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Tips for Recognising Differences in British and American English

By: Thomas Muller - Updated: 16 Jul 2012 | comments*Discuss
British English American English Letter

Great business letters require grammatical correctness and consistency, but the upholding of such standards is under threat from the creeping influence of American English.

Unconscious Influence of American English

The UK and USA might share the same language but centuries of separate linguistic development has led to the cultivation of two separate strains of English which, in both their spoken and written forms, display a number of differences with one another. When writing a business letter it is important to ensure the British form of English is maintained throughout. American English is not in any way inferior but any “Americanisms” would risk an unfavourable impression by showing stylistic inconsistency and a lack of awareness of what constitutes so-called “proper written English”. What’s more if a difference is not recognised as being American English then it may just be perceived as an error.

One might assume that in being British and living in the UK, British English is already programmed into our brain, but the impact of globalisation, mass media and the USA’s cultural dominance has seen American English creeping ever further into common usage in the UK. Chiefly it is American TV, cinema, music and the internet that are responsible for American terms and slang expressions sneaking into our conversations, and for American English spelling and grammar slipping into our written word. Whether in using American terms, such as airplane, truck, vacation and sweater rather than the British aeroplane, lorry, holiday and jumper, or adopting American expressions like “do the math” and “ballpark figure”, there are many different ways in which the USA influences the way many of us speak and write. What’s worrying about this in terms of letter writing is that the influence is often unconscious.

American English Influence on Letter Writing

Fortunately, many of the ways in which the US influences our language do not have much of a bearing on formal letter writing but rather are only apparent in spoken language and in informal written language.

For instance, in terms of phraseology, a common difference between American and British English is that the present perfect tense (have/has + past participle) is much more common with British English speakers. So while we would say, “I’ve already eaten”, an American might say “I already ate”. As another example, the question “Have you seen my keys anywhere?” would be more likely phrased, “Did you see my keys anywhere?” across the Atlantic.

Another notable variation is how “have” is used more commonly as a delexical verb in British English as opposed to the American English preference for “take”. So when Brits “have a shower” or “have a wash”, Americans “take a shower” or “take a wash”. It is, however, unlikely such phrase types would be used in a business letter.

Prepositions and Past Simple/Past Participle

Grammatical issues that are more common in letter writing include the use of prepositions, which is the word used before a noun, a noun phrase or a pronoun. Here are some examples of preposition variation between British English (BrE) and American English (AmE):

  • Write to me (BrE) / write me (AmE)
  • Please fill in the form (BrE) / Please fill out the form (AmE)
  • At the weekend (BrE) / on the weekend (AmE)
  • In a team (BrE) / on a team (AmE)
  • I studied English at university (BrE) / I studied English in university (AmE)

Another grammatical difference that could potentially factor in letter writing is the use of past simple/past participle. It is much more common for British English speakers to adopt the past simple form of a verb than Americans, who instead prefer the past participle. For example, while a Brit might say, “I dreamt I was eaten by a monster”, an American would say, “I dreamed I was eaten by a monster.” Here are some other common examples:

  • Burn: burnt (BrE) / burned (AmE)
  • Light: lit (BrE) / lighted (AmE)
  • Learn: learnt (BrE) / learned (AmE)

Spelling Variations

The most common differences to watch out in letter writing are with regard to spelling. One of the most obvious examples are the endings –our (BrE) and –or (AmE), such as in colour/color, favour/favor and humour/humor. Other common variations include the American English inversion of the –re at the end of words like theatre, centre and litre to make theatre, center and liter, and its use of –se endings in words like licence, offence and pretence. American English also adopts an –og ending for words like dialogue, analogue and catalogue to make dialog, analog and catalog.

Another frequently encountered disparity, but one that is less cut and dried, is in the use of ‘z’ or ‘s’ in word endings. While traditionally the ending –ise is used in the UK and –ize is used in the US in such words as recognise/recognize and realise/realize, the –ize ending is sometimes also preferred in British English, most notably by the Oxford English Dictionary.

There is less ambiguity with the –yse/yze endings, with –yse being used in British English and –yze in American, such as in words like analyse/analyze and paralyse/paralyze. One final common but often misunderstood difference is with programme/program. While the word is always spelt program in American English it varies its spelling in British English, being spelt programme unless when referring to a computer program.

Spell Check

These are only the most common examples highlighted in order to raise awareness about the number of differences between British and American English and what to watch out for. As it is very difficult to be fully conscious of all the variations, it does help to use a spell check when using a word processing program but, of course, it is vital to make sure that the spell check is set to “British English” otherwise you might unwittingly absorb some more Americanisms.

On the whole the differences are relatively rare in letter writing but like with any grammatical error, a single inconsistency can stand out and leave an unfavourable impression.

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