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

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.

Presenting in English part three.

Presenting in English. Part 3.
Frequently Asked Questions.

The use of the Colon, Semicolon, Quotation Marks, Capital Letters, and Lists


In Presenting in English part one the focus was mainly on structure, while part  two concentrated on the enigma of comma usage. In Presenting in English part three we take a look at further punctuation rules together with some formatting and design tips.

What's the difference between a colon and a semicolon?


The colon (Doppelpunkt) is used in 3 ways:

  • It explains or expands on something that has just been mentioned.
  • It introduces lists.
  • In the US, when following an independent clause, it can be used before quotation marks.

The semicolon is used in the following ways:

  • It joins two closely connected but ultimately separate ideas (independent clauses) within a sentence.
  • It is sometimes used to separate complex items in a list.

The colon and semicolon in English can be confusing because of their similar but disparate uses. In the following example Sarah was upset because Bill was hurt:

Bill was hurt: Sarah was upset.

In the next example, however, the cause of Sarah's unhappiness is independent of Bill's misfortune (i.e. it could be a car accident, for example, that they were both involved in). The following sentence records  their separate reactions to the car crash:

Bill was hurt; Sarah was upset.

In the second example, the semi-colon could, of course, be replaced by the word 'and'.


Quotation marks - double or single?


It depends on which side of the pond you find yourself. Here is an example of how the Brits use these:

The manager said, 'These parts are known as "premium parts", they're the most expensive in our range.'

An American, however, would do exactly the opposite!:

The manager said, "These parts are known as 'premium parts,' they're the most expensive in our range."

Does punctuation go inside or outside quotation marks?


Another grey area, I'm afraid. Normally, if the quotation contains a grammatically complete sentence starting with a capital letter, punctuation precedes the closing question mark, as in the example above. However, the following example is an exception:

Who said the following line, 'Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears' ?

If the quotation is not a complete sentence but part of a sentence, then the punctuation goes outside the closing quotation mark:

He concluded that the company 'might consider taking on more staff '.

The same rule applies when using parenthesis. If the words in parenthesis form a complete sentence, then the punctuation is inside the parenthesis. If it's part of a sentence, however, it goes outside:

(Each line needs two operators, four welding cells and a fixture.)

Safety equipment must be worn at all times (goggles, gloves, steel-capped shoes etc.).

Does the quotation always begin with a capital letter?


No. When you quote what someone more or less said, as opposed to directly writing the exact words they used, then the quote doesn't begin with a capital letter:

The production manager told the workers that the parts must be 'reworked'.

When else do I use capital letters?


The good news is - some rules are the same as in German. So we capitalise  the beginning of sentences, people's names, continents, countries, states, regions, days, months, historical eras, and religious holidays. However - and this is the bad news - there are significant differences. Nationalities, for example, are always capitalised even when used as an adjective:

My wife is a German citizen. Compared to the German: Meine Frau ist eine deutsche Staatsbürgerin.

Furthermore, the English language divides its nouns into two basic groups which the grammar books label  proper and common.  proper noun is the specific name of a person, place, organisation, or thing. All proper nouns should be capitalised:

  • Mr Wilson, who lives in New York, works for the United Nations.

A common noun, however, refers to  general concepts or non-specific entities. These are not capitalised:

  • Our local sports club  welcomes all new members.

Of course, common nouns -  if referring to a specific entity - then become proper nouns:

  • The nations of the world
  • The United Nations
What about titles and headings?


Unfortunately, this is also a grey area. To be brief, there are several stylebooks that offer writers 'guidance' in such matters, e.g. APA, Chicago, MLA, Associated Press.....  The problem is, there is often little consensus between these various styles and so no 'standard' exists. Of course, if your organisation or company requires you to publish or present written documents following a specific style guideline then that must be adhered to. In which case, the services of a professional proofreader would be advisable. When no style is stipulated, however, how one capitalises headings and titles, is really a matter of taste.  The golden rule is to be consistent.  I generally capitalise all main words in titles and subheadings. However, for headings below this level, I use sentence case, i.e. I only capitalise the first word and proper nouns (as I'm doing in this post).

And lists....?


