British English vs. American English: What are the differences?

Do you speak American English or British English? Regardless of which variant you’re learning, it’s important to know the main differences between the two.

If you speak American English, you should still know British words, such as rubbish, queue, and lift. And if you speak British English, you should still know American words, such as garbage, line, and elevator.

Even if you don’t plan on traveling to any of the two countries, knowing the differences will not only help you better understand movies and TV shows but also help you elevate your English skills.

We know how confusing the differences between British and American English can be. So, in this article, we break down the main differences and provide a quick glossary of the most important words you must know in both English variants.

Learning the differences between American English and British English.

The impact of British English on American English & vice versa

Languages are undergoing a neverending evolution. They never stay exactly the same. If you take a closer look at the English language, you’ll see that the way people spoke in the 1800s and the way people speak now has changed significantly.

But languages aren’t only affected by the passing of time. They’re also affected by historical events, such as colonization and war, immigration, gentrification, and the proximity to neighboring countries. And because so many different factors affect how languages evolve, it’s often hard to pinpoint the exact reasons behind specific changes.

That’s precisely what’s going on with British and American English. The common belief is that British English is the “original” English, and American English is a changed, adapted version. However, that’s not entirely accurate.

While English was brought to America by the British during colonization, British English has also incorporated many words and expressions from American English. The linguistic exchange between the two variants is more nuanced than a simple one-way influence.

British English vs American English spelling

If you pay attention to English spelling, you’ve inevitably noticed that the same words are sometimes spelled differently, depending on the English variation you’re using.

There are a few key spelling differences between British English and American English. If you find yourself confused about how to spell certain words in British or American English, don’t worry - even native speakers struggle with this at times.

Couple discuss the differences between British English and American English at a bar.

Common spelling differences

Here are the key differences in the spelling of British and American words. Yes, there are more than you thought!

British EnglishAmerican English
-our (eg. colour, flavour, behaviour)-or (eg. color, flavor, behavior)
-re (eg. centre, theatre, litre)-er (eg. center, theater, liter)
-ise (eg. realise, organise, socialise)-ize (eg. realize, organize, socialize)
-yse (eg. analyse, paralyse)-yze (eg. analyze, paralyze)
-ence (eg. licence, offence, defence)-ense (eg. license, offense, defense)
-ae (eg. paediatric, leukaemia, anaemia)-e (eg. pediatric, leukemia, anemia)
-oe (eg. manoeuvre, oesophagus, oestrogen)-e (eg. maneuver, esophagus, estrogen)
-l (eg. enrol, fulfil, distil)-ll (eg. enroll, fulfill, distill)
-ll (eg. travelled, cancelled, jewellery)-l (eg. traveled, canceled, jewelry)
-ogue (eg. catalogue, dialogue)-og (eg. catalog, dialog)
-e (eg. programme, gramme, glycerine)- (eg. program, gram, glycerin)

Aside from these general differences, there are also many words that are spelled differently in British and American English, such as:

British EnglishAmerican English

British English vs American English pronunciation

Oh, don't we all just love Hugh Grant's British accent in Notting Hill or Jude Law’s accent in The Holiday?

British and American English can sometimes sound like they're two different languages, and that's because of the way words are pronounced. There are many differences between British and American English pronunciation, but it goes deeper than just the two countries.

For instance, in the UK, you've got a whole range of different accents, from the posh London one to the barely understandable for most people Scottish, Irish, and Welsh.

The US also has quite a few regional accents. For instance, New Yorkers speak with a distinctive accent, but the Texans have a twangy accent you probably know from movies like Sweet Home Alabama.

Pronunciation variations in specific words

The main differences between British and American English lie, of course, in their respective pronunciation.

We could list the general differences between the British and American pronunciations, but you likely won’t enjoy reading about these subtleties unless you're a linguistics enthusiast.

So, instead, here are some words that are pronounced differently in British and American English.

