British and American English. What is the difference?

I once asked my U.S. neighbour which language he spoke.
'American!' was his immediate reply. Noah Webster would have been proud of him. Webster published his 'American Dictionary of the English Language' in 1828 with the specific aim of standardising the different ways U.S Americans spoke and spelt the language - which of course for many was not their mother tongue. His intention was unashamedly nationalistic. He fought against the British in the revolutionary war, was an ardent supporter of the 'new' constitution and believed that language was a legitimate medium for promoting and furthering independence. So, what is the difference between British and American English and how important is this?

Apart from the differences concerning punctuation, discussed in the posts 'presenting in English', there are of course also differences in spelling, grammar and vocabulary. Let's take a look at each of these separately:


There have been several attempts to simplify the arbitrary spelling of British English. Webster's has been the most successful - probably because the changes are fairly simple. Basically, American English replaces 'our' endings with 'or'. So, an American would write 'color' and 'neighbor' whereas a Brit would write 'colour' and neighbour'. Similarly, American English always uses 'ize' endings, whereas British English sometimes favours 'ise' endings. So, for example I would write 'organise' and recognise', whereas an American would write 'organize' and 'recognize'.  Finally, American English replaces 're' endings with 'er'. In American English the word 'theatre' is 'theater' and the word 'metre' is 'meter'. In addition to these three rules, however, there are many other individual words that are spelt differently - several of which appear in the quiz.


There are also some interesting variations here. German speakers will be delighted to hear that many Americans tend not to use the present perfect when talking about recent events. So after a good meal, for example, an American could say, 'I ate too much' whereas a Brit would say, 'I've eaten too much'. Likewise, an American would say, 'I'm done' while a Brit would say,' I've finished'. There are also differences in the form of some past verbs. In American English if your spelling is not so good, someone could say, 'You spelled that incorrectly'. A Brit, on the other hand, would say, 'You  spelt that incorrectly'. But don't be led into thinking that American English is more regular than British. Unfortunately, whereas a Brit would say 'I dived into the pool', an American would say 'I dove into the pool'.


It is perhaps in this area where the difference is the greatest. Sometimes the confusion this causes can raise a few eyebrows. The American word for a rubber, for example, is 'eraser'. Unfortunately, the word 'rubber' in American English is a colloquialism for a condom. Similarly, the British word 'braces' (hosenträger) is 'suspenders' (damenstrapse) in American English. This, combined with the fact that 'pants' (hosen) in American English are 'underpants' (unterhosen) in British English,  explains why a friend of mine working in a British department store sent an American gentleman to the lingerie department in his quest for 'suspenders for his pants'.

To avoid similar 'faux pas' try the following quiz to test  your knowledge of the differences between British and American English vocabulary. With a bit of luck you'll get what you ask for in a department store -  regardless of your preferences.

British and American English: What’s the difference and is it important?

One thought on “British and American English: What’s the difference and is it important?

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