Capitalising after colons when introducing a bullet point list is another grey area for the same reason. For complete sentences, after a colon, I  capitalise the first word and conclude with a full stop (as I'm doing in this post). This is purely a matter of taste. There's no fixed rule. If you wish, you can start the sentences in a list after a colon with lower case and place a full stop only after the last item in the list. However, when a colon introduces a list that is not a complete sentence, then the first word is not capitalised. For example:

For operators on production lines, the following equipment is obligatory: goggles, gloves and safety shoes.


Should I use the services of a professional proofreader (Korrektor) or editor (Lektor), and what is the difference?


Proofreading entails checking for accuracy of spelling, punctuation, grammar, capitalisation, vocabulary, syntax, editorial style and formatting. Many (but not all) errors involving some of  these issues can be corrected by using software such as Microsoft Word, Google Docs or the following:

Editing, on the other hand, also involves removing errors but focuses more on content. In particular, it focuses on ensuring that the presentation, document, article, or whatever, makes sense as a whole: that ideas are organised logically, that paragraphs and sentences are clearly structured, and that the prose style -or choice of words - is appropriate. The ultimate aim is to ensure clarity and intelligibility. No software, as yet, can do this: it's intuitive.

The appropriateness of using a professional service would depend very much on the nature of your target audience. If something is to be published, presented to customers or senior levels of an organisation, it's probably advisable. I offer this service at very competitive  rates. For more details click here.


Presenting in English. Part Two.


CEF B2 and above.

When proofreading presentation slides for clients, I'm often asked about the following issues: punctuation, capitalisation, and formatting lists.  Once again, the rules governing these issues are often ambiguous, complicated, and irregular, and is another reason why it's so difficult for non-native speakers, who have reached a good B2 level, to achieve levels C1 and C2.

In the following posts, I'll be examining these issues separately. Let's have a look at the most difficult first.

Presenting in English part two. The comma.

In Presenting in English part one we looked mainly at the subject of structure and style. Here the thorny issue of the English comma is discussed.

The use of the English comma is extremely complicated, which explains why it is often misused. Here are ten basic rules:

1) Commas are used to separate items in a list. For example:

She speaks German, Italian, Russian, Spanish and French.

In long lists, a comma before the final 'and' is possible, but not necessary:

Proofreading involves checking for errors in spelling, grammar, punctuation, formatting, vocabulary, and choice of editorial  style. Editing also involves removing errors but focusses more on content, structure, clarity, and prose style.

2)  They are also used when a sentence is introduced with a transition word  or introductory phrase (e.g. however, furthermore, normally, according to recent research...) :

Furthermore, she's learning Chinese.

3)  In British English, a comma is generally used before a quotation:

  She said, 'I tried learning Finnish, but it was too difficult.'

4)  In German, all clauses (Nebensätze) are divided by commas. In English, some clauses are, and some are not: it all depends on the type of clause. An independent clause is a clause that could stand on its own as a full sentence. Many sentences are compound sentences: they contain more than  one independent clause, joined by the coordinating conjunctions:  for, and, nor,  but, or, yet, so. In this case, a comma should always go before the coordinating conjunction. For example:

 Some clauses are followed by a comma, and some are not.

5)  Another type of clause, however, is what is known as a dependent clause. A dependent clause is an incomplete thought: it has to be linked to an  independent clause to complete its sense. As a general rule, if a dependent clause starts a sentence, then a comma is used to separate the clauses. If, however, a dependent clause follows an independent clause, a comma is not used. For example, compare the following:

If a dependent clause starts a sentence, then a comma is used to separate the clauses.

A comma is used to separate clauses if a dependent clause starts the sentence.

6)  Dependent clauses which contain non-essential information are separated by commas, for example:

The comma, which comes from the Greek word 'kómma', has many different uses in English.

7)   However, if the information is essential, then no commas are used:

 Dependent clauses that contain essential information are not separated by commas.

Note: In the above example, 'which' instead of 'that' is possible in British English.

8)   When something is described with two or more adjectives, sometimes a comma is used, and sometimes it isn't. If the two adjectives are coordinate - that is to say, they can both modify the noun independently - then a comma is used.  Alternatively, they could be separated by 'and', and the order could be reversed:

This is  a difficult, complex subject.


This is a complex and difficult subject.

