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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)

  • American English and British English are broadly the same when using future forms, as both use ‘going to’ and ‘will’.
    ‘Shall’ and ‘shan’t’, however, are exclusively British and in American English would be replaced with ‘going to’ and ‘not going to’. Also, ‘gonna’ is more typical in American English as a colloquial contraction of ‘going to’.
    Would anyone else like to share some differences between American and British English not mentioned in the article?

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  • Thank you for the article. As a non-native speaker teacher of English, I was wondering whether there are any differences in the use of Future forms (going to vs. will or Present Continuous vs. going to, etc.) in both varieties. Thank you.

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  • Although it's good to have a summary of the differences, the article is a bit too generalised: the "British English" referred to isn't, in fact, but it is English English (a further subset of British English). For example, Scottish courts (using a very high register) use the verdict "not proven", while in everyday speech in Scotland "I might do" would NOT do as an answer to "Are you coming with us?". Scottish English is, however, very definitely British English.

    Howeve, the real difference in English grammar and usages like this is between US English and the rest - with Canada occupying something of a middle ground. Using the simple past instead of the present perfect form, in particular, removes some of the meaning of statements, and so would be thought of as an incomplete expression by most non-US speakers.

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  • Canadian English tends to be a 'melange' of the two varieties listed above. I teach a TOEFL(Am. Eng.) / IELTS (Br. Aus. Eng.) Preparation course where this issue comes up, but usually as a curiosity. My students need to know the differences exist but do not need to learn the variations. I think it would be confusing to teach these differences at lower levels, but I think it is useful to have this kind of chart as a reference for students. Cheers.

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  • This article seems to have been written by a Brit. Either that, or my particular variety of American English is atypical. I would never, ever say "I can't find my keys. Did you see them anywhere?" or "No, I didn't read that book yet."

    I work with British books in Spain and do find that for children and adult elementary level classes, explaining the difference between American and British English is overwhelming, so I try to use the forms the book uses. If I tried to explain all the differences, that would be 3 or more mini-lectures on details of the language that aren't appropriate to their level.

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  • As an American English teacher living in Spain and working with British English speakers, it's great to confirm differences I've noticed and reaffirm what I've told my students about those differences! It will also help me when I get confused reading things I'm not used to seeing...my students aren't wrong, I just haven't learned the British alternative!

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  • This is a very informative article.

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  • A very useful explanation of the common differences between the two. Might be useful to note that should students wish to study in a UK university, they will be expected to write using British English conventions. I should imagine the same was true for American universities.

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