Differences in British and American English Grammar

Differences in British and American English Grammar

In an international city like Hong Kong you are likely to encounter many variations in English. The most distinct differences are between American English and British English. Which is correct you might ask? Well both are!

However, when using English for communication in HK it would be wise to stick to one version or the other to avoid confusion in meaning.



Formal and notional agreement

In BrE, collective nouns can take either singular (formal agreement) or plural (notional agreement) verb forms, according to whether the emphasis is on the body as a whole or on the individual members respectively; compare a committee was appointed with the committee were unable to agree.[11][12] The term the Government always takes a plural verb in British civil service convention, perhaps to emphasize the principle of cabinet collective responsibility.[13] Compare also the following lines of Elvis Costello's song "Oliver's Army": Oliver's Army are on their way / Oliver's Army is here to stay. Some of these nouns, for example staff,[14] actually combine with plural verbs most of the time.
In AmE, collective nouns are almost always singular in construction: the committee was unable to agree. However, when a speaker wishes to emphasize that the individuals are acting separately, a plural pronoun may be employed with a singular or plural verb: the team takes their seats or the team take their seats, rather than the team takes its seats. However, such a sentence would most likely be recast as the team members take their seats.[15] Despite exceptions such as usage in The New York Times, the names of sports teams are usually treated as plurals even if the form of the name is singular.[16]\

The difference occurs for all nouns of multitude, both general terms such as team and company and proper nouns (for example where a place name is used to refer to a sports team). For instance,
BrE: The Clash are a well-known band; AmE: The Clash is a well-known band.
BrE: Spain are the champions; AmE: Spain is the champion.

Proper nouns that are plural in form take a plural verb in both AmE and BrE; for example, The Beatles are a well-known band; The Saints are the champions, with one major exception: largely for historical reasons, in American English, the United States is is almost universal. This is due to the growth in federal control over state governments following the American Civil War (cf. the inclusion of the term "indivisible" in the Pledge of Allegiance to the United States flag); before this, the construction "the United States are" was more common.[17]


Verb morphology

The past tense and past participle of the verbs learn, spoil, spell, burn, dream, smell, spill, leap, and others, can be either irregular (learnt, spoilt, etc.) or regular (learned, spoiled, etc.). In BrE, both irregular and regular forms are current, but for some words (such as smelt and leapt) there is a strong tendency towards the irregular forms, especially by users of Received Pronunciation. For other words (such as dreamed, leaned, and learned[18]) the regular forms are somewhat more common. In most accents of AmE, the irregular forms are never or rarely used (except for burnt, leapt and dreamt).[19]

The t endings may be encountered frequently in older American texts. Usage may vary when the past participles are used as adjectives, as in burnt toast. (The two-syllable form learnèd /ˈlɜrnɪd/, usually written without the grave, is used as an adjective to mean "educated" or to refer to academic institutions in both BrE and AmE.) Finally, the past tense and past participle of dwell and kneel are more commonly dwelt and knelt in both standards, with dwelled and kneeled as common variants in the US but not in the UK.
Lit as the past tense of light is more common than lighted in the UK; American English uses lit to mean "set afire" / "kindled" / "made to emit light" but lighted to mean "cast light upon" (e.g., "The stagehand lighted the set and then lit a cigarette.").[20] Conversely, British English favours fitted as the past tense of fit generally, whereas the preference of American English is more complex: AmEng prefers fitted for the metaphorical sense of having made an object [adjective-]"fit" (i.e., suited) for a purpose; in spatial transitive contexts, AmEng uses fitted for the sense of having made an object conform to an unchanged object that it surrounds (e.g., "fitted X around Y") but fit for the sense of having made an object conform to an unchanged object that surrounds it (e.g., "fit[-past] X into Y"); and for the spatial senses (both intransitive and transitive) of having been matching with respect to contour, with no alteration of either object implied, AmEng prefers fit ("The clothes [past-]fit."; "The clothes [past-]fit me well.").[21]

