British English or American English: which one is better? I’ve been asked this question hundreds of times. It can be confusing and frustrating for language learners when the vocabulary they have spent years learning is different to that of their British or American friends’. So on this episode, I want to introduce a few of the key differences between the two dialects, explain why there are some variations, and finally offer a little advice on which you should focus on! 

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Vocabulary List

To frustrate (v) – to make someone feel annoyed or less confident because that cannot achieve what they want

It frustrates me that I’m not able to put any of my ideas into practice

Dialect (n) – a form of language that people speak in a particular part of a country, containing some different words and grammar

The poem is written in a southern dialect

Variation (n) – something that is slightly different from the usual form or arrangement 

Her movies are all variations on the same theme

Distinction (n) – a difference between two similar things

There’s a clear distinction between the dialects spoken in the two regions

Noticeable (adj) – easy to see or recognise 

There has been a noticeable improvement in Tim’s cooking

Straightforward (adj) – easy to understand or simple 

This recipe is so straightforward – you just mix all the ingredients together 

To occur (v) – to happen

The incident occurred shortly after the plane took off

Fashionable (adj) – popular at a particular time

Celebrities are always eating at that fashionable restaurant  

Responsible (adj) – to be the person who caused something to happen, especially something bad

Last month’s bad weather was responsible for the crop failure 

British English versus American English. Which one is better? Which one should I learn? Which one is more useful? I hear questions like this all the time from students and followers of this podcast!  And as someone who has lived in other parts of the world, and has a few good American friends, this is a debate I have had hundreds of times! The differences between British English and American English are not particularly great, but they are significant enough to sometimes confuse or frustrate learners. British people will always argue that American’s don’t speak proper English, while American’s might argue the same thing about the British. Although it doesn’t really matter which type you learn, I think it is very useful to know a little about these two kinds of English. So in this episode, I will give you a very short introduction to British and American English, try to explain why there are differences in the two dialects, and offer you some advice on which one to study!

What are the differences?

So let’s start with the differences between British and American English. As I already mentioned, those differences between the two “Englishes” are not particularly big! For example, if you speak British English you will probably be able to understand 99% of your American friend’s speech. Moreover, anything you don’t understand is normally easy to pick up from context. Despite this, there are some differences in accent, spelling, vocabulary, and grammar which might be important to you one day. 

Accent is the first key difference you’ll notice between the two dialects. However, it is difficult to talk about a standard British accent and a standard American accent. Often the variation in accents within the two countries is greater than the variation between the two countries. I guess that, to a lot of people, the southern English accent sounds closer to a Californian accent than to a regional Scottish, Newcastle, or Liverpool pronunciation. People often tell me they love the British accent, but the UK is a country of hundreds of diverse and unique accents. However, there are some general distinctions that can be made. British people often only pronounce the letter “r” at the beginning of a word, and ignore it elsewhere, while American always pronounce “r.” For example, Brits would say “water” (waw-tuh) while Americans would say “water” (war-tr).

Spelling can also vary between the two dialects. Famously, the American English removes the letter “u” from words like “colour” and “behaviour.” They also turn the “s” in words like “organise” into “z” (notice how I said the letter “zed” like a British person instead of the letter “zee” like an American)! In other cases, a double “L” in British words is replaced by a single “L” while some other American English spelling tends to be closer to the word’s actual pronunciation and removes some unnecessary letters. In the modern world, American spelling is becoming increasingly popular outside of the USA thanks to spell checkers on computers!

The most noticeable difference between British English and American English is vocabulary! Again, most of the time the vocabulary is identical. However, there are some variations that could lead to embarrassing situations if you don’t learn the different meanings of the same word. In the UK women wear “suspenders,” while in the US they are worn by men (the word suspender refers to different clothing items here). While in the US if you ask for pudding you’ll be given a sweet custard, if you ask in the UK you will be given the whole dessert menu (In the US pudding is a specific dessert, but in the UK it means all desserts as well as some other dishes!)! Saying someone’s “pants” look nice is acceptable in the USA, but I wouldn’t recommend saying it in the UK (pants means underwear!). Other words with embarrassing double meanings include fanny and knickers – but i’ll let you search for them yourselves!

