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Brits and Yanks: Divided by Language

Over the past few centuries, the English language spread from the United Kingdom, along with its former Empire, to the farthest reaches: across the pond to North America; down under to Australia and New Zealand; around Africa; India; the Caribbean; Hong Kong; the Philippines; as well as our humble island of Malta, to name a few.

Given this, it comes as no surprise that English comes with many not-so-subtle differences in its makeup, causing much confusion, headaches, frustration and sometimes, anger amongst students and teachers alike. Wherever English is spoken these differences exist, but perhaps the most controversial and discussed differences are found in American English.

Americans have a tendency to simplify things. That’s not meant to be a slight in any way, merely an observation. They have a tendency to make things easier and more comfortable.  After all, where did drive-through (or thru?) restaurants, banks, grocery stores, cafes and yes, marriage (admittedly found only in Las Vegas) originate? So it’s no surprise that pretty much all changes made in American English make things shorter and simpler, among them:

 

      • Vocabulary
      • The vocabulary may lead to the biggest confusion. Ask to go to the toilet in the United States and you’ll get confused or slightly offended looks all round, the Brits have no issue referring to the bathroom as the toilet. Americans most commonly refer to it as the restroom.
      • Alternatively, an American might walk into a clothes shop in the UK and ask for pants, only to be given a pair of underwear while in fact he was after trousers. In the UK, pedestrians walk on the pavement, while in the USA, they thought about it and said “well, you walk on the side of the road, right?” and the term sidewalk was born. A traffic circle in the USA (if you ever find one) is a roundabout in the UK. Why? Because you drive round and about it, I guess. Brits go on holiday while Americans take a vacation and while you get to work using the tube or the underground in London, in New York you’ll need to get the subway. The list goes on and on and I’ve only just scratched the surface, a list of the most common differences can be found here.
      • -ize or -iseThe letter z and the lack of u are perhaps the most frustrating differences to British English speakers. In general, words ending with -ise such as realise, organise, authorise in British English end with -ize in American English. The Americans came along and began making changes to all such words: that is the widely held belief. In actual fact, the earliest examples found of such words ending with -ize, came long before American English existed! However, Brits today opt for the use of s over z.
      • Similarly, the Yankees have dropped the letter u in many words which in British English end with -our such as colour, flavour, harbour, and neighbour. As usual, the list goes on. In actual fact, both spellings were possible centuries before the United State of America was founded and while the British carry on using the u in the end, the Americans chose otherwise.
      • Present Perfect and Simple PastThe Present Perfect and Past Simple are often swapped in American English. In British English, the Present Perfect is used to talk about a recent event, usually with adverbs such as just, already and yet.  Interestingly, the Americans use the past simple in these cases. For example, imagine the difference between a British parent and an American parent when being badgered by their children:
        • British mum: Give me a minute, I have just got home!
        • American mom: Give me a minute, I just got home!

        This of course does not mean that Americans do not use the Present Perfect at all, however it’s worth noting that its use in American English has been on the decline.

      • DatesDates have caused much confusion between American and British users of English. I’m not referring to the kind of dates where a boy meets a girl – though I’m sure those are very confusing to many – I’m talking about dates: day, month, year.
      • Consider the following, your American friend invites you to an event which you would hate to miss and tells you that it is on 07/10/2016. You book your flights and sort out your accommodation and take leave from work, only to show up and be told, “Sorry mate, that was three months ago!”
      •  

        This of course is an exaggeration, as a situation like this is highly unlikely, but either way, it’s best to double check where your documents are coming from. If it’s an American source, July 10th, 2016 is likely to be written as 07/10/2016, while in the majority of the rest of the world, 10th July, 2016 is shortened to 10/07/2016.

 

The truth is, which ever style you prefer, use it and stick to it. If you start writing a text using American English, finish it off using American English. In other words, don’t suddenly walk along the sidewalk and see a roundabout. Moreover, always remember who you are addressing, if it’s a Cambridge professor, don’t write about how organized you are. He won’t have it.

These are only a few of the hundreds of differences between the two styles and of course I could drone on for pages into the nitty-gritty of it, but I will spare everyone the grief and end with a bit of wit from the legendary British writer Oscar Wilde, who once commented, “we have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language” – and that was in the 19th century.

 

Focus on Fluency

across the pond – ‘the pond’ refers to the Atlantic Ocean, ‘across the pond’ is most commonly used by British people to refer to the USA, but may also be used by Americans to refer to Europe.

down under – used to refer to Australia or New Zealand

comes as no surprise – it is expected

not-so-subtle (adj)  – sometimes obvious

a slight (n)- an insult

scratch the surface – to look at something superficially

Yankees (n) – Americans

to badger (v) – to annoy continuously

to drone on (v) – to talk for hours

nitty-gritty (n) – the details

 

 

Benjamin Charles Cassar - ESE Malta Author: Benjamin Charles Cassar

 

About the Author:  Benjamin Charles Cassar is the Academic e-Resources Coordinator at ESE.   He has taught a wide range of ages and levels since joining ESE in 2011 and enjoys travelling, reading and writing when time allows.