The past tense of spit "expectorate" is spat in BrE, spit or spat in AmE.[22] AmE typically has spat in figurative contexts, for example, "He spat out the name with a sneer", or in the context of expectoration of an object that is not saliva, for example, "He spat out the foul-tasting fish" but spit for "expectorated" when it refers only to the expulsion of phlegm or saliva.
The past participle of saw is normally sawn in BrE and sawed in AmE (as in sawn-off/sawed-off shotgun).[23]
The past participle gotten is never used in modern BrE (apart from in the dialects of North-Eastern and Western England), which generally uses got, except in old expressions such as ill-gotten gains. According to the Compact Oxford English Dictionary, "The form gotten is not used in British English but is very common in North American English." The American dictionary Merriam-Webster, however, lists "gotten" as a standard past participle of "get." In AmE gotten emphasizes the action of acquiring and got tends to indicate simple possession (for example, Have you gotten it? versus Have you got it?). Gotten is also typically used in AmE as the past participle for phrasal verbs using get, such as get off, get on, get into, get up, and get around: If you hadn't gotten up so late, you might not have gotten into this mess. Interestingly, AmE, but not BrE, has forgot as a less common alternative to forgotten for the past participle of forget.
In BrE, the past participle proved is strongly preferred to proven; in AmE, proven is now about as common as proved.[24] (Both dialects use proven as an adjective, and in formulas such as not proven).[25]

AmE further allows other irregular verbs, such as dive (dove)[26][27] or sneak (snuck),[28][29] and often mixes the preterite and past participle forms (spring–sprang, US also sprung–sprung),[30][31] sometimes forcing verbs such as shrink (shrank–shrunk) to have a further form, thus shrunk–shrunken.[32][33] These uses are often considered nonstandard; the AP Stylebook in AmE treats some irregular verbs as colloquialisms, insisting on the regular forms for the past tense of dive, plead and sneak. Dove and snuck are usually considered nonstandard in Britain, although dove exists in some British dialects and snuck is occasionally found in British speech.
By extension of the irregular verb pattern, verbs with irregular preterits in some variants of colloquial AmE also have a separate past participle, for example, "to buy": past tense bought spawns boughten. Such formations are highly irregular from speaker to speaker, or even within idiolects. This phenomenon is found chiefly in the northern US and other areas where immigrants of German descent are predominant and may have developed as a result of German influence.[34] Even in areas where the feature predominates, however, it has not gained widespread acceptance as standard usage.

Use of tenses

Traditionally, BrE uses the present perfect to talk about an event in the recent past and with the words already, just and yet. In American usage these meanings can be expressed with the present perfect (to express a fact[citation needed]) or the simple past (to imply an expectation[citation needed]). This American style has become widespread only in the past 20 to 30 years; the British style is still in common use as well. Recently the American use of just with simple past has made inroads into BrE, most visibly in advertising slogans and headlines such as "Cable broadband just got faster".
"I have just arrived home." / "I just arrived home."
"I have already eaten." / "I already ate."
Similarly AmE occasionally replaces the past perfect with the simple past.[citation needed]
In BrE, have got or have can be used for possession and have got to and have to can be used for the modal of necessity. The forms that include got are usually used in informal contexts and the forms without got in contexts that are more formal. In American speech the form without got is used more than in the UK, although the form with got is often used for emphasis. Colloquial AmE informally uses got as a verb for these meanings—for example, I got two cars, I got to go.
In conditional sentences, US spoken usage often substitutes would and would have (usually shortened to [I]'d and would've) for the simple past and for the pluperfect (If you'd leave now, you'd be on time. / If I would have [would've] cooked the pie we could have [could've] had it for lunch). This tends to be avoided in writing because it is often still considered non-standard although such use of would is widespread in spoken US English in all sectors of society. Some reliable sources now label this usage as acceptable US English and no longer label it as colloquial.[35][36] (There are, of course, situations where would is used in British English too in seemingly counterfactual conditions, but these can usually be interpreted as a modal use of would: If you would listen to me once in a while, you might learn something.)[37][38] In cases in which the action in the if clause takes place after that in the main clause, use of would in counterfactual conditions is, however, considered standard and correct usage in even formal UK and US usage: If it would make Bill happy, I'd [I would] give him the money.[37]
The subjunctive mood (morphologically identical with the bare infinitive) is regularly used in AmE in mandative clauses (as in They suggested that he apply for the job). In BrE, this usage declined in the 20th century in favour of constructions such as They suggested that he should apply for the job (or even, more ambiguously, They suggested that he applied for the job). However, the mandative subjunctive has always been used in BrE.[39]

