Number one for English language teachers

Differences in American and British English grammar - tips and activities

Type: Reference material

Kerry Maxwell and Lindsay Clandfield provide a selection of useful tips and ideas for recognizing grammatical differences between American and British English.

Activity: Dirty Dan

Activities in published EFL/ESL materials often present lists of words which students must classify as either American or British. These will tend to focus on lexis and spelling. To take account of grammatical differences, and present a more comprehensive activity, teachers could compare larger pieces of text and decide where they came from. Look at this sample exercise:

Scotland Yard police are looking for a famous American bank robber called Dirty Dan. Dirty Dan robbed a bank in London last Friday night. They are interviewing three different people. All three have British accents, but the police know that Dirty Dan can imitate a British accent. Read parts of each of the transcript. Can you identify Dirty Dan from the language he uses?

  • Suspect 1
    I already said this. I didn’t do anything special on the weekend. Friday night I took a shower in my apartment and then went out to see a movie. It was a movie I had already seen, Matrix Revolutions. I really like action movies. I went with my girlfriend Samantha.
  • Suspect 2
    I wasn’t in town at the weekend, and I certainly wasn’t anywhere near the bank on Friday night. I was at a hotel in Paris with a special friend of mine. Shall I give you the hotel phone number? You needn’t bother asking me any more questions. You’ve got the wrong man.
  • Suspect 3
    I’ve already said this. On Friday night I went to see a film at the cinema. It was Matrix Revolutions. I don’t really like action films, but my friends really wanted to see it. It was rather boring. After that, I went home and had a nice hot bath. I went to bed around midnight.

Activity: Varieties and standard

When looking at varieties of English, it might be useful to discuss different varieties of the students’ own language. Here are some discussion questions you could set which raise different issues about varieties and standard language:

  1. What is your native language? Where do people speak this language? What other countries use the same language that you do?
  2. When the same language exists in more than one part of the world, there are often some differences between the two languages. These are called varieties of the language. Are there any varieties of your native language?
  3. What differences in language are there in your own country? For example, do people in the capital city speak a different kind of language than people in the country?
  4. What do you think of the different varieties of your own language?
  5. Is there one standard variety of your own language? Is there one variety of your own language that people in your country dislike?
  6. If I wanted to learn your native language, would it matter what variety I learn?

Activity: Dirty Dan: Key

Suspect 1 is Dirty Dan. The American words and expressions are: already said this (British would use present perfect); on the weekend (British – at the weekend); took a shower (British – had a shower); movie (British – film).

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Readers' comments (7)

  • Ín Australian, we use British English, however there are some cases where American grammar is favoured. A good example is the preposition used with 'weekend'. In Australia, it is common to say ÓN the weekend, not AT'. eg: 'Hey mate, what are you doing on the weekend?'

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  • Hi Carolyn,

    Many thanks for your feedback. This is an interesting topic and one that we will be discussing on episode 11 of the onestopenglish podcast (which comes out in September).

    Best wishes,
    The onestopenglish team

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  • Well I'm Australian and we have our own way of speaking as well. I had one new student who has been here for two months say to me can you teach us Australian English as I don't understand people here and I thought my spoken English was ok.

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  • I think it is quite interesting teaching the differences between American and British English. I'm Canadian, so we sort of sit between the two, although in recent decades more American English than British is used in Canada, but I luckily had a few British relatives who settled in or visited Canada. We also had exposure to plenty of UK TV, so I have always felt comfortable with it, and the American variety is right next door. It's particularly interesting to base lessons on the differences when, like me, you live in Asia--where you are physically detached from both places; in Europe, America would seem more exotic than the UK, I suppose!

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  • Most of EFL learners are not quite familiar with the difference between British English and American English in terms of grammar and vocabulary, but the previous section has detail explanation about it. it gives general knowledge of what the obvious differences are, and through this excellent activity, they can examine their understanding in both areas. so, yeah, for teacher, it's absolutely a must activity.

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  • Excellent example for illustrating the difference between BE and AE.

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  • there are lots of questions between American and British English grammar, so it is very important that students know the structures of both grammars in order to recognize them;Furthermore, this knowledge permit to understand and help American and British students.

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