What is the difference between American English and British English?

What is the difference between American English and British English?

What is the difference between American English and British English?


by Ela Britchkow, Speech-Language Pathologist, Accent Modification Specialist

American pronunciation

When people talk about “learning American pronunciation”, they mean learning General American or Standard American English pronunciation. General American is the accent that is most often spoken on national television in the United States. Educated Americans usually speak Standard American English and that is what you’ll hear 90% of what you’ll hear on American TV, radio, podcasts, movies, Web videos, etc.

There are differences in regional accents, but in general, differences between American regional accents are small compared with the regional differences within Britain.

General American pronunciation is rhotic /’roʊtɪk/, which means that the letter R is always pronounced.

British pronunciation

When people talk about learning British pronunciation, they usually think of Received Pronunciation (RP). RP is the pronunciation of the British upper class – people who went to universities like Oxford and Cambridge. Only about 5% of Britons speak RP — these are upper-class people, academics, actors, TV personalities, politicians and English teachers. Most Britons speak with their local accents. If you go anywhere else than the south-east of England and talk to people on the street, you will most likely hear something quite different from RP, which can be very hard to understand to untrained ears. Sometimes cities that are only 20 km apart have very different accents.

RP is non-rhotic, which means that the letter R is usually “silent”, unless it is followed by a vowel. For example: car will sound like “cah” and inform will sound like “infom”. In words like redforeignprintR is pronounced (R is followed by a vowel). R is also pronounced at the end of a word, if the next word starts with a vowel, for example: number eightfar away. Most RP speakers also insert an R in phrases like: the idea(r) ofAfrica(r) and Asialaw(r) and order. This R is not in the spelling; they just use it to separate two vowels.

The following pairs sound exactly the same in RP: or–awecourt–caught,sore–sawfarther–fatherformerly–formally. In Standard American, they all sound different.

There are a few words in British English where the stress is put in a different part of the word. For example:

British American
BAL let bal LET
Ad DRESS AD dress
GA rage ga RAGE
Ad ver TIS ment ( short /i/) ad ver TISE ment (long /i/)

Note: the capital letters symbolize where the sound is stressed.

The differences in pronunciation of other words lie in the vowel sounds, not in differently-stressed syllables. For example:

British American
vase:   vars as in cars vace as in face
route:   root as in shoot rout  as in shout (Some Americans pronounce it the British way.)
buoy:   boy as in toy booey as in the French name Louis
ate:   et as in let ate as in late
tomato:   tomarto tomayto
leisure as in pleasure leesure (lee as in she)

The British use some vocabulary words that are different than Americans use.

British American
cupboard closet
holiday vacation
autumn fall
Drawing pin Thumb tack
torch flashlight
underground subway
luggage baggage
film movie
curtains drapes
lift elevator
bonnet hood
postman mailman
bill check
queue line
sweets candy
petrol gas
caravan trailer
cutlery silverware
Car park Parking lot
lorry truck
rubbish garbage
jumper sweater
chips French fries
biscuit cookie
flat apartment
yard garden


Some Words Ending in -ILE are Different in British and American English

British (the /i/ is pronounced with the long /i/ sound) American (the /i/ is pronounced with the short /i/ sound
agile agil
fertile fertil
mobile mobil
hostile hostil
versatile Versatil

In some words, the letter “A” is pronounced differently in British and American English

British American
Bath (baath) Bath (b/ae/th)
Laugh (laagh) L/ae/gh
Class (claass) Cl/ae/ss
Chance (chance) Ch/ae/nce
Ask (aask) /ae/sk
After (aafter) /ae/fter
Can’t (caan’t) c/ae/nt
Example (example) Ex/ae/mple

The -IZATION ending is different in British and American English

British (long /i/ in the “ization” part and the first syllable is stressed English
Civilization (CI vil ization) ci vil I ZA tion
Organization (OR gan ization) or gani ZA tion
Authorization (AUTH or ization) Auth or I ZA tion
Globalization (GLO bal ization) Glo bal I ZA tion

The letter “T” in the middle of a word can be pronounced like a soft “D” in American English and as a clear /t/ in British English.

British American
water wader
hated haded
writing wriding
bottom bodom
little liddle
better beder
matter madder
letter ledder

Some words are spelled differently in British English than in American English. Here are just a few common words that are spelled differently:

British English
colour color
theatre theater
travelling traveling
jewellry jewelry
proramme program
skilful skillful
checque check
moustache mustache
aeroplane airplane
neighbour neighbor
Gaol (pronounced jail) jail
pyjamas pajamas
learnt learned



By Ela Britchkow, Speech and Language Pathologist
©2016 Ela Britchkow

1 Comment
  1. Avatar for Ela Britchkow

    Thank you for your interest Susie! Please email us at Contact@speechimprovementnow.com with the post suggestion that you would like to share with our audience, we look forward to seeing it!

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