Learning English is hard enough on its own. When you take into account the fact that English words vary heavily between countries, regions, states, and cities, and learning nuanced words in English can feel downright impossible sometimes.
British words differ in meaning and context from American words. Discover the difference between American English vs. British English — and why these differences exist in the first place.
American English Vs British English: A History
Like many other countries previously under British rule, America adopted English as its primary language. Yet While American English and British English share most of the same words, sentence structure, and grammar rules, the English most Americans speak today doesn’t sound like British English.
In 1776 (when America declared its independence over Britain), there were no standardized English dictionaries. (Though Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language had been published in 1755).
The first English dictionary was published in 1604 (nearly two centuries after Columbus first traveled to North American). Unlike most English dictionaries, Robert Cawdrey’s Table Alphabeticall wasn’t published as a resource list of all English words. Instead, its purpose was to explain ‘hard’ words to readers that might not understand their meanings.
Oxford English Dictionary
The Oxford English Dictionary was called for by the Philological Society of London in 1857. It was published between the years 1884 and 1928; supplements were added throughout the next century, and the dictionary was digitized in the 1990s.
While the OED standardized the spelling and definitions of words, it didn’t make major changes to their spelling.
Noah Webster Dictionary
Noah Webster’s first dictionary was published in 1806. This was the first American dictionary, and it distinguished itself from British dictionaries by changing the spelling of some words.
Webster believed that American English should create its own spelling of words — words that Webster himself believed to be inconsistent in their spelling. He created a new spelling of words that he considered to be more aesthetically pleasing and logical.
Major spelling changes included:
- Dropping the U in some words like colour
- Abandoning the second silent L in words like travelling
- Changing the CE in words to SE, like defence
- Dropping the K in words like musick
- Dropping the U in words like analogue
- Changing the S in words like socialise to Z
Webster also learned 26 languages that are considered the basis for English (including Sanskrit and Anglo Saxon).
American English Vs. British English Spelling Differences
The differences between American spelling and British spelling that were initiated by Noah Webster remain intact to this day. Americans generally do not spell words like color with a U or words such as music with the K at the end.
We also drop the second silent L in words like traveling and spell defense and offense with an SE instead of CE.
British English essentially uses the spelling of words from the language they were adopted. These words, called loanwords, make up nearly 80% of the English language!
Languages English has ‘borrowed’ words from include:
American English Vs. British English Pronunciation Differences
The main differences between the ways Americans pronounce words and the way Brits say them are pretty obvious to even an untrained ear. Yet, there is a specialized, standardized difference in the pronunciation of English words.
To make matters more confusing, United States citizens don’t have just one type of accent — and there are also variations on British accents, depending on where you live in the United Kingdom.
Pronunciation of the Letter A
One of the most common differences in pronunciation between American and British English is the letter A. The British usually pronounce As as “ah” whereas Americans pronounce As stronger; As sound more like the ones in the word ack than abhor.
Pronunciation of the Letter R
The British also don’t always pronounce the letter R when it’s preceded by a vowel, such as in the words park or horse. (Though, depending on where you’re from in the U.S., you might not pronounce Rs either. In some parts of Massachusetts residents drop their Rs, too).
American and British English don’t just differ in spelling and pronunciation. There are also grammatical differences between the two, also.
One of the main differences is that Brits use the present perfect tense more than Americans do. An example of present perfect tense would be, “Tom can’t find his shoes anywhere; he’s given up on finding them.”
Singular verbs always follow collective nouns in American English. For example, Americans would say, “The herd is migrating north,” while Brits say, “the herd are migrating north.”
Vocabulary can vary within different states, cities, and regions in one country alone. So, it’s no surprise that American vocab is very different from vocab words used across the pond. Some of the most common words that Brits use differently than Americans include:
- Chips (French fries)
- Bank holiday (federal holiday)
- Jumper (sweater)
- Current account (checking account)
- Dust bin (garbage can)
- Flat (apartment)
- Postcode (zipcode)
- Skimmed milk (skim milk)
- Biscuit (cracker)
Other Common English Language Differentiantions
So which form of English is correct? While there is a noticeable difference between varieties of English (especially between the English spoken in the U.K. and the U.S.), there is no one right or wrong way to pronounce these words.
Because world-famous TV shows are filmed in the U.S., many people that learn English as a second language learn American English. Yet because the British empire colonized so much of the world, teachers speak British English.
Other areas of the world where English spelling, vocab, and grammar differ include Canada and Australia.