Community Web Version Now Available
Phil|Accent Trainer
Professional Teacher
Mini-article: US versus UK — GRAMMAR
A student asked* about the differences between written US and UK English other than spelling and vocabulary. A lot of learners wonder about this, so here is a quick summary.

Spelling (and punctuation style) is indeed the biggest difference in the written language, although the differences mainly follow just a few patterns. Next would be vocabulary. Differences in grammar are minimal, especially in formal writing. In most cases, it’s not clear-cut, but simply a difference in preference between US and UK usage. By the way, except for spelling, Canada usually goes along with US usage. Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are closer to UK usage.


Some examples (different preferences — not clear-cut all the time):
Simple past versus present perfect (“British” usage is considered more standard, so Americans may follow it more in formal situations.):
US: I just got here.
UK: I’ve just got here. (Note the past participle without -en — In the US, it’s “gotten.”)




Present subjunctive (for possibility / indirect command, etc.) (“American” usage is considered more standard, so British speakers may follow it more in formal situations):
US: It’s important that he study tomorrow. (=it’s important for him to study tomorrow.)
UK: It’s important that he studies tomorrow.

Past subjunctive (unreal present conditional):
US: If that were true, it would be enough.
UK: If that was true, it would be enough.



Notional agreement:
US: My family is all coming.
UK: My family are all coming.
However, they use the singular even in the UK to talk about the family as a whole:
My family is big. (=There are many members in my family.) “My family are big (UK)” would have to be worded as something like “the people in my family are big” in American English.



Note that all varieties of English allow a notional singular, for example:
126 million dollars is a lot of money.



Conclusion: English is English — there are no “dialects” (unlike Chinese, Arabic, German, Italian, etc.). If you readers happen to think of any additional grammar differences, feel free to add them. Also, let me know your thoughts (learners and teachers) in the comments section, as well as any questions that you may have as English learners.

*
Apr 13, 2018 5:46 AM
61
25
Comments · 61

Yes, Matthew, I'm "weary"  of saying that, too! I've been saying it for years, and nobody believes me...

Seriously, though...yes, of course there are many variants within English-speaking cultures, and some of these could conceivably be classed as dialects.  Imagine a conversation between a dockworker from Glasgow and one from Kingston, Jamaica, for example.

But that isn't the issue here. We're looking at this question from the point of view of the non-native learner. We're addressing the concerns of the italki members who regularly ask questions like "Which is easier to learn, British or American English?" or "Which is better, US or British English?".

These learners don't want or need to know about the differences between Scouse and Cockney, Appalachian or Ebonics. They just want to learn standard English for their studies, their jobs, travel and international communication. And what Phil, myself, and many other long-term regulars on this site are at pains to stress is that these questions don't need to be asked. They don't need to make a choice.


April 13, 2018

Another tendency worth mentioning (I hesitate to use the word "difference") is the use of "have/has got" as opposed to plain "have".

Whereas an AmE speaker would probably say "Do you have the time?", a BrE speaker would be more likely to say "Have you got the time?".  But this is only a preference. The same BrE speaker might equally well say "Do you have the time?" the next time he asks that question.

Thank you for writing this mini-article, Phil. I think it's important for learners to realise not only how few supposed "differences" exist between standard AmE and BrE, but also how inconsequential these are.

April 13, 2018

A few other important differences:

1. In the US, we will only negate or contract "have" if it is an auxiliary verb, not if it is a primary verb.  In the UK, they don't have this distinction.

US and UK: I've eaten breakfast, but I haven't started working yet

US: I have 5 bananas, but I don't have any oranges.
UK: I've 5 bananas, but I haven't any oranges.

2. In casual speech, British speakers will often use passive past instead of past progressive.  Americans won't do  that.

US: he was standing next to the door.
UK (casual): He was stood next to the door.

3. British people still sometimes use the word "shall", even in casual speech.  In America, this word is almost completely obsolete, and is only used humorously or in certain legal contexts.

April 13, 2018

2.  Chris said:  In casual speech, British speakers will often use passive past instead of past progressive. 

Not true at all!  We wouldn't want the italki community thinking that you could wander around the streets of London saying "I was taken" instead of "I was taking" or "I was eaten" instead of "I was eating".  This is nonsense.

In fact, this  non-standard usage is restricted to only two  phrases: "I was stood" and "I was sat", both of which are considered rather ill-educated. Please don't assume that this standard British English, or that it's a grammatical pattern that can be used for any other verbs.

3. So what about shall?  Yes, it is used by some people, but not as widely as Americans think it is, and not in the way that you think is. In modern English, it's basically just an alternative to 'should' in a question form, as in Shall we get pizza? rather than Should we get pizza?  And the majority of younger people don't use it at all.

April 13, 2018
Phil... You've written a helpful article for English learners... good on ya mate, as they would say in Australia.

As I read your article, a question came to mind. As many people know, Canada uses British and American English interchangeably. We tend to accept the two spelling practices without question.
So I wondered what percentage of Canadian English speakers use British spellings or American spellings. 

To my surprise, I found that Canada has its (Su.Ki. please note "its" :) own dictionary with accepted spellings, typically the British or the American spelling.
Here's a link to these spellings:

http://www.lukemastin.com/testing/spelling/cgi-bin/database.cgi?action=view_category&database=spelling&category=A

Here, from the BBC, is an interesting article entitled, "Why is Canadian English Unique?"

http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20150820-why-is-canadian-english-unique

My short and sweet answer to that question would not have amounted to anything that looked like an article. It would have been a simple one-liner: Canadian English should be called AmeriBrit English, hence our schizophrenic use of the language :).

So, in the end, no, I did not find what I had hoped to find.
I was hoping to find statistics that showed that X percent of Canadians used American spellings and Y percent of Canadians used British spellings.
It does appear that we use both (so this reduces the risk of making spelling mistakes... How clever we are :)
April 13, 2018
Show More
Phil|Accent Trainer
Language Skills
Catalan, Chinese (Mandarin), Chinese (Cantonese), English, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Portuguese, Spanish
Learning Language
Chinese (Cantonese), Hebrew