There are a lot of key differences between American English and British English. In this article we are going to share with you a few differences in terms of written as well as spoken English. Let’s start with spelling conventions. These are the four important differences when it comes to spelling differences between the UK and the US:
- The double L vs. the single L
- -our vs. -or
- -re vs. -re
- s vs. z
15 Key Differences Between American English and British English
The double L vs. the single L
Let’s start by looking at the words ‘marvel’ and ‘travel’. In the UK these words become ‘marvelling’ and ‘travelling’ when you form a gerund. In the US they form ‘marveling’ and ‘traveling’. In the past tense in the UK they form ‘marvelled’ and ‘travelled’. In the US, the past tense would be ‘marveled’ and ‘traveled’. This double vs. single L pattern applies to most verbs ending in single L.
-our vs. -or
Colour, splendour, ardour, honour, favourite and armour are UK spelling conventions. In the US, the shorter and faster words win. In the US, people are known for wanting to get to the point. So maybe people in the US were just thinking ‘why waste time with an extra U in the word?’ So in the US, people write these words as: color, splendor, ardor, honor, favorite, and armor.
-re vs. -er
The British keep the original French spelling, which gives us: centre, metre, theatre, and spectre. The American spelling is center, meter, theater, and specter.
-is vs. -iz
Here again, British English maintains the original French spelling. This gives us spellings such as: organise, realise, colonise and organisation, realisation, and colonisation. In American English, the spelling is: organize, realize, colonize and organization, realization, and colonization.
Other written differences between American and British English
There are some other differences in the written form that are worth mentioning. Take a look at these four examples below.
enrol vs. enroll
We mentioned the double L vs. the single L in words such as travelling/traveling and marvelling/marveling. Here the tables are turned. In the UK, the spelling is enrol and enrolment with a single L. In the US, the spelling is enroll and enrollment with a double L. In both cases the spelling is enrolled and enrolling.
-t vs. -ed
This is a more obscure difference because some people in the UK also are using the same forms as in the US. However, the US rarely uses the the same convention as in the UK. Take a look at the following words: learned, learnt, smelled, smelt, spilled, spilt, and leaned, leant. In British convention the ’t’ ending is more standard and accepted. In the US, the -ed ending is the standard rule.
programme vs. program
Here the British spelling follows the French spelling once again. The double M carries to the gerund in British spelling and remains a single M in the American spelling. So you have in British English: programmed, programming and in American English: programed, programing.
titbits vs. tidbits
Now things are starting to get strange. To North Americans, seeing ‘tit’ + ‘bits” used for delicious morsels of food or juicy pieces of gossip seems strikingly weird. In the UK, titbits is the correct spelling. In the US, it is written as tidbits. This leads us to some funny misunderstandings between American and British English.
Funny misunderstandings between American English and British English
You can also end up with some really funny misunderstandings between the versions of English in the UK versus the US.
Here are some of our favorite examples:
pissed: are you angry or are you drunk? If you are pissed in the UK then you have too much alcohol in your bloodstream. If you are pissed in the US then you are angry about something.
knocked up: are you pregnant or are you being awakened by a knocking at your door? If you knock somebody up in the US then you get them pregnant. In the UK, it just means to knock on their door as a wake up call.
fanny: is the front or the back? In the US, this is anybody’s buttocks. That’s why a bag for day hikers was being sold as a ‘fanny pack’ in the US. In the UK, a ‘fanny’ would be a woman’s front private parts.
fag: is it a cigarette or a gay man? In the UK you can buy a packet of fags at the corner shop. It refers to a packet of tobacco cigarettes. In the US this word is a negative word for
rubber: is it an eraser or a condom? In the UK a rubber is simply a portable piece of soft plastic to erase pencil marks. In the US it is a condom.
randy: is it a short version of Randall or is it a feeling of sexual arousal? In the US, men named Randall may go by the nickname Randy. In the UK this word is used where Americans would say ‘horny’. The word ‘randy’ was common in the Austin Power’s movies.
swede: is this a this is a person from Sweden or some kind of edible tuber? Of course if we would have been somebody from Sweden, it would be a Swede not a swede. In the UK this food is known as a rutabaga in the US.
More differences between American and British English
American and British English have a lot of differences beyond just these points. We discuss some of these differences in our post on English slang words.
This video by an English language learner from Japan discusses further differences with two English teachers: one from the UK and one from the US. In the video you’ll see that there are difference expressions such as ‘take a nap’ vs. ‘have a nap” and ‘take a bath’ vs. ‘have a nap’.
While this YouTube video adds even Australian and Malaysian English to the mix. It’s interesting to note that in Malaysian English they appear to be accustomed to both American and British forms of English.
Of course, there are also differences in the pronunciation between American and British English.
This video will cover some examples of the differences in pronunciation.
Further Resources for Learning American English and British English
We also have a collection of free English learning videos on YouTube where you will be able to improve your English. If you’ve been having a hard time fitting your English-learning goals into your schedule, take a look at our post on how to improve your English even when you’re working full time.