9)  If, however, the two adjectives are cumulative, they work as a unit. In this case, they cannot be separated by 'and', they cannot be reversed, and no comma is used:

  The obsolete paperback grammar book was revised two years ago.

10)  Finally,  a certain amount of  freedom is acceptable.  It can be used, for example, to avoid perceived confusions. As, for example, the last comma in rule 8 above. There is no rule here; it is a matter of  individual discretion. For example:

To George, Harrison had always been a hero.

Commas when writing dates

Unfortunately, there is a divergence between American usage and what is known as 'inverted' usage, which is the British usage. I read somewhere, that the Americans deliberately changed certain language rules, usage and vocabulary, in order to assert their independence (like driving on the wrong side of the road!). If this is true, they did a pretty good job: there are many disparities between American and British English. It's a grey - or should I say - gray (sorry!) area.

The American style is a little more complicated than the British.

When writing dates that include the month, date, and year, use commas after dates but not after months:

He was born on March 16, 1962.

In dates that include the weekday, you follow the same rule as above and add a comma between the weekday and the date:

The meeting will take place on Thursday, March 4, 2021.

When the date starts the sentence, however, then a comma is used after the year:

On Thursday, March 4, 2021, there will be a general meeting to discuss this matter.

With the  inverted style, the date goes before the month. This is simpler in the sense that no commas are necessary:

The meeting will take place on 20 January 2021.

However, when the day is named, a comma is placed after the day:

The meeting will take place on Wednesday, 20 January 2021.

Which style should I use -American or British English?

I'll be discussing the differences between these two styles in greater detail in a later post. Meanwhile, two things should be considered. When working with Americans, use the American style. When working with the Brits, use the British. My wife, who is German, calls this 'spineless'. I prefer the use of the word 'diplomatic'. Above all, be consistent; don't use a mix of the two.

Comma Exercise.

Try the following exercise.  Click here for the answers. Good luck!

Add commas as needed in the sentences below. Three sentences do not need any commas.

  1. This product was irresponsibly conceived  badly designed and incompetently produced.
  2. If we produce using more robots we will need fewer workers
  3. Mrs Smith the manager’s wife sat in the front row.
  4. This product is a typical example of efficient state of the art German engineering.
  5. Restaurants that have dirty kitchens are illegal.
  6. He replied ‘ I sent you the email last week.’
  7. There was a power cut so we couldn’t work.
  8. An unmarked police car patrolled the area.
  9. Unfortunately we couldn’t deliver last week because of staffing problems.
  10. The deadline is Thursday 12 June 2021.


A table for one, two or three?

Eating out while social distancing.


Take a look at these two short videos that show how two restaurants are coping with social distancing regulations. Are they crazy, or is this the future?

The vocabulary is interesting. How much do you understand? Try the test to find out, and let me know how you got on. Which restaurant would you prefer and why?

Would you want to be ‘chipped’? Is this the future?

Prepositions in English are difficult simply because there are often no rules! Once again we're dealing here with a grey area in English grammar. The good news is - there are some rules. Let's take a look at the basics of prepositions in English:

  • For time, use 'at' - at 3pm.
  • For days, use 'on'- on Wednesday.
  • For parts of days, use 'in'- in the afternoon.
  • For months, use 'in' - in April.
  • For years, use 'in' - in 2020.
  • For weekends, use 'at' - at the weekend.
  • However, we say 'at' the beginning, 'in' the middle, and 'at' the end of something.
  • The preposition, 'to', usually has something to do with movement -you drive to work.
  • When referring to an enclosed area, use 'in' - 'Let's meet in my office.'
  • So, when movement is involved, we use 'into' - he walked into my office.

Prepositions of place are best described in pictures. For further explanation click here.


That's more or less it. Some people suggest, learning prepositions in English  with certain verbs. For example: to be interested in something or to look forward to something. However, for many, it's a question of gut feeling.  Good luck!


Why is English spelling (and pronunciation) so confusing?

Spelling in English

It's an unfortunate fact that when we make a mistake in speaking a second language tolerance is far greater than when a mistake is in writing. This is particularly frustrating for non-native users of English because it's probably the most irregular of all spelling systems that exist. The problem has been made worse in that how a word is written often bears little resemblance to how it is spoken.

So what are the rules?