Verbal auxiliaries

Shall (as opposed to will) is more commonly used by the British than by Americans.[40][41] Shan't is almost never used in AmE, rather is almost invariably replaced by won't or am not going to. American grammar also tends to ignore some traditional distinctions between should and would;[42] however, expressions like I should be happy are rather formal even in BrE.[citation needed]
The periphrastic future "be going to" is about twice as frequent in AmE as in BrE.[43]


The following verbs show differences in transitivity between BrE and AmE:
agree: Transitive or intransitive in BrE, usually intransitive in AmE (agree a contract/agree to or on a contract). However, in formal AmE legal writing one often sees constructions such as as may be agreed between the parties (rather than as may be agreed upon between the parties).
appeal (as a decision): Usually intransitive in BrE (used with against) and transitive in AmE (appeal against the decision to the Court/appeal the decision to the Court).[44]
catch up ("to reach and overtake"): Transitive or intransitive in BrE, strictly intransitive in AmE (to catch sb up/to catch up with sb). A transitive form exists in AmE, with a different meaning: to catch somebody up means that the subject will help the object catch up, rather the opposite of the BrE transitive meaning.
cater ("to provide food and service"): Intransitive in BrE, transitive or intransitive in AmE (to cater for a banquet/to cater a banquet).
claim: Sometimes intransitive in BrE (used with for), strictly transitive in AmE.
meet: AmE uses intransitively meet followed by with to mean "to have a meeting with", as for business purposes (Yesterday we met with the CEO), and reserves transitive meet for the meanings "to be introduced to" (I want you to meet the CEO; she is such a fine lady), "to come together with (someone, somewhere)" (Meet the CEO at the train station), and "to have a casual encounter with". BrE uses transitive meet also to mean "to have a meeting with"; the construction meet with, which actually dates back to Middle English, appears to be coming back into use in Britain, despite some commentators who preferred to avoid confusion with meet with meaning "receive, undergo" (the proposal was met with disapproval). The construction meet up with (as in to meet up with someone), which originated in the US,[45] has long been standard in both dialects.
provide: Strictly monotransitive in BrE, monotransitive or ditransitive in AmE (provide sb with sth/provide somebody something).
protest: In sense "oppose", intransitive in BrE, transitive in AmE (The workers protested against the decision/The workers protested the decision). The intransitive protest against in AmE means "to hold or participate in a demonstration against". The older sense "proclaim" is always transitive (protest one's innocence).
write: In BrE, the indirect object of this verb usually requires the preposition to, for example, I'll write to my MP or I'll write to her (although it is not required in some situations, for example when an indirect object pronoun comes before a direct object noun, for example, I'll write her a letter). In AmE, write can be used monotransitively (I'll write my congressman; I'll write him).


The verbs prevent and stop can be found in two different constructions: "prevent/stop someone from doing something" and "prevent/stop someone doing something". The latter is well established in BrE, but not in AmE.

