English language varieties

English is the main language in many places, an important language in others, and spoken as a second language in most of the rest of the world. However, there are some significant differences in pronunciation, spelling and word usage around the world. This article aims to provide a list of some of these differences that may be useful to travellers.

The United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language. G.B. Shaw

The clearest distinction is between what can be loosely called the Commonwealth and American varieties of English.

Some exceptions to the purely dichotomous treatment of English are noted in comments in the tables below, but this guide is meant to be a practical aid for travellers, and not exhaustive.

Spelling

Noah Webster, compiler of the first major dictionary of American English in the early 19th century, made a number of "simplifications" in the spelling. Some of these are now standard in the U.S., but generally not used elsewhere.

See Wikivoyage:Spelling for discussion of which variants to use in articles.

British English doubles the final consonant in some words when adding an ending, for example in "traveller". American English usually spells it "traveler".

British English changes a "C" to an "S" to distinguish a noun from a verb. James Bond has a "licence" to kill, and was "licensed" after qualifying as a spy. The American form always uses the "S".

American usage drops the "U" in "-our" endings:

American British
color colour
harbor harbour

American usage changes the "S" to a more phoenetic "Z" in some "-ise" endings:

American British
organize organise
realize realise

Words borrowed from French keep the French "-re" ending in British English, but get changed to the more phonetic "-er" in American English:

American British
center centre
liter litre
theater theatre

In British English, a "metre" is a unit of length while a "meter" is a measuring instrument. In American English both are a "meter".

For a number of verbs in the past participle, the older irregular spellings are more common in British English but the regular "-ed" forms predominate in American English. The verb "dive", however, has the opposite usage pattern.

American British
dreamed dreamt
spelled spelt
burned burnt
learned learnt
dove dived

Some verbs retain the older form everywhere, for example "slept" and "wept".

Some words have silent letters dropped in American English or are just spelled differently:

American British Comment
analog analogue
check cheque As a form of payment; the verb "to check" and its related noun are always spelled "check"
curb kerb As the raised edge of a street; the verb "to curb" (as in "to restrain") is always spelled "curb".
donut doughnut
program programme UK usage is mixed: "computer program" vs. "television programme"
tire tyre As a noun for the ring of rubber around a wheel. The verb "to tire" is always spelt with an "i"

And a few words are both pronounced and spelled differently:

American British Comment
airplane aeroplane
aluminum aluminium The UK "aluminium" spelling is the international scientific preference, to match other -ium elements.
filet (fih-LEY) fillet (FILL-it) Meat or fish; in engineering it's always "fillet".
Canada distinguishes between "fillets" of fish and "filets" of meat.
specialty speciality

These last two groups are the only ones where Canadian usage routinely includes American spellings, with exceptions like "cheque" and sometimes "programme".

Incidentally, punctuation usage differs slightly as well, but doesn't follow the same division between British and American English. Quotations are marked by double quotation marks () in the U.S., Canada, Australia and New Zealand, while single quotation marks () are used in the UK and South Africa.

Pronunciation

Educated people from almost anywhere in the English-speaking world can talk to each other without difficulty. Consider an international crew on an oil rig somewhere. The engineers and managers would almost certainly be able to talk to each other without any real problems, whether they studied in Edinburgh or Edmonton. However, two working guys from the same two countries say working class Glasgow and a Newfoundland fishing village would be quite likely to find communication a bit difficult due to stronger regional accents and use of dialectical words.

An important difference in English dialects is whether "R" is pronounced after a vowel. Words such as "fork", "word" or "mother" are quite different in the two types, though everyone pronounces the "R" in other contexts, for example in "rabbit" or "area". Linguists call dialects with the "R" "rhotic" and those without "non-rhotic".

People not familiar with dialects other than their own sometimes lump all "R"-less dialects together, as when an American takes a New Zealand accent for British, and others make the opposite error, like an Englishwoman taking a Canadian accent for Irish.

Certain words are pronounced very differently. In parts of the U.S., "borough" rhymes with "furrow" but elsewhere the final consonant is an "uh" sound. "Advertisement" in the UK is pronounced ad-VERT-iss-muhnt (shortened to "advert" AD-vert), but in the U.S. it's AD-ver-taiz-muhnt (shortened to "ad").