To answer this question comprehensively is a little self - defeating, as the result is so complicated it's of little practical use - unless you happen to have a photographic memory. In  Five Basic English Spelling Rules, I have tried to provide a summary of the most important points without going into the maze of trying to explain all the inevitable exceptions. If you are ever caught without access to  spelling software, I hope you will find it useful.

If you, like me, find English spelling a depressing enigma, don't worry. We are not alone. Gerard Nolst Trenite famously highlighted its absurdities in the following poem. Try reading it out loud. Good luck!

I take it you already know


I take it you already know

Of tough and bough and cough and dough?

Others may stumble, but not you,

On hiccough, thorough, lough and through?

Well done! And now you wish, perhaps,

To learn of less familiar traps?

Beware of heard, a dreadful word

That looks like beard and sounds like bird,

And dead: it's said like bed, not bead -

For goodness sake don't call it deed!

Watch out for meat and great and threat

(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt).



A moth is not a moth in mother,

Nor both in bother, broth in brother,

And here is not a match for there

Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,

And then there's dose and rose and lose -

Just look them up - and goose and choose,

And cork and work and card and ward,

And font and front and word and sword,

And do and go and thwart and cart -

Come, come, I've hardly made a start! A dreadful language? Man alive!

I'd mastered it when I was five!

Presenting in English. Part 1.

Practical Tips
Presenting in English

'If you can't explain it simply, you do not understand it well.'

Albert Einstein.


'Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.'

Leonardo da Vinci.


K.I.S.S. - Keep it short and simple.

B2 and above.

Presenting in English for non-native speakers is a challenge that many find daunting. Keeping things as simple as possible is often sadly overlooked. Over the years, I've heard a number of objections to using the above acronym  as a modus operandi for giving a presentation:

'My subject is extremely complicated! My customers expect detailed information.'

'I'm a professional - a specialist in my field. I have to show my audience this, otherwise, they will not take me seriously.'

'K.I.S.S.' means 'Keep it short and stupid!'

So, what were Einstein and da Vinci talking about? Is simplicity possible when presenting something which may be very complicated and detailed? I think it is, and to illustrate why and how I'd like to look at three aspects of giving a presentation.


A tried and tested method - by the way, I'm using it myself in this post - is:

Say what you are going to talk about.

Say how you are going to talk about it.

Say it.

Say what you have said.

One of the things we have to ask ourselves is: 'what are we trying to do when we present something?' Most of us - unless we happen to be a genius like Albert Einstein- are not capable of effectively assimilating a lot of complicated information aurally. We want an overview which clearly outlines the main issues in such a way the specific purpose of the presentation is effectively achieved. This of course could be anything - selling something, explaining a specific situation, offering alternatives to enable decisions, giving advice, reporting budget forecasts or, simply passing on information. The important thing is; your listeners must be able to follow you.

One possible method is to give out the structure of your presentation as a handout and actually 'signpost' your listeners as you go along. For example: 'Ok that's all I want to say about..... let's move on to the third part of my presentation...'

You can find more examples of this sort of language by downloading the' Survival Language for Presentations' PDF attached to this post. Please click the following link:

Presenting in English Survival Language.

The advantage of this method is that it reassures your audience. 'This person is organised - we're not going to be here all day'. By the way, try and keep the presentation no longer than 20 minutes - most of your listeners will be more than grateful. 20 minutes is the average period that most of us can sustain our concentration.


To a certain extent, this varies according to the situation in which you're giving the presentation. If it is a meeting with a limited number of participants, you may be sitting down rather than standing. You may find it more effective to encourage questions as you go along - so that the presentation becomes more of a discussion. Your language skills would have to be B2 and above to be able to do this confidently. An easier way - and more advisable if your English level is below B2 - is to say what you want to say and ask for questions at the end. In any case, think carefully about to whom, where and how you're giving the presentation and make sure all your equipment is working.

Giving a presentation in a second language is a challenge for most people. The temptation is to simply read text from a slide. However, this defeats the purpose of presenting. If you're simply reading text that your audience is reading - they don't need you. You could have sent them this electronically or on a piece of paper. So why are you there? To explain what is not immediately apparent. The text on your slides should be not much more than prompts to aid your memory about what you are going to say. Some people go as far as the 6/6 rule - on each slide you should have no more than 6 lines, each with no more than 6 words. You have to be brave. Use simple language with standard phrases that you have practised and  memorised. You will find a list of these standard phrases in the 'Survival Language for Presentations' sheet attached. Don't try and learn all of these - pick out the ones you feel are right for you, practise them and use them over and over again.


