Have you ever wondered why American and British English were so different?
The pronunciation, in particular, is quite different. It’s the same language, but an American doesn’t really feel comfortable among British speakers. And vice-versa. They might not understand every word, and the accent certainly sounds funny.
As a non-native English speaker, which English should you learn? That depends on your needs. American English is usually simpler to master, mainly because it’s more prevalent in pop culture. However, non-natives can choose the style they plan to use. Both can be mastered successfully.
We can identify three categories of major differences between American and British English:
Let’s get to details, shall we?
Grammar? Really? Isn’t it supposed to be the same?
Well, the general rules of grammar apply to both American and British English. However, there are subtle nuances that make a difference.
1. The Use of Present Perfect
Americans tend to avoid the present perfect in speech and writing. There are tons of online writing guides that recommend less or no passive voice in your writing. There’s even an online tool, Hemingway App, which you can use to make sure you’re using more active voice. With this preference, Americans strive for simplicity and clarity.
British people, on the other hand, are pretty comfortable with the present perfect.
The frequency of use is the only difference. Americans will still use the present perfect, but quite rarely.
- I lost my notebook.
- I’ve lost my notebook.
- Did you accept my Facebook invitation?
- Have you accepted my Facebook invitation?
Can you guess who the British is in those examples?
2. Have vs. Have Got
Americans simply use the verb have to express possession. British people may do that, but they will most commonly use the verb phrase have got.
- I have a meeting this afternoon.
- I have got a meeting this afternoon. (I’ve got a meeting this afternoon.)
- Do you have a meeting this afternoon?
- Have you got a meeting this afternoon?
3. Got vs. Gotten
Speaking of got, it has different forms in the past participle when comparing American and British English. Americans use gotten as the past participle, while British stick with got.
- I’ve gotten really tired of this job. (When Americans use passive, which is rarely, that’s the form of got they will use.)
- I’ve got really tired of this job.
4. Use of Prepositions
There are slight differences in the use of prepositions – the words that show the relationship between two nouns. For example, in American English, the sentence I promise to write you every day seems natural. In British English, however, the verb write is always followed by the preposition to. That sentence would be I promise to write to you every day.
These are the most common examples of differences in the use of prepositions:
- On the weekend (American English)
- At the weekend (British English)
- In university (American)
- At university (British)
- Monday through Friday (American)
- Monday to Friday (British)
- Different from/than (American)
- Different from/to (British)
- Wait in line (American)
- Wait on line (British)
5. Collective Nouns
A collective noun stands for a collection of individuals. Government and family are good examples. These nouns are not written in plural, but they still represent multiple individuals.
- In British English, the collective noun can be singular or plural. There’s no mistake in writing or saying Bob’s family is coming to visit or Bob’s family are coming to visit. However, it depends on the context. Is this family coming as one happy unit? In that case, we feel like the family is one, made of few individuals. Then, we’ll use is. If this is just a group of people coming together, we’ll use are. The way you make the structure tells a lot about the connection between these individuals. To a non-native British speaker, this seems really strange.
- In American English, it’s much simpler. A collective noun is always used with a singular verb. Bob’s family is coming to visit. Tom’s team is winning. The government is making an announcement.
Why do American and British English sound so differently?
Jack Gamble, an English teacher and tutor at Essayontime suggests: “Let’s use some logic. We’d guess the American English became different because of the mix of cultures. The English language was introduced in America by British colonization, so we assume it was given in its usual form. However, people from different countries were finding various ways to make the language more accessible, so we got what we have today. That’s just a guess. “
If we search for a real answer to that question, however, we get a surprising fact: it’s the British, not the American accent, that changed drastically over the years. Traditional English was rhotic (with pronunciation of the R sound). That’s why you hear the R in American pronunciation. Non-rhotic speech, which is characteristic for today’s British English, became popular among the upper class in London around the time of the American Revolution. From there on, it took a swing.
These are the main differences between American and British English speech:
1. The R
To understand the difference between rhotic (American) and non-rhotic (British) pronunciation, here’s how it sounds like in practice:
- Americans pronounce the R at the end of the word. British don’t. In British English, you don’t hear the R in the word computer, for example.
- When the R is in the middle of the word, both British and Americans pronounce it. However, it’s much softer and less noticeable in British English. That’s why the word parent sounds different, too.
2. The T
In American English, the letter T can often sound like a D in the pronunciation of a word, especially if the word is spelled with two T’s. In British English, that’s not likely to happen. This difference is really noticeable in better, butter, and similar examples.
What can we say; British love their T’s.
3. The Vowels
The most common thing non-native English speakers notice about British and American English is the different pronunciation of the vowel A in many words. Check how what, dance, France, and mathematics sound like.
There are differences in the pronunciation of the other vowels, too, but they are less noticeable.
Finally, we came down to the most interesting differences of all; those in the vocabulary. Here, there are no specific rules. You just learn the words.
These are some of the most noticeable and interesting vocabulary differences between American and British English:
|American English||British English|
|Drugstore / Pharmacy||Chemist’s|
|Garbage can / Trash can||Rubbish bin / Dustbin|
Choose Your Style and Stay Consistent
There is no better English. Both American and British English are great. When you’re a non-native speaker, you can choose the style you’re going to master. However, you have to be consistent. You can’t say “Okay, the collective nouns rule is too complicated in British English, so I’ll just take the American one and combine it with my British English.” It doesn’t work that way.
These differences make language learning a bit trickier, but more fun at the same time.
About the author:
Justin is a teacher from Leicester, UK. When not teaching his little students and rooting for Leicester FC, he loves to share his thoughts and opinions about education, writing and blogging with other people on different blogs and forums. Follow Justin on Facebook and Twitter.
PS. Are you serious about your spoken English improvement? Check out the English Harmony System HERE!