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Exploring the difference between British and American English

Living and working in the U.K., yet with the hugely popular influence of American culture via films and music, like many, at eSense Translations, we are aware of some of the differences between the British and the American use of the English language. In some cases, and it may be argued, particularly amongst the younger generation, this US influence has become so widespread across the media that the American use of the English language has unknowingly started to be used in place of our own British version.

In our blog this week, eSense Translations looks to highlight some of the differences between the British and American use of the English language. In writing this article, alongside informing you about these differences, the aim is to also apply this knowledge to other countries, which speak the same language, and highlight how these differences could also create problems in communication.


One of the biggest differences in the British and American use of written language is the spelling of words. Here are a few of the most common differences:

-ize / ise

e.g.        British – organise, recognise, authorise, commercialise

American – organize, recognize, authorize, commercialize


e.g.        British – centre, theatre, metre

American – center, theater, meter


e.g.        British – colour, neighbour, behaviour, favour

American – color, neighbor, behavior, favor

These are just three examples and there are numerous more that need to be identified before completing any written English. These may seem like small, subtle differences and it is true that readers from either country would be able to understand both spellings of the vocabulary. However, these spellings quickly identify the writer as either British or American and if you are writing to represent a particular brand or organisation, this identity will be important to them and effect how they target their audience. If you are creating a professional piece of writing for a client, whether it’s a translation, a blog or a press release, always check what form of English they wish their content to be written in.


There are also a number of differences in vocabulary use between the British and American use of English. These differences can cause confusion, even potentially embarrassment in some cases, therefore it is always worth being aware of them. Some examples include:

British English                                    American English

lift                                                           elevator

crisps                                                     chips

holiday                                                 vacation

trousers                                               pants

trainers                                                                sneakers

flats                                                       apartments

jumper                                                 sweater

One can normally identify the meaning of these words by the context, if used in the version of English you are not speaking, but again when speaking in a professional environment where you are looking to present a certain image, using the correct version is important.


You will also see subtle difference in grammar use between British and American English. Some examples include;

The use of the verb ‘shall’

This is quite common in British dialect. We may say, “Shall we go now?” or “Shall we drive to work?” The use of ‘shall’ is more regularly replaced with ‘should’ in American dialect, as Americans consider the use of ‘shall’ to be too formal. It is therefore more common to hear, “Should we go now?” or “Should we drive to work?”

The use of the suffixes ‘ed’ or ‘t’

British English has irregular verbs that take a different suffix to regular verbs. For example, learnt, burnt and dreamt. The American English does not have these irregular verbs, but continues with the suffix ‘ed’. These words then become learned, burned and dreamed.

This difference is one particular example of where the use of American English is becoming more common in Britain, as these spellings are now becoming more widely accepted in our language use.

The use of ‘got’ or ‘gotten’

British English has long abandoned the use of ‘gotten’ in its dialect and instead just uses ‘got’. Americans however have continued to use this verb.

For example:

British English – I have not got a letter today.

American English – I haven’t gotten a letter today.

Using the past participle ‘got’ or ‘gotten’ is more complex in American English, as they do use ‘got’ when meaning ‘must’ or ‘have’.

For example:

He’s got two cats.

He’s got to go now.


Our blog today has reviewed a few of the differences between the British and American use of English, but there are others too. You can see that speakers from either country would still be able to understand the other through use of context, but as discussed the version of choice quickly identifies the user as either British or American.

These principles apply to other languages too. For example Arabic, French and Spanish are spoken across a number of countries. Speakers from the different countries are able to communicate with one another, but there can be differences in dialect, accent and use of vocabulary and so there is the potential for misunderstanding.

When the content is written these differences are more apparent and can be more important, therefore eSense Translations advises that if you require a written translation into a certain language, always specify the location of the target audience, so that the resulting translation is as accurate and effective as possible.


By Lorna Paice

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