American vs British English: Divided by a Common Language

Los malentendidos lingüísticos -a menudo divertidos, a veces embarazosos- son muy frecuentes en la comunicación entre británicos y estadounidenses.

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American English vs British English

Yes, in theory the United Kingdom and the United States share a common language but in some ways they don’t really. While most words that differ can be guessed from the context, there are some English words that have a radically different meaning depending on which side of the Atlantic you’re on. Get them wrong and you could find yourself in a very sticky situation!


The classic example, of course, is ‘pants.’ ‘Pants’ in American English come down to the ankle and can be worn in the street without causing alarm. In British English these are ‘trousers’. A Brit almost always wears ‘trousers’ over his ‘pants’ when in the street, just as an American wears ‘pants’ over his ‘underpants.’

In fact, clothing is a minefield of potential misunderstanding. Take ‘suspenders’ and ‘braces.’ Imagine you’re shopping for clothes and a man asks where he can buy some suspenders. In New York you’d assume he needs something that isn’t a belt to hold up his pants. Brits call these ‘braces.’ In London, however, you might assume he needs something to hold up his stockings and so direct him to a lingerie store to purchase what Americans call ‘a garter belt’!

In American English ‘pants’ refers to  what the British call trousers, while ‘pants’ to the British is an informal term for underwear, what the Americans call ‘underpants’.


Some differences between British and American English are merely inconvenient. Last week a hotel receptionist handed me a key to my room and told me it was on the second floor. Which it was… butonly in American English.

As my default setting is British English, I walked up two flights of stairs to what I thought was the second floor when in fact my room was on the floor below. When it comes to floors in a building, the Brits and Americans are only out-of-sync by one. But until 1974 the British word ‘billion’ was nine hundred and ninety-nine thousand million more than an American billion (a million million for Brits but only a thousand million for Americans). Fortunately for everyone, that confusion has been fixed and now ‘a billion’ is always a thousand million whether you say ‘garter belt’ or ‘suspenders’.






Spelling is one of the most obvious differences. As we all know, English spelling seems pretty anarchic but American English has taken a few steps to simplify it. This is partly thanks to the work of American politician and reformer Noah Webster in the late 18th century. Webster wanted the reforms to go further, for example to change the spelling of ‘women’ to ‘wimmen.’ He didn’t win on that one but there are some examples of spelling that have been simplified.


Curiously, some words that now sound thoroughly American, like ‘fall’ instead of ‘autumn’, are in fact originally British. The word ‘fall’ (short for ‘the fall of the leaf’) was used widely in Britain in the 16th century and while ‘fall’ survives in American English, the British abandoned it in favour of the French-based word autumn. Or the words ‘faucet’ (US) and ‘tap’ (UK). Both ‘faucet’ and ‘tap’ used to be used in Britain but over the centuries the Americans favoured the French-based word while Brits stuck with the Germanic one.

In American English  ‘suspenders’ are what the Brits call ‘braces', while ‘suspenders’ to a Briton are what the Americans call a ‘garter belt’.

And while we’re on the subject of bathrooms… in the US if you ask where the bathroom is, everyone knows you’re signalling politely that you need to pee. Not so long ago, in Britain the bathroom meant exactly that, a room with a bath in it… but not necessarily a toilet. And when Americans asked for the ‘restroom’, we were really confused.


Now that we’re all addicted to American series on Netflix or HBO, most Brits can understand and even speak American quite easily. If you ask for the bathroom or even restroom now in London, your need to pee will be understood and you won’t be forced to pee in a bath or sent somewhere to have a rest.

However, I’m not convinced that the transatlantic bilingualism always works so well the other way. When I’m in my office and ask my North American colleague to pass me a rubber, surely the context makes it obvious that I need an eraser… but you’d be surprised! And I haven’t even mentioned the differences between English in the US and Canada. That’s for another day!

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