George Bernard Shaw famously said that the British and the Americans were “two nations separated by a common language”.
Below are some examples of different usage in British and American English. You may already be aware of some of these differences, others may surprise you.
UK / US
Bank holiday / Legal holiday
Fortnight / Two weeks
Ordinary/extraordinary general meeting (of the shareholders) / Regular/special shareholders’ meeting
(Memorandum and) articles of association / (Articles of incorporation and) bylaws
Profit and loss account / Income statement
Chairman / President/Chairman
Managing director / Chief Executive Officer
Estate agent / Realtor
Bureau de change / Currency exchange
Property / Real estate
Post code / Zip code
Prison / Penitentiary
Stand (for office) / Run (for office)
Unit trust / Mutual fund
Cheque / Check
Current account / Checking account
These are just a few examples. It is often worthwhile establishing whether your audience/the recipients of your document would prefer British or American terminology, as although many US terms may be understood by a British person and vice versa others may cause confusion and a need for time to be spent on further explanations/clarifications.
As well as the differences in vocabulary we just looked at, it is also possible to spot differences in grammar and country-specific structures in ‘British’ and ‘American’ documents. Often there are no hard and fast rules, it is simply a question of usage and a result of how the language has developed in each country.
Dates are one well-known example:
UK / US
29 September 2003 / September 29, 2003
29/9/2003 / 9/29/2003
Helpful Hint: It may be worth writing a date out in full, to avoid confusion:
3/9/2003 – 3 September 2003 or March 9, 2003 ?
The use of the comma in a list is also different. Note the extra comma in the US version of the following sentence:
The company has not issued any shares, bonds, stock options or securities this year.
The company has not issued any shares, bonds, stock options, or securities this year.
The next table shows some grammatical differences:
UK / US
I will write to him next week / I will write him next week
It was nice to talk to you / It was nice to talk with you
I am meeting the union representatives tomorrow / I am meeting with the union representatives tomorrow
I live in Main Street / I live on Main Street
Let’s go and see a film / Let’s go see a movie
Different from/different to / Different than/different from
I have already eaten / I already ate
Look out of the window / Look out the window
River Thames / Hudson River
Another interesting example is the third person singular form ‘one’:
“one does what one is told to do”.
This is still in use in the UK in formal language, but is very rarely heard in the US .
Familiar speech forms can also differ greatly. Whereas Americans might say “I sure could use a drink”, the British would say “I really need a drink” or even “I’m dying for a drink”.
You are much more likely to hear an American say “sure can” or “will do” when asked to do something, while a British person might say “yes, of course” or “leave it with me”.
Although such usage may be specific to one country, in most cases it is readily understood in the other. Indeed, with today’s increasingly ‘global’ culture, many British people are now using ‘Americanisms’, although the opposite is rarely true!
Lastly, words are often spelt differently in American and British English. For instance:
UK / US
-s organise / -z organize
-our favour, behaviour / -or favor, behavior
Mistakes can easily be avoided by selecting the appropriate language (British or American English) in your word processing software and running a spell-check. It sounds obvious, but is easy to forget!