British English vs American English: What You Need To Know

January 16, 2024

Whether you’re learning English as a second language or a native English speaker just trying to understand a neighbor from across the pond, you’ll quickly find that the differences between British and American English go deeper than the accent. Sure, it’s the same language, but there’s enough of a gap that even native speakers can be left saying, “huh?” (or “u wot m8?,” as the case may be).

In this guide, we’ll look at the variations in grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and pronunciation in British English versus American English. 

British vs American accent

The reality is, there are many different accents across Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and many different American accents to boot – not to mention Canada, Australia, New Zealand, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Ireland, South Africa, Hong Kong, and so on! Covering the many regional dialects of the English-speaking world could fill a whole separate guide, but we can look at some of the most common differences between accents from the United Kingdom and the United States.

Pitch variance

As a general rule, British English speakers vary the pitch of their speech more than the average American English speaker. While American English can certainly vary noticeably in pitch – think Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy, or the ‘valley girl’ Californian accent that uses upspeak –  standard British speech tends to hit higher highs and lower lows. Studies have found that British speakers naturally rise and fall more in pitch throughout each sentence.


There are many words – especially words that originally came to English from French – which receive emphasis on different syllables when you look at them in British vs American pronunciation. 

For example, in American English, the words ‘ballet,’ ‘garage,’ and ‘brochure’ all keep the emphasis on the second syllable, like in French, while in British English, the emphasis is on the first syllable. But there are many instances of this and the pattern doesn’t hold true for all English words. In fact, the opposite is true of the word ‘mustache’ – in British English, the emphasis is on the second syllable, while in American English it’s on the first.

Depending on where you are in the English-speaking world, a ‘t’ sound between two vowels might sound like a t, d, or nothing at all, in the case of dialects that have what’s called a glottal stop.


The pronunciation (or lack thereof) of the letter ‘r’ is probably the most noticeable difference between different English accents. In England, an ‘r’ is only pronounced at the beginning of a syllable or between two vowel sounds. That is, you hear the ‘r’ in words like ‘rusty,’ ‘pottery,’ growth,’ and ‘moral,’ but it’s only suggested – replaced with an additional vowel sound – in words like ‘word,’ ‘father,’ and ‘further.’ 

In the US, on the other hand, every ‘r’ is usually pronounced, except in certain regional accents. 

Worth Noting: If you want to get technical, American English is what’s called rhotic – meaning the ‘r’ is pronounced – while the General British accent is considered non-rhotic. 

That said, any dialect where the ‘r’ is pronounced – even if it’s pronounced like the French ‘r’ (what’s called a uvular trill, a sound made at the back of your throat) or Spanish rolled ‘r’ – is considered rhotic. That means many Scottish, Northern Irish, and Welsh English dialects are actually rhotic, since they do have ‘r’ sounds, even if they don’t exactly sound like the American ‘r.’ 

In short? It’s really just accents from jolly old England that are primarily non-rhotic!

Vowel changes

This is kind of a tricky one, but one final major difference between British English and American English is in the way vowels are pronounced. 

In American English, all vowels get equal length and are considered short vowels. British English has a combination of short and long vowels, with long vowels marked in the phonetic alphabet with this symbol: ː

This extra length is in part due to the replacement of some ‘r’ sounds with extended vowels, but also exists in some words without a ‘r’ where the vowel is simply pronounced differently, like ‘shoe,’ ‘need,’ and ‘caught.’

 In fact, there are 20 vowel sounds in English, of which 12 are the same between British and American English and 8 change. 5 of those changes have to do with vowels in relation to the letter ‘r.’ The other three are:

/ɒ/ to /ɑ/

Stop John, we’re lost.

The British version of this vowel sound is more rounded and happens further back in the mouth than the American pronunciation.

/ɑː/ to /ɑr/ & /a/

Pass the car parts!

While, in British English, these words have the same vowel sounds, in American English, they split into two different sounds.

/əʊ/ to /oʊ/

Time to go show off our road.

In general British accents, this diphthong is made up of the sounds ‘eh’ and ‘ooh,’ while in American it’s ‘oh’ plus ‘ooh.’

Why do British and American English sound different?

Now we know some of the ways in which British and American English sound different, but how did we end up with two versions of the same language that sound so different? Is the American accent the original British accent? Watch this video to learn a bit more about the history of these two accents.

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British vs. American spelling

If you’re ever been reading a text and realized – or is it realised? – that some familiar words were spelled in new ways, you may have been reading a text in a different kind of written English than you’re used to. After all, Brits and Yanks vary in how they spell quite a few things. Even a spelling bee champion can get tripped up when switching between the two!

Here are a few of the main differences between American and British spelling.

1) s vs z

British spelling prefers an ‘s,’ whereas the US uses ‘z’ in root words ending in -ise/-ize (or variations on that theme).

For example:

analyse (UK)

analyze (US)

I realised my tie was too bright for the occasion. (UK) 

I realized my tie was too bright for the occasion. (US) 

2) -er vs -re

The US and UK have a number of words ending in -er/-re where the word is the same except for the ending – the US prefers -er, while British English uses -re.

For example:

In the centre of the city there is a large movie theatre. (UK) 

In the center of the city there is a large movie theater. (US)

3) -or vs -our

Root words ending in -or in the US often end in -our in the British spelling on the same word. 

