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Differences Between U.S. and U.K. English to Know

The Essential Differences Between American and British English

By Joseph Priest, APR

This article was originally published in the February 2020 issue of Strategies & Tactics, the monthly newsletter of the Public Relations Society of America, and is republished here with permission.

If you were working for a company that speaks British English rather than American English, would it be correct to write, “She will send it towards the end of April”? Or should it be, “She will send it toward the end of April”?

Would you write, “This sentence needs a period,” or “This sentence needs a full stop”? How about, “The team are playing well,” versus “The team is playing well”? (In British English, the correct answers are “towards,” “full stop” and “are.”)

English has become the common language of the global economy. Spoken in more than 100 countries around the world and the official language in 35 countries, English is also the most commonly studied foreign language.

Still, it’s easy to forget that this language has two major forms: American English, spoken mainly in the United States; and British English, used in the U.K. and many former British colonies. In fact, most English-speaking countries, including such economic leaders as Australia, Canada, India, Singapore and South Africa, use British English. 

Although American English and British English are generally interchangeable, they contain enough differences to cause awkward errors. In an increasingly globalized business world, it’s important to be adept at both forms.

For help, here’s a rundown of differences between some common American-English and British-English usages that can cause confusion, along with resources for further guidance. Knowing these differences will make your work more accurate and inclusive in a world where British English represents another element of diversity that PR pros should strive to appreciate.

Same Words, Different Spellings
American English -- British English
airplane -- aeroplane
canceled -- cancelled
program -- programme
theater -- theatre
toward -- towards
traveled -- travelled

Different Words, Same Meaning
American English -- British English
calendar (appointment book) -- diary
ad -- advert
anchor (for TV news) -- presenter
period (punctuation mark) -- full stop
résumé -- CV (curriculum vitae)
zee (pronunciation of letter “z”) -- zed

Same Words, Different Meanings
American English -- British English
biscuit (small piece of bread) -- (small cookie)
chips (potato chips) -- (French fries)
pants (clothing for lower part of body) -- (underwear for lower part of body)
pudding (sweet dish made with sugar, flour and milk) -- (dessert)
toilet (commode) -- (restroom)
torch (stick with flame on end) -- (flashlight)

What day is it?
One difference between the two forms is that American English uses the month-day-year format: “Amy will arrive on March 16, 2020.” British English, on the other hand, follows the day-month-year format: “Amy will arrive on 16 March 2020.”

Quote me on this
As professional communicators, we know that in American English periods and commas are always enclosed within quotation marks (“I won’t go,” John said), and question marks and exclamation points follow quotation marks unless they’re part of the quote. In British English, however, only those punctuation marks that appear in the original material should be enclosed, and commas fall outside the closing quotation marks: “I won’t go”, John said

One or many?
In British usage, collective nouns that represent groups often take a plural verb, as in, “The band are loud.” In American English, of course, we use the singular form: “The band is loud.”

A list of specific word differences between American and British English follows below. For further help, consult The Cambridge Dictionary online, or the book The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship between American and British English, by Lynne Murphy.

Joseph Priest is a corporate writer at Syniverse, a Tampa, Fla.-based software and services company, and has over 20 years of experience working with American- and British-English-speaking clients at such companies as IBM, AT&T and Ketchum. Email him at [email protected].

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