Posted on July 30, 2013

American English vs. British English

This article was first published in the  October, 2012 issue of  Valley India Times,

When the US athletes and other personnel embarked on their Olympics journey in London, they had a perception that communication in another English speaking country would be a piece of cake.  Their notions, however, were dispelled when they discovered that certain words and phrases in British English were absolutely different from those in American English.  This got me thinking, “Didn’t I share similar perceptions before I moved to the United States at the beginning of this century?” Sure, I did.

Growing up in the post-colonial India of the late fifties, I was taught British English accepted by Indians in their own way.  Pursuing my Masters in English literature and later a Ph.D from the universities in India was a pretty easy journey for me.  Therefore, with two decades of teaching experience as an English teacher under my belt, when I decided to move to the US, an English speaking country, I never anticipated it would pose any other challenge except that of accent.

However, a couple of days in the US were enough to dissipate my notions as well.  The days rolled into weeks, and weeks passed into months, while many unfamiliar but interesting American English terms and phrases were unfolded to me at every step of the way.  Being a part of English Department in two community colleges and high schools provided me opportunities to learn more about the differences between American and British English in all areas, namely, usage, grammar, and spelling.  This experience motivated me to embark on this fascinating venture of looking at some of these dissimilarities between British English and American English. Let’ us take a look and have fun.

As an educator, daily interactions with students and teachers revealed to me a number of different terms/ expressions in the area of education.  I learned it early on that they have ‘lunch break’ in American schools as opposed to ‘recess’ in Indian schools.  Soon I learned that American students ‘turn in’ their papers, while Indian students ‘submit’ them; they ‘check in’ and ‘check out’ the books from the library, while their Indian counterparts ‘issue’ and ‘return’ them; American students earn ‘points’ while Indian students earn ‘marks’ for their assignments.  Moreover, American students are marked ‘tardy’ when they show up late to the class, while Indian students are marked ‘late’.  The teachers here ‘grade’ student papers, while their Indian counterparts ‘check’ them, and at the end of the term, teachers in the US post students ‘scores or grades’ while Indian teachers announce ‘results’.

Another interesting observation I made was that here in the US, post graduate universities and colleges are called graduate schools e.g. B-Schools, Law Schools, and Medical Schools where as in India schools are institutions that provide education up to grade 12 only.  During my recent trip to India, when people asked me what I was doing after quitting teaching, I told them that I now help B-school applicants with their essays and resumes.  At this, they gave me a perplexed look and asked, “What B-schools?  You said you quit teaching?”

During my initial semesters as an Adjunct instructor at the community colleges here, my knowledge of grammar received a tremendous jolt a couple of times.  For the last four decades, it had been ingrained in my mind that the relative pronoun ‘that’ is used for inanimate objects while ‘who’ is used for livings beings.  So I was baffled when I noticed students using ‘that’ for human beings, and thus, in my opinion, treating things and human beings alike.  In the beginning, I would penalize them for referring to people as ‘that’ in their writing assignments, but when I noticed this usage in e-mail communication within the English department, I gave in and kind of reconciled to this non- discrimination between living and non-living beings.  I even discussed this with my Indian colleague at a community college, and she said that she still enforced the use of ‘who’ on her students by docking them for using ‘that’ for living beings.

Another grammar usage that glared me in the face was the use of ‘practise’ and ‘defense’ both as a verb and as a noun which required me to unlearn my previous knowledge of these words i.e. ‘practise’ and ‘defense’ as verbs and ‘practice’ and ‘defence’ as nouns.  I distinctly recall the day when, as a new instructor, I first showed my syllabus to the chairperson of the community college, and the only suggestion he had for me was to spell the word ‘defence’ right by replacing ‘c’ with an ‘s’.  ‘This is British English’, he remarked.  Since then, I have never dared to use ‘c’ in my ‘defense’.

Furthermore, I noticed that the past tense and past participle form of certain verbs differ from those in British English.  Some verbs such as learn, burn, dream, smell, spell, lean, spoil ended in ‘d’ or ‘ed’ in their past and past participle forms e.g. learned, burned, dreamed, smelled, spelled etc., whereas in British English , and by default in Indian English, all these verbs ended in a ‘t’ in their past and past participle forms e.g. learnt, dreamt, burnt etc.  Furthermore, the use of ‘gotten’ as the past participle form of the verb ‘get’ is considered obsolete in British English, but it is popularly used in American English.  In addition, I learned here that comma is used before ‘and’ while listing some items in a sentence.  In India, we never used a comma before the conjunction ‘and’.

Also, I noticed that the prepositions are used a little differently in American English.  We never needed the assistance of a preposition when we met someone, and would simply say ‘I met him/her’, but in America, we add a preposition ‘with’ when we meet ‘with’ somebody.  Likewise, in India we always ‘talked to’ people, while here we ‘talk with’ people.  Furthermore, if we had not seen some one for a long time, we would say ‘I have not seen you for a long time or years/ months’, but here we say, ‘I have not seen you in a long time.

In addition to prepositions, I also found the use of some adverbs and verbs a little bit different from what I was accustomed to.  For example, to express our fondness for something, instead of saying I like it ‘very much’; we would say I like ‘a whole lot’ in American English.  Instead of referring to ‘many’ people on the streets, we refer to ‘a lot of ‘people here.  The parents here ‘raise’ their children, unlike their counterparts in India and England who ‘bring up’ their kids.  It was interesting to note that in American English, the phrase ‘to bring up’ means ‘to mention’.  Here we ‘turn on and turn off’ the fans and lights which we ‘switch on and switch off’ in India.  Also, we ‘move’ to another house here, whereas, in India we ‘shift’ to a new house.

Some other terms that are used differently here from those in England and India are ‘soda’ for ‘cold drink’, ‘elevator’ for ‘lift’, ‘business card’ for ‘visiting cards’,last name’ for ‘surname’,cupcakes’ for ‘fairy cakes’, ‘flash light’ for ‘torch’, ‘drugstore’ for ‘chemist’, and ‘flash drive’ for ‘thumb drive’.  A couple of  other examples are 'front desk’ for 'reception’, ‘assistance’ for ‘checkpoint’, ‘garbage or  trash’ for ‘litter’, ‘restrooms’ for ‘toilets’, ‘exit’ for ‘way out’, ‘signal’ for ‘indicator’, 'hood’ for ‘bonnet’, ‘gas’ for ’petrol , ‘apartment’ for ‘flat’, and ‘first floor’ for ‘ground floor’, to name just a few.

The dissimilarities are not limited to grammar and usage, but are also prevalent in spellings.  I had to unlearn some spellings that I had been so accustomed to for years.  To cite some examples, it took me some time to get used to dropping certain alphabets from words such as ‘u’ from ‘colour’ and ‘honour’ and ‘l’ from ‘jeweller’ and ‘traveller’, and spell the bank ‘cheque’ as a verb ‘check’.  Also, ‘center’ and ‘theater’ are American spelling, and ‘centre’ and ‘theatre’ are their British equivalents.

I am sure the above comparative study is just a snapshot, and there must be many more expressions in British and American English that could be cited as evidences of their distinctive flavor which I am not even familiar with.  Nevertheless, whatever form of English we speak - Indian English, British English, American English, or a fine medley of all three, our language is an expression of our ideas and thoughts.  Our language and our accent, I believe, is a reflection of who we are.  It is a stamp of our identity, a mirror of the culture we were born into and the culture we have now adopted.  So we should use it as a tool to celebrate our identity, while having fun with its distinct usage in various parts of the world.