The British actually introduced the language to the Americas when they reached these lands by sea between the 16th and 17th centuries. At that time, spelling had not yet been standardised. It took the writing of the first dictionaries to set in stone how these words appeared. In the UK, the dictionary was compiled by London-based scholars. Meanwhile, in the United States, the lexicographer was a man named Noah Webster. Allegedly, he changed how the words were spelled to make the American version different from the British as a way of showing cultural independence from its mother country.
In terms of speech, the differences between American and British English actually took place after the first settlers arrived in America. These groups of people spoke using what was called rhotic speech, where the ‘r’ sounds of words are pronounced. Meanwhile, the higher classes in the UK wanted to distinguish the way they spoke from the common masses by softening their pronunciation of the ‘r’ sounds. Since the elite even back then were considered the standard for being fashionable, other people began to copy their speech, until it eventually became the common way of speaking in the south of England.
British and American English have some spelling differences. The common ones are presented in the table below.
|British English||American English|
|-oe-/-ae- (e.g. anaemia, diarrhoea, encyclopaedia)||-e- (e.g. anemia, diarrhea, encyclopedia)|
|-t (e.g. burnt, dreamt, leapt)||-ed (e.g. burned, dreamed, leaped)|
|-ence (e.g. defence, offence, licence)||-ense (defense, offense, license)|
|-ell- (e.g. cancelled, jeweller, marvellous)||-el- (e.g. canceled, jeweler, marvelous)|
|-ise (e.g. appetiser, familiarise, organise)||-ize (e.g. appetizer, familiarize, organize)|
|-l- (e.g. enrol, fulfil, skilful)||-ll- (e.g. enroll, fulfill, skillfull)|
|-ogue (e.g. analogue, monologue, catalogue)||-og (e.g. analog, monolog, catalog)*Note that American English also recognizes words spelled with –ogue|
|-ou (e.g. colour, behaviour, mould)||-o (e.g. color, behavior, mold)|
|-re (e.g. metre, fibre, centre)||-er (e.g. meter, fiber, center)|
|-y- (e.g. tyre)||-i- (e.g. tire)|
The Americans and the British also have some words that differ from each other. The table below lists some of the everyday objects that have different names, depending on what form of English you are using.
|British English||American English|
|bonnet (the front of the car)||hood|
|boot (the back of the car)||trunk|
Aside from spelling and vocabulary, there are certain grammar differences between British and American English. For instance, in American English, collective nouns are considered singular (e.g. The band is playing). In contrast, collective nouns can be either singular or plural in British English, although the plural form is most often used (e.g. The band are playing).
The British are also more likely to use formal speech, such as ‘shall’, whereas Americans favour the more informal ‘will’ or ‘should’.
Americans, however, continue to use ‘gotten’ as the past participle of ‘get’, which the British have long since dropped in favour of ‘got’.
‘Needn’t’, which is commonly used in British English, is rarely, if at all used in American English. In its place is ‘don’t need to’.
In British English, ‘at’ is the preposition in relation to time and place. However, in American English, ‘on’ is used instead of the former and ‘in’ for the latter.
While there may be certain differences between British and American English, the key takeaway is that the two have more similarities. Accidentally using one instead of the other will not automatically lead to miscommunication. Americans and Brits can usually communicate with each other without too much difficulty, so don’t be too hard on yourself if you are unable to memorise the nuances of both languages.