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A Few Tricks to Understanding the Difference between American and British English

by Daniela McVicker

If someone from New York were to compliment a Londoner for her great looking pants, that Londoner might take small offense and wonder how this American could possibly know what her underwear looked like. If a Londoner told an American that she had left her baby’s nappies and dummy in her boot, that American would be furrowing his/her brow wondering what the heck was just said. That Brit was not even wearing boots. The Brit would merely have been saying that she left her baby’s diapers and pacifier in the trunk of her car. Now, to be clear, boots in London also mean that type of shoes, so it would be important for the word to be put in context.

For a UK native and an American to communicate is obviously not as difficult as a Parisian and an American, and, in truth, the key to understanding lies almost wholly with the meanings of nouns and pronunciation. Writing each other’s English, on the other hand, means learning some spelling differences and some verb tense quirks. What follows is a brief description of a few of the language differences, followed by some common words and phrases that have very different meanings.

Spelling

Americans have always been about efficiency. We decided that we didn’t need both a king/queen and a prime minister, so we wrapped everything into one with a president. And, as American English developed and evolved, unnecessary letters, mostly vowels, were removed in favor of phonetic spellings. So colour became color; neighbour became neighbor (although if Americans really wanted to use phonetic spelling, they would have changed it to naybor). A lot of double consonants were removed too. Travelling became traveling; jewellry became jewelry, and programme became program. And that little piece of fur men wear above their lips (moustache) became mustache.

These spelling differences will not prevent understanding, and they really won’t matter unless UK’ers and Americans are studying in universities in each other’s countries and need to write essays and papers. Getting each other’s versions of Microsoft Word will solve that problem pretty quickly.

Pronunciation

Pronunciation differences usually relate to different use of vowel sounds and/or by stressing different syllables. Some differences will not affect understanding; others might. Here are some typical differences:

1. Vase: Americans say vace (like face); in the UK, it is vars (as in cars)

2. Tomato: Americans say tomayto; across the pond it is tomarto

3. Ate: Americans use the long “a” sound; UK’ers say “et”

4. Leisure: Americans use the long “e” sound for “ei;” In the UK, the short “e” sound prevails, like in “measure”

In terms of stressed syllables, here are some typical examples:

1. Garage: Americans say garage; it’s garage in the UK

2. Advertisement: Americans say advertisement; it’s advertisement in the UK

Grammar

Americans have their own issues with subject-verb and pronoun-antecedent agreement, because informal American English generally overlooks it. For example, many American will say “Everyone has their coats on today.” Everyone is actually a singular noun, and if this sentence were to be written correctly, it would be “Everyone has his/her coat on today.” So, Americans should not be too critical of UK’ers when they make what we would see as obvious errors here, and vice versa. Writing structures are different but they don’t affect understanding.

One of the biggest differences in agreement is in the use of collective nouns. In America, a “team” is a single noun, as is “government.” So, we say, “The team is getting ready for the championship game. In the UK, that sentence becomes “The team are getting ready for the game. Americans say, “The government is wasting our money.” A Londoner would say, “The government are wasting our money.” These differences will not prevent understanding, so just be polite and don’t try to correct the other person.

Another area of difference is in the use of verb tenses. So, in the UK, one might hear, “It fitted well” while an American says, “It fit well.” This is not worth an argument.

Vocabulary

This is one area in which it would be a good thing to learn some basic words and phrases of each other’s languages. There are many differences that can cause confusion and actually be pretty funny. Here are just a few examples of vocabulary differences.

1. Trainer: To Americans, this is a person who coaches someone in an athletic way; in the UK, it is tennis shoe

2. Bird: Americans are referring to those little creatures who fly above us and sometimes dirty our cars; in the UK it means that but also a woman

3. Rubber: This is a slang term for a condom in America, but it means an eraser in the UK. So do not be shocked if a school child in London says s/he must go to the store for a rubber.

4. Braces: These are either contraptions put on teeth to straighten them or to support something in America; in the UK, the word has two meanings - they are what Americas call suspenders or teeth straighteners. In the UK, the word suspender actually refers to what Americans would call garters – those elastic bands that keep socks up.

5. Boot: American wear them; Londoners may wear them but they also have a boot in the back of their cars for storage. (trunks in American English)

6. Jumper: In America, this can refer to someone committing suicide by jumping off of a building or an article of girls’ clothing; in the UK, it is a sweater

7. Fag: This would be a pretty derogatory word used to describe a homosexual in America; in the UK, if someone asks an American for a “fag,” he is simply asking for a cigarette.

8. Silencer: In the UK, a silencer is what Americans call a car muffler; to Americans it is a device put on a gun to make reduce the noise (and quite illegal, too)

9. Pissed: Americans are mad; UK’ers are drunk

10. Give you a bell: that might be a nice gift to an American, especially at Christmas time; but in London, it means s/he will call you.

11. Bog: Americans know a bog to be a marshy spot; in the UK, it is a toilet. And a bog roll is toilet paper to Americans.

12. Lift: Americans can pick up an object or give someone a ride; a lift in London is an elevator.

Much of the difference between the “King’s English” and its American counterpart is really to be found in vocabulary. The differences in pronunciation, grammar structures, and spelling are there, to be sure, but they do not impact understanding. For travelers between these two countries, it might be a good idea to get a basic dictionary of terms – or not – using the wrong terms can actually create some funny circumstances, and fun is always a good thing.

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