Some verbs can take either a to+infinitive construction or a gerund construction (for example, to start to do something/to start doing something). For example, the gerund is more common:
In AmE than BrE, with start,[46] begin,[47] omit,[48] enjoy;[49]
In BrE than AmE, with love,[50] like,[51] intend.[52]
Presence or absence of syntactic elements

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Where a statement of intention involves two separate activities, it is acceptable for speakers of AmE to use to go plus bare infinitive. Speakers of BrE would instead use to go and plus bare infinitive. Thus, where a speaker of AmE may say I'll go take a bath, BrE speakers would say I'll go and have a bath. (Both can also use the form to go to instead to suggest that the action may fail, as in He went to take/have a bath, but the tub was full of children.) Similarly, to come plus bare infinitive is acceptable to speakers of AmE, where speakers of BrE would instead use to come and plus bare infinitive. Thus, where a speaker of AmE may say come see what I bought, BrE speakers would say come and see what I've bought (notice the present perfect: a common British preference).[53]
Use of prepositions before days denoted by a single word. Where British people would say She resigned on Thursday, Americans often say She resigned Thursday, but both forms are common in American usage. Occasionally the preposition is also absent when referring to months: I'll be here December (although this usage is generally limited to colloquial speech).

In the UK, from is used with single dates and times more often than in the United States. Where British speakers and writers may say the new museum will be open from Tuesday, Americans most likely say the new museum will be open starting or on Tuesday. (This difference does not apply to phrases of the pattern from A to B, which are used in both BrE and AmE.) A variation or alternative of this is the mostly American the play opens Tuesday and the mostly British the play opens on Tuesday.

American legislators and lawyers always use the preposition of between the name of a legislative act and the year it was passed; their British compeers do not. Compare Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 to Disability Discrimination Act 1995.

The definite article

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A few 'institutional' nouns take no definite article when a certain role is implied: for example, at sea (as a sailor), in prison (as a convict), and at/in college (for students). Among this group, BrE has in hospital (as a patient) and at university (as a student), where AmE requires in the hospital and at the university (though AmE does allow in college and in school). When the implied roles of patient or student do not apply, the definite article is used in both dialects. However, both variations drop the definite article with rush hour: at rush hour (BrE)/in rush hour (AmE).
BrE distinguishes in future ("from now on") from in the future ("at some future time"); AmE uses in the future for both senses.
AmE omits, and BrE requires, the definite article in a few expressions[clarification needed] such as tell (the) time, play (the) piano.
In BrE, numbered highways usually take the definite article (for example "the M25", "the A14"); in America they usually do not ("I-495", "Route 66"). Upstate New York, Southern California English and Arizona are exceptions, where "the 33", "the 5" or "the 10" are the standard. A similar pattern is followed for named roads (for example, Strand in London is almost always referred to as the Strand), but in America, there are local variations and older American highways tend to follow the British pattern ("the Boston Post Road").
AmE distinguishes in back of [behind] from in the back of; the former is unknown in the UK and liable to misinterpretation as the latter. Both, however, distinguish in front of from in the front of.
Dates usually include a definite article in UK spoken English, such as "the eleventh of July", or "July the eleventh"; American speakers most commonly say "July eleventh" and the form "July eleven" is now occasionally used by American speakers.

Prepositions and adverbs

In the United States, the word through can mean "up to and including" as in Monday through Friday. In the UK (and for many Americans) Monday to Friday, or Monday to Friday inclusive is used instead; Monday through to Friday is also sometimes used. (In some parts of Northern England, mainly Lancashire and Yorkshire, the term while can be used in the same way, as in Monday while Friday, whereas in Ireland[citation needed] Monday till Friday would be more natural.)

British sportsmen play in a team; American athletes play on a team. (Both may play for a particular team.)

In AmE, the use of the function word out as a preposition in out the door and out the window is standard to mean "out through". For example, in AmE, one jumps "out of a boat" by jumping "out the porthole," and it would be incorrect in standard AmE to "jump out the boat" or climb "out of the porthole." (Although "out of the porthole" is used in certain Northeastern American dialects) In BrE, out of is preferred in writing for both meanings, but out is common in speech.[54] Several other uses of out of are peculiarly British (out of all recognition, out of the team; cf. above);[55] all of this notwithstanding, out of is overall more frequent in AmE than in BrE (about four times as frequent, according to Algeo[56]).