There are also more straightforward differences. Lift (UK) vs. elevator (USA) / lorry (UK) vs. truck (USA) / jumper (UK) vs sweater / solicitor (UK) vs. lawyer (USA) / petrol (UK) vs. gas or gasoline (USA) / trainers (UK) vs. sneakers (USA) / drawing pin (UK) vs. thumb tack (USA).

Finally there are a few grammar differences. Even though most native speakers know there are changes vocabulary and spelling, many are actually unaware that there are also grammatical differences. The first grammar variation is to do with prepositions. An American might say “I’m going to a party on the weekend,” whereas I would probably say “I’m going to a party at the weekend.” Or, an American store might be open “Monday through Friday”, but a British shop would open “Monday to Friday.” These small preposition changes might not sound too difficult, but since I’ve started teaching using American English resources I’ve noticed more and more that the prepositions I find natural and comfortable are normally not recommended or included in those resources. So sometimes my feedback to students is different to what they have studied online, in school, or through textbooks. 

The second grammatical difference is that Americans tend to use the past simple tense when describing something that has recently occurred, while people in the U.K. are more likely to use the present perfect tense. For instance, compare the American “I ate too much” with the British “I’ve eaten too much.” Moreover, the past participle of get is different in the two countries. In the US, get – got – gotten. In the UK, get – got – got. The UK stopped using “gotten” many years ago, while the US has continued. 

In British English, a collective noun (like committee, government, team, etc.) is normal plural. So we would say “the government are stupid” or “my team are winning.” On the other hand, collective nouns in the United States are always singular. So they would say “the government is stupid” or “my team is winning.”

Finally, some irregular verbs in the UK are actually regular in the USA! Leapt, dreamt, burnt, and learnt become leaped, dreamed, burned, and learned in American English!

Why are they different?

So, we’ve looked at a few differences between the two major dialects of English. However, why are they different? Age definitely has something to do with it. The first British settlers to the US set sail hundreds of years ago, which is more than enough time for accent, vocabulary and grammar to begin to change. Another reason for the differences is French. French has influenced English for a thousand years since William the Conqueror and the Normans invaded Britain in the 11th century. Their language became the language of education and the rich. It explains why we use Anglo Saxon words for the names of farm animals (cow, sheep, and pig) while French influenced vocabulary to describe those animal’s meat (beef, mutton, and pork)! Then, in the 17th century, French became a fashionable language in the UK and British began using more French inspired words and spellings. Across the Atlantic Ocean, US English was not influenced nearly as much.

One man, Noah Webster, is actually responsible for many of the differences in spellings between the UK and USA. You might have heard of Webster (he founded the Webster dictionary that is commonly used in the USA). The UK dictionary was created by a group of academics who wanted to find and record all English words, but Webster’s American dictionary was different. Instead of just recording the words, he decided to change spellings to make them more straightforward and different from the UK. He is responsible for removing the letter “u” in color. We often think of language as a natural and slowly evolving thing. Webster shows us, however, that individuals can have major impacts on how we communicate!

Furthermore, like all languages English has borrowed words from other languages around the world. The two dialects have evolved differently because different cultures have influenced the two countries! Therefore, words and phrases can be different because they borrowed the words from completely different languages. America borrowed the word cilantro from Spanish, while Britain took the word coriander from French. Food is so important in our cultures, and so different between the countries, that variations like this are very common when talking about ingredients!

Which one should you learn?

In many cases, it doesn’t really matter. If you are not living or working in an English speaking environment, then you don’t need to worry about it until you are at an advanced level. Moreover, if you are at that level, you probably should just learn both types! 

However, it will be important for some people to focus on just one type. If you are working, living or studying in the USA, then study American English. If you are working, living or studying anywhere else in the world, British English tends to be more common! Especially British spelling and grammar. However, it’s likely you’ll find yourself in countries that use British spelling but also use Americanised vocabulary. If you love British TV, focus on British English. If you love American literature, focus on American English! Study the type that suits you the best. 

As I have mentioned repeatedly through this episode, the differences are not that big. Really, the two Englishes are pretty much the same. The most important thing for you is consistency. Especially with grammar and spelling, choose one dialect and stick to it. When you are writing, be consistent! Don’t start writing with American spellings and change halfway through. 

Finally, remember that there are not just two types of English. Ireland, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, countries in Africa and the Carribean all have their own unique accents, pronunciation, vocabulary and grammar. 

Whichever type of English you decide to speak, good luck!

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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