Separated By a Language: British vs. American English

Separated By a Language: British vs. American English

“The UK and the US are two countries separated by a common language.” Surprisingly, it’s true. While tourists traveling between these two countries may breathe a sigh of relief that there’s no “language barrier” to impact their vacationing, the fact of the matter is that British English and American English have a surprising number of differences.

Words and phrases such as “pavement” (sidewalk), “motorway” (highway), “paddling pool” (kiddie pool), “push chair” (stroller), and “boot” (trunk) can cause confusion and stress to travelers and immigrants alike. Having to play charades or provide long, complicated descriptions of a needed item at a store or restaurant becomes a familiar occurrence to those attempting to visit or live in the other country.

Not only do British English and American English differ in vocabulary, they also differ in their communication styles and patterns. For example, in the business world British English speakers tend to preface their communications with “I believe,” “Maybe,” or “Perhaps,” to avoid sounding bossy or demanding—even when their correspondence is meant to be followed to the letter without question. However, in an American workplace, this type of phrasing is often perceived as weak, and the message is often received more as a suggestion than a requirement. In addition, British English speakers tend to use the word “sorry” as an interjection or word “as common as hello.” However, in the United States, “sorry” is interpreted as an indication of guilt, which can lead to the British speaker inadvertently taking the blame for something he or she did not actually do.

Additionally, British Englsih has a tendency to avoid directness and bluntness. British English speakers in the US often come across as wishy-washy or hesitant, since they avoid saying exactly what they mean. On the other hand, Americans in the UK are sometimes stereotyped as rude, unfriendly, and abrasive, since the American style of directness is less acceptable or familiar.

The chart below shows a few examples of the differences between British and American English and some of the misinterpretations that can easily occur:

Anglo-EU Translation Guide

See Lucy Millington’s blog on the Forbes website for more examples of British and American English confusion.

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