How to Confuse a Foreigner: American vs. British English

Emma Buckby

2 Aug 2016

In 1887 Oscar Wilde wrote that ‘we have everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language’ and this is just as true today as British and American English remain two very distinct varieties of the world’s lingua franca.

Let’s take a look at some of the linguistic misdemeanours and misunderstandings, including some examples of which insults do and don’t travel well across the Atlantic. Let the battle begin of American vs. British English!

American vs. British English: Two Countries Divided by a Common Language

Whether you are a Brit communicating with Americans or vice versa, it’s worth bearing in mind the following notable differences if you want to make sure you that are understood and avoid any embarrassing faux pas. Take a look at Hugh Lawrie and Ellen DeGeneres slug it out in a game of American vs. British English slang.

We have everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, language. (Oscar Wilde)

1. Same language – different words

Due to the popularity of certain films and TV shows most Brits and Americans will be familiar with some vocabulary items unique to one or other culture.

  • Lift vs. elevator
  • Garbage vs. rubbish
  • Sidewalk vs. pavement
  • Trunk vs. boot

These words shouldn’t pose any real problems. However, an American in the UK might not know they are being ‘chatted up’, what flavour ‘crisps’ to order or what colour ‘ginger’ hair is.

Likewise, a Brit in the US may be confused by terms such as ‘broiled’, ‘stoop’ or ‘blue plate special’.  Slang and idioms can be particularly confusing with expressions such as ‘We had a good chinwag’ or ‘He’s got the hump’ drawing blank faces.

2. Same but different

Perhaps more confusing, there are the words which appear to be the same but mean something else on each side of the Atlantic.

The different uses of:

  • period
  • rubber
  • pants
  • or suspenders

Could cause an embarrassing moment and a long list of other words like:

  • purse
  • gas
  • hood
  • trunk

3. Under or overstatement

There are also subtle linguistic and cultural nuances not only in the words we share but also in how we use them.  American English tends to be more direct with ‘I’ll have a coffee’ being an acceptable way to order in the States while in the UK ‘Could I have a coffee?’ is still preferred.

If a Brit tells you ‘it’s a bit wet out there’ the rain is probably torrential

Another classic example is the British use of understatement. ‘There seems to be a bit of a problem’ could mean that a disaster is on its way if a Brit tells you ‘it’s a bit wet out there’ the rain is probably torrential. Americans, on the other hand, tend to use more superlatives, so that what the British might describe as ‘quite nice’ becomes ‘ fantastic’.

4. How do you spell that?

When communicating across the pond in writing, it is worth remembering that even when we share the same words we don’t always spell them in the same way.

So:

  • minimize becomes minimise
  • color becomes colour
  • center is centre and so on

5. Watch your accent

And finally, we have the question of pronunciation. Many words share the same meaning and spelling yet still cause confusion when said out loud.

A simple word like ‘water’ epitomises a number of these differences. Vowels sounds are often different depending on the region; in British English, the ‘a’ is typically longer. Then the ‘t’ is much softer in the US  and the ‘r’ much stronger.

Then the ‘t’ is much softer in the US  and the ‘r’ much stronger

So the stories where people spend their entire transatlantic holiday ordering every beverage but water are hardly surprising!

American vs. British English: Now you know an apparently common language can hide many differences

It’s important to be mindful of these differences not only when communicating across the Atlantic, but also in interaction between any of the myriad of other varieties of the English language.

The differences may be more marked between US and British English but the English or Englishes spoken in Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, as well as other non-Anglo varieties such as Indian and Singaporean English, all, have their own phonetic, lexical and grammatical patterns capable of causing confusion and frustration when misunderstood.

It’s important to be mindful of these differences not only when communicating across the Atlantic, but also in interaction between any of the myriad of other varieties of the English language



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