Near New York City, "on line" (two words) refers to the state of waiting in a line or queue; for example, standing on a sidewalk waiting for a table at a restaurant. Elsewhere in AmE, one waits "in line". Throughout AmE, going "online" (one word) refers to using the Internet. Usage of "queue" among Americans has increased in the last twenty years.[citation needed] In BrE, queue is the universal term and no variants of line are used in relation to waiting in turn. In BrE, people talk of standing in a queue, queuing up, joining the queue, sitting in a queue (for example, when driving) and simply queuing.

The word heat meaning "mating season" is used with on in the UK (Regional Variation) and with in in the US.
The intransitive verb affiliate can take either with or to in BrE, but only with, or, in the case that "affiliate" is used as a noun, "of" (as in the phrase "Microsoft is an affiliate of my company") in AmE.
The verb enrol(l) usually takes on in BrE and in in AmE (as in "to enrol(l) on/in a course") and the on/in difference is used when enrolled is dropped (as in "I am (enrolled) on the course that studies....").
In AmE, one always speaks of the street on which an address is located, whereas in BrE in can also be used in some contexts. In suggests an address on a city street, so a service station (or a tourist attraction or indeed a village) would always be on a major road, but a department store might be in Oxford Street. Moreover if a particular place on the street is specified then the preposition used is whichever is idiomatic to the place, thus "at the end of Churchill Road."

BrE favours the preposition at with weekend ("at (the) weekend(s)"); the constructions on, over and during (the) weekend(s) are found in both varieties but are all more common in AmE than BrE.[57] See also Word derivation and compounds.

Adding at to the end of a question requesting a location is common in the southern states of the U.S, for example, "where are you at?", but is not considered correct in standard American English and would be considered superfluous in standard BrE (though not in some dialects). However, some south-western British dialects use to in the same context; for example "where are you to?", to mean "where are you".

After talk American can also use the preposition with but British always[citation needed] uses to (that is, I'll talk with Dave / I'll talk to Dave). The former form is sometimes seen as more politically correct in British organizations, inducing the ideal of discussing (with) as opposed to lecturing (to). This is unless talk is being used as a noun; for example: "I'll have a talk with him" in which case this is acceptable in both BrE and AmE.

In both dialects, from is the preposition prescribed for use after the word different: American English is different from British English in several respects. However, different than is also commonly heard in the US, and is often considered standard when followed by a clause (American English is different than it used to be), whereas different to is a common alternative in BrE.[58][59]
It is common in BrE to say opposite to as an alternative to opposite of when used as a noun, the only form normally found in AmE. The use of opposite as a preposition (opposite the post office) has long been established in both dialects but appears to be more common in British usage.

The noun opportunity can be followed by a verb in two different ways: opportunity plus to-infinitive ("the opportunity to do something") or opportunity plus of plus gerund ("the opportunity of doing something"). The first construction is the most common in both dialects but the second has almost disappeared in AmE and is often regarded as a Briticism.
Both British and Americans may say (for example) that a river is named after a state, but "named for a state" would rightly be regarded as an Americanism.
BrE sometimes uses to with near (we live near to the university); AmE avoids the preposition in most usages dealing with literal, physical proximity (we live near the university), although the to reappears in AmE when near takes the comparative or superlative form, as in she lives nearer/nearest to the deranged axe murderer's house.
In BrE, one rings someone on his or her telephone number; in AmE, one calls someone at his or her telephone number.

