Why and how do British English and American English differ?
As a linguist, the evolution of language fascinates me. During my undergraduate studies, I got to feed this interest by exploring questions such as, ‘Why do we speak English?’, ‘How do dialects and accents develop?’ and the question behind today’s blog post: ‘Why is British English different to American English?’
First, a tiny bit of history …
The English language was first introduced to North America in the 17th Century when the British first established the colony of Jamestown, Virginia. However, the language was not officially standardised until 1828 when a man called Noah Webster published the American Dictionary of the English Language. In a deliberate attempt to promote cultural independence and national unity, it was Webster, himself, who introduced many of the spelling variations we know today. Over the years, cultural and geographical factors have also contributed to variations in the evolution of both styles of English.
Does it really matter?
For the most part, Americans and Brits really don’t have any difficulty understanding each other. Although an American asking for ‘suspenders’ or ‘pants’ in a UK department store might be surprised when they don’t get shown to the braces and trousers section they were expecting! Shopping faux pas aside, American English and British English are both, generally, understood perfectly well on both sides of the Atlantic. However, if you are a British writer penning a text for US readers (or vice versa), you may want to invest some time in familiarising yourself with some of the nuances of the English language on the other side of the pond. An unfamiliar term can break the flow of the text for your reader. And if you’re writing for a publisher or a client, they are likely going to expect the English you use to be in the standard style for their country.
The linguistic differences can be broken down into 3 main areas: spelling, punctuation and vocabulary.
Many words sound the same but are spelled differently. Common variations include ou and o (e.g. colour vs color), and the suffixes -ise and -ize (e.g. organise vs organise), -se and -ce (licence vs license) and -er vs -re (center vs centre). In the medical world, terms containing an ‘ae’ in British English, such as anaemia and caesarean, are spelled with an ‘e’ in their US counterparts (anemia and cesearean).
However, it’s important to remember that these are not hard and fast rules. For example, advertise, advise and compromise are spelled the same in both the UK and US. And although defence is spelled differently (defense in American English), fence is the same in both. Still, having a good understanding of where the most common differences lie can help identify potential pitfalls to look out for.
Punctuation can be a contentious issue at the best of times, and in many instances it’s not a case of right or wrong but more a question of stylistic differences.
Take, for example, the serial (also known as the Oxford) comma. In US English it is standard practice to add an extra comma before the final item of a list, unlike the usual British convention:
oranges, apples, and pears (American)
oranges, apples and pears (British)
Another difference is the use of the em rule (or em dash in US English). The em rule looks like this (—) and doesn’t feature so much in British English, where the slightly shorter en rule is favoured (–):
It’s pizza for dinner—my favourite! (American)
It’s pizza for dinner – my favourite! (British)
Note that the en rule is enclosed with a single space either side, whereas the em rule is not.
These are just a couple of examples. There are also differences in the use of quotation marks, full points and colons.
With globalisation affecting language use across the world (no doubt largely due to social media, YouTube and Netflix), words from British and American English are becoming increasingly inter-changeable. Most of the time either version will be understood by the other, but using the native terminology will sound more authentic and relatable to your target reader. Many of the differences that immediately come to mind relate to food: think candy rather than sweets, egg plant instead of aubergine and cilantro in place of coriander.
And then there are words that are used by both but have separate meanings: chips mean crisps in the US (fish with a side of cheese and onion anyone?); pavement means road surface in America, which, if confused, could cause some serious Highway Code violations; and of course, not forgetting, pants mean trousers in America.
Writer or editor for a transatlantic readership? You can download my FREE printable guide to British and American English spelling here or by visiting the Resources page on my website.
Leith, D. and Seargeant, P. (2012) A colonial language. In Seargeant, P. and Swann, J. (eds.) English in the World: History, Diversity, Change, pp. 101−150. Abingdon: Routledge.
New Oxford Style Manual (2016) Oxford: Oxford University Press