  1. Advertisement
    British English: /uhd-VURT-tiz-muhnt/
    American English: /ad-vuhr-TYZ-muhnt/
  2. Schedule
    British English: /SHED-jool/
    American English: /sked-jool/
  3. Aluminium
    British English: /uh-LOO-min-ee-um/
    American English: /uh-LOO-muh-num/
  4. Privacy
    British English: /PRI-vuh-see/
    American English: /PRAI-vuh-see/
  5. Mobile
    British English: /MOH-bile/
    American English: /MOH-buhl/
  6. Herb
    British English: /hurb/
    American English: /urb/
  7. Lieutenant
    British English: /loo-TEN-uhnt/
    American English: /lef-TEN-uhnt/
  8. Adult
    British English: /AD-uhlt/
    American English: /uh-DULT/
  9. Dance
    British English: /dahns/
    American English: /dans/
  10. Hostile
    British English: /HAHS-tail/
    American English: /HAHS-tul/
  11. Niche
    British English: /neesh/
    American English: /nitch/
  12. Garage
    British English: /gah-rahzh/
    American English: /guh-rahj/
  13. Privacy
    British English: /PRI-vuh-see/
    American English: /PRAI-vuh-see/
  14. Vitamin
    British English: /VIT-uh-min/
    American English: /VAI-tuh-min/
  15. Yoghurt
    American English: /YOH-guhrt/ or /YOH-hurt/
    British English: /YOG-urt/ or /YOH-gurt/
  16. Tomato
    American English: /tuh-MAY-toh/
    British English: /tuh-MAH-toh/
  17. Zebra
    American English: /ZEE-bruh/
    British English: /ZEB-ruh/
  18. Vase
    British English: /vɑːz/ (vahz)
    American English: /veɪs/ (vayss)
  19. Oregano
    British English: /əˈrɛɡənəʊ/ (uh-REG-uh-noh)
    American English: /ɔːˈrɛɡənoʊ/ (aw-REG-uh-noh)

Vocabulary: British English vs American English words

When in New York, you don’t go to the cinema. You go to the movie theater. And in London, you don’t eat cookies with your afternoon tea. You eat biscuits. If you live in the US, you might want to go on vacation to the UK. But if you live in the UK, you might want to go on holiday to the US.

The differences between commonly used words in the UK and the US can be a bit confusing, so here’s a breakdown.

Woman riding a bike around New York city.

Commonly used words that differ between British and American English

  • Trunk (UK) / Boot (US):
    • Sarah opened the car's boot to get her groceries.
    • John placed his luggage in the trunk of the car.
  • Biscuit (UK) / Cookie (US):
    • Mary enjoys having a cup of tea with a biscuit in the afternoon.
    • Tim grabbed a chocolate chip cookie from the jar.
  • Flat (UK) / Apartment (US):
    • Emma lives in a small, cosy flat in the city.
    • Jason's apartment has a great view of the skyline.
  • Lorry (UK) / Truck (US):
    • The delivery was made using a large, green lorry.
    • The construction site had several trucks moving materials around.
  • Petrol (UK) / Gasoline (US):
    • Mark filled up his car with petrol before the long journey.
    • In the United States, most cars run on gasoline.
  • Cinema (UK) / Movie Theater (US):
    • Let's go to the cinema to watch the latest film.
    • They bought tickets for the 7 p.m. show at the movie theater.
  • Torch (UK) / Flashlight (US):
    • Alex used a torch to find his way in the dark.
    • In emergencies, it's important to have a flashlight handy.
  • Football (UK) / Soccer (US):
    • The kids played football in the park after school.
    • Soccer is a popular sport in the United States.
  • Holiday (UK) / Vacation (US):
    • During the holiday, they visited relatives in the countryside.
    • Every summer, the family takes a vacation to the beach.
  • Crisps (UK) / Chips (US):
    • Jane grabbed a bag of crisps to enjoy with her sandwich.
    • In America, it's common to have potato chips as a snack.
  • Trolley (UK) / Cart (US):
    • She pushed the shopping trolley through the aisles.
    • At the hardware store, Jake loaded his tools onto a cart.
  • Jumper (UK) / Sweater (US):
    • Sarah knitted a warm jumper for her son.
    • In colder regions, people wear sweaters to stay warm.
  • Nappy (UK) / Diaper (US):
    • The baby needs a fresh nappy before bedtime.
    • In the United States, parents often use disposable diapers.
  • Chemist (UK) / Pharmacy (US):
    • I need to stop by the chemist to pick up my prescription.
    • The pharmacy is open 24 hours a day for emergency medication needs.
  • Post (UK) / Mail (US):
    • She sent a birthday card to her friend via post.
    • In the United States, people typically check their mailboxes for letters.
  • Dustbin (UK) / Garbage Can (US):
    • Throw the wrappers into the dustbin after lunch.
    • The garbage can is full, and it's time to take out the trash.
  • Lift (UK) / Elevator (US):
    • Take the lift to the fifth floor of the building.
    • In the United States, most buildings have elevators for easy access.
  • Cotton Wool (UK) / Cotton Ball (US):
    • She used cotton wool to clean the wound.
    • In America, people often use cotton balls for cosmetic purposes.
  • Rubbish (UK) / Garbage (US):
    • Don't throw your rubbish on the ground; use the bin.
    • The garbage truck comes every Tuesday to collect household garbage.
  • Holidaymaker (UK) / Tourist (US):
    • The coastal town attracts many holidaymakers during the summer.
    • Times Square is always bustling with tourists exploring the city.
  • Mobile (UK) / Cell Phone (US):
    • Tom left his mobile on the kitchen counter.
    • People have a cell phone with them at all times.
  • Postcode (UK) / ZIP Code (US):
    • When ordering online, enter your postcode for accurate delivery.
    • The ZIP code helps sort mail efficiently.
  • Queue (UK) / Line (US):
    • We had to wait in a long queue to get tickets to the concert.
    • They stood in line for the latest movie premiere.
  • Supermarket (UK) / Grocery Store (US):
    • She went to the supermarket to buy groceries for the week.
    • He stopped by the grocery store to pick up some snacks.

