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  • Galina Blankenship

Separated by a Common Language: British vs. American English (Usage)

Updated: Jul 11




A painting of two young girls picking cotton in a field.
The Cotton Pickers by Winslow Homer

VERBS



1. Linking Verb + Noun Phrase

The British can use a noun or a noun phrase directly after such linking verbs as appear, seem, look, sound, or feel.


Mainly BrE: It looks a lovely evening.
She seemed (to be) a competent pilot.
I felt a fool.

The Americans, however, add like after such linking verbs.


AmE: It looks like a lovely evening.
She seemed like a competent pilot.
I felt like a fool.
 
2. Do for an Action

The British sometimes add do when referring to an action already mentioned (in an elliptical construction).


BrE: He practises the piano, but not as often as he should (do).
You should reply if you haven't (done) already.

This usage is not found in American English.


AmE: He practices the piano, but not as often as he should.
You should reply if you haven't yet.

However, both British and Americans use do so.


BrE/AmE: You should reply if you haven't done so already.
 
3. Emphatic Do

The British can use do to emphasize an offer or invitation in the imperative form.


BrE: (Do) have a glass of wine.

This usage is less common in American English.


AmE: Have a glass of wine.

Americans also avoid the emphatic Do let's... and the negative Don't let's...


BrE/AmE: Let's not invite them.
BrE only: Don't let's invite them.

 
4. Question Tags

Americans use tags much less often than the British. The British may use them several times in a conversation, which would sound strange to an American.


Americans use tags when they expect agreement. They do not often use them to persuade or argue, as Brits do.


BrE/AmE: Mary likes ice-cream, doesn't she?
BrE only: You'll just have to try harder, won't you?

Americans often use the tags right? and OK?


Mainly AmE: You're going to meet me, right?
We'll take the car, OK?
 
5. Have, have got, and have gotten

In BrE, have got or have can be used for possession and have got to and have to can be used for the modal of necessity. The forms that include got are usually used in informal contexts and the forms without got in contexts that are more formal.


In AmE speech, the form without got is used more than in the UK, although the form with got is often used for emphasis.


Colloquial AmE informally uses got as a finite verb for these meanings—for example, I got two cars, I got to go.


a) possession (have):
  • Have and have got in declarative statements:

BrE: I've got / I have some money.
AmE (spoken): I've got some money.
AmE (written): I have some money.

  • Negatives and questions with have and have got:

BrE/AmE: We don't have much time. Do you have enough money?
Mainly BrE: We haven't got much time. Have you got enough money?
BrE only: We haven't much time. Have you enough money?

b) modal necessity (must):
  • Negatives and questions with have to and have got to:

BrE/AmE: You don't have to go. ⟹ Do you have to go?
BrE only: You haven't got to go. ⟹ Have you got to go?

c) possession, being, action
  • Got and gotten: BrE does NOT use the verb form gotten, save for its past participle form that is used in some idiomatic expressions such as ill-gotten gains. In both BrE and AmE, gotten is used to express possession. In AmE, gotten can also express being and action (find, make).

BrE: He's got a new job. (= He has a new job.)
Your driving has got better. (= It has become better.)

AmE: He's got a new job. (= He has a new job.)
Your driving has gotten better. (= It has become better.)
He's gotten a new job. (= He has found a new job.)
He's gotten a lot money lately. (= He has made a lot of money lately.)

d) causative aspect (make smb. do smth.):
  • Get smb. to do smth. and have smb. do smth.:

BrE/AmE: We got the waiter to bring another bottle.
Mainly AmE: We had the waiter bring another bottle.
 
6. Present Perfect and Past Simple

Both the British and the Americans use the present perfect for something in the past that is seen as related to the present, especially with the adverbs just, already, yet, never, and ever.


BrE/AmE: I've just met an old friend.
Dave has already eaten his lunch.
Have you ever seen St Paul's Cathedral?
I've never had a passport.

The Americans, however, prefer the past simple in such contexts, especially with ever and never.


Mainly AmE: I just met an old friend.
Dave already ate his lunch.
Did you ever see the Empire State Building?
I never had a passport.
 
7. Will and Shall

The British use will or shall in the first person. Americans do not often use 1st-person shall.


BrE: We will/shall contact you.
AmE: We will contact you.

The British use shall in offers, but Americans prefer should.


Mainly BrE: Shall I meet you at the entrance?
Mainly AmE: Should I meet you at the entrance?

The British can also use Shall we...? in suggestions.


Mainly BrE: Shall we go for a walk?

Americans do not normally use shall in suggestions.


Mainly AmE: How about a walk?
Would you like to take/have a walk?
 
8. Need and Dare

Need and dare can be ordinary verbs. The British can also use them as modal verbs.


BrE/AmE: He doesn't need to see the inspector. Do we dare to ask?
Mainly BrE: He needn't see the inspector. Dare we ask?
 
9. Can't and Mustn't

In both BrE and AmE, must may be used to mean that something is necessarily true: e.g., If he says so, it must be true. The negative is can't. Americans can also use mustn't.


BrE/AmE: There's no reply. They can't be home.
AmE only: There's no reply. They mustn't be home.
 
10. Learned and Learnt

Some verbs have both regular and irregular forms: learned or learnt, dreamed or dreamt, etc. The irregular forms are not very usual in America. The British say dreamed or dreamt; the Americans say dreamed.


The verbs dive and fit are regular in Britain, but they can be irregular in America.


