Do I add colour to this image? Or do I add color to it? Should I put on my pants or my trousers?
Did you notice the subtle differences in each of the questions above? Are there any differences? Well, yes there are, although the things described, like color/colour, pants/trousers are in themselves the same things. The differences arise because a different type of English is being used in each example — one is American and the other British.
I guess you could say it was obvious that, despite sharing the same language, differences were going to arise in both spelling, meaning, and usage of particular words as two great nations historically diverged over time. Factors such as geography, historical events, cultural development, and exposure to different cultures have all played a role in forming these differences.
As you probably already know, American English is commonly used in the United States and Canada. Whereas, British English is more common in the UK, India, Australia, and New Zealand.
I’m going to introduce you to the six main areas where American English and British English differ from each other that may affect your future writing approach.
Although there are several spelling differences between the two, these aren’t that significant — Americans and Brits are used to reading each other’s stuff, and the slight variations in spelling don’t impair understanding or enjoyment. However, sometimes you’ll want to make sure you get it right. Below, I’ve compiled a short guide to highlight some of the main offenders:
- -am vs. -amme
- -ay vs. ey
- -e vs. -ae/oe
American: anemia, diarrhea, and encyclopedia
British: anaemeia, diarrhoeia, and encyclopaedia
- -ed vs. -t
American: burned, dreamed, and leaped
British: burnt, dreamt, and leapt
- -ense vs. -ence
American: defense, license, and pretense
British: defence, licence, and pretence
- -el vs. -elle
American: marvelous, canceled, and jeweler
British: marvellous, cancelled, and jeweller
- -ize vs. -ise
American: criticize, emphasize, and minimize
British: criticise, emphasise, and minimise
- Single “l” vs. Double ‘l”
American: modeled, fueled, and initialed
British: modelled, fuelled, and initialled
- -og vs. ouge
American: analog, monolog, and catalog
British: analogue, monologue, and catalogue
- -o vs. -ou
American: color, clamor, and endeavor
British: colour, clamour, and endeavour
- -er vs. -re
American: meter, fiber, and liter
British: metre, fibre, and litre
- -i vs. -y
The more you write in one style, the more you’ll get used to these slight variations in spelling.
We all know that another area where American and British English differs is in vocabulary. These differences have evolved over many years and are dependent on the large-scale adoption of words from the various different languages and cultures to which each group has been exposed. See how many you recognize from this list of familiar examples:
- Pants vs. Trousers
- French Fries vs. Chips
- Apartment vs. Flat
- Hood vs. Bonnet
- Trunk vs. Boot
- Truck vs. Lorry
- Soccer vs. Football
- Store vs. Shop
- Drug Store vs. Chemist
- Sweater vs. Jumper
And the list goes on…
We’re so used to watching both American and British movies and reading books containing these different words that many of them are used interchangeably by both groups, although some are more commonly used in one than the other.
As well as spelling and vocabulary differences, there are also a few punctuation differences between American and British English. I’ve mentioned some of these in the section on punctuation, but here’s a more detailed list noting these differences in American and British English, respectively:
- “.” Period vs. Full Stop
- “!” Exclamation Point vs. Exclamation Mark
- “()” Parentheses vs. Round Brackets
- “” Brackets vs. Square Brackets
- Abbreviations: A period is placed after abbreviations in American English: Dr., Mr., St., Jr., Rd. But there are no full stops used after abbreviations in British English: Dr, Mr, Mrs, St, Jr, Rd.
- Quotation marks: These are placed after a period in American English, but before a full stop in British English. For example:
Sorrow means “sadness.”
Lethargy means “laziness”.
One thing that can cause confusion is the major difference in the way that British and Americans write dates. While Americans follow the format of month/date/year, the British (and the rest of the world!) use the date/month/year format. The difference is shown in these examples:
American English: 01 August 2020 is written as 08/01/2020
British English: The same date is written as 01/08/2020
You can see why this difference causes occasional confusion—and why it’s best to double-check you’re the right side of “the pond” if you’re writing the date!
Idioms are those versatile expressions that we use in natural speech all the time. The words don’t make sense individually, but we all know what they mean when they’re grouped together in the same phrase. Just as with vocabulary, these differences in idioms are shaped by the historical and cultural developments experienced by the different countries that share the English language.
Below is a list of several American idioms alongside their British counterparts. Each means the same thing, but has a distinctive cultural twist:
American: He would not touch it with a ten-foot pole.
British: He would not touch it with a bargepole.
American: Sweep it under the rug.
British: Sweep it under the carpet.
American: A skeleton in the closet.
British: A skeleton in the cupboard.
American: Toot your own horn.
British: Blow your own trumpet.
American: Take it with a grain of salt.
British: Take it with a pinch of salt.
Although many of the pronunciation differences between British and American English have to do with differing accents, certain words are pronounced quite differently from each other, as is shown in the few examples below:
These differences in pronunciation probably won’t affect your writing — unless you want to write dialogue to portray your character’s specific accent. As I’ve already explained, most of the differences in spelling, vocabulary, idioms, and so on don’t pose any significant difficulty in understanding for readers, whatever side of the Atlantic they’re on. Learning the nuances is more about exposure than intense research. Having a British friend and speaking to him regularly has made me realize that it’s good to keep in mind that there are more similarities than differences.