American and British English: an overview

If you were a student of English at some point in your life, or if you still are, then you have probably heard of the distinction between British English (BE) and American English (AE). This is usually not something which is dealt with systematically and in depth in the classroom, but more like an issue randomly touched on and quite often brought up by students themselves, mostly when they hear a word that corresponds to a definition they are used to expressing with another word. Let’s suppose, for example, a teacher says that the place where we go to watch films on a big screen to get some entertainment is called cinema; it’s possible for students who are already somehow familiar with the topic to reply something like ‘don’t we call that place movie theatre because we go there to see movies?’ That’s frequently how you start learning about it.

The differences come with no surprise from a linguistic point of view: a language continuously evolves also based on the place where it is spoken; as for the reason why these two variants have become the most spread all over the world, that’s of course due to the great political and economic power held by the United Kingdom first and then by the United States of America.               

Although the main differences between BE and AE are in pronunciation and in some items of vocabulary, other language areas are involved too; let’s see three grammar minor points it’s interesting and useful to know about:

1. Present perfect and past simple

In BE, people use the present perfect to speak about a past action which is either very recent or has some influence on the present, and that’s why we normally find this verb tense with time expressions such as yet, already and just

I’ve just met Mary with her friend Jerry.

Have you done your homework yet?

I’ve already eaten my lunch.

In AE, we can find this same use, but it’s also common to observe the past simple when they consider the action finished.

I just met Mary with her friend Jerry.

Did you do your homework yet?

I already ate my lunch.

2. The verb get

In British English, the past participle of the verb get is got, but in American English, gotten is used.

BE: Your English has got better. (= It has become better.)

AE: Your English has gotten better. (= It has become better.)

When the verb have got is utilized to express possession, American English prefers got:

BE: He’s got a new dog. (= He has a new dog.)

AE: He’s got a new dog. (= He has a new dog.)

A note on this last point: in American English this use of have got is limited, they prefer to use have.

3. Verb forms with collective nouns

In British English, nouns referring to groups of people or things (e.g. government, team, family) can be followed by a singular or plural verb. This basically depends on the main focus of the sentence: with the singular verb, we think of the group as acting as a single unit, whereas with the plural form we see the group as made of independent individuals:

Local government consists of elected county and municipal councils.

The Government seem more interested in our genes than our voices.

In American English, a singular verb is used with collective nouns:

Local government consists of elected county and municipal councils.

The Government seems more interested in our genes than our voices.

In the next article, we will review spelling and pronunciation… so, stay tuned! And see you in two weeks.

EM


References

https://learnenglish.britishcouncil.org/

Foley, M. & Hall, D. (2012), MyGrammarLab Intermediate B1/B2. Pearson.

Eastwood, J. (1994), Oxford Guide to English Grammar. Oxford University Press.

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