• Galina Blankenship

Separated by a Common Language: British vs. American English (Grammar and Usage: Part 1)

Updated: Jan 14

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English? Who needs that? I’m never going to England! — Homer Simpson

Image of U.S. flag and U.K. flag

Grammar and Usage: Part 1

In grammar and syntax, the U.S. English and the U.K. English are very similar. Not least because the influence of the U.S. English on the U.K. English is constantly growing—through films, television, pop music, the internet, and so on. It is probably safe to expect that even the contrasts shown here are likely, if not to disappear, at least to diminish in importance.

Examples of the main differences between the two variants are listed below. It should be noted that, in many of the following cases, two (or more) different forms are possible in one variety of English, with the first one being the most common.

1) Irregular Verbs:

A number of verbs can be either regular or irregular in the Past Simple. However, in the U.S. and in the U.K., the forms most commonly used are not the same. Generally speaking, the regular form is usually preferred in the U.S. English, whereas the irregular form tends to be preserved in the U.K. English.

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The verbs fit, quit, and wet are regular in the U.K. English—but not in the U.S. English. In the case of quit and wet, however, American usage is now well on its way to replacing British.

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In the U.S. English, the past participle of get is either gotten or got, except in the structure have got, used as an alternative to have, which is the same as in the U.K. English.

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2) Use of Past Simple and Present Perfect Tenses:

In the U.S. English, these two tenses are often interchangeable in conditions where only the Present Perfect can be used in the U.K. English. For instance, when an action in the past has a result now (as in the first example below), the Present Perfect is normally employed.

Other typical cases are with words like just, already, and yet, as well as with ever and never referring to a period of time that continues until now.

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3) Auxiliary and Modal Verbs:

In the U.K. English, shall and its contracted negative shan’t can be substituted by will, indicating the future, when used with the pronouns I and we. In the U.S. English, shall is unusual, except for legal documents. Where shall is used in the U.K. to ask for advice, should is employed in the United States.

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In both varieties of English, it is possible to use can and could with verbs of perception, i.e., see, hear, feel, smell, and taste, but this practice is much more common in the U.K. English.

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In the U.K. English, needn’t is often substituted for dont need to. However, in the U.S., the use of neednt is unusual.

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In subjunctive constructions, after such verbs as suggest, recommend, demand, insist, etc., should is often used in the U.K. English. In the U.S. English, this is unusual.

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In the U.K. English, but not the U.S. English, do can be used alone as a substitute verb after an auxiliary verb. In such cases, the auxiliary verb is stressed.

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4) Expressions with “Have” and “Take”:

In a small number of expressions, the U.K. English prefers have to the U.S. English take.

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5) Position of Adverbs:

Certain adverbs, known as mid-position adverbs (sometimes, always, never, often, definitely, certainly, etc.) are usually placed after auxiliary verbs and before other verbs: e.g., He has certainly done it.

However, when we wish to emphasize the auxiliary verb, we put most mid-position adverbs before it instead of after: He certainly has done it. In the U.K. English, this second construction is always emphatic.

In the U.S. English, however, the adverb is frequently placed before the auxiliary, even when there is no intent to emphasize

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6) Use of “Real” as an Intensifier:

In informal U.S. English, real is often used before adjectives and adverbs where the U.K. English insists on really.

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7) Collective Nouns:

In the U.K. English, collective nouns like government, staff, committee, company, firm, audience, family, team, etc., can take either a singular or a plural verb. In the U.S. English, such nouns usually take a singular verb. The same is true of certain proper nouns: for example, the names of countries or companies.

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8) Prepositions:

The use of prepositions occasionally varies, especially in adverbial expressions. When a preposition is used in one variety of English but not in the other, this is signified by (-). Here are some well-known examples:

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9) Use of “One”:

The pronoun one, used to talk about people in general, including the speaker and the listener, is much less used in the U.S. than in U.K.

When it is used in the U.S. English, however, he, him, and his are generally used later in a sentence to refer back to it, where the U.K. English would continue to use one or the possessive one’s.

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10) Other Grammatical and Usage Differences:

  • Hyphens: Hyphens are often used in the U.K. English to connect prefixes with the main word: e.g., pre-emption, pre-trial, co-operation. They are less common in the U.S. English: e.g., preemption, pretrial, cooperation.

  • Suffixes -eable or -able: The silent -e-, produced when forming some adjectives with a suffix is generally used in the U.K. English in such words as likeable, unshakeable, and ageing. In the U.S. English, it is generally left out: likable, unshakable, and aging. The -e- is, however, sometimes used in the U.S. English where it affects the sound of the preceding consonant: traceable or manageable.

  • Directional suffix -ward(s): British forwards, towards, rightwards, etc., contrasts with American forward, toward, rightward.

  • While or whilst: Both while and whilst are used in the U.K. English. In the U.S. English, while is the right word to use, and whilst is regarded as a pretentious affectation.

  • Spelling a word aloud: When spelling a word aloud that has two consecutive identical letters, most Britons will use the word double. For example, to spell canned, Britons will say “c-a-double n-e-d.” Most Americans, however, will pronounce each letter separately: “c-a-n-n-e-d.”

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