The words "route" and "router" can be pronounced to rhyme with "shoot" and "shooter" anywhere, but in North America they can also rhyme with "shout" and "shouter". Sometimes it is safer to use the latter pronunciation, whatever your own dialect has, because in Australian and New Zealand English, "root" is slang for sex, much the way "screw" is in North American English. (The pronunciation that rhymes with "shouter" is standard in North America for the networking device known as a "router".)

Vocabulary

The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary. James Nicoll

All dialects of English include words borrowed from other languages, and many of those such as "bungalow" (Hindi), "robot" (Czech), "canoe" (Carib) or "typhoon" (Chinese) are now standard in all dialects. However, many dialects also include loanwords that are non-standard. Canadians use more terms of French origin than other dialects and are more likely to pronounce them as French speakers do, New Zealanders occasionally mix Maori terms into their English, Indian English has Hindi or Urdu words, and so on. Bilingual speakers of English or those to whom it is a second language may on occasion use English words that make sense in their other language but have a different meaning in English. The reverse case of loanwords being used in a meaning closer to the language of origin is also common. In some cases, particularly when pseudo-English phrases like "Handy" (German for mobile phone) are used, confusion may arise.

Get in/around

For terms related to motor vehicles, Canadian English uses American terminology and spelling exclusively. This is likely because Canada's auto industry has been dominated by U.S. firms from its beginning.

U.S. UK Notes
busbus / coachUK distinguishes between "buses" which only operate locally (such as city buses or school buses) and "coaches" which operate between cities over longer distances (such as National Express or Greyhound). In the U.S. "bus" is used for all of these.
carry-on baghand luggage
crosswalkzebra crossing
divided highwaydual carriageway
elevatorlift
first floorground floorUK "first floor" means "first above the ground floor", which is called the "second floor" in the U.S. Hotels may tend to label floors like "lobby", "mezzanine", "pool", etc., which may or may not be counted in place of a numbered floor.
gas / gasolinepetrol
highway / freeway / expressway / limited-access roadmotorway"Interstate" is the name of a specific American highway system. In the U.S., a "turnpike" is a toll motorway while a "freeway" has no tolls.
hood (of a car)bonnet
minivanpeople carrier
mediancentral reservation New Orleans area: "neutral ground".
overpassflyover U.S. "flyover" generally refers to not just an overpass but a complex interchange with ramps.
parking lot / parking garagecar park UK "parking lot" refers to each individual space for one car.
pavementroad surface / tarmacU.S. "tarmac" commonly refers to airport surfaces where airplanes move. In Australia, "bitumen" is sometimes used instead.
[pedestrian] underpasssubwayAs a pedestrian tunnel under a busy road or railroad. Singapore follows U.S. usage.
pickup [truck]no particular usage; see notesSouth Africa: "bakkie". Australia and New Zealand: "ute" (pronounced yoot) is either a pickup truck, or a coupé pickup (similar to the Chevrolet El Camino). Pickup trucks are extremely uncommon in the UK, so they could be called a "car", a "4x4 / four-by-four" or just a "[pickup] truck" depending on who's talking.
railroadrailway
to rentto hireU.S. "to hire" is used only in the sense of "to employ", such as hiring a driver to drive the car.
round-trip (ticket)return
sidewalkpavement
speed bumpspeed bump / hump / sleeping policeman
[station] wagonestate car
streetcartram
subway / metro / local acronymsunderground / metroThe London Underground is colloquially known as "the Tube". "Subway" is used in Glasgow. "Metro" is used in places like Montreal, Washington, D.C. and Newcastle upon Tyne. In many American cities the local public transport authority has a more or less well known acronym often ending in RTA (regional transit authority) or RT (rapid transit), as in BART in the Bay Area.
transmissiongearbox
trucklorryUK road signs refer to "HGVs" (which stands for "Heavy Goods Vehicles")
trunk (of a car)boot
undivided highwaysingle carriageway

The term "roundabout" is standard everywhere, but New York state uses "traffic circle", and Massachusetts uses "rotary".

U.S. "truck" can refer to 3 different vehicles:

In casual conversation, "truck" is more likely to refer to a pickup, but could also refer to an SUV.

Note the difference in pronunciation and spelling between UK "coupé" (koo-PAY or KOO-pay) and U.S. "coupe" (KOOP). There's also U.S. "sedan" vs UK "saloon", but the easiest way to avoid confusion is to just say "2-door" and "4-door".

