). Modals are auxiliary words that affect the meaning of a sentence or question. (i.e., “can,” “will,” “ought to,” “would,” “must”).

In British English, the auxiliary do is often use as a substitute for a verb when replying to a question.

Question: Are you coming with us?
British: I might do.
American: I might.

In British English, “needn’t” is often used instead of “don’t need to.”

The last difference that this article will address is the differences in preposition usage in American and British English.

Use of prepositions

It’s not uncommon for British and American English speakers to use different prepositions in the same context. Some examples to illustrate are listed below.

American:

This place is different from anything I’ve seen before.
She studied French in high school.

British:

This place is different than anything I’ve seen before.
She studied French at high school.

These are just some of the differences I can highlight between American and British English and the reason for these differences. Please share this if you found this information valuable. Thanks a lot!

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Amy Koerner

Hello! I'm Amy. I'm from Chicago. I am TEFL certified and have 2 years of experience teaching so far.

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