The distinction between British English (assumed to be the BBC/Cambridge standard) and American English (based on the variety often referred to as “General American”) is widely misunderstood, even by native speakers. What can we do to understand it better?
American English is essentially a mix of the various dialects spoken upon the arrival of the English language in North America, which then moved west. As they moved west, they tended towards further convergence. There is, thus, very little geographical variation on the West Coast, whereas in the east there is a clear distinction between, for example, New England, New York, the Washington area and the South.
For a variety of reasons, there is a tendency to overplay the relevance to American English of accents from Scotland and Ireland, and to underplay to importance of dialects from England (notably the West Country). Nor is there any case for suggesting any particular dialect is more or less conservative than any other, on either side of the Atlantic.
In formal usage, with some minor spelling differences, American and British English are almost identical. In a Presidential Debate, for example, no British viewer will have any difficulty at all with linguistic comprehension.
At the other end of the scale, colloquial speech exhibits significant differences. However, this is true within North America and the British Isles as much as between them.
When people in the UK talk of American English, they generally talk in terms of “Americanisms”, i.e. words or phrases apparently borrowed into British English from American English.
In fact, the complaints often concern things which are not Americanisms at all, but general developments in English.
“Briticisms” or “Britishisms” are also found in contemporary American English, particularly on the east coast. They include:
- “go missing” (in the sense of deliberately disappear: General American “disappear”);
- “brilliant” (to mean essentially “Ok, let’s do that”: General American “Ok”, “Right”);
- “dog’s breakfast”, General American “mess, complete failure” [actually first cited in County Antrim in 1892];
- “liaise”, General American “work with”; and
- “scuppered”, General American “ruined”.
President Obama also caused a furore in the UK in early 2016 when he said the UK would “go to the back of the queue” (General American: “line”?), but in fact the term is not unknown in the United States and indeed Obama himself had used it several times before.
In fact, vocabulary is rarely a clear-cut difference. For example, Americans “mail” a letter using the “United States Postal Service”, whereas the British “post” a letter using the “Royal Mail”. In many instances, apparently different words are simply a matter of priority usage – for example, whereas Americans are more likely to use “automobile”, both Brits and Americans use “auto(mobile)” and “(motor) car” (there will be just slight differences as to when: Americans will speak of the “auto industry” rather than “car industry” but even Brits have an “Automobile Association”; where Americans have an “auto show”, Brits will in fact refer to a “motor show”).
The main differences in fact come in the idiom in use in relatively informal speech (geographical dialect differences are always most marked in colloquial usage). A few marked differences (but again there are few absolute rules) appear to be:
- Americans use more formal language in signage: “Restrooms”, “Beverages” etc. (UK “Toilets”, “Drinks”);
- Americans may prefer to refer to self, notably in instructions “At this time we are going to need you to fasten your seat belts” (UK “At this time you should fasten your seat belts);
- With certain verbs, Americans use the main verb where Brits prefer a modal: “Do you hear what I hear?” versus “Can you hear what I hear?”
- “Tags” in American are different – for example, “You were here yesterday, right?” versus more typical British “You were here yesterday, weren’t you?”
There are also some interesting more global challenges. Should Americans refer to legislatures abroad generally as “parliaments”, even though they may be called something different locally and Americans themselves do not have parliaments?
Needless to say, many American idioms have made it across the Atlantic with little awareness of their true meaning in Britain. In British English:
- things can “sell like hotcakes” even though there are no “hotcakes” (the nearest equivalent is perhaps “pancake”, although exactly what that is depends on where you are in the British Isles);
- a number can be a “ballpark figure” even though there are no “ballparks” (only “grounds” and “stadiums”), and someone can “step up to the plate” with the wrong type of “plate” being envisaged (not “envisioned”, by the way…);
- something can be “heard on the grapevine” even though this refers to a method of communication specific to the American Civil War (when the Union side used wires in trees to pass on messages which looked like “grapevines”);
- questions are “million dollar” questions, not million pound, with the specific exception of a 2000s game show!
There are also subtle but marked grammatical differences.
American English treats collective nouns as singular, whereas in recent decades British has come to prefer plural: “The committee has/have decided”. British still uses singular where no group connotation is implied: “The committee consists of nine members”.
American English simplifies conditional clauses: “If they appeared at the same location, we would surely have seen them?” versus British “If they had appeared at the same location, we would surely have seen them?”
Americans are also more willing to maintain the full “would have” as the conditional from “have” in the conditional clause itself, whereas British prefers “had” in conditional clauses reserving “would have” only for main clauses (although in colloquial speech it often ends up confused, with “had have”): “If I would have seen it, I would have acted” versus “If I had seen it, I would have acted”.
Conversely, American is stricter about the use of the present subjunctive: “It is essential these matters be attended to” versus “It is essential these matters are attended to”.
American also prefers the preterite for immediate past action, where British uses the perfect: “What did you just do?” versus “What have you just done?”
American often also refers back to a whole noun phrase: “I knew if I missed that putt, I was out of the golf tournament” versus “I knew if I missed that putt, I was out of the tournament”.
There are some verb forms which differ too, at least in general. American has irregularised “dive-dove-dived” by partial analogy with “drive-drove-driven” (British retains “dive-dived-dived”). Conversely American has fully regularised “dream-dreamed-dreamed”, “learn-learned-learned” and similar where British allows “dreamt” and “learnt”. (With that latter, there is a subtle difference in meaning too – Americans often use “learn” where Brits use “find out”).
An interesting question is how significant is the distinction between American versus British English versus other New World versus Old World varieties? Of course, the answer to this is subjective. In order, I would suggest the distinctions are as follows:
- Brazilian versus European Portuguese (most distinct): there are marked differences in basic pronunciation and fundamental aspects of grammar, as well as some spelling and vocabulary;
- Quebec versus European French: there are marked differences in certain areas of pronunciation as well as vocabulary (but less so in grammar and scarcely at all in spelling);
- Latin American versus Peninsular Spanish: this is much harder to judge as there are significant variations within Latin American Spanish (indeed, the very notion that there is such a thing as “Latin American Spanish” is dubious) – notably, the Spanish of the Southern Cone (Argentina, Chile and Uruguay) has a markedly different intonation and significant grammatical differences versus that of central Spain, but those are perhaps the extremes;
- American versus British English: despite spelling differences and some noteworthy variations in vocabulary, in fact American and British English may be the closest – but it is subjective!
In some ways German German versus Austrian German also exhibit as many spelling, vocabulary and grammatical differences as British versus American English, for various historical reasons.