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British English vs American English | Differences Explained

UK vs US updated on  December 13, 2023 9 min read
Although British English (also called UK English) and American English (also called US English) are largely very similar in their written form, there are several important differences that distinguish the two variants from each other:

In general, American English tends to have slightly stricter rules (at least for formal writing). British English is a bit more flexible on points like spelling (e.g., -ise vs. -ize) and punctuation (e.g., quotation marks, placement of commas).

There are also many differences in the pronunciation and intonation of spoken English in different regions; this article focuses only on the differences in written English.

Tip
All of QuillBot’s writing tools (Paraphraser, Grammar Checker, QuillBot Flow, etc.) are available to use in both American and British English (as well as Canadian and Australian English). Use the flag icon in the top right corner to select the variant you need.

Main differences between American and British English

American and British English are very similar, but there are a few main differences in spelling. Five important differences are:

Difference

Rule

Examples

-or vs -our

In American English, many Latin-derived words end in -or.

In British English, these same words end in -our.

Behavior or behaviour
Labor or labour
Favor or favour
Favorite or favourite
Color or colour
Honor or honour

-er vs -re

In American English, some French, Latin, or Greek words end in -er.

In British English, these same words end in -re.

Theater or theatre
Center or centre
Meter or metre
Liter or litre
Saber or sabre
Fiber or fibre

-ize vs -ise

In American English, many Greek-derived words end in -yze or -ize.

In British English, these words end in -yse or -ise.

Realize or realise
Recognize or recognise
Analyze or analyse
Organisation or organization
Minimize or minimise
Finalize or finalise

-ed vs -t

In American English, most verbs are regular and form their past tense with the suffix -ed.

In British English, some of these verbs are irregular and form their past tense with the suffix -t.

Learned or learnt
Burned or burnt
Kneeled or knelt
Dreamed or dreamt
Smelled or smelt
Spelled or spelt

Single vs double consonant

In American English, many words are spelled with a single consonant.

In British English, these same words are spelled with a double consonant.

Modeling or modelling
Traveling or travelling
Canceled or cancelled
Labeled or labelled
Buses or busses
Focused or focussed

Tip
If you’re unsure of a spelling, try checking it with the QuillBot Grammar Checker (making sure to select the relevant version of English in the top right).

Punctuation differences between American and British English

Punctuation differs slightly between British and American English. The table below summarizes the key points of difference.

Punctuation differences between American and British English

American usage 🇺🇸

British usage 🇬🇧

Double quotation marks (“x”), but alternate with single quotation marks for quotations within quotations:

Single quotation marks (‘x’), but alternate with double quotation marks for quotations within quotations:

She said, “This model has been called ‘the best.’”

She said, ‘This model has been called “the best”.”

You can also follow the American English convention (double quotation marks first) instead, as long as you’re consistent.

Punctuation appears within the quotation marks:

Punctuation appears outside the quotation marks:

“They’re the best,” she said.

She said it was ‘the best’.

Except when it serves to modify the surrounding text, not the quotation:

Except when quoting a complete sentence or when punctuation logically belongs to the quotation, not the surrounding text:

"Did she say “hello”?
She told them we’re “the best there is”!

‘How are you today?’ she asked.
She said, ‘They’re great!’

Shortened forms of words (such as titles) always end with a period:

Shortened forms of words only end with a period when the final letter is not the final letter of the complete word:

Doctor: Dr. Mister: Mr. Versus: vs. Honorable: Hon.

Doctor: Dr Mister: Mr Versus: vs Honourable: Hon.

Uppercase initialisms are often written with a period after each letter (e.g., “U.S.S.R.”). But the British convention of no punctuation is increasingly followed nowadays.

Uppercase initialisms are written without punctuation (e.g., “USSR”).

A comma is recommended after all introductory phrases, however short, and after Latin abbreviations such as “i.e.”:

Commas may be used after introductory phrases but are optional. Commas are avoided after Latin abbreviations to avoid double punctuation (a comma immediately following a period):

Fortunately, I had my notebook with me. After arriving home from work, she walks the dog and then cooks dinner. A sentence must contain a verb (e.g., “run,” “jump”). nowadays.

