English is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, and you’ll find its more than 1 billion speakers just about everywhere. (It’s fun to note that scientists have even taken the English language to Antarctica!)
But there are two particular groups of English speakers we’ll focus on in this article—and they are the ones who live on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean, or what the Brits like to call “the pond.” If you’ve enjoyed some British football, puzzled over a British biscuit, or just watched a little “Peppa Pig” with your kids recently, we probably won’t surprise you when we say there are some key and noteworthy differences in how English functions in the United States versus the United Kingdom.
Let’s take a quick look at some fun and noteworthy examples of how English vocabulary, slang, spelling and pronunciation can vary depending on your location.
British vs. American words: Vocabulary and slang
In general, most words mean the same thing in British and American English. For example, the words apple and chair refer to the same objects in both versions of English. For the most part, speakers of American English and British English won’t have much trouble at all understanding one another when it comes to vocabulary.
However, there are many examples of the same thing being referred to by different words depending on if you are using American or British English. For a well-known example, British English uses the word football to refer to the sport that Americans know as soccer. For the sport that Americans know as football, Brits use the term … American football.
This is far from the only example, though. Here are just a few more examples of two different words being used to refer to the same thing:
- French fries/fries (American) vs. chips (British)
- cotton candy (American) vs. candyfloss (British)
- apartment (American) vs. flat (British)
- garbage (American) vs. rubbish (British)
- cookie (American) vs. biscuit (British)
- green thumb (American) vs. green fingers (British)
- parking lot (American) vs. car park (British)
- pants (American) vs. trousers (British)
- windshield (American) vs. windscreen (British)
We can find similar examples when we look at slang words. Sometimes, different slang words are used in American and British English to refer to the same things.
- A wad of mucus: booger (American) vs. bogey (British)
- A man: dude (American) vs. bloke (British)
- Very good: awesome (American) vs. ace (British)
- To chat: shoot the breeze (American) vs. chinwag (British)
- An infantry soldier: grunt (American) vs. squaddie (British)
- A toilet: john (American) vs. loo (British)
- An anonymous man: John Doe (American) vs. John Smith (British)
- To waste time: lollygag (American) vs. faff about (British)
Finally, both American and British English have words that are used exclusively. For example, American English has words like bayou and cleats for which there is no British equivalent. On the other side, British English uses terms like bunce, niff, and jiggery pokery that don’t really have American equivalents.
British vs. American spelling
Generally speaking, most English words are spelled the same in American and British English. However, there are some notable spelling patterns that are preferred depending on which form of English is used.
Listed below are just some examples of spelling differences you may encounter:
-our (British) vs. -or (American)
- Examples: colour vs. color, armour vs. armor, flavour vs. flavor
-ise or -ize (British) vs. only -ize (American)
- Examples: apologise vs. apologize, fantasise vs. fantasize, idolise vs. idolize
-yse (British) vs. –yze (American)
- Examples: analyse vs. analyze, paralyse vs. paralyze
Doubling the L in a verb conjugation (British) vs. keeping the single L (American)
- Examples: travelled vs. traveled, labelling vs. labeling
AE (British) vs. E (American)
- Examples: leukaemia vs. leukemia, paediatrics vs. pediatrics
-ence (British) vs. -ense (American)
- Examples: defence vs. defense
only -ogue (British) vs. -og or -ogue (American)
- Examples: catalogue vs. catalog, dialogue vs. dialog
-re (British) vs. -er (American)
- Examples: metre vs. meter, lustre vs. luster
In addition to these common patterns, some specific words are spelled differently in American and British English. Some examples include airplane (the first in each pair is the common American term) and aeroplane, gray and grey, tire and tyre, and mold and mould.
British vs. American pronunciation
Before we dive into pronunciation differences, we need to address the elephant in the room. Yes, we know both the United States and the United Kingdom have many, many different accents and dialects that are spoken in their respective country. In particular, most (but not all) American accents are rhotic whereas most (but not all) British accents are nonrhotic. This means that most Americans will pronounce the R in certain syllables while most Brits will not, as in the word number (pronounced as “numbuh” by a nonrhotic speaker).
Additionally, even Americans and Brits with the same accent or dialect may pronounce a word differently. Ask some of your friends how they pronounce “New Orleans” and you’ll probably get a quick example of this.
All of that being said, there are many words that, in general, are often pronounced differently by many speakers of British English and American English.
Some of these different pronunciations are less dramatic. Here are some examples of words that have relatively minor pronunciation differences:
- American: [ ad-ver-tahyz-muhnt ]
- British: [ ad-vur-tis-muhnt ]
- American: [ mawl ]
- British: [ mal ]
- American: [ mis–uhl ]
- British: [ mis-ahyl ]
- American: [ dahy-nuh-stee ]
- British: [ din–uh-stee ]
- American: [ ba-boon ]
- British: [ buh–boon ]
Other words have much more dramatic pronunciation differences. Some examples include:
- American: [ zee-bruh ]
- British: [ zeb-ruh ]
- American: [ fig-yer ]
- British: [ fig-er ]
- American: [ slawth ]
- British: [ slohth ]
- American: [ skej-ool or skej-oo-uhl ]
- British: [ shed-yool or shej-ool ]
And we’ll finish with an especially strange one:
- American: [ loo-ten–uhnt ]
- British: [ lef-ten–uhnt ]
As you can see, English can change quite a bit when going from Big Ben to the Big Apple. We merely scratched the surface, and there are tons more differences to be found, but you can test yourself on the nuances you’ve learned here with this quiz. You may want to keep an eye out the next time you check out a word or phrase in our dictionary because you might just discover a new difference in American and British English you didn’t even know about!