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Differences in American and British English grammar - article

Type: Reference material

An article by Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield on recognizing grammatical differences between American and British English.

Introduction

Speakers of American English generally use the present perfect tense (have/has + past participle) far less than speakers of British English. In spoken American English, it is very common to use the simple past tense as an alternative in situations where the present perfect would usually have been used in British English. The two situations where this is especially likely are: 

1. In sentences which talk about an action in the past that has an effect in the present:

American English (AmE) / British English (BrE)

  • Jenny feels ill. She ate too much. (AmE)
  • Jenny feels ill. She's eaten too much. (BrE)
  • I can't find my keys. Did you see them anywhere? (AmE)
  • I can't find my keys. Have you seen them anywhere? (BrE)

2. In sentences which contain the words already, just or yet:

American English / British English

  • A: Are they going to the show tonight? 
  • B: No. They already saw it. (AmE)
  • A: Are they going to the show tonight?
  • B: No. They've already seen it. (BrE)
  • A: Is Samantha here?
  • B: No, she just left. (AmE)
  • A: Is Samantha here?
  • B: No, she's just left. (BrE)
  • A: Can I borrow your book?
  • B: No, I didn't read it yet. (AmE)
  • A: Can I borrow your book?
  • B: No, I haven't read it yet. (BrE)

Verb agreement with collective nouns

In British English, collective nouns, (i.e. nouns referring to particular groups of people or things), (e.g. staff, government, class, team) can be followed by a singular or plural verb depending on whether the group is thought of as one idea, or as many individuals, e.g.

My team is winning.
The other team are all sitting down.

In American English, collective nouns are always followed by a singular verb, so an American would usually say:

Which team is losing?

whereas in British English both plural and singular forms of the verb are possible, as in:

Which team is/are losing?

Use of delexical verbs have and take

In British English, the verb have frequently functions as what is technically referred to as a delexical verb, i.e. it is used in contexts where it has very little meaning in itself but occurs with an object noun which describes an action, e.g.

I'd like to have a bath.

Have is frequently used in this way with nouns referring to common activities such as washing or resting, e.g.

She's having a little nap.
I'll just have a quick shower before we go out.

In American English, the verb take, rather than have, is used in these contexts, e.g.

Joe's taking a shower.
I'd like to take a bath.
Let's take a short vacation.
Why don't you take a rest now?

Use of auxiliaries and modals

In British English, the auxiliary do is often used as a substitute for a verb when replying to a question, e.g.

  • A: Are you coming with us?
  • B: I might do.

In American English, do is not used in this way, e.g.

  • A: Are you coming with us?
  • B: I might.

In British English, needn't is often used instead of don't need to, e.g.

They needn't come to school today.
They don't need to come to school today.

In American English, needn't is very unusual and the usual form is don't need to, e.g.

They don't need to come to school today.

In British English, shall is sometimes used as an alternative to will to talk about the future, e.g.

I shall/will be there later.

In American English, shall is unusual and will is normally used.

In British English, shall I/we is often used to ask for advice or an opinion, e.g.

Shall we ask him to come with us?

In American English, should is often used instead of shall, e.g.

Should we ask him to come with us?

Use of prepositions

In British English, at is used with many time expressions, e.g.

at Christmas/five 'o' clock
at the weekend

In American English, on is always used when talking about the weekend, not at, e.g.

Will they still be there on the weekend?
She'll be coming home on weekends.

In British English, at is often used when talking about universities or other institutions, e.g.

She studied chemistry at university.

In American English, in is often used, e.g.

She studied French in high school.

In British English, to and from are used with the adjective different, e.g.

This place is different from/to anything I've seen before.

In American English from and than are used with different, e.g.

This place is different from/than anything I've seen before.

In British English, to is always used after the verb write, e.g.

I promised to write to her every day.

In American English, to can be omitted after write, i.e.

I promised to write her every day.

Past tense forms

Below is a table showing verbs which have different simple past and past participle forms in American and British English. Note that the irregular past forms burnt, dreamt and spoilt are possible in American English, but less common than the forms ending in -ed.