Fortunately I had my notebook with me. After arriving home from work she walks the dog and then cooks dinner. A sentence must contain a verb (e.g. ‘run’, ‘jump’).

The Oxford comma (serial comma)—a comma placed before the conjunction introducing the final item in a list—is recommended by most American style guides:

The Oxford comma is not used very consistently (unless you’re following Oxford style):

Shoes, socks, and shirts

Shoes, socks and shirts

Em dashes (—) are used to mark breaks in sentence structure and to set off parenthetical phrases. They usually appear without spaces around them:

En dashes (–) are used instead, surrounded by spaces:

John—the man in the red hat—won the contest.

John – the man in the red hat – won the contest

But Oxford style recommends using em dashes without spaces, as in American English.

Collective nouns in American and British English

There are some differences in how American and British English handle subject-verb agreement with collective nouns (nouns referring to a group as a unified whole).

Collective nouns in American and British English

American usage 🇺🇸

British usage 🇬🇧

Collective nouns are most commonly treated as singular:

Collective nouns are treated flexibly; subject-verb agreement tends to depend on context (whether the group members seem to be acting collectively or individually):

  • The team is going to win.
  • The staff has discussed it.

  • The team is going to win.
  • The staff have discussed it.

Word choice differences between American and British English

While most of the vocabulary of British and American English is identical, the two languages do occasionally use different words for the same concepts. A few commonly occurring examples are shown in the table below.

Word choice differences between American and British English

American term 🇺🇸

British term 🇬🇧

Box that’s moved up and down mechanically to transport people between floors of a building

elevator

lift

Ground-level floor of a building; floor one level up

first floor; second floor

ground floor; first floor

-ize vs -ise

Part of a building that is sold or rented out as a home

apartment

Punctuation mark (.) that ends a declarative sentence

period

full stop

Levels of education

kindergarten; elementary school; middle school; junior high; senior high; college; first grade, second grade, etc.

nursery; primary school; secondary school; sixth form; university; reception, year 1, year 2, etc.

Types of retail establishments

store; mall; grocery store

shop; shopping centre; supermarket

Motion picture; place where you can watch motion pictures

movie; movie theater

film; cinema

Team sports most popular in Europe and North America respectively

soccer; football

football; American football

Vegetables

eggplant; zucchini; arugula; rutabaga

aubergine; courgette; rocket; swede

Thin, crunchy potato flakes purchased in a bag as a snack

chips

crisps

Thicker potato strips served hot as part of a meal

(French) fries

chips

Large road for high-speed traffic

highway; expressway; freeway

motorway

Paved surface for pedestrians to walk on at the side of a street

sidewalk

pavement

The season comprising September, October, and November

fall

autumn

Dates

March 31, 2023; 03/31/2023

31 March 2023; 31/03/2023

Oxford style: British English with some differences

Oxford style is the version of British English recommended by Oxford University Press, the publisher of dictionaries like the Oxford English Dictionary and usage guides like Fowler’s and Garner’s.

This style largely follows the conventions of British English but gives a few recommendations that are more in line with American English. It’s widely used by international organizations such as the UN, UNESCO, and the WHO as a middle ground between the two variants.

The points where Oxford style differs from British English (and American English) are summarized in the table below. On all other points, Oxford style follows standard British English conventions.

Oxford style compared with American and British English

American English 🇺🇸

Oxford style

British English 🇬🇧/span>

Uses -ize and -yze spellings:

Uses -ize and -yze spellings:

  • anaesthetize
  • organization
  • analyse

Uses -ize and -yze spellings:

  • anaesthetise
  • organisation
  • analyse

Uses em dashes without spaces to mark a break in sentence structure:

Same as American style:

Uses en dashes with spaces to mark a break in sentence structure:

  • The weather in London—usually rainy—was unexpectedly sunny.

  • The weather in London—usually rainy—was unexpectedly sunny.

  • The weather in London – usually rainy – was unexpectedly sunny.

