A few hundred years ago, English-speakers sailed away to the New World, taking our language with them. Since that time, a whole ocean has separated us, so the English language on American soil was inevitably going to become a different beast.
But the last 50 years have caused the two languages to converge again. Well, converge isn’t exactly the right term. More like: British English is being taken over by American English, largely thanks to the increasing dominance of Hollywood films and TV series and the rise of the internet and social media.
Some Americanisms have crept into our language and are here to stay. Things come out of “left field” (a baseball-inspired Americanism). Shops are open “24/7” (to be fair, that’s a lot quicker than saying “all day, every day”). A TV series has five, six or seven “seasons” (which is useful; a “season” is distinguished from a “series” as a whole). If we have to work late, we might have to take a “rain check” on that drink (another baseball Americanism).
Still, there are a number of big differences between UK and US English. As a freelance copywriter, I have to write for my audience. If it’s a British company I’m writing for, with British customers, then it’s British English I have to use. Let’s take a look at some of the obvious differences we’re all savvy to, before I turn to a few of the less obvious ones…
The ones we all know about
- British babies wear “nappies”. American babies wear “diapers”.
- American cars don’t have “bonnets” and “boots”. They have “hoods” and “trunks”.
- British buildings have “lifts”. American buildings have “elevators”.
- We Brits walk on “pavements”, but Americans walk on “sidewalks”.
- Brits wear “trousers”. Americans wear “pants”. Brits wear “pants” too, but they’re briefs or underpants to us.
- Brits have front and back “gardens”. Americans have front and back “yards”.
- Brits go to “the loo” or “the toilet”. Our friends across the pond always seem to go to “the bathroom”—even when there’s no bath in it.
- Our American cousins don’t get on with the letter “u” and have snipped it from “colour”, “favourite”, “neighbour”, “behaviour”, “odour” and many more.
The ones that go over our heads (or my head at least)
- I’m not going to “write you” like my American cousin. I’m going to “write to you”.
- Forms get “filled in” here in the UK, but in the US, they get “filled out”.
- A difficult one to spot, but Americans actually wear “pajamas”, whereas Brits wear “pyjamas”.
- We run “forwards” and “towards” someone in Britain, but we run “forward” and “toward” someone in America.
- Brits do fun things “at” weekends and “at” Christmas. But Americans prefer to do them “on” weekends and “on” Christmas.
- In the UK, the opposite of “clockwise” is “anticlockwise”, not “counterclockwise” like it is across the pond.
- Americans don’t like prepositions as much as we do. For them, “the play opens Tuesday”. For us, “the play opens on Tuesday”.
- This one only clicked for me some months back (so it could just be me). After years of hearing Americans use the word “period” to make a point or conclude an argument, I thought it was just a colloquial term. I didn’t realise it was the American English word for “full stop”, the punctuation mark.
Are there any more you can think of? When you’re writing in British English, do you find Americanisms creeping into your writing without you realising? (Or “realizing” as the case may be?)