InfinitiveSimple past
(Br)
Simple past
(Am)
Past participle
(Br)
Past participle
(Am)
burnburned/
burnt
burned/
burnt
burned/
burnt
burned/
burnt
bustbustbustedbustbusted
divediveddove/
dived
diveddived
dreamdreamed/
dreamt
dreamed/
dreamt
dreamed/
dreamt
dreamed/
dreamt
getgotgotgotgotten
leanleaned/
leant
leanedleaned/
leant
leaned
learnlearned/
learnt
learnedlearned/
learnt
learned
pleadpleadedpleaded/
pled
pleadedpleaded/
pled
proveprovedprovedprovedproved/
proven
sawsawedsawedsawnsawn/
sawed
smellsmelled/
smelt
smelledsmelled/
smelt
smelled
spillspilled/
spilt
spilledspilled/
spilt
spilled
spoilspoiled/
spoilt
spoiled/
spoilt
spoiled/
spoilt
spoiled/
spoilt
stinkstankstank/
stunk
stunkstunk
wakewokewoke/
waked
wokenwoken


Note
that have got is possible in American English, but is used with the meaning 'have', and gotten is the usual past participle of get.

Implications for teaching

The two major varieties of English

The two varieties of English most widely found in print and taught around the world are British and American – it is, therefore, important for teachers to be aware of the major differences between the two. And while lexical differences are the easiest ones to notice, a knowledge of grammatical and phonological differences can be useful not only for teachers to be aware of, but also to be able to deal with should they come up in class.

Which is better?

An important point to make is that different doesn’t mean wrong. Comments such as “American English is inferior to British English”, or “American English is better than British English” have no solid basis other than the speaker’s opinion. The truth is that no language or regional variety of language is inherently better or worse than another. They are just different. Students will often have very firm beliefs on which English they think is better, clearer or easier to understand. While it may be true for that particular individual, there is no evidence to suggest that one variety is easier to learn or understand than the other.

Materials and varieties

If you are an American English speaker teaching with a British coursebook or vice versa, what do you say when the book is different from your English? The answer here is to point out the difference. The differences are not so numerous as to overload the students and often can be easily dealt with. For example, if you are an American English speaker using a lesson that has just included 'at the weekend', it takes very little time to point out that in American English people say “on the weekend”. Accept either from your students then. If you decide to go along with the book and say “at the weekend” yourself, you’ll probably sound unnatural, and “on the weekend” might slip out anyway!

Exams and essay writing

In most international exams, both varieties of English are accepted. However, while writing for an international exam (or writing in English generally) students should try to remain consistent. That means if they favour (or favor) American spelling and grammar, they should stick to that convention for the whole piece of writing.

What role do other varieties of English have in the classroom?

Although British and American varieties are the most documented, there are of course many other varieties of English. Scotland, Ireland, South Asia, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, West Africa, the Caribbean, South Africa all have their own regional variations of English. The decision whether or not to highlight aspects of these Englishes would depend on two factors:

  • if the students are going to live, or are already living, in one of these places – in which case the need to understand specific aspects of that English is clear; or
  • if the teacher is from one of those places and therefore speaks a regional variation of English. In this case, it could be useful to occasionally point out differences between your English and that of your coursebook.

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Readers' comments (58)

  • As a Brit, to me the American expression "lucked out" suggests ill fortune as the particle "out" tends to be negative, e.g. miss out, fall out, run out...

    Regarding verb agreement with collective nouns, in Britain when referring to a specific team we use the plural. To say e.g. "Liverpool is playing Newcastle" sounds unnatural, although it seems to be creeping into newspaper reports, maybe due to the influence exerted by American companies taking over English football clubs.

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  • Hello Tyke,

    Thank you very much for your comments, it's good to hear our reader's thoughts on this topic.

    Best wishes,

    The onestopenglish team

  • Great post

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  • Hello Anonymous,

    Language is a constantly evolving and changing creature, especially in its spoken form. Whilst not grammatically correct, you will hear people all over the world (including in the UK!) speak using forms that are grammatically wrong. It is a good idea to remind students that while learning grammar is a good thing (it aids understanding), in real life even native speakers brake the rules sometimes. For instance, in the example you gave above, ('I seen my father') the 'have' is left out by the speaker because it makes the sentence shorter and it is (unconsciously) assumed by the speaker that the listener will understand the sentence without it (due to the use of the third form 'seen'). However, it is still grammatically incorrect. Examples of such forms are found throughout the UK depending on the speaker's accent.