Recommends the Oxford comma in lists:

Same as American style:

Generally no Oxford comma:

  • Dogs, cats and sheep

  • Dogs, cats, and sheep

  • Dogs, cats and sheep

Other national variants of English

British and American English are the most widely used variants, but there are several other major variants from nations that have English as an official language:
  • Canadian English 🇨🇦
  • Australian English 🇦🇺
  • New Zealand English 🇳🇿
  • Indian English 🇮🇳
These variants tend to follow some mixture of UK and US conventions—usually mostly British, since they are members of the Commonwealth of Nations (nations formerly part of the British Empire). Indian English in particular exclusively follows British spelling conventions.

Of the other three, Canada leans furthest toward American English, since it’s geographically so close to the US. Australia and New Zealand more closely follow British conventions, though with some differences. Each variant also has some unique vocabulary unlikely to be encountered in other regions.

The QuillBot Grammar Checker (along with other QuillBot tools) currently has settings for Canadian and Australian English, in addition to American and British English. For New Zealand English, we recommend using the Australian setting; for Indian English, use the British setting. Use the flag icon in the top right corner to choose a setting.

Choosing a variant and being consistent

In most cases, you should write according to the standard conventions of the region you live in. If it’s not so obvious (e.g., you don’t live in any of these regions or you’re writing for an international publication), ask your supervisor or check the guidelines of your department or the publisher.

If you’re writing in some other context (e.g., a personal blog), make a choice based on personal preference or the audience you want to reach. No version of English is “better” than another; the important thing is to be consistent in the version of English you use.

Being careless about your spelling and punctuation choices and using a random mix of conventions from different variants of English will make your text look messy and annoy some readers:

The defense minister first travelled to China in 2013.
The defense minister first traveled to China in 2013.
The defence minister first travelled to China in 2013.

Additionally, make sure that the same spelling rule is followed consistently when there’s a choice. For instance, although both -ise and -ize spellings are acceptable in British English, your text should stick to one or the other, not use a mixture of the two:

The organization allowed me some time to acclimatize to the new surroundings before organising my onboarding.
The organization allowed me some time to acclimatize to the new surroundings before organizing my onboarding.
The organisation allowed me some time to acclimatise to the new surroundings before organising my onboarding.

Do you want to know more about common mistakes, commonly confused words, or other language topics? Check out some of our other language articles full of examples and quizzes.


Common mistakes

Commonly confused words

Rhetoric

Whoa or woah

Advisor vs adviser

Alliteration

Theirs or their's

Accept vs except

Consonance

Ours or our's

Affect vs effect

Verbal irony

Forty or fourty

Among vs between

Irony

Sence or sense

Anymore vs any more

Grawlix


Frequently asked questions about British English and American English

Why is American English different from British English?

Spelling in English was not standardized before the 18th century, meaning that many words had several different spellings. In 1755, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language was published in the UK, standardizing spellings for the first time.

Meanwhile, Noah Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language (the ancestor of Merriam-Webster) appeared in 1828 in the US. Webster disagreed with Johnson on various points of spelling, and Webster’s dictionary, not Johnson’s, was adopted as a guide to standard spelling for American English.

Neither Johnson nor Webster invented the spellings they recommended for British and American English; rather, they looked at the spellings that were in common use at the time and made decisions about which ones they regarded as most widespread and reasonable.

Different national variants of a language tend to develop differences because they evolve in isolation from each other over time. With modern globalization and American cultural influence, these differences are becoming smaller, although they still exist.

What is the difference between American English and British English?

American English is used in the US, while British English is used in the UK. The main differences between American English and British English relate to:

  • Spelling (e.g., “Defense or defence,” “Fulfil or fulfill,” “Favorite or favourite”)
  • Punctuation (e.g., use of the Oxford comma, use of dashes)
  • Grammar (e.g., use of plural or singular verbs with collective nouns)
  • Word choice (e.g., “elevator or lift,” “period or full stop”)

There are also many differences in pronunciation and colloquial language that are not relevant in the context of formal writing.

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Jack Caulfield

Jack is a Brit based in Amsterdam, with an MA in literature. He writes about his specialist topics: grammar, linguistics, citations, and plagiarism. In his spare time, he reads a lot of books.

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