Grammatical Differences: American vs. British English
  • 5-minute read
  • 7th July 2019

Grammatical Differences: American vs. British English

Previously, we’ve looked at some common spelling differences between American English and British English. But did you know there are differences between American and British grammar, too?

These are easy to miss if you’re not careful, so check out our guide to some key grammatical differences between American and British English.

Preposition Switching

One difference between American and British grammar is our use of prepositions (i.e., words that indicate a relationship between other words). For example, while we might look forward to relaxing “on the weekend,” our British equivalents would relax “at the weekend.”

Other prepositions that may get switched include (American/British English):

  • At / In (I’m studying math in college. / I’m studying maths at university.)
  • In / For (I haven’t been there in years! / I haven’t been there for years!)
  • Through / To (I work Monday through Friday. / I work Monday to Friday.)

These distinctions are less clear than they used to be thanks to the influence of American English, which has helped American grammar to spread. But they’re still worth watching out for if you want to sound British.

Collective Nouns

A collective noun refers to a group of things. American English treats this type of noun as singular. And this means we usually combined a collective noun with other singular terms:

The team was happy with its performance.

Here, we treat “the team” as a singular entity, so we use the singular verb “was” and the singular possessive pronoun “its.” Using the plural terms “are” and “their” would thus be incorrect.

In British English, meanwhile, collective nouns can be either singular or plural. As such, they can also be combined with plural verbs and pronouns:

The team were happy with their performance.

In other words, both sentences above would be fine in British English. The second, however, would be considered incorrect in American English simply because “were” and “their” are plural.

The only exception to this is when the members of a group are acting separately (i.e., as individuals). In this case, both American and British English can use plural terms with a collective noun.

Verb Tense when Discussing Past Events

American and British English often differ when describing a past event that has consequences in the present. In American English, we prefer the simple past tense in cases like this. For example:

American English: David ate too much, so he feels unwell.

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Here, we have a past event (eating too much) that has consequences in the present (feeling unwell), so we have used the simple past tense.

But British English speakers tend to use the present perfect tense in similar situations. This means using “has/have” plus a present participle verb rather than just a simple past tense verb. For instance:

British English: David has eaten too much, so he feels unwell.

The same is true in sentences with past-time adverbs, like “just” or “already”:

American English: Beryl just took a painkiller.

British English: Beryl has just taken a painkiller.

Irregular Verb Forms

Some irregular verbs can differ in American and British English. This is rare, with most verb forms being the same between dialects. But there are some differences you need to know. The most famous example is probably “gotten,” which isn’t used in British English.

Another word to look out for is “dove.” This is the simple past tense of “dive” in American English, while the past participle form is “dived.” In the UK, though, “dived” is both a simple past tense verb and a past participle. As such, “dove” is hardly ever used as a verb in British English.

Finally, look out for irregular spellings of verbs that would usually end “ed” in American English. For instance, “learned” and “burned” can be spelled (or spelt) “learnt” and “burnt” in British English. The American spellings are also accepted, though, so it isn’t a problem if you use an “-ed” ending.

Does It Really Matter?

Before we leave you, let’s reflect on how much the issues above matter. In simple terms, the answer is “not a lot.” American and British English are much closer in grammar than spelling or vocabulary, so most people simply ignore the differences. And the lines between American and British English grammar are becoming increasingly blurred.

However, you may need to be aware of the differences between American and British grammar when:

  • Writing for a specifically British audience
  • Working for a UK-based company or organization
  • Studying at a UK-based university or school

As such, if any of the above apply to you, keep an eye out for grammar in your writing that sounds “American” and think about what the UK equivalent might be. And if you’d like any more help localizing your language in writing, don’t forget to have your work proofread.

Comments (7)
María
26th September 2020 at 14:57
Hi. I´d like to know if there is a difference between British and American use of genitive case. For example: Peter ans Mary´s house is the same as Peter´s and Mary´s house? (Peter and Mary are the owners of the house in both cases. Thank you!
    Proofed
    28th September 2020 at 09:07
    Hi, Maria. There's no difference between US and UK English in that case. The difference is one of shared ownership (i.e., "Peter and Mary´s house" = the house that Peter and Mary own together) versus two people owning the same thing. Technically, since "house" is a countable noun, you'd be more likely to see "Peter's and Mary's houses" (i.e., Peter's house and Mary's separate house). But maybe "Peter's and Mary's house" would imply two people owning 50% of a single house separately! We have more on apostrophes and possession here: https://proofed.com/writing-tips/apostrophes-joint-ownership/
Ker
3rd June 2021 at 02:32
Cleared so much confusion for a person growing up with British English and living in the US! Thanks heaps!
    Ker
    3rd June 2021 at 02:37
    Would love if you could expand this topic further: common use of past simple in the US vs present perfect in the UK. Thanks!
      Proofed
      3rd June 2021 at 09:05
      Thanks, Ker. Is there anything in particular you'd like expanding on regarding that topic? We can try to offer more information if there's anything you'd like more detail on.
Pattie
24th August 2021 at 11:51
"In the twenty-first century however, there is so much movement of both written texts and audio documents that the differences between American English and British English are becoming blurred." This is from the introduction to Rossiter's New English Grammar, American edition (https://linguapress.com/grammar/american-english-grammar.htm), which, I think, sums it up. Perhaps the most important point, that Rossiter does not make, is that a writer should be consistent. So don't write color in one paragraph and coloured in the next
    Proofed
    24th August 2021 at 14:07
    Hi, Pattie. It's certainly true that the lines between dialects are becoming more blurred with the internationalization of English (e.g., you'll find plenty of British people who use the simple past tense to discuss things that recently happened). But with the particular example of spellings like "color/colour" (and other words that follow that pattern, such as "humor/humour," "flavor/flavour," and so on), there is usually still a strong distinction between dialects, so it does depend on the situation at hand! Like you say, consistency is perhaps the most important factor, but, for now at least, it is still worth paying close attention to dialect features of English in formal writing or writing intended for publication.

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