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The English language is now universally used in business, politics, entertainment, and other spheres. One might think this would mean the rules of English are the same throughout the world, but this is far from the case. In addition to the countless regional varieties of English spoken in various parts of the world, two major types of English exist: British and American. Many scholarly journals, businesses, and organizations prefer one variety over the other, which makes understanding the differences between them more important than ever before.
Despite the differences between the two types, learning American English does not have to be difficult. Online grammar courses are available on many websites, while schools and businesses may offer conversational courses to help eager students learn American English. Most courses introduce you to the grammar, syntax, and vocabulary that are common to many English dialects. Below, we highlight some of the major differences between British and American English.
Pronunciation is the most obvious difference between the varieties of spoken English. For an experienced listener, the manner of pronouncing certain words can reveal where a speaker is from. When you learn American English, take the opportunity to listen to native speakers so you can hear the way certain letters, such as r and a, are pronounced in various words (such as farther). Although pronunciation is an important difference between the varieties or dialects of English, it is difficult to describe, and is more readily understood through practice than by reading text.
When you learn American English, you will notice that it shares most English grammar rules with the other varieties of English. However, there are some differences, as outlined below.
Nouns: Collective nouns, such as herd, group, and class, often require singular verbs (formal agreement) in American English but require plural verbs (notional agreement) in British English. For example, in American English, you would say, “The team is preparing for the big game.” By contrast, the sentence in British English would be, “The team are preparing for the big game.” To avoid confusion in situations like this, you could rewrite the sentence to read, “The team members are preparing for the big game.”
Verbs: Although various verb forms are preferred in different varieties of English, the most common difference is the spelling of certain past tense verb forms. For example, in British English, irregular forms such as spoilt, smelt, and leapt are preferred, while those who learn American English should be careful to use the regular forms—spoiled, smelled, and leaped.
Prepositions: The usage and meaning of prepositions can vary between different forms of English. One common difference is how in and on are used. An American athlete plays on a team, while a British athlete plays in a team. The intricacies of prepositions, like those of verbs, are complex, so be sure to address these when editing your writing.
All varieties of English share an extensive common vocabulary, but certain differences do exist. Many of these have to do with new concepts or inventions from the 19th century on. For example, an elevator in the United States is a lift in the United Kingdom. Other common examples of usage in American English/British English are given below.
cookie/biscuit, called/rang, cell phone/mobile, soccer/football, gas/petrol
Additionally, some words—especially slang words—have different meanings in various parts of the English-speaking world. Some of these meanings can be considered quite offensive, so the use of slang should be limited.
Spelling and Punctuation
The final category of differences involves those in written language. Although these differences may seem to be the smallest or least meaningful, they are actually the most noticeable in written English. If you are writing for an American audience, the following differences are vital in producing a polished final product.
Spelling (o or ou): Many words in American English are spelled with an o (e.g., neighbor or favor), while their British English counterparts may contain an ou combination (e.g., neighbour or favour)
Spelling (-er or –re): When you learn American English, please note that many words end in
–er (e.g., center or meter) rather than the British English ending of –re (e.g., centre or metre)
Spelling (-ize or –ise): Many American English words are spelled using an –ize ending (e.g., authorize or organize), but both endings are used in British English, with –ise being more common (e.g., authorise or organise).
Punctuation: When you learn American English, you will notice that quotations are typically surrounded by double quotation marks “like this,”while in British English they may appear in single quotation marks ‘like this’. In American English, the periods and commas are placed within the closing quotation mark, but in British English, they are placed after the closing quotation mark. American English calls for the use of a period (called a full stop in British English) after most abbreviations such as Mr., which is often not the case in British English. Despite these (and other) differences, punctuation is more common between varieties of English than is spelling.
The differences between American English and other varieties may seem intimidating at first. The points noted above are some of the most common differences, and understanding them can go a long way toward helping you learn American English. If you still need more help learning English grammar, you should check out GrammarCamp, an online grammar training course developed by Scribendi.com, the world’s leading online editing and proofreading company.