BrE/AmE: dive — dived — dived fit — fitted — fitted
AmE only: dive — dove — dived fit — fit — fit

Note: Fit is irregular in America only when it means be the right size.


BrE: The suit fitted him very well.
AmE: The suit fit him very well.

It is always regular when it means make something the right size or put something in the right place.


BrE/AmE: The tailor fitted him with a new suit.
 
11. The Subjunctive

We can use expressions like I prefer that..., I suggest that ..., or It's important that ... (that-clause) to talk about what we want to happen. The British normally use the present simple or should in such contexts, and style-wise it is formal. Americans use it more often.


Mainly BrE: My parents prefer that my brother lives / should live at home.
Tim’s parents have suggested that he gets a job / that he should get a job.
It's important that everything goes / should go according to plan.
Mainly AmE: My parents prefer that my brother live at home.
Tim's parents have suggested that he get a job.
It’s important that everything go according to plan.


 

Nouns Phrases


1. Group Nouns

The British can use a singular or a plural verb after a group noun.


BrE: The committee needs / need more time.
Holland isn't / aren't going to win.

The Americans prefer a singular verb.


AmE: The committee needs / need more time.

After a name, the Americans always use a singular verb.


AmE: Holland isn't going to win.
 
2. Two Nouns Together

When we use two nouns together, the first is not normally plural: a grocery store, a word processor. There are some exceptions in British, even though Americans may prefer to use a singular noun.


BrE: a careers adviser
an antique / antiques dealer
AmE: a career counsellor
an antique dealer
 
3. The with Musical Instruments

The British use the with a musical instrument (play the piano), but Americans sometimes leave it out (play piano).

 
4. The with Hospital and University

The British talk about a patient in hospital and a student at (the) university.

Americans say that someone is in the hospital or at the university.

 
5. This and That on the Telephone

People in both countries say This is... to say who they are, but usage is different when they ask who the other person is.


BrE: Who is that?
Mainly AmE: Who is this?
 
6. One

Americans do not often use one meaning people in general and they do not use one's or oneself.


BrE: One must consider one's legal position.
AmE: You must consider your legal position.

People must consider their legal position.

 
7. Numbers

The British use and between hundred and the rest of a number, but Americans can leave it out.


BrE/AmE: two hundred and fifty
AmE only: two hundred fifty
 
8. Dates

There are a number of different ways of saying and writing dates.


Americans often say July fourth.

In Britain, the fourth of July and July the fourth are the most usual.



 


Adjectives and Adverbs


1. Well, ill, etc.

The adjectives well, fine, ill, and unwell referring to health usually come in predicative position.


BrE/AmE: Our secretary is ill.

But they can be attributive, especially in America.

Mainly AmE: An ill man

Note: Sick and healthy can go in both positions. In Britain, to be sick means to vomit, to bring up food.

BrE: Trevor's daughter was sick all over the carpet.

In informal speech we can sometimes use an adjective form instead of an adverb. Americans do this more than the British.


BrE/AmE: That was really nice of her.
It certainly is raining.
Mainly AmE: That was real nice of her.
It sure is raining.
 
2. Somewhere and someplace

In informal American English everyplace, someplace and no place can be used as well as everywhere, somewhere, and nowhere.


BrE/AmE: Let's go out somewhere.
AmE only: Let's go out someplace.
 
3. Immediately

Americans do not use immediately as a conjunction.


BrE/AmE: As soon as I saw him, I recognized him.
BrE only: Immediately I saw him, I recognized him.


 

Prepositions


1. Out (of) and round/around

The British normally say look out of the window, although look out the window is possible in informal speech. Americans prefer look out the window.


The British say either round the park or around the park. Americans prefer around the park.

 
2. Except for and aside from

Where the British use except for, Americans can also use aside from.


BrE/AmE: I'm all right now, except for a headache.
AmE only: I'm all right now, aside from a headache.
 
3. Through and till/until

Americans can use through for the time when something finishes.


AmE: They will stay in New York (from January) through April.
BrE/AmE: They will stay in London (from January) till/until April.

With through April, the time includes the whole of April.

With until April, they may leave before the end of April.


We can also express the meaning of through like this.


BrE/AmE: They will stay in London until the end of April.

In British English we can also use inclusive. This is rather formal.


Mainly BrE: Monday to Friday inclusive
AmE only: Monday through Friday
 
4. With different

BrE: Your room is different from/to ours.
AmE: Your room is different from/than ours.
 
5. Other Idiomatic Uses

British American

in Oxford Street on Fifth Avenue
at the weekend / at weekends on the weekend / on weekends
a player in the team a player on the team
twenty (minutes) past ten twenty (minutes) past / after ten
ten (minutes) to three ten (minutes) to / of three
write to someone write someone / write to someone
visit someone visit someone / visit with someone
talk to someone talk to / with someone
protest about / against something protest something / about / against something

 

Conjunctions


1. Go / Come and...

Americans can leave out and from this pattern.


BrE/AmE: Go and take a look outside.
Mainly AmE: Go take a look outside.
 
2. In case and lest

When the British use in case meaning because something might happen, Americans use so or lest, with the latter being more formal.


Mainly BrE: Go quietly in case anyone hears you.
BrE/AmE: Go quietly so no one can hear you.
Mainly AmE: Go quietly lest anyone hear you. (formal).

In America, in case often means if.


AmE: If you need / In case you need any help, let me know.