Differences between
American and British English

The Most Important Ones

Differences between American and British English There are so many differences between American and British English that many very large books have been written on the subject.

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In fact, as the language evolves, new differences are emerging, and some previous differences are becoming less evident.

Note: There are more differences between the two spoken forms of English than there are in formal written English.

In formal written English the biggest differences are vocabulary and spelling.

Let's go over some of these differences now.

Vocabulary differences

There are whole websites devoted to the differences between American and British vocabulary, so we will not list them all here.

Here are some common examples (British => American):
  • film => movie
  • flat => apartment
  • ill => sick
  • chips => french fries
  • lorry => truck

http://www.bg-map.com/us-uk.html has a very good list of most of the non-slang words which are different.

Spelling differences

Which of these differences between American and British English do you know?

  • Words ending in –our in British English usually end in –or in American English.

    • colour => color

    • neighbour => neighbor

    • humour => humor

  • Many words ending in –re in British English often end in –er in American English.

    • centre => center

    • theatre => theatre

    • fibre => fiber

  • Words ending in –yse in British English usually end in –yze in American English

    • paralyse => paralyze

    • analyse => analyze

  • With –ise/ize the situation is more confusing.

    American English only uses –ize (criticize, jeopardize), whereas both forms are acceptable in British English. However, the spellings criticise and jeopardise would be more common.

  • Words ending in –ogue in British English almost always end –og in American English

    • catalogue => catalog

    • dialogue => dialog

  • British English doubles consonants (particularly L) far more often when adding suffixes to words

    • traveller => traveler

    • cancelled => canceled

There are other spelling differences too.

For example, American English would write gray whereas in British English it is grey.

Likewise, Americans write program and British write programme.

Grammar differences

There are a lot of grammar differences, some more obvious than others.

Many of them involve the use of the present perfect tense, which is far more common in British English.

Present perfect

An American speaker would usually use the simple past with words such as already, and just, whereas a British English speaker would use the present perfect.

For example:
  • American: "I'm not hungry, I just ate."
  • British: "I'm not hungry, I've just eaten."
  • American: "I saw that movie already."
  • British: "I've already seen that film."


To indicate possession, American English uses have almost exclusively, whereas British English also uses have got.
  • American: "I have three brothers."
  • British: "I've got three brothers."
Also, when talking about obligation, the same is true.
  • American: "I have to buy some milk."
  • British: "I've got to buy some milk."
In fact, connected to this, the use of modal verbs can be different, although the two varieties of English are becoming more similar. Many British speakers now favoring American usage.
  • American: "I will speak with him."
  • British (becoming old-fashioned): "I shall speak with him." 

Irregular verbs

Another easily noticeable difference between American and British English is with irregular simple past and past participles.

The most well known difference is got/gotten.

Americans usually use gotten as the past participle of get.

British English, on the other hand, rarely uses gotten. It usually uses got instead.

That is, other than in set phrases such as "ill gotten gains" (= money or other things obtained dishonestly or illegally).

Many verbs that are irregular in English actually have two versions, irregular and regular.

For example:

In British English you would usually find the irregular version:
  • Leap => leapt
  • Spoil => spoilt
  • Smell => smelt
  • Spill => spilt
In American English the regular versions are much more common:
  • Leap => leaped
  • Spoil => spoiled
  • Smell => smelled
  • Spill => spilled

Read also:

American English – Comparison of American English to other Languages with Examples

Grammar Differences Between American and British English

Further information

We have just touched the surface of the differences between American and British English, and if you want to know more then there are a number of books and websites available with much more detailed information.

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