See and do

U.S. UK Notes
footballAmerican footballSee detailed explanation below.
soccerfootballSee detailed explanation below.
hockeyice hockeyThe game played on ice, the national sport in Canada.
field hockeyhockeyThe game played on grass or artificial turf, popular in India and Pakistan.
movies / films / flicksfilms / pictures
movie theater / cinemacinema

Buy

U.S. UK Notes
ATMcash point / cash machine / hole-in-the-wall"ATM" stands for "automated teller machine", and is becoming more widely-used in the UK. Australia, New Zealand and Canada follow U.S. usage.
bill (money)banknote "Banknote" is often shortened to just "note". Canada follows British usage.
cash registertill U.S. "till" refers specifically to a money drawer, such as that of a cash register or a bank teller's station.
downtowncity centre
fanny packbum bag UK "fanny" is obscene slang for female genitalia.
jumper pinafore [dress]
line (of people waiting)queue
mallshopping centre
Main Streethigh street
pantstrousersUK "pants" refers to underwear. Australia, New Zealand and Canada follow U.S. usage.
pump (women's shoe)court shoe
shopping carttrolleyAlso called "buggy" in some U.S. dialects. In US English "trolley" may also refer to a streetcar or a bus built to outwardly resemble an old style streetcar
sneakers / athletic shoestrainers
sweater jumper
vest waistcoat

"Flip-flops" go by various local names: Australia "thongs", NZ "jandals" (short for "Japanese sandals"), South Africa "slops", Hawaii "slippa" (the local pronunciation of "slippers"). They're also just called "sandals", but this term can cause confusion since there are various other types of sandals.

Eat

U.S. UK Notes
appetizer / starterstarter / entrée
biscuits scones The two are similar, but not identical. Unlike North American biscuits, British and Irish scones are often sweet. The two foods differ slightly in preparation, though their appearance is virtually identical. In Canada, the word "scones" is starting to see use, but most of the country still refers to "biscuits" in the U.S. sense. In the UK, there is much debate as whether "scone" should rhyme with "cone" or "gone", with the disagreement itself being one of the most well-known features of accent and dialect differences around the country.
candysweets
check (restaurant)bill"Check" is U.S.-only; even Canadians use "bill."
chipscrispsAustralia uses both terms interchangeably.
cookiesbiscuits
corn maize See detailed explanation below. Southern Africa: "mealie"
dessertdessert / pudding / sweetU.S. "pudding" without qualification usually means the same as UK "custard" or "blancmange".
eggplantaubergineIndia/Singapore/Malaysia: "brinjal". Australia follows U.S. usage.
entrée / main coursemain course
[French] frieschipsBut "fish and chips" is always called such, never "fish and fries"
Jell-O jelly "Jell-O" is a trademark for a specific brand of gelatin desserts, although the term is widely used generically in both the U.S. and Canada.
jellyjamIn the U.S., "jam" contains fruit flesh and "jelly" is filtered to just the thickened juice, with pectin (and often sugar, etc.) added.
napkinservietteAustralia, New Zealand and Britain distinguish paper "serviettes" from cloth "napkins". Canada uses both terms interchangeably.
shrimpprawn
steakhousechophouse
takeout / carryout / to gotakeaway
zucchinicourgetteAustralia follows U.S. usage.

Drink

U.S. UK Notes
apple juice / [apple] ciderapple juice U.S. "apple juice" is filtered and "cider" is unfiltered (and both are non-alcoholic).
hard cidercider In a U.S. bar, "cider" by itself would be assumed to mean hard cider, but elsewhere would usually be taken to mean unfiltered apple juice
liquor store / package storeoff licence Sometimes called "ABC store" in U.S. states in which some or all alcohol can only be sold in state-run stores
lemon-lime soda (e.g. Sprite, 7-UP) lemonade
lemonade (squeezed lemons and sugar) traditional lemonade / still lemonade
soda / pop / soft drink / cokesoft drink / pop / fizzy drink / cokeIn the Southeastern U.S., "coke" is often a generic name for soda, but in the rest of the U.S., "coke" refers only to Coca-Cola. "Soda" is the standard term in New England, California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii, and the Mid-Atlantic states except for Western New York and Western Pennsylvania, where "pop" is used, as it is in much of the Midwest, Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states.

