Many of you have the goal of learning American English. After all, you are listening to or reading a lesson from the Voice of America.
But you will still probably have some contact with British English. The popularity of British television shows and musical groups, for example, reaches across borders.
So, how does British English differ from American English? You may already know that there is a clear difference in accent. Other differences include some vocabulary and expressions.
Less commonly discussed, however, are the variations in grammar. American and British Englishes share almost all of the same grammar. But there are differences, and some are worth noting – especially for English learners.
On today’s program, we will discuss a few of them.
Use of prepositions
First, let’s talk about where the two Englishes vary on preposition use.
In British English, the preposition “at” is used in several time-related phrases, such as when talking about weekends. But speakers of American English use the preposition “on” in such a case. Listen to this American English speaker:
On weekends, I like to watch sports.
Can you think of how a British English speaker would say this?
That’s right, it is: “At weekends, I like to watch sports.”
Americans also use the preposition “on” with street names. Yet, British English speakers use “in.”
Listen to this American talking about where someone lives:
She lives on 17th street near Dupont Circle.
Can you guess how the British English speaker would say it?
That’s right: “She lives in 17th street near Dupont Circle.”
These are just a few examples of the small differences in preposition use.
The present perfect
Now, let’s move on to verb tenses.
American and British English speakers use the present perfect verb tense in similar ways. But Americans use it in fewer situations. In many other situations, we use the simple past instead.
Listen to an American use the simple past tense to talk about a lost object:
Ugh! I lost my phone…again.
British English speakers would generally use the present perfect in this situation, as in “I’ve lost my phone…again.” The present perfect verb here is “have lost.”
This is also true when giving news. In American English, we use the simple past to do this. Speakers of British English generally use the present perfect.
Listen to an American give a piece of news to someone:
Your supervisor just called.
Again, such news would involve the present perfect for Britons, as in, “Your supervisor has just called” or the contracted “You supervisor’s just called.”
Notice use of the word “just,” a common time-related adverb. With other such adverbs, like “yet” and “already,” Americans also tend to use the simple past tense while Britons use the present perfect.
Listen to an American use a past tense verb and the adverb “already”:
Would you like more?
No thanks. I already ate too much.
So, what might a British answer sound like? A person is likely to say, “I have already eaten too much,” which uses the present perfect verb “have eaten.”
Have and get
The two dialects also differ in some ways in their usages of the verbs “have” and “get.”
When talking about human relationships, British English speakers generally use the wording “have got.” For instance, a Briton might say, “I’ve got an uncle in New York City.” But an American is likely to say, “I have an uncle in New York City.”
This same rule applies when talking about possession of objects and when discussing illness. A British English speaker would likely say, “I’ve got a cold,” while an American would probably just say, “I have a cold.”
The two dialects also have their own ways of saying that something is required or necessary. The modal verb “Have to” is more common to American English. The phrasing “have got to” is much more common to speakers of British English. An American would likely say, “We have to be there by 7” while a British person is more likely to say, “We have got to be there by 7.”
And, speaking of “got,” let’s not forget an unusual difference between the past participle forms of “get.” In American English, the past participle of “get” is “gotten.” But Britain discontinued the use of “gotten” more than 300 years ago. In British English, the past participle of “get” is “got.”
So, you might hear an American English speaker say this:
He has not gotten far on the project.
Yet a British English speaker might say, “He has not got far on the project.”
Auxiliaries in replies
And finally, let’s touch on something that deals with giving short answers to questions.
British English speakers often add the auxiliary verb “do” in short replies. An American would use just a modal verb. Listen to an answer from this American English speaker:
Are you bringing the whole family?
The modal verb in the reply is “might.”
Yet, speakers of British English would generally use both a modal and the auxiliary “do,” as in the reply “I might do.”
What can you do?
So…what can you do with this information?
First, keep in mind that British and American English both contain several dialects and accents. However, generally speaking, they are each still identifiably American or British.
The next time you come into contact with British English, make a mental note when you hear or see the differences you learned about today. Then, ask yourself: How would an American say this? It could be a fun exercise and may help you pay closer attention to American English grammar.
I’m Alice Bryant.
Words in This Story
accent – n. a way of pronouncing words that occurs among the people in a particular region or country
vocabulary – n. the words that make up a language
variation – n. something that is similar to something else but different in some way
phrase – n. a group of two or more words that express a single idea but do not usually form a complete sentence
guess – v. to form an opinion or give an answer about something when you do not know much or anything about it
contracted – adj. made smaller or shorter
dialect – n. a form of a language that is spoken in a particular area and that uses some of its own words, grammar, and pronunciations
uncle - the brother of your father or mother or the husband of your aunt
modal – v. a verb (such as can, could, may, might, should, will, or would) usually used with another verb to express ideas such as possibility, necessity, and permission
auxiliary – n. a verb (such as have, be or do) that is used with another verb to show the verb's tense, to form a question