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Housing vocabulary in
American and British English

COLUMNS
Language Interference
Stringing Words Together
Language interference at
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Focus on Language
Awareness:

Introduction
British and American English

Differences in spelling and grammar
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American and British English
by Don R. McCreary

This article describes some of the main differences in the English of American and British speakers. Differences in the way that the same language is spoken in different places are called varieties or dialects. These varieties may be regional or national. For example, we can hear different forms of English in various regions of the U.S., or in different parts of the English-speaking world.
There are numerous varieties of English, such as Indian English, Australian English, and West African English. But for historical reasons, American English and British English are the two most influential varieties and it is the differences between these two that we will discuss here.

The distinctive features of American and British English can be seen especially in the following areas:

semantics (the meanings of words)
pronunciation
spelling
grammar
punctuation

The second part of the series looks at the latter three areas.

Spelling

There are many spelling differences between the two varieties. Some of these affect individual words, so they simply have to be learned. For example:

American English British English
check cheque
gray grey
tire tyre
draft draught
curb kerb

But some spelling differences involve particular letter sequences, so they are more regular and predictable:

American English British English
-or -our
humor, labor,
favorite, behavior
humour, labour,
favourite,
behaviour
   
-ter -tre
center, liter,
theater, specter
centre, litre,
theatre,
spectre
   
-nse -nce
pretense, defense,
offense
pretence, defence,
offence
   
-ll- -l-
skillful, fulfill,
installment, appal
l
skilful, fulfil,
instalment, appal

Grammar

In general, differences in grammar between the two varieties are relatively slight. There are, however, a few noticeable differences in tense formation, subject-verb agreement, and the use of the present perfect.

Form of Past Tense and Past Participle

In American English, the regular -ed form is always used in the past tense and past participle of verbs like lean (past tense and participle leaned), learn, smell, spell, and often used with the verbs burn and dream. These forms are sometimes used in British English too, but British speakers most often use the forms leant, learnt, smelt, spelt, burnt, and dreamt.

Subject-Verb Agreement

In British English, collective nouns (referring to groups of people) are often followed by a plural verb even when the noun is singular. This does not occur in American English. For example:

American English: The football team is very weak this year.
British English: The football team are rather weak this year.
Other common collective nouns that often take a plural verb in British English are: army, company, jury, audience, crowd, majority, class, enemy, staff, committee, government and union.

Use of the Present Perfect

American speakers tend to use the present perfect less than British speakers, often using the simple past instead, especially in sentences with words like just, yet, and already. For example:

American English: Did you eat yet?
British (and American) English: Have you eaten yet?
   
American English: Did Sam just leave? Sam left already.
British (and American) English: Has Sam just left? Sam has left already.

Punctuation

Certain differences in the use of quotation marks, commas, and full stops in abbreviations are regular and predictable.

Quotation Marks

Note the differences in the following:

American English: "Go away," she said.
British English: 'Go away', she said.

The 'double quote' mark ( " ) is usually used in American English, but British writers prefer the single quote ( ' ). Note also the placement of the comma outside (British) or inside (American) the quotation marks.

Commas: the 'Comma Splice'

The comma splice is the use of a comma where a full stop or semicolon could be used. For example:

The program isn't really designed for graphics, it's just for word-processing.

In American English, this use is regarded as a major error according to textbooks on composition and writing style. In British English, however, it is - in particular instances - accepted as a standard use of the comma.

Full Stops in Abbreviations

In British English, full stops are usually avoided in abbreviations. In American English, they are almost always used. For example:

American English British English
Mr.
Dr.
U.S.A.
e.g.
etc.
Ph.D.
p.m
Mr
Dr
USA
eg
etc
PhD
pm

Usage Notes

There are Usage notes on differences between American and British English at the following entries in the Macmillan English Dictionary:

bathroom holiday sick
class lawyer smart
college mean state
couple pavement station
doctor programme student
federal public school subway
football quite theatre
gas school time
hire sea