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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 (48)

  • And here I was thinking that it was just spelling....thanks for the enlightenment :)

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  • Another big difference is in the use of been and gone. In British English gone means you haven't returned yet whereas been means you have. That distinction is not present in American English.

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  • Today I read about onestopenglish so that I immediately registered to be in a world of helping all teachers and learners .Many thanks to you.

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  • Thank you for this article, though I do have to agree with ProfeX that Americans' use of the present perfect is more common than indicated. I am a native English speaker from the USA and I would use the present perfect in each of the examples from the article. I also believe that most Americans would use the present perfect in these examples unless they had poor English skills.

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  • I have heard onestepenglish from one of my colleagues.I think onestepenglish is very useful and helpful to both teachers and students.Thank you for your unlimited information.

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  • Thanks for the article! You've confirmed my suspicions!
    As an outsider (Australian), I noticed in Germany that my American colleagues used the simple past in many instances when I would have used the present perfect. It presents a dilemma for me in Australia, because I'm wondering if the usage of the present perfect here marks a sociolect. My ad hoc observations tell me that less formally-educated communities (rural etc) use it less than their urban university-educated counterparts (we can only speculate on the role of American television). So is it correct to teach it in the context when I would use it, or should I be teaching the simple past, in a school context where typically less than 80% of the students speak English at home, and then mostly of the 'non present perfect' variety?

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  • I'm a American English teacher and I would have to largely disagree with what you have written in terms of the differences between American and British English in regards to the present perfect vs past simple. While it is true that we might say the following:

    A: Are they going to the show tonight?
    B: No. They already saw it.

    We might also say:

    A: Are they going to the show tonight?
    B: No. They've already seen it.

    I would argue that we tend to use both versions.

    And I would also argue that it is not at all typical for us to say the following:

    A: Can I borrow your book?
    B: No, I didn't read it yet.

    I would never answer question A using the past simple "No, I didn't read it yet." and I don't think most Americans would either unless their English is poor.

    It is far more likely that we would say:

    A: Can I borrow your book?
    B: No, I haven't read it yet.

    I think the major difference is that in some cases Americans tend to use both the present perfect and the past simple, whereas British speakers tend to use only the present perfect in the cases you've presented.

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  • This article is so useful even though i am a 4th grader student , people used to ask me what is the difference between American English and British English. I am from India ... Here we use British English

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  • Extremely useful, especially the parts about tenses and prepositions.

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  • As a teacher, I'm really glad to read this. I'll share with my colleagues. It'll be usefull for checking the school tests anyway. (for student's highest benefit, of course!) some differences will no longer be considered faulty.

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