American or British English: Does it Matter?

by | Nov 4, 2020

George Bernard Shaw created the oft-repeated phrase that the United Kingdom and the United States of America are two countries separated by a common language. His compatriot, Oscar Wilde, noted that: We have really everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language. These two towering literary figures lived long before the advent of the Internet, but if they were here today, they might understand the importance of American or British English.

While American tourists visiting the UK may breathe a big sigh of relief that there’s no “language barrier,” in reality, British English and American English have a surprising number of differences. Indeed, if you are thinking of bringing your business across the pond, you need to realize that there are divergencies in spades between British and American English. You may believe that we’re off our rocker, but read on. 

american or british english

The Brits Are More Polite

British English tends to avoid bluntness and directness (e.g., he’s helping the police with their enquires instead of he’s been taken into custody). Because of these differences, Brits in the US often appear hesitant or wishy-washy since they avoid saying precisely what they mean. On the other hand, Americans in the UK are sometimes stereotyped as unfriendly, abrasive, and rude since the American style of directness is less familiar or acceptable.

Business Terms

Many business words and phrases sound similar but are distinctly different in British English. Here are just a few examples:

  • You don’t get a pay raise; you get a pay rise.
  • You don’t get offered flex time at your job; you receive flexi-time.
  • You don’t order a custom-made suit; you get it bespoke. 

When doing business, British English speakers will tend to preface their correspondence with “Maybe,” “I believe,” or “Perhaps,” to avoid sounding bossy or demanding, even when their communication is meant to be followed without question. However, in a US working environment, this way of phrasing will probably be perceived as weak, and the same message will be received more as a suggestion than a requirement.

In addition, British English speakers tend to use the word “sorry” as a common interjection. However, in America, “sorry” will be interpreted as an indication of guilt. 

Food-Based Words

In British English, French fries are referred to as chips (as in that popular food fish and chips). Similarly, what Americans refer to as cookies are called biscuits. If you are in the food industry, you need to know the differences between the way the two English languages refer to what we eat.

Clothing Terms 

US businesses in the clothing industry can get into trouble with certain words and phrases when marketing in the UK. For instance, a sweater in the US would be called a jumper in the UK. To really scramble your mind, a US jumper is what a Brit would know as a pinafore dress. And whatever you do, don’t get a pinafore dress confused with a mere pinafore. In the US, a pinafore is called an apron. To top it all off, if you mention pants in the UK, your audience would likely think of underwear. If you don’t mean undergarments, you would need to say trousers instead.

Transportation Terms

In the US, a trolley transports a group of people, but in the UK, it merely transports food – it’s a kind of large tray on wheels. What transports Brits up and down in a building is a lift, whereas Americans use an elevator.

Even automobiles and their component parts may not have the same names in the UK as in the US. What Americans refer to as a truck is a lorry in the UK. A sedan is referred to as a saloon. In the UK, the trunk is the boot of a car, and the bonnet is the hood. Even gasoline has a different name – it’s petrol. Clearly, if you want to sell cars or automotive components in the UK, you need to get with the local language, such as. 

  • pavement (sidewalk)
  • motorway (highway)
  • subway (an underground passage under a road or street for pedestrians, or the London underground)

Strange Sounds

British English includes thousands of words and phrases that sound a bit weird to American ears. Here’s a small sampling:

  • holidays (vacations)
  • university (college)
  • in hospital (in the hospital)
  • car hire (car rental)
  • car park (parking lot)
  • pushchair (stroller)

Idioms

UK English is rich in fascinating expressions, and if you want your content to sound British, you’ll need to adjust your vernacular. Sometimes it’s just a matter of swapping out a word or two. For example, you touch wood for good luck instead of knocking on it. Here are a few more intriguing ones:

  • It fell off the back of a lorry (it’s stolen)
  • For donkey’s years (for a really long time)
  • It’s not cricket (it’s not right)
  • On the blink (it’s failing)
  • Gone pear-shaped (gone all wrong)

For a long list of British idioms, click on this link.

Collective Nouns

When translating into British English, you have to take note of how collective nouns and pronouns are approached. In the American context, a collective is seen as one but is still regarded as a group of individuals in British English. For example, The band are playing their best song tonight (British). 

Grammatical Differences

Localization in the UK means taking notice of the different way grammar is used in the two countries. For example, the usage of ‘shall’ and ‘will.’ A Brit says: I shall be there tomorrow, while an American says: I will be there tomorrow

American or British English – Spelling Differences

If you use American spelling for your British marketing content, your readers will think that it’s riddled with typos, even if they may be used to reading American publications. It’s worth localizing your content by “Briticising” your spelling. Here are some common examples:

  • Use -s instead of -z (e.g., realise, organise, immunise, and yes, even localise).
  • Use -our instead of -or (e.g., colour, flavor, neighbourhood). 
  • Use –ue: (e.g., dialogue, analogue, monologue)
  • Don’t forget -re instead of -er (e.g., litre, centre, theatre)

It’s Not Just About Spelling

Localization in the UK also means paying attention to issues of currency, VAT (value-added tax), and shipping with transparency and local flavor. For instance:

  • postcode (zip code)
  • flat (apartment)
  • surname (last name) 

Click here to see a comparison between a postal address in the US and one in the UK.

The Takeaway

Of course, the above examples are just a few of the countless differences American or British English. Now that you have some idea of how high the chances are of making a serious faux pas in your British content, you will realize the necessity of localization in the UK. 

Why Online Localization in the UK Matters

If you are contemplating doing business in the UK, it’s in your best interest to choose wisely between American or British English. When you adapt your digital content for the UK, your brand will appear less American and more invested in the local culture. Localize is a translation/localization agency that can help you achieve a high level of local British flair. This American-friendly market is within your reach with effective localization (or localisation!) in the UK. Talk to us today.