For example:

neighbourhood (UK)

neighborhood (US)

We always wear our team’s colours when they play. (UK) 

We always wear our team’s colors when they play. (US) 

4) -og vs -ogue

Another word ending that varies between the US and UK is -og or -ogue.

For example:

analogue (UK)

analog (US)

We must make sure all the art for auction is in our catalogue. (UK)

We must make sure all the art for auction is in our catalog. (US)

5) -ense vs -ence

In British English, word endings for certain related words change depending on whether you’re looking at a noun or verb – in the UK, license is the verb and licence is the noun, as in a driver’s licence. In the US, both the noun and the verb end in -ense.

For example:

You can expense the fees for your new business licence, if it’s a big enough expence. (UK)

You can expense the fees for your new business license, if it’s a big enough expense. (US)

6) double or single L

Another quirk of British vs American spelling is the addition of a second L in British English – but not American English – in certain verb conjugations. Fortunately, this follows a pattern! 

Both British and American English add the second L in verbs where the second syllable is emphasized (like patrol and expel), but the second L is only added in British English for verbs ending in L where the first syllable is emphasized. 

For example:

cancelling (UK)

canceling (US)

marvelled (UK)

marveled (US)

traveller (UK)

traveler (US)

And the differences don’t end there. There are many words that are just a hair different between British and American English – think p(a)ediatrics, alumin(i)um, judg(e)ment, and many more. When in doubt about which is which, don’t be afraid to look it up! 

British vs. American vocabulary

Differences in spelling are one thing, but what about whole words? 

US fans of The Great British Bake Off can tell you – there are many words that differ entirely between British and American English. We might be speaking the same language, but sometimes it can feel pretty foreign! 

Here are a few common examples of British and American words that don’t quite translate.

British vs. American words

Parking lot Carpark
Garbage Rubbish
Apartment Flat
SprinklesHundreds and thousands 

British vs. American grammar

We can talk all day about grammatical nuances, but when it comes to the difference between British and American English grammar, examples are the best way to help you see the changes in action! 

Here’s a quick overview of some key differences, with examples.

Common Phrases

There are many expressions that are a little different from one side of the pond to the other. 

For example:

I’ll see them at the weekend. (UK)

I’ll see them on the weekend. (US)

She learned French at school. (UK)

She learned French in school. (US)

It’s different to my old jumper. (UK)

It’s different from my old sweater. (US)

She’s having a nap. (UK)

She’s taking a nap. (US)

In the UK, it’s also common to say have a shower or have a bath, while in the US you would say take a shower, take a bath.

Past tense

There are several ways in which past tense verbs differ slightly between British and American English, but the biggest change is the use of ‘got’ versus ‘gotten.’ In British English, the past participle of ‘get’ is ‘got,’ while in American English, it’s ‘gotten.’

For example:

You could have got any job you wanted. (UK)

You could have gotten any job you wanted. (US)

American English speakers are also less likely to use the -t ending instead of -ed in the simple past or for the past participle (as in ‘spoilt’ versus ‘spoiled,’ ‘burnt’ versus ‘burned’).


There are certain words that are common in British English that sound excessively formal and unnatural in American English. The most used ones are ‘shall’ versus ‘will’ and ‘needn’t’ or ‘need not’ versus ‘don’t have to.’

For example:

I shall see you at 9. (UK)

I’ll see you at 9. (US)

or I will see you at 9. (US)

If you’re tired, you needn’t come to the party. (UK)

If you’re tired, you don’t have to come to the party. (US)


Last but not least, there are subtle differences in how punctuation is used in American English vs British English.


In British English, titles are written without a period, like ‘Mr Smith’ or ‘Ms Bennett,’ while in American English, they get a period – ‘Mr. Smith,’ ‘Ms. Bennett.’

Times and dates

In British English, time is written with a period, like 3.00 pm or 12.30 am. In American English, it gets a colon – 3:00 pm, 12:30 am. And, while not strictly a punctuation problem, it’s worth noting that dates are written in a different format too.

In the US, the date is typically written MM/DD/YYYY (month, day, year), while in the UK, it goes DD/MM/YYYY (day, month, year), and this pattern often carries over to written dates too.

For example:

UK dates:


23rd October, 2023

US dates:


October 23rd, 2023

Quotation marks

Rules around quotation marks are head-spinningly opposite between the US and UK versions of written English. This is a small thing, but can lead to minor confusion (or major headaches, if you’re a writer switching between the two conventions!).

British English puts:

  • A single quotation mark at the beginning of speech
  • Double quotation marks to indicate quotes within quotes
  • Punctuation on the outside of the quotation marks unless part of the quotation

American English does the opposite of all three of the above.

For example:

‘It always makes me smile’, said my aunt, ‘to hear Elvis sing “I can’t help falling in love with you”’. (UK)

“It always makes me smile,” said my aunt, “to hear Elvis sing ‘I can’t help falling in love with you.’” (US)

Now you know the primary differences in British English vs American English

Not sure which style to use? The golden rule is consistency, especially when it comes to written English. Combining British spelling and vocabulary with American grammar and punctuation will feel disjointed and leave readers scratching their heads. 

There’s no right or wrong choice between these two major forms of the English language, so just worry about using whichever one you choose consistently.

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