British and American English Differences
The difference between American English and British English goes much farther than "You say Tomayto, I say Tomahto." The difference can be found in vocabulary, slang, sentence structure, syllabic emphasis, and even punctuation. As a speaker of American English (the Colorado version, which is, by the way, the only --ahem-- normal dialect of American English), and a reader of British English (my literary diet would be happy to survive on Austen, Lewis, Wodehouse, Sayers, and Chesterton), I have encountered a few hilarious contrasts between the speech of the "chaps" and the speech of the "blokes."
British and American Vocabulary Differences
My sister and I wound our way down from the top of the Wallace Monument in Scotland and realized we had misplaced our traveling buddies: our grandmother and her sister. We had been giggling earlier that day with them about their outfits; they happened to be dressed identically in gray hoodies, blue jeans, with black shoulder bags slung over the same shoulder. The lady at the info desk said there were two ladies in "grey jumpers" who were asking about us, and she pointed to the tea shop. There we found our two "grey-jumpered" grandmothers! I found out later that if we would have asked her where two gray hoodie-wearing women were, she might have pointed to the local gang headquarters instead. Hoodies and hoodlums are not a far cry apart in British English, though "jumpers" and "sweatshirts" mark the difference between casual and semi-formal in America. We should have known that she would have said "pinafore" if she meant what we call a "jumper."
We also found that it was not polite to mention "pants" or "knickers" in public unless you don't mind discussing your undergarments. Rather, use the term "trousers," and no one will look at you sideways for that --though London's biggest athletic clothing store is called Lily Whites. (For you Brits, that's a quaint American term for what you call "vests" and "pants"). Hairstyles are another source of difference between British and American English. A woman at a London church once complimented me on my "fringe." I was confused until she gestured to the "bangs" on the side of my forehead and again repeated "lovely fringe." It's no wonder they snicker when they hear Yankies refer to "bangs" as a hairstyle, because "bangers" are big, plump, breakfast link sausages.
It wasn't until my second week in London that I could finally muster up the courage to ask for the "toilet" (blushing) but it was the only way they would direct me to the restroom. Occasionally they would point me to the "first floor." I would make my way down the steep and narrow staircases (another London signature) to the ground floor. No restroom to be seen. Asking again where the --ahem-- women's toilet was, I was told it was "on the first floor." Turns out, the ground floor is not the first floor. Imagine that!
British "biscuits" are the American equivalent of sweet and cream-filled cookies. "Squash" in Great Britain is not necessarily a yellow, pear-shaped vegetable, but a concentrated "just add water" fruit drink that is popular for children's events, church potlucks, and picnics. Our equivalent (CoolAide? Fruity Iced Tea?) is nothing like the delicately colored, delicately sweetened "squash" of Great Britain.
Though we were on vacation when we travelled to England, we found out it was a "holiday" when we arrived. "What holiday?" we asked. "Your holiday!" was the answer. Our vacation.
Children in England are highly educated. Rather than just taking a "math" class, they take "maths" class. Double the smarts!
Different Phrases in British and American English
One morning I came down to breakfast and my friend welcomed me with a cheerful, "Are you all right?"
Surprised, I said, "Um, yes, I'm great! Why? Do I look like I'm sick or tired or something?"
"No, I was just asking if you are doing well this morning-- no reason."
I pressed her to explain further, and finally realized that her "Are you all right?" was the British equivalent of "How are you?" Grammatically analyzing the differences between these two questions, I realized that the American greeting was confusing, and is only understood when one takes the question "how" outside of its usual definition. Usually "how?" is answered by an explanation of a procedure: how to do something, such as how to stitch, how to cook, etc. "How are you?" should technically be answered with, "I am me because this is how I was created," or, "I am who I am because of this series of events in my life." Or, "How?" could be a quantitative question such as, "How old are you?" or "How many do you need?" Under this definition, "How are you?" could be answered, "I'm 98.9% human," though that doesn't come close to answering the Americans' intended question. The British have it right, only we Americans take their question as an insult. "Are you all right?" and "Are you okay?" is a perfectly reasonable, answerable question for the occasion.