These should be as simple as possible. The text should be minimal, large enough to read at a distance and clear. Again use standard phrases to prepare your audience for what you are about to show them - see sheet attached. If you wish to give complicated and detailed information, put this on paper as a handout or suggest that you send  it electronically after the presentation.

To sum up.

Determine a clear structure, which your audience can easily follow. Keep your language simple and practise using the standard phrases until you can use them with confidence. I always use the following criterium: 'Can an intelligent person who knows nothing about this subject follow me?' Language accuracy is not as important as functionality. Everyone makes mistakes in a second language - these are easily forgiven. What is not so easy to forgive is a lack of clarity, disorganisation and tedious delivery. Remember - 'less is more'. Leave the audience with a feeling that they want to know more, rather than thinking- 'thank God, that's over!'

Please get in touch if you like further support. I'm quite happy for you to send me your slides, or we can work together via Skype.

Take or Last – what is the difference?

Take or Last.

Over the last few days, I've been discussing the usage of 'take' and 'last'  with several of my classes. The problem is, of course, in English these two verbs  mean the same as the German verb 'dauern'

Basically, we use 'last' to describe how long something is in time:

'Our weekly meeting usually lasts one hour.'

We use 'take' when we want to say how much time we need to do  something:

'It takes five hours to drive to Berlin'.

Of course both words have additional meanings. 'Take' is also nehmen and 'last' is also 'letzte' !

Try the following test  - 'take' or ' last'?

What is a prefix and what are the rules?

what is a prefix and what are the rules?

CEF B2- C2.

What is a prefix and what are the rules? A prefix is a word, or part of a word, which – when placed in front of another word- changes the meaning. There are a lot of prefixes in English. The text below tries to give you an example of prefixes in English.  Can you complete the text with the correct prefix? You need to use the following prefixes:  un, dis, in, re, mis, ir, im.  You can find the answers, together with a good list of typical words and their prefixes by clicking here. To be honest, the answer to the question -What is a prefix and what are the rules? – is, as so often the case in English, not black and white. Good luck!

Many people   ____like the fact that there are no fixed rules for prefixes in English. Maybe we should   ____think the English language?  It’s full of such  ____consistencies. However, until we do, this issue will not  ____appear. It would be  ____honest to say that this subject is simple. But if there are no rules, there are some guidelines. Let’s   ____view these.

Some people say the most common prefix is ‘un’, but I’m ____decided about this.  The prefix ‘re’ is not  ____usual. Others  ____agree and say that ‘im’ is popular. But I’m a little ____certain about this. I think they’re  ____reading the situation. We normally only use ‘im’ before words beginning with ‘p’. For example, ____practical and ____possible.  However this rule is a little  ____regular in that there are notable exceptions: ____popular and ____punctual for example. Finally, any rules about the use of prefixes in English would be  ____complete without mentioning ‘in’.

But at the end of the day will people understand you if you say ‘unpolite’ instead of ____polite?  Of course they will.  So maybe the right prefix is not so important.. or maybe it is? At the end of the day, it could be the difference between ‘man’ and  ‘____man’

One advantage of good English grammar.

One advantage of good English grammar

Level: CEF B2 and above.

One advantage of good English grammar is rather surprising, gentlemen. Recent research has revealed that poor grammar, spelling and punctuation can ruin your chances with the ladies. Only one thing puts the girls off more  - bad teeth! The good news for the fairer sex is that men are not nearly so particular - cynics might say that this is because men are simply unable to recognise grammar and spelling mistakes.....

For those men who wish to research the sources of this alarming summary read on...

Joking aside, how good is your English? Try this test. Of course, tests like this will only tell you how good your grammar is. Having said that, it's a very good test. It will give you a good idea of your CEFR (Common European Framework) level, as far as grammar is concerned. More specifically, as it is designed for German speakers of English, it really highlights those areas of English grammar that challenge German B2 speakers of English who wish to make the difficult step to C1/2 (native speaker level). Give it a try, and see how you get on. Click here to do the test. If you have any questions, please get in touch.