Unit outline

Unit objectives


Pronunciation differences

The vowel system

The consonant system


Differences in spelling

Phonetic spelling tendencies

The omission of superfluous letters in American English


Lexical differences in main subject areas

People and their immediate environment

Human interaction and communication

Social institutions

Natural environment


Key concepts

Further reading

SAA No. 1

Answers to SAQs

After you have completed the study of this unit you should be able to:

  • d

    Unit objectives

    iscriminate British English from American English in terms of pronunciation, spelling and vocabulary
  • avoid a potential source of confusion caused by some lexical items in the two varieties of English
  • try to develop a consistent way of speaking and writing in English

English in the USA differs considerably from British English. Pronunciation is the most striking difference but there are also a number of differences in vocabulary and grammar as well as slight differences in spelling.

Think First!

Before continuing to read this unit, think of which variety of English you tend to pronounce. Note down some of the distinguishing features you are aware of and compare them with the information given in the section below.

2.1 Pronunciation differences

2.1.1 The vowel system

  • American drawl
Some Americans are noted for their drawl, i.e. a lengthening of stressed vowels; this is especially characteristic of Southern pronunciation.
In contrast with the drawled nature of the way many Americans speak is the so-called ‘clipped’ diction of British English. This is accounted for by the greater tension and lesser degree of lengthening in stressed vowels.
The American drawl has to do with a less effortful way of producing sounds and is an aspect of informality of American English (Kovecses, 2000: 241)
        • American nasality
Vowels are often nasalized* in American English (the American nasality or nasal twang*) especially by speakers from the Middle West. The nasal quality of American vowels is explained by the longer duration* of the nasalized portion of a vowel following a nasal consonant
Many British people pronounce /:/ in some words where Americans pronounce /æ /, when this vowel is followed by fricatives* such as /f/, /θ/, /s/; therefore, the pronunciation with /æ/ before the fricatives /f, s, θ/ and before the nasals* /m/, /n/ is typical of American English:

British English
American English
/:/+ /f/, /θ/, /s/

/:/+ /n/, /m/
/æ/ + /f /, /θ /, /s/

/æ/+/n/, /m/
laugh, after, bath, math, ask,

chance, example

The vowel // is pronounced without lip-rounding and sounds like /:/ in American English: stop, body, common, novel, problem:

British English
American English
Tom, dollar, lot, hot, box, rock, dog, frog, crop, body, conflict, novel

The Americans have a tendency to pronounce /ə/ instead of /i/ in unstressed syllables:

British English
American English
minute, started, greatest

  • The reduction of diphthongs* to simple vowels
In British English, words like home, no, are pronounced with the diphthong /əu/ while in American English the diphthong* is reduced to /ə/, especially in unstressed final position (in very casual or informal speech): potato, tomato, fellow, window, piano, mellow, etc. This points to the well known American tendency towards simplification. The same tendency can be noticed in the reduction of /ai/ to /a:/ and of /ei/ to /æ/.
Similarly, the semi-vowel /j/ is dropped into /u/ when preceded by /t/ or /d/, a characteristic which shows that the Americans pronounce the words almost the same way as they are written:

British English
American English



/t/, /d/ or /n/


/t/, /d/ or /n/
potato, tomato, fellow

fire, buyer, tired, five

date, fate, great

student, tulip, during, numerous


Group the following words according to the vowel sound they contain in American English: class, aunt, dollar, glass, greatness, fast, pass, castle, window, due, nuclear, Tom, nude, got, interest, bottle, piano, tigress, mellow, dance, rock, frog, tune.

1. /æ/: class, glass, …
2. /Λ/: dollar, …
3. /ə/ in unstressed syllable: greatness, …
4. /ə/ in unstressed final position: window,
5. /u/: due,

Check your answers against those given at the end of this unit.