Differences in grammar between British and American English

How many times have you wondered whether your brain is playing tricks on you when you come across words like “learnt” instead of “learned” or “gotten” instead of “got”?

In those instances, you probably thought, “do I remember this wrong?” The answer is no, you don’t. It’s just that you probably didn’t know that there are many differences in the grammar and usage between British and American English until now.

Differences in grammar between British and American English.

Use of present perfect tense

In British English, the present perfect tense is used to emphasize the recent or repeated completion of an action with a connection to the present moment. In American English, we can also use the present perfect to convey this, but we’d rather use the simple past tense if we consider the action finished.

For example:

  1. I have just finished my homework. (British English)
    I just finished my homework. (American English)
  2. She has already eaten lunch. (British English)
    She already ate lunch. (American English)
  3. They have visited Paris multiple times. (British English)
    They visited Paris multiple times. (American English)

Collective nouns and verb agreement

In American English, collective nouns such as team, band, and herd are treated as singular nouns, while in British English, they’re more commonly treated as plurals, although both forms are correct.

For example:

  1. The team are playing well. (British English)
    The team is playing well. (American English)
  2. The band have released a new album. (British English)
    The band has released a new album. (American English)
  3. The staff are on a break. (British English)
    The staff is on a break. (American English)
  4. The government are announcing a new policy. (British English)
    The government is announcing a new policy. (American English)

Past forms and past participles of verbs

Have you ever racked your brain trying to figure out whether you should spell “learned” or “learnt” in a sentence? Both versions are correct, and you’ve probably seen both in written texts. So, what’s the difference?

As you probably guessed, one is used in American English (learned) and the other in British English (learnt). Aside from this particular example, there are other common past forms with different endings in British vs American English, such as:

  1. She dreamt of a better future. (British English)
    She dreamed of a better future. (American English)
  2. He’s got a new car for himself. (British English)
    He’s gotten a new car for himself. (American English)
  3. I spilt coffee on my shirt. (British English)
    I spilled coffee on my shirt. (American English)
  4. They knelt down to pray. (British English)
    They kneeled down to pray. (American English)
  5. The plane smelt of fuel. (British English)
    The plane smelled of fuel. (American English)

Will Americans understand you if you speak British English and vice versa?

The short answer is yes. After all, you speak the same language with some nuanced differences that rarely affect communication.

Typically, British people understand and know more American words and slang than American people do British words. That’s because British people tend to watch more American movies and TV shows than American people watch British ones. So, if you speak American English while on vacation in the UK, people will likely understand everything you say.

However, if you speak British English on your trip to the US, you may get questions like “What was that?” or “Can you repeat?” if you use a specific British word people don’t usually hear.

An American tourist wearing a British flag beanie, admiring a building in England.

Funny differences between British vs American English

Sometimes, the differences in vocabulary between British English and American English can not only be confusing but also quite funny. Here are some of the funniest ones we could think of.

1. Dummy vs. Pacifier

Did you know that in the UK, babies suck on a dummy? For Americans, that can be pretty confusing because they’ll mentally picture a plastic human (you know, like the ones you see in the store displays wearing clothes). In American English, a dummy also means a person who is not very smart. And babies in America suck on a pacifier.

2. Pants vs. Trousers

If you ever ask a British person whether you should wear pants to go out, you’ll find a perplexed look on their face. “Of course, you should wear pants!” they’ll shout in disbelief. What you meant was whether you should wear trousers, and what they understood was underwear.

Yes, pants in British English means underwear, and pants in American English means trousers.

3. Toilet vs. Bathroom

If you ask an American waiter where the toilet is, you may hear “in the bathroom.” And if you ask a British waiter where the bathroom is, you may find a confused look on their face, wondering whether you intend to take a bath before dinner.

A toilet in the US means the literal “throne” you sit on in the bathroom. A bathroom in the UK is more associated with a literal bath or shower. So, make sure to ask for the “toilet” in the UK and the “bathroom” in the US.

Cheers and thank you

Whether you're a language enthusiast, a traveler, or someone engaged in international communication, knowing the differences between British and American English can help you prevent misunderstandings and enhance your overall language skills.

Although the differences between British English vs. American English can be a bit confusing, we hope that this article has given you clarity. So, if you’re reading this in British English - cheers! And if you’re reading this in American English - thank you!

And for more cool and informative articles on all things related to the English language, check out our English blog here, or follow up with a related article on all things British slang here.

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