Sleep

U.S. UK Notes
apartmentflat In the UK, "flat" is the generic term; "apartment" is used for similar dwellings in expensive residential areas. Canada uses "apartment" (French: appartement). Australia uses both terms interchangeably, plus "unit".
to rent / to leaseto let / to lease

Learn

U.S. UK Notes
class / coursemodule / unit
collegeuniversityUsage varies by country; see detailed explanation below. "University" may be shortened to "uni".
degree programcourse [of study] / degree programme
to give / to write (an exam)to set (an exam)From the instructor's perspective. UK "to set" means both preparing and administering the exam, while U.S. distinguishes between preparing the exam ("writing"), and administering it to students ("giving").
grades / pointsmarks / gradesAlso U.S. "to grade" versus UK "to mark".
kindergartenYear 1UK school starts a year earlier than the U.S. in "reception class" (or "Year R"), so there are 13 numbered years whereas the U.S. has 12
to major in (a subject)to read / to study (a subject)U.S. "to study (a subject)" can mean majoring, or simply to take any class, or reviewing before an exam
pre-kindergarten / pre-Kreception [class] / Year R
private schoolpublic school / independent school / private schoolSee detailed explanation below.
proctor / [exam] supervisorinvigilator
public schoolstate schoolSee detailed explanation below. As in a government-owned, publicly-funded school open to all students. U.S. "state school" typically means a state college or university.
to reviewto revise
to take (an exam)to sit (an exam)From the student's perspective. Canada: "to write (an exam)". India: "to give (an exam)". However, U.S. law graduates "sit for" their bar examinations.
tuitiontuition feesUK "tuition" refers to the educational content transferred to students

Cope

U.S. UK Notes
attorney / lawyer solicitor / barrister / advocate / lawyer UK terms are not interchangeable. "Advocate" is the proper Scottish term for the individual called a "barrister" in the rest of the UK. "Lawyer" is the general term covering all these sub-professions in the UK.
crib (infant bed)cot
day carenursery / playgroup / child care Ireland and New Zealand: "crèche"
diapernappy Singapore distinguishes a disposable "diaper" from a cloth "nappy".
drug store / pharmacychemist / pharmacy The "Green Cross" symbol in the UK and Europe indicates that store is a chemist or pharmacy, whereas in the U.S. the same "Green Cross" symbol means the establishment is a marijuana dispensary shop.
family doctor / primary care physician GP (General Practitioner) "GP" is also used in the U.S., but it's possible not everyone will understand the term.
laundromatlaundrette
pacifierdummy
physician (generic) / [medical] doctor medical doctor
stroller / baby carriagepushchair / pram"[Baby] buggy" is common in both U.S. and UK
restroom / bathroom / lavatory toilet / lavatory / loo / bog / water closet / WC See also Toilets § Talk. "Loo" and "bog" are both slang usages. "Toilet paper" is universally understood, but Brits may refer to "loo roll" or "bog roll". In British English, a "WC" or "water closet" is a public toilet, and a "bathroom" is where you take a bath or shower. Americans typically use "lavatory" only for toilet facilities in passenger vehicles (planes, trains, buses).

Connect

U.S. UK Notes
to call (to use a telephone)to ring / to call
cell [phone]mobile [phone]Britons understand "cell phone", and Americans understand "mobile phone" (but less so "mobile", especially when pronounced to rhyme with "smile"). Singapore: "handphone". Some European second-language English speakers use "handy", from a German misconception of English slang
collect callreverse charge call
long-distance call / toll calltrunk call
mailpost
overseas callinternational call The North American Numbering Plan includes the U.S., its external territories, Canada, Bermuda, and many Caribbean nations. Many calls from the U.S. to other locations that would be "international" in the British sense (and billed as such) are dialed in the same manner as domestic calls.
pound [sign/key] (the "#" key on a telephone)hash [sign/symbol] British usage avoids confusion with "£" as the "pound sign" as in the unit of currency. In North America, # is sometimes used for pound[s] of weight

Depending on context, "#" is also read as "number", "hash", or "hashtag", and telephone technologists call it an "octothorpe".

prepaidpay as you go (PAYG)
toll-free [call]freephone
ZIP codepostcodeZIP ("Zone Improvement Plan") was a name trademarked by the U.S. Postal Service, and is only used in the U.S.; use "postal code" or "postcode" everywhere else

Numbers

You might expect that numbers would be simple, since they always mean the same thing. Alas, differences in how they're spoken (or even written) can sometimes lead to confusion when you're not expecting it.

