British vs. American English

The differences to know between British and American English

While English is the main language in the UK and the US, you should be aware of these differences before traveling there.

March 2021

Do you know the 4 ways American and British English are different?

English is spoken in the US and the UK. It has been the case for hundreds of years. But did you know that each country speaks its own specific “kind” of English?
Up until 1776, the US was a colony of the UK. As a result, until that date, American and British English were the same. Americans spoke English with the same accent as in the UK.
Past that year however, the US and the UK became two separate countries. Their brands of English thus started drifting apart and developing into separate dialects.
While British and Americans understand each other clearly most of the time, some specific words mean different things whether you are in the US or in the UK. Expressions and accents can also vary wildly, which lead to sometimes confusing situations.
Before taking a deep dive, let’s test your knowledge of the intricacies between British and American English.

Let’s start with vocabulary:

1. Vocabulary

a large truck cab
Americans call this a truck…
...while British people call it a lorry.
aerial view of a freeway interchange
In the US, this is a freeway.
In the UK, this is a motorway.
a hand holding an eraser
If you talk to an American person, you’ll hear “eraser”.
But if you talk to a British person, you’ll hear “rubber”.

There are many objects and things that are called differently depending on whether you are in the US or in the UK. Here is a table recapping some common examples:

American English British English
Subway Underground
Downtown City centre
Elevator Lift
Parking lot Car park
Reservation Booking
Check Bill
Restroom Toilet
Gasoline Petrol
Sidewalk Pavement
Garbage Rubbish
Closet Wardrobe

2. Pronunciation

As the US and the UK have been separate countries for a long time, differences in pronunciation developed over time, particularly in the UK.
For this reason, the same word can sound very different whether a British or an American person is saying it.
Let’s take a few examples.
How would you call this metal in the picture? A British person would say “Aluminium”...while an American person would say “Aluminum”.

a close-up shot of a wrinkled sheet of aluminum
How would you pronounce this?

Here are some other common words that are pronounced differently:

Word American Pronunciation British Pronunciation
Tomato To-may-to To-mah-to
Advertisement Ad-ver-tize-ment Ad-ver-tiz-ment
Yogurt Yoh-gurt Yog-gurt
Vitamin Vai-tuh-min Vit-uh-min
Garage Guh-raj Gare-uh

Where do these differences come from?
They actually developed in the UK, particularly in the upper classes, starting in the 19th century. Back then, most people in the UK spoke in a way that is similar to today’s American accent. Seeing this, the British elite saw the need to distinguish itself by crafting a new accent, a new way of speaking, that was to be more ‘refined’ than the standard English. As people wanted to emulate the elites, more and more started picking up the resulting speech patterns that developed into the Southern English accent, also known as “Queen’s English”.

While there are clear differences in pronunciation, they do not impede understanding. Americans and British people can understand each other effortlessly, provided their accents are not too strong.

3. Spelling

American and British differ from each other not only in speech, but also in writing. When you read an English language article, you may notice that one word is spelled in two different ways.
For example, I’m sure you’ve seen color written as colour before.
That is completely normal. The first word is written following American English spelling, while the second one is in accordance with British English spelling rules.

There are quite a few words in English that are spelled differently in British and American English. Here’s list of the most common words that fit this category:

American spelling British spelling
center centre
defense defence
offense offence
organize organise
behavior behaviour
meter metre

Either British or American spelling are accepted in written works, as long as you remain consistent throughout the document you’re writing. For example, if you write ‘colour’ in a sentence, you have to spell it that way every time you use it. The same goes if you decide to write ‘color’ instead.

4. Grammar

While very similar overall, there are small differenGces to bear in mind when looking at American vs. British English.
The biggest difference is the use of the present perfect and past simple tenses. While British English is quite rigid in terms of tense use, American English is much more permissive.
For instance: “I didn’t check it yet” is a grammatically acceptable thing to say in American English, whereas it would be considered a mistake in British English. The correct way of saying this sentence is by using the present perfect tense: “I haven’t checked it yet”. This is due to the presence of “yet”, which suggests that the action started in the past but is not finished.
Another big difference is the use of the relative pronouns “which” and “that”. A British person would use “which” while an American speaker would use “that” instead.

Let’s take an example:
Icecream is a food which is sweet.
Icecream is a food that is sweet.

Another difference is the formality of speech. British English will sound more formal to listeners than American English, due to the use of more formal grammatical structures. For example, when talking about the predicted future, “shall” is the word of choice for the British, while Americans use the less formal “will” or “should” to talk about the same idea.
In spite of those small differences, basic grammar rules still stand. A grammar mistake in British English will invariably be one in American English, so knowing your grammar still matters.


While there are many differences between American and British English, they are still similar in many ways. This means that you shouldn’t overly worry about using the correct word in each dialect. People will understand you regardless of whether you are using the British or American word to designate something.
The one thing to keep in mind, however, is the importance of consistency, particularly in writing. If you choose to write using American English, make sure that the spelling, vocabulary and grammar are consistent with the dialect you have chosen to use. This is of crucial importance, especially in formal writing, such as in reports, letters and emails.
Which kind of English do you speak? American or British?

Florian D.

March 2021