When referring to the constituency of an American legislator, the preposition "from" is usually used: "Senator from New York," whereas British MPs are "for" their constituency: "MP for East Cleveland."
In AmE, the phrases aside from and apart from are used about equally; in BrE, apart from is far more common.[60]
In AmE, the compound "off of" may be used where BrE almost always uses "off", and "off of" is considered slang. Compare AmE "He jumped off of the box" and BrE "He jumped off the box".
In AmE absent is sometimes used as a preposition to introduce a prepositional phrase[61] (Absent any objections, the proposal was approved.). The equivalent in BrE would be In the absence of any objections, the proposal was approved; this form is also common in AmE.

Phrasal verbs

Influenced by the German "ausfüllen", in the US forms are usually but not invariably filled out but in Britain they are usually filled in. However, in reference to individual parts of a form Americans may also use in (fill in the blanks). In AmE the direction fill it all in (referring to the form as a collection of blanks, perhaps) is as common as fill it all out.

Britons facing extortionate prices may have no option but to fork out, whereas Americans are more likely to fork (it) over or sometimes up; however, the out usage is found in both dialects.
In both countries, thugs will beat up their victim; AmE also allows beat on (as both would for an inanimate object, such as a drum) or beat up on, which are often considered slang.
When an outdoor event is postponed or interrupted by rain, it is rained off in the UK and rained out in the US.

Miscellaneous grammatical differences

In names of American rivers the word river usually comes after the name (for example, Colorado River) whereas for British rivers it comes before (as in the River Thames). Exceptions in BrE include the Fleet River, which is rarely called the River Fleet by Londoners outside official documentation, and also where the river name is an adjective (the Yellow River). Exceptions in the US are the River Rouge and the River Raisin, both in Michigan and named by the French. The American convention is used in Australia, while convention is mixed in some Commonwealth nations, where both arrangements are often seen.

In BrE speech, some descriptions of offices do not become titles (Winston Churchill, the Prime Minister and Mr Jones, the team's coach), while they do in AmE (Prime Minister Churchill and Coach Jones).

In BrE the word sat is often colloquially used to cover sat, sitting, and seated: I've been sat here waiting for half an hour. The bride's family will be sat on the right-hand side of the church. This construction is not often heard outside the UK. In the 1960s, its use would mark a speaker as coming from the north of England but by the turn of the 21st century this form had spread to the south. Its use often conveys lighthearted informality, when many speakers intentionally use a dialect or colloquial construction they would probably not use in formal written English. This colloquial usage is widely understood by British speakers. Similarly stood can be used instead of standing. To an American and still to many Britons these usages are passive and may imply that the subject had been involuntarily forced to sit or stand or directed to hold that location.

In a few areas of the Upper Midwest of the United States, the word with is also used as an adverb: I'll come with instead of I'll come along, although it is rarely used in writing. Come with is used as an abbreviation of come with me, as in I'm going to the office – come with by speakers in Minnesota and parts of the adjoining states. These parts of the United States have high concentrations of both Scandinavian and German American populations (German mitkommen). It is similar to South African English, where the expression comes from Dutch, and is used by Afrikaans speakers when speaking English. These contractions are rarely used by native BrE speakers.

The word also is used at the end of a sentence in AmE (just as as well and too are in both dialects) but not so commonly in BrE, although it is encountered in Northern Ireland. Additionally, the sentence-ending as well is more formal in AmE than in BrE.

Before some words beginning with a pronounced (not silent) h in an unstressed first syllable, such as hallucination, hilarious, historic(al), horrendous and horrific, some (especially older) British writers prefer to use an over a (an historical event, etc.).[62] An is also preferred before hotel by some writers of BrE (probably reflecting the relatively recent adoption of the word from French, where the h is not pronounced).[63] The use of "an" before words beginning with an unstressed "h" is more common generally in BrE than American.[63] Such usage would now be seen as affected or incorrect in AmE.[64] American writers normally use a in all these cases, although there are occasional uses of an historic(al) in AmE.[65] According to the New Oxford Dictionary of English, such use is increasingly rare in BrE too.[62] Unlike BrE, AmE typically uses an before herb, since the h in this word is silent for most Americans.

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