Date Formats

Most countries use DD/MM/YYYY or something similar as their short date format. The biggest exception is the United States, which almost exclusively uses the MM/DD/YYYY format. The Philippines, which was an American possession during the first four decades of the 20th century and is still heavily influenced by American norms, uses MM/DD/YYYY in English-language publications, but DD/MM/YYYY in Filipino-language contexts. In Canada, the situation is mixed. English speakers use both formats interchangeably, with newspapers invariably expressing dates month-first, but French speakers exclusively use the day-first format. Therefore, a date written as "01/02/2000" stands for "January 2, 2000" in the United States, but would stand for "1 February 2000" in almost any other country, and could conceivably mean either in Canada and the Philippines. (Note that the long dates are also formatted differently, although with hardly any potential for confusion.)

The International Standards Organisation suggests YYYY/MM/DD, apparently primarily because that is the only format that a computer can sort with a straight text-based sort (not a special date-sorting routine) and get the right result. That format is widely used in China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan but not in English-speaking countries.

Weights and measures

The U.S. is the only major country still almost exclusively using the old Imperial system of weights and measures (or a variant; the U.S. gallon, quart, pint and fluid ounce differ significantly from their Imperial namesakes) rather than the metric system. See Metric and Imperial equivalents for conversion information. The UK is partially metricated, and uses the metric system for some measures such as temperature and fuel volume, but uses imperial units for other measures such as road distances and beer volume. Measurements in scientific fields use the metric system in all countries including the U.S. All other English-speaking countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand officially use the metric system, though the imperial system survives to varying extents in colloquial usage.

In measures for liquids, the U.S. uses its own variant of Imperial measures (simply called "U.S. customary measures"). An Imperial gallon is 4.5 liters (160 Imperial fluid ounces) but a U.S. gallon is 3.78 liters (128 U.S. fluid ounces). Both sizes of gallon are subdivided into four quarts or eight pints. The U.S. fluid ounce is 5% larger than its Imperial counterpart (and both differ from the units of weight also named "ounce".)

The liter (34 U.S. fluid ounces) is very close to the U.S. quart (32 ounces) but less than an imperial quart (1.4 liters, or 40 Imperial fluid ounces).

There are some exceptions to the use of U.S. customary measures, including bottles of wine and spirits, medicines and plastic soft drink bottles.

In road signs, both the U.S. and the UK continue to use the old Imperial system. This means that speed limits are marked in miles per hour, and distances are also written in miles. 1 mile is equivalent to 1.609 km.

A "pint" of beer in many places is now 500 mL. The traditional British pint is 568 mL (20 imperial fluid ounces). A U.S. pint is just shy at 473 mL (16 U.S. fluid ounces), although it's almost always sold in a conical glass that must be filled to the brim to contain 16 ounces. Beer in Australia comes in varying sizes with unique names.

UK measures body weight in "stones" and pounds; 1 stone is 14 pounds (6.35 kg). Someone who weighs "11 stone 6 pounds" (and "stone" is always singular following a number) weighs 160 pounds (72.6 kg), and rough body weight is often given in stones only.

Other

U.S. UK Notes
butt / ass / buttocks / fannybum / bottom / arseUK "fanny" is obscene slang for female genitalia. The word "ass" in this sense is also a profanity.
closetcupboard / small room / wardrobe U.S.: "Cupboard" specifically refers to kitchen cabinets; "wardrobe" is a collection of clothing.
fall (season) / autumnautumn
first namefirst name / given name
flashlighttorch U.S. "torch" exclusively refers to a stick with an open flame at one end.
last name / surnamesurname Australia follows U.S. usage
period (punctuation)full stop
trash / garbagerubbish / litter U.S. "litter" specifically refers to small pieces of rubbish discarded in plain view - i.e., not in a trash can (or, in British usage, "rubbish bin"). The gerund "littering" is even more common. UK "dustcart" and "bin lorry" are the same as U.S. "garbage truck".
vacationholiday U.S. "holiday" is roughly equivalent to UK "bank holiday". UK "vacations" are long periods off from work/school (at least a week)

Also worthy of note is the last letter of the English alphabet is pronounced "zed" throughout the English-speaking world except in the U.S., where "zee" is used instead.

Same words, different meaning

North American moose

See also

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