English as the international language in the entire world has some varieties such as Australian, Canadian. New Zealand, British and American English. Among all, the last two ones are considered to be the most prestigious varieties of the English language. It should be pointed out that all of the English varieties spoken throughout the world are just slightly different from each other. In this article, the main differences between American and British English in terms of pronunciation, grammar, words and spelling are compared and contrasted.
As non-native speakers of English, English learners are strongly recommended to select one of the two prestigious varieties of English, either American or British, and be consistent in their selection.
When it comes to pronunciation, Americans (also Canadians) tend to pronounce words with more ease. To be more exact, most Canadians and Americans clearly pronounce an /r/ sound after vowels in words like mother, car, better, etc., while in British English, the pronunciation of this consonant with the same condition is almost not realised. To be more technical, the phoneme /r/ is realised as zero or has zero realisation. This phenomenon is phonetically referred to as “Elision”.
Some of the differences between American and British English are rooted in the rhythm of words. British speakers often omit a syllable in words like secretary, as if it were spelled secretry, in contrast, Americans pronounce all the syllables. However, we have completely reverse cases, such as specialty. Americans pronounce this word with three syllables (spe-cial-ty), whereas British speakers pronounce it with five syllables (spe-ci-al-i-ty).
In terms of grammar, there are subtle differences between the two English varieties. For instance, regarding pluralization (making plural nouns), in American English, group nouns, e.g. team and government are regarded as single entities. However, in British English, they are viewed as plural entities (e.g., the government are…). Furthermore, concerning the use of the ‘present perfect tense’, it should be noted that, in British English, this tense is used to express an action that has happened in the recent past with an effect on the moment of speaking. For example, I’ve lost my wallet. Could you please help me to find it? While we are talking about it, in American English, the same sentence with the same meaning can be put in the simple past tense as: I lost my wallet. Could you please help me to find it? Moreover, some British English speakers do not pronounce /h/ sound at the start of words like ‘he’ and ‘his’ as if they were spelled ee and is.
Another grammatical difference between the two varieties of English is one way to show possession. In British English, both phrases “have” and “have got” are equally used as in: “I’ve got a motorcycle.” or “I have a motorcycle.” However, in American English, the use of “have got” is not that common to show possession. Moreover, in British English, the causative verb (help) is generally followed be the preposition “to” as in: The teacher helped the students to understand the problem. However, in American English, the preposition is generally omitted: The teacher helped the students understand the problem.
The past participle of the verb “get” is usually ‘gotten’ in American English and ‘got’ in British English: Alice has gotten good marks in her exams (American English). Betty has got good marks in her exams (British English). In terms of the common use of prepositions in English, there are also some slight differences between the two language varieties.
At the weekend
On the weekend
In a team
On a team
On behalf of
In behalf of
Writing to somebody
With regard to ‘conjugation’, there are also some differences between the two language varieties. In British English, whenever possible, it is attempted to prioritize an irregular form of the verb, whereas in American English, the regular form of the verb is generally employed as shown in the following table:
In relation to major differences of spelling between American and British English, it should be pointed out that Noah Webster, an American Lexicographer, was the main source of the distinctions. In two of his well-known publications, An American Dictionary of the English language (1828), and The American Spelling Book (1783), he attempted to systematize spelling in the United States by developing an almost unique use of an American language, which was intentionally different from its British counterpart to acknowledge the new country’s independently political development (Encarta Encyclopedia, 2008).
Webster’s most successful changes were spellings with or instead of our in words like honor, labor for the British honour, labour); with er instead of re in words like center, theater for the British centre, theatre); with an s instead of a c in words like defense, license for the British defence, licence); with a final ck instead of que in words like check, mask for the British cheque, masque); and without a final k (traffic, public, now also used in British English, for the older traffick, publick). Later on, some subsequent reforms were also created as the word programme in British English changed to program in American English. One ideal way to make sure whether you have consistency in your own English variety is using the ‘spell check’ feature on your word processor.
The following table shows some other differences in spelling between British and American English:
There are also some differences in terms of the use of words between the two important varieties of the English language. It is believed that the major differences between these two varieties of the English language are rooted in the choice of words. These words often include words that are usually less common, for instance, British crisps for American potato chips. Foreign English learners strongly recommended to constantly consult a good dictionary if they are not sure about the precise use of words in the English variety they are consistent in. this is because of the fact that some words or phrases may have different meanings and interpretations in different language varieties. The following table is intended to illustrate some of the differences in relation to the diction (choice of words) and idioms between British and American English:
Left holding the baby
Left holding the bag
Like the cat that got the cream
Like the cat that ate the cream
On behalf of
In behalf of
The ABC of something
The ABCs of something
Fight like cat and dog
Fight like cats and dogs
Knock on wood
Get out of bed on the wrong side
Get up on the wrong side of the bed