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Differences Between American English and British English

Updated on May 26, 2014

American English vs British English - An Introduction

The American and British peoples are in theory bonded by a common language - English. While translators are unlikely to be required in across the pond communications (regional accents notwithstanding,) this does not mean to say that there are not considerable differences in the ways in which English is both spoken and written on different sides of the Atlantic Ocean. Spelling and pronounciational differences are commonly known to all who have ever had any form of contact with their trans-Atlantic counterparts but there are a huge number of other differences which may be of considerable surprise to many people. Words used in every day life on one side of the Atlantic either have no meaning on the other - or have a very different meaning altogether. While it is not possible to be exhaustive, this page will examine some of the more common differences between American English and British English and hopefully prove informative and educational in at least some small way.

Spelling differences between American English and British English will be encountered both online and offline
Spelling differences between American English and British English will be encountered both online and offline
Traveling bag - or travelling bag? (Travel bag may be the simplest way of avoiding confusion...)
Traveling bag - or travelling bag? (Travel bag may be the simplest way of avoiding confusion...)

American English vs British English - The Written Word

The spelling differences between American English and British English are likely to be among the most common noticed in every day life. The good news about these differences is that more often than not they follow a recognisable pattern, if not in fact a strict rule. A lot of these patterns are centred around four particular letters in the alphabet: l, s, u and z. The differences in these instances of course are also likely to be but a minor irritation at worst and almost never actually lead to a misunderstanding of the meaning of any particular word.

The Letter L

The differences employed with regard to the letter l are simply that in a lot of American spellings, the letter will appear only once, whereas in British English a double l will be employed. Common examples of this can be seen below.

American English
British English
traveling
travelling
canceled
cancelled
Color TV - or colour TV?
Color TV - or colour TV?

The Letter U

The differences with respect to the letter u are again fairly straightforward. They relate most commonly to where this letter is made to follow the letter o in the spelling of many words in British English but is eliminated altogether in American English. Once again, some common examples of these discrepancies can be seen in the table below.

American English
British English
color
colour
humor
humour
flavor
flavour
The word quiz is the same in both American and British English but a quiz in relation to the usage of the letter Z could produce some very varied answers...
The word quiz is the same in both American and British English but a quiz in relation to the usage of the letter Z could produce some very varied answers...

The Letters S and Z

The letter z is used far more commonly in American English than it is in British English. There are many words which are pronounced on both sides of the Atlantic as though they contain this letter but in British English the words will instead be spelled using the letter s. There are more exceptions to this rule than there are in the previous two examples and considerable confusion can often arise as to which letter should in fact be used, particularly for native British English speakers attempting to use American spellings.

American English
British English
realize
realise
sympathize
sympathise
optimization
optimisation

The letter z is also pronounced differently in American English and British English. In American English the letter is pronounced zee, while in British English it is zed.

The differences between American English and British English can make a huge difference to SEO - in both directions...
The differences between American English and British English can make a huge difference to SEO - in both directions... | Source

American English vs British English - Impact on SEO

The final example in the table above, optimization/optimisation, hints at a whole new relevance to the differences between American English and British English which has come to the fore in recent years. Usage of the Internet is to a very large extent governed by search engines, whether that be for people searching for information or those looking to provide it. The difference between the spelling of certain words and particularly where the words differ altogether can have a major impact for British Internet content producers writing for the much larger American market. This is generally realised by regular British online writers and many use American spellings and words, either some or all of the time, for this simple reason.

Americans go on vacation - British people go on holiday
Americans go on vacation - British people go on holiday

It is not always apparent that the opposite may well apply and that American writers may be required to use British English. One example of this would be where an American travel writer is trying to encourage British people to visit the United States. It would be very desirable for them to use British spelling to be found on the UK search engines but it would be of vital importance for them to know that British people take holidays and not vacations...

American English
British English
cilantro
coriander
cookie
biscuit
eggplant
aubergine
ground beef
minced beef
heavy cream
double cream
scallions
spring onions
zucchini
courgette
Chips in British English are similar to large French fries in American English - chips in American English are crisps in British English
Chips in British English are similar to large French fries in American English - chips in American English are crisps in British English

American English vs British English - Food and Cooking

There are many differences between the names for both raw ingredients and for completed recipes between American English and British English. Some common examples are featured to the right but it is worth looking in greater detail at one in particular and that is the herb/spice, Coriandrum sativum. In British English, the leaves of this plant are known as coriander, while the seeds are called simply coriander seeds. In American English, the leaves of the plant are referred to as cilantro (which is actually the Spanish translation of the word, coriander) while the seeds are referred to as coriander. As the tastes of the leaves and seeds are very different, this is important for all trans-Atlantic recipe followers to remember.

The American and British imperial measurement systems have several differences but probably the most notable is intrinsically linked with food and cooking. Although one American fluid ounce is very similar in quantity to a British one, an American pint has sixteen of them while a British one has twenty. The implications here when following a recipe could potentially be disastrous.

A car's trunk in American English is a car boot in British English
A car's trunk in American English is a car boot in British English
A car's hood in American English is a car bonnet in British English
A car's hood in American English is a car bonnet in British English

American English vs British English - Cars and Motoring

It is not only many of the parts of a car which have different names in American English and British English. While trunk/boot, hood/bonnet and gas pedal/accelerator can cause confusion, there are many more differences which will be encountered by anyone venturing across the pond and actually heading out driving.

