Working as an English editor in Lexcode Inc., an ISO-certified language translation and interpretation company, I often receive specific requests from clients to have their documents edited while observing the rules of either American English or British English. Generally speaking, there is no one version considered to be “correct,” albeit there are certainly preferences in terms of usage. But are American English and British English ever so different? Let’s take a look at five aspects of language in which American English and British English exhibit significant differences.
One of the most well-known difference between American English and British English is spelling. There are several areas in which Americans spell words differently from Brits. These differences often come about as the Americans have adapted the spelling of words to reflect the way they actually sound when they are spoken, whereas the Brits have tended to retain the spelling of words they have absorbed from other languages. Listed below are some ways in which American spelling and British spelling differ from each other.
|words ending in –er
|center, fiber, liter
|centre, fibre, litre
|words ending in –or
|color, humor, neighbor
|colour, humour, neighbour
|words ending in –ize
|apologize, organize, recognize
|apologise, organise, recognise
|words ending in –yze
|analyze, breathalyze, paralyze
|analyse, breathalyse, paralyse
|words ending in a vowel + l
|traveled, traveling, traveler
|travelled, travelling, traveller
|words spelled with double vowels
|maneuver, estrogen, pediatric
|manoeuvre, oestrogen, paediatric
|words spelled with –ense
|defense, license, offense
|defence, licence, offence
|nouns ending with –og
|analog, catalog, dialog
analogue, catalogue, dialogue
There are several cases in which American English and British English use different terms to refer to the same thing. For instance, Americans go on a vacation, whereas Brits go on a holiday. New Yorkers live in apartments, whereas Londoners live in flats. Americans go to movie theaters to watch films, whereas Brits watch movies in cinemas. Actually, the list goes on and on and on as there are a lot of examples of everyday words that carry the same meaning but that the Americans and Brits use differently. It’s a good thing that most Americans and Brits can usually understand the meaning of a term by taking into consideration the context of a sentence.
There is also a fine line between the two varieties of English in terms of collective nouns (e.g., a staff of workers, a team of players, a board of directors, and so on). In American English, collective nouns are considered singular, whereas in British English, they are considered plural. Someone from the United States would say, “The board appoints the chief executive officer of the company,” whereas someone from the United Kingdom would say, “The staff of the hotel are accommodating.”
Another noticeable difference in terms of grammar between American English and British English relates to auxiliary verbs. Also known as helping verbs, auxiliary verbs help the main verb by adding information about time, modality, and voice. To indicate future tense, Americans use the auxiliary verb will, as opposed to Brits, who use shall. For example, an American would say, “I will go to New York,” whereas a Brit would say, “I shall be in London.” In question form, Americans use the helping verb should, contrary to Brits, who use the helping verb shall. For instance, an American would ask, “Should we go now?,” whereas a Brit would ask, “Shall we go now?” Similarly, when Americans want to express lack of obligation, they use the auxiliary verb do with the negative indicator not, followed by the verb need (e.g., “You do not need to bring anything.”). In contrast, Brits drop the helping verb and contract not (e.g., “You needn’t bring anything.”).
Past Tense of Verbs
There is also some small differences as to how the past tense of irregular verbs are formed in American English and in British English. Americans tend to use the –ed ending, whereas Brits tend to use the –t ending. For example, in American English, the past forms of learn, dream, and leap are learned, dreamed, and leaped, respectively; on the other hand, in British English, the past forms learnt, dreamt, and leapt, respectively, apply. When it comes to the past participles of some irregular verbs, Americans tend to use the –en ending, whereas Brits tend to retain the past form. For instance, an American would say, “I have never gotten caught,” whereas a Brit would say, “I have never got caught.”
There you go—five differences between American English and British English. If you are an editor just like me or a writer of any genre, whichever variant of English you choose, what’s important is to remain consistent in terms of usage. For instance, if you decide to use American English, then be consistent with your spelling, vocabulary, collective nouns, auxiliary verbs, past tense of verbs, and so on. Moreover, if you find the two styles confusing, worry not—if you can grasp one variant, then you should be able to grasp the other as well. Remember, even most Americans and Brits comprehend each other without so much difficulty—they just take into consideration the context of a sentence and have a little background of each other’s cultures, an evidence that language should not be a barrier but an opportunity.