Can you speak with an English accent?
Your answer to that question might depend on what your definition of “English” is, since there are so many dialects of the English language.
Two of the most common types are American and British English. While they’re both technically the same language, there are tons of differences between the two.
In this article, we’re going to look at the British accent vs. the American accent. We’ll also discuss some vocabulary, spelling and grammar that distinguish each of these dialects.
- How are British and American English different from one another?
- British vs. American pronunciation
- British vs. American spelling
- British vs. American vocabulary
- British vs. American grammar
How are British and American English different from one another?
As we mentioned above, there are lots of factors that make British and American English different. The most obvious one is the accent—specifically with sounds like “r” and certain vowel sounds, such as /ɒ/ vs. /ɑ/, in words like “pop” and “stop.” American and British accents also differ in intonation.
On top of pronunciation, American English spelling differs from British English spelling. They don’t always use the same words for various items, either (think truck vs. lorry). Finally, certain grammatical structures are different as well.
Let’s take a look at all of this in more detail!
British vs. American pronunciation
Below, we’ll discuss two of the most obvious consonant differences when it comes to American vs. English accents.
The /r/ sound
When you hear a British person speak and then compare that to an American’s speech, the first thing you’ll probably notice is that they treat “r” sounds very differently. In British English, when an “r” comes after a vowel in the same syllable, it’s not pronounced—this would be in words like “far,” “enter,” “market” and “injure.” On the other hand, Americans use the rhotic accent, meaning the “r” is pronounced strongly.
The /t/ sound
In American English, something happens to the /t/ sound when it comes after a stressed vowel and before a weak one: it turns into a combination of a “t” and a “d.” You’ll hear this in words like “butter,” “water” and “tomato” (they sound a little like “budder,” “wadder” and “tomaydo”). On the other hand, in standard British English, the /t/ in those words would sound like a typical “t” sound. This does vary depending on the area of England, however; some Brits use a glottal stop, meaning the /t/ isn’t really pronounced at all (“tomah-o,” for instance).
In addition to the consonants, there are some vowel sounds that are quite different between American and British English. Here are some of the main differences.
/ɒ/ vs. /ɑ/
In British English, words like “dog,” “stop” and “pot” are pronounced with the /ɒ/ sound, using a slightly rounded mouth; it’s called an “open back rounded vowel.” In American English, the /ɑ/ (the short “o”) sound is an “open back unrounded long sound”: the mouth is not rounded and is slightly more open.
[ƏU] vs. [oʊ]
The British [ƏU] (the “o” sound) is a diphthong, meaning it’s a combination of two vowel sounds—the mouth actually changes position when pronouncing the British “o.” This sound starts in the center of the mouth. The American [oʊ] is also a diphthong, but it starts at the back of the mouth; the lips and tongue are very tense for this sound. You’ll find these sounds in words like “go,” “slow” and “quote.”
Another difference you’ll notice between British and American English is the intonation speakers use in a sentence, or the way they make their voice rise and fall. American English speakers, in general, tend to have a fairly flat, monotonous intonation. Conversely, British speakers often vary their tone a lot, going from high to low.
British vs. American spelling
Aside from the pronunciation variations we’ve gone through, British English and American English have different spelling conventions as well.
-or vs. -our
In American English, words like “favorite,” “flavor,” “savor” and “endeavor” are always spelled with just an “or.” However, those same words in British English need to include a “u”: “favourite,” “flavour,” “savour” and “endeavour.”
-ize vs. -ise
In American English, you’ll see many words ending with “ize,” such as “organize,” “realize” and “capitalize.” In British English, those words replace the “z” with an “s”: “organise,” “realise” and “capitalise.”
-yze vs. -yse
Some words, like “analyze” and “paralyze,” always end with “yze” in American English. The same words, however, end with “yse” in British English (“analyse” and “paralyse”).
-ice vs. -ise
American English uses “ice” at the end of the word “practice,” regardless of whether it’s a noun or a verb. In British English, the verb is spelled “practise,” but the noun is spelled “practice.”
-se vs. -ce
“Offense,” “defense” and “license” are all American spellings. But in England, you’d see these words spelled “offence,” “defence” and “licence.”
-l- vs. -ll-
When a word with a single “l” is changed into an -ed or -ing form, the spelling usually doesn’t change in American English. For example, “travel” becomes “traveled”/”traveling”; “cancel” becomes “canceled”/”canceling.” In British English, the “l” doubles, so you’d get “travelled”/”travelling” and “cancelled”/”cancelling.”
-er vs. -re
You’ll find that in American English, some words end in “er” like “center,” “fiber” and “liter.” But the letters are reversed in British English, making “centre,” “fibre” and “litre.”
-og vs. -ogue
“Catalog,” “dialog” and “epilog” are all examples of American English words. Their British counterparts are “catalogue,” “dialogue” and “epilogue.”
British vs. American vocabulary
When a British English speaker and an American speaker have a conversation, they’ll probably understand most of what the other person is saying. However, there are some terminology differences that can present a challenge. Check out a few examples of what Americans and British people say differently.
|American English||British English|
|parking lot||car park|
|sprinkles||hundreds and thousands|
British vs. American grammar
For the most part, British and American grammar are pretty similar. But there are a few different features that are worth mentioning. Note that these are just some examples of general differences—not everyone speaks the same way!
|American English||British English|
|Offers or suggestions||can: |
Can I get you something to drink?
should:Should we go see a movie?
Shall I get you something to drink?
Shall we go see a movie?
I will be there at eight o’clock.
I shall be there at eight o’clock.
|Past participle of “get”||gotten:|
I’ve gotten sick every Christmas since I was 10.
I’ve got sick every Christmas since I was 10.
The band is breaking up.
|singular or plural|
The band is/are breaking up.
|prepositions of time||on:|
I’ll see you on the weekend.
I’ll see you at the weekend.
British accent vs. American accent: Get to know them both
The more you know and understand about these two English dialects, the better off you’ll be. By learning both British and American English, you’ll practically double your knowledge: You’ll be able to pronounce more English sounds, you’ll increase your vocabulary and you’ll boost comprehension skills. What are you waiting for?
Andrea is a Canadian freelance writer and editor specializing in English, e-learning, EdTech, and SaaS. She has a background as an ESL teacher in beautiful Vancouver, British Columbia. In her free time, Andrea loves hanging out with her husband and children, creating recipes in the kitchen, and reading fiction. She also loves camping and jumping into lakes whenever possible. Learn more about Andrea on LinkedIn or check out her website.