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When watching an English movie or listening to English-language content on the Internet, we hardly ever take note of the diverse varieties of the language; nor do we wonder what country each originates from. The more observant among us will notice the differences that can be found between the two main varieties of English. It is no easy feat, however, and oftentimes, the only reasoning is that they sound different – which is true, but not too specific. How then can we tell apart American and British English in speech and in writing?

Read on to find out! Here are the most important language differences between American and British English.

Spelling in British English vs. American English

Certain words are spelt differently in American and British English. For example, many past participles end in “-t” (e.g. burnt, dreamt) in British English, while their American equivalents are spelt with “-ed” (e.g. burned, dreamed).

Another classic example of the differences in spelling is the way certain words are written with “-ize” at the very end (e.g. familiarize, organize) in the American variety. In British English, these are spelt with the suffix “-ise” (familiarise, organize). It is also worth mentioning words ending in “-re” in British (such as metre, centre). These will take the forms of meter and center in American English.

british english and american english - differences in spelling
British and American English - examples of differences in spelling conventions

Differences between British and American grammar

The grammar of British English is fairly easy to pick up for foreign learners of the language. However, there are several exceptions that you must bear in mind when studying the language. Interestingly, the American variety in many cases simplifies some irregular forms even more, inflecting them using regular conjugations. Remember, of course, that this only applies to certain verbs. An example here is the form “gotten” of the word “to get”. Such a form would be incorrect in British English grammar (where “got” would be used instead).

In many cases, Americans will also use the words “will” and “should” – even in formal language. Brits find these words quite informal and prefer to use the typically British word “shall” instead.

british english and american english - differences in grammar

Vocabulary differences - British vs. American

A typical characteristic of English vocabulary is the fact that some objects have names that are distinct for each variety of the language. For example, in British English we will use the word “lift”, while in American English, the same word is “elevator”. What’s more, a British “truck” will be called a “lorry” in American vocabulary.

british english and american englsih - differences in vocabulary

When going to the USA, we must also remember that when we say “football” to describe the sport of Messi, Ronaldo or Maradona, we can be misunderstood. This is because in American vocabulary the word is used to describe American football, which is the main sport in the country. For this reason, we should use the American word “soccer” instead.

Main differences in English pronunciation

When talking about accent, it is not so easy to draw clear differences between the two versions of English pronunciation. The fact is that when we hear two people, one with an American accent and the other – with British, there will be no problem telling them apart. However, there are extremely many specific dialectal differences in both countries. As a result, it is not easy to point to specific boundaries within the given parts of speech.

So what should we focus on in order to distinguish British and American accents? The most important and probably the simplest thing to notice is the “r” sound. In the American pronunciation, it is pronounced everywhere in the word. Meanwhile, British accent is usually limited to pronouncing it only when it occurs at the beginning of a word.

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All in all, it is not difficult to distinguish between American English and British English. You need only focus on certain aspects of speech to be able to make an educated guess about which country the variety comes from. Nevertheless, what is in question is two varieties of English – the same language. Therefore, any American native speaker will easily understand what the British are trying to convey and vice versa. It should also be remembered that there are thousands of dialects of the English language; and even more language differences between them. Thank you for reading this short language course!

Which variety do you prefer – British English or American English? Let us know in the comments! And if you want to improve your English even more, be sure to check out our guide on how to get rid of the accent and improve your English pronunciation!

Translated by: Piotr Kopka
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