It is fairly common knowledge that while Americans drive on the right, British people drive on the left but confusion can arise in many other ways. A gas station in American English is a petrol station in British English, a parking lot is a car park. a freeway is a motorway and all British roads are toll free.. Differences of this type could lead to particular problems in many instances and the discrepancies are worth investigating in full by anyone driving in these unfamiliar surrounds.

The different ways in which the floor numbers are described between American and British English can be confusing
The different ways in which the floor numbers are described between American and British English can be confusing

American English vs British English - Building References

There are a number of ways in which the inside of buildings and their fittings and furnishings can cause confusion between American English and British English. One is the way in which floor levels are numbered. In American English, the first floor will be that which is at ground level, whereas in British English this will be the ground floor and the first floor is the first above ground level. This difference is progressive, with an American third floor being a British second floor and so on.

American English
British English
apartment
flat
elevator
lift
faucet
tap
closet
cupboard
Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English
Divided by a Common Language: A Guide to British and American English

The author of this work looks deep in to the language and cultural differences on opposite sides of the Atlantic. In a guide that may prove invaluable to those looking to venture across the pond, he notably considers those words and expressions which, although innocent on one side of the Atlantic, are anything but on the other.

This book even takes the language discrepancies further by throwing Canadian, Australian and New Zealander English in to the fascinating melting pot.

 

Comments and Feedback

Thank you for visiting this page and taking the time to look through it. I hope that it has helped to clear up more confusing issues than it has been responsible for causing and that you feel your time spent here has been worthwhile. This is of course a mere sample of the differences between American English and British English and even those who consider themselves fairly familiar with the discrepancies may be interested in finding more detailed information from the book featured to the right. There are probably but a tiny minority who can discount a surprise or two lurking somewhere just around the corner...

Any comments or feedback which you may have can be left in the space below.

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    • tonymead60 profile image

      Tony Mead 5 years ago from Yorkshire

      hi Gordon

      wow where do you get your ideas?

      cheers Tony

    • Invisiblestats profile image

      Invisiblestats 5 years ago from london

      Excellent hub.

      I always am fascinated by these differences between the two languages, and often get annoyed at people correcting my spelling of certain words because of the fact it is a British spelling not American.

      Great Hub and well research really interesting.

    • Gordon Hamilton profile image
      Author

      Gordon Hamilton 5 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      Hi, Tony

      Wow, I wish I could define that - then I could follow my own advice when I'm stuck. In this instance, it's just something I happen to have a fair amount of knowledge of, being British and having worked so closely with Americans these past few years.

    • Gordon Hamilton profile image
      Author

      Gordon Hamilton 5 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      Hi, Invisiblestats,

      It is undoubtedly the Web that has highlighted these differences that have been around for a very long time. I'm sorry that people feel the need to correct your spelling but the more we all learn, the less this will happen through a simple lack of understanding. Hope you agree.

      Thanks very much for your visit and your comment,

      Gordon

    • profile image

      Russell-D 5 years ago

      Gordon -- the subject of diferent words is one of the poems in our fourth book due out this Summer. It's called, The Diff'rent Name Game. Goes like this.

      I have a cousin who lives far, far away.

      Who has diff’rent words for the things that we say.

      Though they are diff’rent, both mean the very same

      So we always play this diff’rent name fun game.

      He rides on his bike, while I ride on my trike

      What he calls a walk, I would call it a hike.

      He calls a carriage, what we here call a pram.

      Jelly’s what he likes, while I like eating jam.

      His elevator, is what I call a lift

      What’s a blouse to him, is what we call a shift.

      When he says, “Hello!”, I answer, “There you are.”.

      He says a “Goodbye”. While I close with “Ta-Ta.”.

      His spends a dollar. What I spend is a pound.

      He rides a subway, my ride is underground.

      When he says, “Oh Darn!”. His darn becomes my “Bosh!”.

      And his old raincoat, to me’s a Macintosh..

      He likes reading poems, I embrace a sonnet.

      While he wears a hat, I put on a bonnet.

      But something we’d both would absolutely like,

      He riding his bike, while I ride on my trike

      The day he comes here, from his home, far away.

      we’ll play together, on that wonderful day.

      David Russell

    • Simone Smith profile image

      Simone Haruko Smith 5 years ago from San Francisco

      Oh, love it! You've broken down the differences splendidly here. Love the photos, and tables- they make for a great breakdown! Now excuse me... I need to go to a grocery store and ask for an aubergine.

    • Gordon Hamilton profile image
      Author

      Gordon Hamilton 5 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      David - good luck with that. There are probably more differences than any of us could ever name but it is amazing how simple it is still to understand one another.

    • Gordon Hamilton profile image
      Author

      Gordon Hamilton 5 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      Thanks, Simone - I hope you found a shop assistant who understood you! :)

    • kentuckyslone profile image

      kentuckyslone 5 years ago

      You really put a lot into this page. Great job and presentation

    • Gordon Hamilton profile image
      Author

      Gordon Hamilton 5 years ago from Wishaw, Lanarkshire, United Kingdom

      Hi, kentuckyslone

      Thanks for the visit and the comment. I'm glad you like it.

    • grand old lady profile image

      Mona Sabalones Gonzalez 3 years ago from Philippines

      This was a very interesting and comprehensive article about British vs American English. I particularly liked the way you pointed out how the differences between the two can have an impact on SEO rankings. Thank you very much.

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