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British versus American English: What’s the difference?

The British and the Americans clearly speak the same language, even though there is enough variation to create different versions of the language with slightly different characteristics. Are the British and the Americans really ‘divided by a common language’? How different are these two, really?

N.B.: For the record, the United Kingdom is a sovereign state consisting of four countries: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Great Britain is an island comprised of England, Scotland and Wales. Consider this when using (or misusing) the terms ‘UK’ or ‘England’; they are not interchangeable.


It’s difficult to clearly distinguish between American and British accents when such a wide variety of accents exists within both the US and the UK. A Texan and a New Yorker are both Americans, but have very different accents. The same goes for British accents in London, Manchester and Glasgow. However, some very general distinctions can be made. For example, Americans usually pronounce every ‘r’ in a word, while the British tend to only pronounce the ‘r’ when it’s the first letter of a word.


While the British retain the more complex spelling of words with Greek or Latin roots dating as far back as the 14th century, the Americans prefer their terminology simplified. A basic rule of thumb which covers spelling rules is that American English spelling tends to be simplified and pronunciation-based, while British English favors the words as they originally appeared in the language from which they were borrowed from.

E.g. Can you do me a favor (US)? vs Could you do me a favour (UK)?

E.g. I’d like to apologize for my behavior (US) vs I’d like to apologise for my behaviour (UK).

E.g. We have a strong line of defense (US) vs We have a strong line of defence (UK).


The US and the UK’s imperial histories and modern influence over the world have changed the English language forever – and it’s continuously evolving. Because it was exported to countries all over the world, it has been forced to accept different adjustments to its vocabulary based on the impact of cultural differences.

E.g. I bought a new pair of pants (US) vs I’ve bought a new pair of trousers (UK).

E.g. Would you like some fries with that? (US) vs I’ll have a side of chips, please (UK).

E.g. I live in a one-bedroom apartment (US) vs I live in a flat (UK).

Grammar – Past simple vs Present Perfect

Even grammar is a point of discussion. Americans tend to use the past simple when describing something that has recently occurred, while people in the UK are more likely to use the present perfect. Both regions, however, employ the past simple when referring to completed events in the past.

E.g. I ate too much (US) vs I’ve eaten too much (UK).

E.g. Did you see my email (US)? vs Have you seen my email (UK)?

E.g. I have no idea (US) vs I haven’t got a clue (UK).

Writers, students, and business professionals alike need to be aware of these differences when dealing with people based in the UK and the US. This helps avoid confusion, and also lends that touch of professionalism which marks a true global citizen.

Alma Bonger
Alma Bonger
Alma is an English language trainer and writer from Canada. She is passionate about education, exploring new cultures, and creative collaboration.

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