When driving, be sure to slow down for the "sleeping policeman" in the middle of the road! Don't worry, he's meant to be driven over (these are speed bumps in the USA). If you decide to walk instead, don't drop your candy wrappers and popsicle sticks onto the ground. Instead, throw them into the "rubbish bin" (what Americans call the trash can). The "Tube" (called an underground train in America) is also a great way to travel, if you can bear to be continually exhorted to "Mind Your Head" when going through the doorway, and to "Mind the Gap" when stepping from the train to the platform.
A British man we were visiting told us that he was looking for a new job because he had "become redundant." In American English, that means he was laid off because there were too many people doing his job. Other fun phrases include "queueing" instead of "lining up" and looking for the "Way Out" instead of the "Exit."
British Vs. American English Sentence Construction
British English tends to favor the passive voice (eg. "Bill was kicked by Bob"). American prefers the active voice (eg. "Bob kicked Bill"). British English uses more auxiliary verbs (to be, to have, to do), and American English uses more regular verbs, which express a particular action and distinguish between past and present tense more precisely. The Secret Life of the Pronoun, p. 165, explains: "Auxiliary verbs are associated with a passive voice and are frowned on in American English classes but celebrated in British English classes."
British vs American Spelling
Does British English just have more vowels than American English? What about that funny little "e" moved to the ends of words? Is British English more "French" in its spelling than American English is, which has adopted many Spanish words and Spanish spellings? You decide. The words on the left are British; the words on the right are American.
"Aeroplane" - Airplane
"Aluminium" - Aluminum
"Centre" - Center
"Colour" - Color
"Cheque" - Check
"Grey" - Gray
"Metre" - Meter
"Mould" - Mold
"Polystyrene" - Styrofoam
"Railway" - Railroad
"Spelt" - Spelled
"Theatre" - Theater
Webster's American English Dictionary
I've often wondered how Americans made the switch from honour to honor, colour to color, and centre to center. Did those extra vowels just fall off our words as soon as we set foot on Plymouth rock? No, it was actually a masterly decision on the part of Noah Webster, an American colonial, who wanted America to have its own independent language, and created the most popular dictionary in the history of the world. Webster cut the letter "u" out of many words that had an "ou" inside ("flavour," "colour," "honour"). He also changed "musick" to "music" and "centre" to "center." He also added some colloquial American words that the British would have never heard of: "skunk," and "hickory" (both derived from popular sayings). It's easy to see the brand-new character of America shine through these words. They sound more abrupt and to the point, less fussy, and they get down to business. But lest you think American English is all about simplicity, let me tell you that Webster spent years pouring over English dictionaries, and while he was at that, he learned 26 languages, including Hebrew, Arabic, and Sanskrit.
English Differences: Punctuation
British punctuation has a habit of making delightful sense out of the English sentence. An American period is a British "full stop" (don't ask what a partial stop is, though, because I don't think they'll say it's the comma). And instead of the American parenthesis, they have "brackets," which are not what we call brackets. However, punctuation lore of the Anglo Saxon goes deeper than just calling marks by different names.
The "Oxford Comma" (I've written more on this—check my profile page) is a handy little fellow because he separates items in a list after the last "and." For example, the Oxford Comma prevents this little slip-up:
Dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand and God.
by adding this remarkable separation:
Dedicated to my parents, Ayn Rand, and God.
Another helpful punctuation difference is in the placement of the final quote marks after a "quoted" word. Americans place the quote marks after the quoted word and its accompanying punctuation, like this:
They used that word, "lovely," like it didn't even need dusting off!
But the British would write this:
They used that word, "lovely", like it didn't even need dusting off!
However, the British must have realized that this would occasionally become an inconvenience, as they don't always want to quote punctuation along with the word in question, so they add their punctuation after the final quote mark, like this:
Did you hear that American telephone operator? He said to press "the pound sign", though certainly he must know that not even British mobiles have pound signs on them!
A lovely accent...
Americans "go crazy" over an authentic British accent (do Brits go "mad" over an American accent?), but nothing beats hearing a little British boy chant a familiar singsong tune with a little British twist of his own! My sister and I were walking along a pathway at Buckingham Palace behind a mother and her little boy. The boy was singing "Jingle bells, Jingle bells..." and at the very point where he was about to sing "Santa smells!" he got a warning look from his mother. The song suddenly turned into "Santa smells --lovely!"
Fancy that of London!
© 2010 Ann Leavitt