    Hope this helps.

    Best wishes and happy teaching!

    The onestopenglish team

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  • I'm an American and my British friend uses phrases that seem grammatically incorrect to me.

    For example, he would say, "I seen my father" (rather than, "I have seen my father" or "I saw my father"). Is this correct in British English?

    I've also noticed that he uses the article "a" in front of nouns that begin with a vowel/vowel sound, for example, he would say, "I ate a apple" (rather than "I ate an apple"). Is this correct in British English?

    Thanks so much for your guidance!

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  • About the comment on 24th March, I should say that 'saw' is a different verb, with a different meaning: it's a homograph of the past form of 'see'.

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  • Hello Anonymous,

    Thank you very much for your feedback, we are glad you are so pleased with this article. The reason 'saw' is listed as the infinitive in the past tense section is because in American English, the third form of the verb (in this case 'seen') is rarely used.

    Best wishes and happy teaching!

    The onestopenglish team

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  • This is a great article. Students often ask about the differences between the two major varieties of English, and this is a fine summary of them. But your past tense section lists "saw" as an infinitive?

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  • Hello NYCDavid,

    Thank you very much for your detailed feedback on this point. It certainly is a hot topic! Whilst we acknowledge that there is often more than one common variant of a grammar rule, in this case we have to go with the majority opinion based on our research (including US colleagues). However, English is an ever-evolving language and this may change in the future.

    What do other onestopenglish users think?

    Best wishes and happy teaching,

    The onestopenglish team

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  • I'm a well-read, Ivy-League-educated American with a law degree, and I can say definitively that Americans do not use the term "on the weekend as in the example give above, "Will they still be there on the weekend?" That example is incorrect.

    In American English, "on the weekend" normally means precisely the same thing as "on weekends," as in "I go to bed early during the week, and I stay out late on the weekend," (which an American might indeed say). An American might also say "on the weekend" to refer to weekends generally, as a concept, as in "I am sorry to make you work on the weekend," (although "on a weekend" might possibly be more common in this context). I have never, ever heard a native speaker of American English say "on the weekend" to refer to one particular upcoming weekend.

    I don't know what people say in the UK, but to refer specifically to the upcoming weekend, an American would most typically say "this weekend." So, in the example above, an American might say, "Will they still be there this weekend?" An American might also refer to any specific weekend by saying "over the weekend" as in "Will they still be there over the weekend."

    We native American English speakers also might refer to an entire weekend by saying "for the weekend", as in "I'm going out of town for the weekend." But an American would NOT typically say, "I'm seeing a movie for the weekend," because that would imply that the activity is taking up the whole weekend. In that case, an American would say, "I'm seeing a movie this weekend," or "I'm seeing a movie over the weekend." I suppose it's possible that an American speaker might say "I'm seeing a movie for the weekend" in order to foster the misleading impression that they have a full and exciting weekend coming up, but most Americans would be consider that an odd way to put it. (Of course, if it were a very long movie or a very drawn-out viewing process, such that the movie will be viewed over multiple days, then an American might indeed say "I'm seeing a movie for the weekend.")

    But, in any case, no native American speaker would ever say "I'm seeing a movie on the weekend," or "I'm going out of town on the weekend," or "Will they still be there on the weekend?" All of those would be considered to be flat-out grammatically incorrect in the United States.

    I appreciate that this same error is incorrectly propagated by no less an authority than the Cambridge University Press (publisher of the Cambridge Dictionary), which on its website publishes an article titled "British and American English" reprinted from its publication "English Grammar Today," which incorrectly states that an example of American English is "So we’ll get together and barbecue on the weekend." In spite of its pedigree, this example is also incorrect, and a native speaker of American English would not say that. We Americans would most typically say, "So we’ll get together and barbecue this weekend," but we also certainly might say "So we'll get together and barbecue over the weekend."

    I hope the authors of this otherwise excellent OneStopEnglish web page will interview some other native American speakers to confirm that what I am saying is correct, and that you will please update this web page accordingly.

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  • thanks for this iits very helpfull i am also learning from here http://englishcraze.com

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