English may have begun in England (sort of – it’s a Germanic language, after all). But it is now spoken in dozens of countries all around the world. As such, you may sometimes hear people refer to “British English” (sometimes shortened to BrE, BrEng, or en-GB) rather than English in general.
But what is British English? And how does it differ from American English? In this post, we’ll take you through the basics of how to use it in your writing.
What Is British English?
British English is the type of English spoken in the UK. It includes a range of regional and local dialects, such as Scottish English. It sometimes even includes the English spoken in Commonwealth countries. These dialects differ in some ways, but the term “British English” refers to the areas where they overlap (e.g., where they share a standard spelling or grammatical form).
How Do American and British English Differ?
Written American English and UK English (we’ll leave pronunciation to the linguists) are similar in many ways, but there are differences. These include:
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Spelling – American and British English differ in the spelling of many words. Some of these follow patterns (e.g., words like humor and color become humour and colour in UK English). Other differences are unique to specific words (e.g., the extra “i” the British put in aluminium).
Vocabulary – As well as using different spellings, UK English uses completely different words in some cases. The punctuation mark we know as a “period” in American English, for instance, is a “full stop” in the UK.
Grammar – There are not as many grammatical differences between American and British English as there are in spelling and vocabulary, but there are a few. For instance, while American English uses “gotten” as the past participle form of the verb “get” (e.g., I have gotten good at spelling), British English uses “got” in its place.
Punctuation – There are also minor differences between American and British punctuation. For instance, American English favors “double quote marks,” whereas ‘inverted commas’ are standard in the UK.
Keep an eye out for these issues if you’re writing for a British audience.
Tips for Using British English
We won’t attempt a definitive rundown of everything that makes UK English unique here. But we will offer a few helpful guidelines that you can follow when using British English:
Remember that some British dialect terms are informal. For example, the term “cracking” can mean “excellent” in UK English. But this word is informal, so you would not use it in formal writing such as a college paper. Dictionaries should tell you when a word is informal.
If you have a style guide from your school or publisher, check whether it specifies dialect-specific spelling or punctuation rules.
British English often accepts multiple spellings (e.g. organise and organize). Make sure not to mix different spellings of the same word in a document
When writing in Microsoft Word, set it to use British English by going to Review > Language > Set Proofing Language on the ribbon and selecting “English (United Kingdom).”
Finally, you can have your work proofread by someone who knows British English. This is especially useful if you are less familiar with UK English, as a native speaker may spot things you have missed.