Number one for English language teachers

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:

(i) In sentences which talk about an action in the past that has an effect in the present:

American English / British English 

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

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


1. 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?


2. 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?


3. 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, i.e.:

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, i.e.:

Should we ask him to come with us?


4. 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.


5. 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', gotten is the usual past participle of get, e.g. 

American EnglishBritish English
You've got two brothers
(= you have two brothers)
You've got two brothers
You've gotten taller this yearYou've got taller this year


6. 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/easier to understand/clearer etc. 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 Anchor Point:bottomcoursebook (see point 3 above about using your own variety).

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Readers' comments (45)

  • eveab's comment is an apt one as one might expect there to be a difference between formal and informal American English. When I was collecting data on this subject in the 70s, I used a range of sources both formal and informal but, in fact, found little difference. However, I did encounter individuals (mainly teachers in Canada) who were aware of the differences and did, in fact, consider the use of the simple past in place of the present to be an error.

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  • An excellent article. However, I'm surprised that there is no list of references When I published articles on this subject in the 70s, there were few relevant references (one by Jack Richards being an exception). Surely, now, there must be many more - particularly given the thorough treatment provided in this article.

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  • I have a question. You said that that "I didn't read the book yet." is used in spoken American English. What about in written formal English, exams and newspapers articles for example? Thanks and great article!

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  • Interesting, however I'm finding it difficult to agree that the examples of differences are actually true.

    The article seems to have made distinctions that do not actually exist. I would even challenge the authority behind the claims for all points.

    In fact, the points made, regarding less than important syntactical miscellaneous differences, are for the most part inventive and refutable, generalised, ambiguous, or downright false.

    This article would be more useful if it were to confront the more practical and glaring differences between US and British grammar standards, that of punctuation - commas at the end of quotes within quotation marks, question marks within quotation marks regardless of the question mark being part of the quote or to indicate a question by the writer - that sort of thing.

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  • Thank you all for comments and feedback on this article by Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield.
    It's great for us to to see such a positive reaction to the materials that we publish and that it's sparked such an interesting debate to all you teachers out there!

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  • Hello everyone and the Onestop team!
    First of all, my compliments, again, to OSE! It is a great website, an irreplaceable resource, and just fun to go through, continuously.

    The article touches me personally. I am bilingual English/Italian, and the order the languages come is in intentional. I started to read and write in English, carried through with it all through university until I came back to Italy 21 years later to live. And of course, I teach English for a living.
    The biggest obstacle I still find is convincing people I speak ENGLISH and not CANADIAN. As far as I know, much as I love Canada, and feel profoundly Canadian, there is no such language. For obvious reasons which aren't necessarily the right ones, at least in my experience, British teachers usually have an advantage, and English teachers from other anglophone countries have to "prove" themselves worthy. Of course, this is my personal experience, but if you consider 30 years teaching history, I could say that at least where I live it's the rule. So, I just have to work harder, despite a four-page curriculum, to prove that I speak English just as well, if not better for the simple reason that I strive to use the highest level possible [I am teaching, so it's only natural to make an effort to eliminate at least the more common mistakes]. And that's not even considering the pronunciation [discussions on whether to use "pronounce" and not "pronunciate" have taken up valuable class time, as have discussions regarding tom-ah-to and tom- ai- to! ]
    The second obstacle is coming to terms with "have got". Now, I am 62 years old. I started learning English way back in 1958, from scratch you could say. Since the language used at home was Italian, I had no other influence to 'pollute' what I was learning. My memories of those first years are quite clear, for some reason, and a few rules are just neon billboards in my mind. One of them refers to the use of "have got", which was considered inappropriate in correct speech. Whenever I hear "I have got a brother...", I feel like a cat who's been stroked the wrong way! In grammar books dating earlier than 1970 [the English grammar text I used in university in the early 70's was first published in 1946!] this verbal structure isn't contemplated at all.
    I have to be honest and say that I try to avoid teaching "have got" whenever I can, perhaps explaining to higher level students the reason why this is done. But the problem arises when I'm confronted with their regular school teachers [non-native] who insist on this being "my" mistake, as they insist on considering me wrong [of course! I'm CANADIAN--I don't speak ENGLISH!!!!] when I pronounce the few differing words according to the North American fashion.
    So, after quite a few years battling with preferences, I have come to a very simple decision.....I just teach "English". My main efforts lie in making sure that I don't teach "mistakes", when an "Americanism" comes up, I simply explain and go on with my lesson.
    This is the "teacher" speaking. But the "Canadian" part of me does get a bit upset with the never ending comparison or with the sometimes idiotic comment "Ah...but you're Canadian, so you don't speak English!" No? Well, please, could you kindly tell me what language have i been speaking for the past 56 years? LOL.

    Well, I've put in my two-cents worth! Formal teaching has opened up a whole new world. For the first 20 years in Italy, I taught on a one-to-one basis. It was the simplest thing to do! It came naturally to explain the basic rules, to base them on content and context, and this I did without any training. But, when I started to teach formally, I felt the need to understand what I was doing, so I started to analyze the grammar text books, I attended quite a few training programs [a heavy investment at the time], and decided what kind of teacher I would be. The fact that I am bilingual is a great help. I know exactly why a certain rule or pronunciation is harder to learn than others, and I've made up my own little tricks to help the students along.
    This however, has spoiled me for grammar books, and this is the reason why I find websites like this one a great help! I don't know what I would have done without them!

    Again, thanks to Onestopenglish. You've spared me so much work! I know you're just going to keep getting better!

    Bianca

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  • Great information. I get let lots of new knowledge after reading that posting to know the differences between american and british. Well, I think, during studying at university most of my lecturers tend to use american, and automatically it influences me then. But then, it doesn’t mean that I consider that american is better, and easier or in contrast. In Addition, sometimes as an EFL student, I got difficulty to catch what the foreigners said when they used slang word or slang language.
    In one occasion, when I was at an american lecturer, I asked: I think your water is almost running out, she said: you mean, almost all? . the she explained that, we can say almost all for something which is almost empty, or in bahasa we can say ‘hampir habis’.

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  • I've read your article with great interest, however I think that as English is one of the most important vehicle languages , there's no great difference between American English and British one. Students should learn how to speak it without too much concern on this difference. What is important is to speak and let other people understand you.
    Rosamarsico

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  • Hello,
    Thank you for sharing this article. It's really helpful and useful. I don't think so that American English is better, but I think American English is easier than British English. After reading this article, I realize that I often mix between American English and British English in speaking.
    Well, once again, thak you for sharing this information.

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  • Sorry, Dave C. I'm from San Francisco and we use 'been' and 'gone' the same way. No difference in American English.

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