What are the biggest differences between American English and British English?

What are the biggest differences between American English and British English?


As you probably know, there is a difference between British and American English. In fact, Oscar Wilde, the famous Irish writer, even commented in 1888: "We have virtually everything in common with America today, except of course language." Although he of course exaggerated this, there is still some truth in it almost a century and a half later. In recent decades, the two cultures have become even more closely intertwined. Due to all the international companies and the increasingly interdependent economies, the street scene has grown more together and due to all the TV series, films and the rise of the internet, people often refer to 'the West' rather than specifically to British or American culture. The two language variants, on the other hand, are still moving apart (in some areas).

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Difference American and English English

It may look a little odd, English English. Yet it is not a mistake. Whereas we often distinguish between American and British English, there is much more language variation within Great Britain. For example, there you have Scottish English, (Northern) Irish English, Welsh English and, strictly speaking, even variations within England! So for the sake of convenience, we are talking about the difference between British and American English, but that is already a considerable simplification. Indeed, usually British English according to the Oxford writing guidelines is meant.

So what is the main difference between British and American English?

The most obvious answer is spelling. This is of course a very important one for us as English translation agency, because when we deliver a translation, there should be no spelling errors in it! For example, many people who have had to deal with this difference themselves will say that the British stick to trickier spelling with more letters, especially around the 'ou' instead of 'o' in words like color/color or odour/odor. Yet that is a bit simplistic, because the Americans in turn use more letters in some past participles. For example, the past participle of dreams in British English is dreamt, while an American uses dreamed. There are other differences, of course, such as in words ending in -ence/-ense or in -er/-re.

And the difference between British and American English in pronunciation?

This is actually a very interesting example of language change in action. Of course, the pronunciation once started identically, when people from Britain first settled in the (then not yet) United States. So over time, English has changed, to the point where the two variants now sound very different. But here's the special thing: according to experts, British English in particular has changed a lot, while American English sounds more like what Shakespeare knew English to sound like! By the way, this phenomenon is certainly not unique. For example, did you know that there are families of Dutch descent living in Canada and the US who speak Dutch very similar to what was spoken here in the period after World War II? They emigrated during Reconstruction and held on to "their" Dutch, while it continued to develop in the meantime.

Besides pronunciation and spelling, is there any other difference between American and British English?

Quite. Not every difference can be captured in clear rules when we talk about language. Compared to British language, American language is on average a lot more direct, for example. When an Englishman says "I wouldn't mind a drop of milk in my coffee, if you have it," it is completely clear that they would like milk in their coffee. In the US, the same request would probably be stated a lot more explicitly, such as "I'll have some milk in my coffee," and an indirect formulation like that of the British one above might even cause confusion. Such firmness is also very evident in business communications. Whereas an American manager might very confidently write "I want you to order some printer paper, yesterday!", in England that would be perceived as extremely rude. Indeed, his British colleague would rather phrase that as "Would you mind ordering some printer paper, if you happen to have a spare moment?". A world of difference, then!

Potaytoh, potahto, all far too complicated!

We completely understand if you find this too complicated. Fortunately, we have translators who are familiar with all those differences between British and American English. If you ask us for a translation into English, we will help you determine which variant you need, so that our translators can take care of the rest. So please contact us, and we will find a solution together, or request a quote right away if you already know which variant you need.

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