While there are plenty of other dialects of spoken English, American and British are the most commonly taught in ESL/ESOL/EFL courses. Perhaps that’s because there are literally millions of Americans and the fact that British accents are pretty dreamy. British English and American English are both valued and respected, despite those who often assert that one is better or easier to understand than the other. The similarities between the two far outweigh the differences, but those differences can sometimes really impact understanding.
When studying English as another language, such small but important differences can be frustrating and even downright baffling. The key is to choose one and then learn some of these more obvious differences that could trip you up. If you are learning English as another language and you are presented with a choice between British and American English, consider these questions:
Do you intend to spend more time in one country or the other?
Is one accent easier to understand or mimic?
Which version of English does your ESL/ESOL/EFL teacher speak?
Which version of English are your friends learning?
The most noticeable difference between American and British English, is, of course, the pronunciation. One remembers the scene from Love Actually where Collin is asked by the three beautiful American girls to say words like “straw” and “bottle”. They giggle at his charming accent but are then disappointed when the word “table” is pretty much exactly the same. When trying to nail down British versus American accents, the key is to be aware of some key examples, but to know that it is rare that pronunciation alone will make it hard to understand context.
Grammar: Present Perfect
Before you start having painful flashbacks to primary school grammar lessons, present perfect is one of those ‘you’ll know it when you hear it’ tenses. British English loves the present perfect and uses it to explain events that occurred in the past. You will hear present perfect in American English as well, but it basically boils down to the fact that in American English, there are two acceptable ways to describe something that happened in the past (present perfect and simple past), while in British English, there is only present perfect.
Here are some helpful examples which I have stolen from this helpful website:
I've just had lunch
I've already seen that film
Have you finished your homework yet?
I just had lunch OR I've just had lunch
I've already seen that film OR I already saw that film.
Have your finished your homework yet? OR Did you finish your homework yet?
More Fun Grammar
When indicating possession, in both British and American English, one uses “have” or “have got”. Some examples (again, from this helpful website):
Have you got a car?
Do you have a car?
He hasn't got any friends.
He doesn't have any friends.
She has a beautiful new home.
She's got a beautiful new home.
The British tend to use “have got,” (the first example in the list above) while Americans use both fairly interchangeably.
Prepositions and Articles
These very small words can easily show which side of the Atlantic taught you English. Here are some examples of how the Americans and British use prepositions and articles differently (or not at all).
She goes to the university.
She comes home on the weekends.
She is on the team.
She goes to university.
She comes home at the weekends.
She is in the team.
While again, we speak the same language, it could be possible that English and Americans could have a whole conversation and not be completely sure what the other is saying. This could be due to an extremely strong regional accent (i.e. in Eastern Kentucky or remote parts of Wales) or it could be because there are hundreds of words that mean different things.
Here are some fun examples:
In American English, you put pants on to cover the lower half of your body. In British English, pants are what Americans call underwear and the clothing that covers your bottom half are trousers. A jumper in the UK is a sweater in the US.
Americans say lawyer and attorney while British folks say solicitor and barrister. An estate agent in the UK is a realtor in the US.
There are all sorts of confusing automobile-related vocabulary. For example, the boot of a car is the trunk in American English, while the bonnet is the hood. A windshield in the US is a windscreen in the UK. Also Americans say garage while the British say car park. A lorry is what Americans call a truck. Petrol in the UK is gas in the US and a British petrol or filling station is a gas station in the US.
In British English, bangers are American sausages, and chips are (American) French fries, crisps are American potato chips, and mash is what Americans would call mashed potatoes. In the UK a biscuit looks a lot like a cookie in the US.
A pram in the UK is a stroller in the US. Likewise, saying a cot, dummy, and a primary school in the UK translates to a crib, pacifier, and an elementary school in the US.
A few more:
A crosswalk in America is a Zebra Crossing in the UK, the letter “z” is pronounced zed in the UK, a single ticket in the UK is a one-way ticket in the US, and a serviette in the UK is a napkin in the US.
There are often slight differences in the ways that words are spelled in American English and British English. The following are the most common examples:
Words that end in “-or” in American English: color, humor, flavor, end in “-our” in British English: colour, humour, flavour.
Words that end in “-ize” in American English: recognize, patronize, end in “-ise” in British English: recognise, patronise.
A few more examples:
Center, aging, fulfill, defense
Centre, ageing, fulfil, defence
When writing, be sure to set the language on your word processor to the type of English you want to use, that way it will watch for these common spelling differences when you are writing.
So, to wrap up...
The British and Americans may be cousins, but that still means that there is room for miscommunication and confusion. It is especially hard on those trying to learn English. The key is to choose either American or British English and stick with it – be consistent. Both are respected and widespread so whichever way you go, you’ll have someone who understands you when you talk about bangers or sausages.