2.1.2 The consonant system

  • The flap*
In British English /t/ remains unvoiced* between two vowels or between a vowel and a voiced* consonant but in American English intervocalic* /t/ is very close to /d/. This type of sound is called ‘the flap’ because the tongue flaps against the alveolar ridge. In many areas of the United States, where it can be heard, the flap* makes words such as matter and madder, writer and rider, latter and ladder, whiter and wider sound nearly or exactly the same:

British English
American English
Intervocalic unvoiced /t/|
Intervocalic voiced /t/, resembling /d/

writer, latter, whiter

        • Post-nasal /t/
A well known distinguishing feature of American pronunciation is complete disappearance or voicing of /t/ in post-nasal position that is after a nasal consonant. Cases in point are winter, pronounced as winner, enter as enner and intercity as innercity, in which the voiceless consonant /t/ is pronounced as voiced /d/.
Further, /t/ and /d/ may be dropped altogether in casual speech after nasals: twenty /’tweni/, candidate, /’kænə,deit/, understand /;Λnər’stænd/

  • Rhotacity
In standard British English /r/ is only pronounced before a vowel. In American English /r/ is pronounced in all positions in a word and it changes the quality* of a vowel that comes after it. So, words like turn and offer sound very different in British and American speech.
Consequently, American English is considered to be a rhotic* accent of English, one in which /r/ is pronounced in post-vocalic (e.g. bird) and final position (e.g. car). Pronouncing /r/ is the norm in the Northern, Midland, and Western dialect region, that is, the greatest part of the country. Exceptions to this are New England and New York, which although geographically belonging to the North, do not pronounce the /r/ in a post-vocalic position and at the end of words.

  • Word stress
Word stress tends to fall on the first syllable in American English: princess, address, research, entire, museum, resource:

British English
American English

second syllable is stressed
first syllable is stressed
princess, address, research, entire, museum, resource

Most of the disyllabic verbs ending in -ate have the stress on the first syllable: dictate, frustrate, migrate, vibrate. As for the borrowings, they keep their original stress in American English: barrage, bouquet, chalet, café, gourmet, pâté, ballet. In words that have three syllables, Americans emphasize the ending: secretary, dictionary, laboratory, conservatory, inflammatory.


What British - American differences do you know relative to:

1. consonants
2. word stress

Write your answers in the space provided below. Compare them with the suggested answer given at the end of the unit.

2.2 Differences in spelling

Think first !

Before moving on to differences in spelling, look at the way some words are spelt in the two standards of English:

British English American English

1. labour 1. labor

2. centre 2. center
3. hospitalised 3. hospitalized

Can you give other examples?

You will find further examples as you read sections 2.2.1.and 2.2.2.

American spelling, in the majority of cases is simpler and consistently shorter than British spelling. The process of simplification in spelling started with the spelling reforms at the end of the eighteenth century, when ‘big names’ including Benjamin Franklin, Noah Webster and Mark Twain attempted at changing the complicated system of English.

2.2.1 Phonetic spelling tendencies

  • The change from -re to -er
American spelling closely follows the sequence in which the sounds are actually pronounced, namely it tends to have what is called ‘phonetic spelling’.
For example, when we pronounce words like theatre (BE) - theater (AmE) and centre (BE) - center (AmE) the sequence of the final sounds is /tə(r)/. Notice that in the British spelling the sequence of the actual sounds, /ə+r/, is reversed, yielding -re in writing.
  • The shift from -ce to -se
Another best known case of change related to the phonetic spelling reforms proposed by Webster in 1788, and subsequently preserved in American spelling is the shift from -ce to -se, as in defense, pretense, offense.

  • The change from –ise to -ize
Both the ending -ise and -ize are pronounced with a /z/ sound. As the letter z is a more conventional representation of the sound /z/ than the letter /s/, American English favours the spelling -ize as in analyze.

2.2.2 The omission of ‘superfluous’ letters in American English

A ‘faithful’ orthographic representation of the pronunciation of words implies the omission of letters that are believed to be superfluous, e.g. silent* letters.

  • The shift from -ll to -l, and from -mme to -m
Words that normally have -ll in British English are spelled with -l in American English: counsel(l), wol(l)en.
Similarly, -mme in British English turns into -m in American English: program(me), kilogram(me).

  • The shift from –our to -or
In British English words ending in -our end in -or in American English, e.g. colour /color.

  • The shift from -AmE, -oe to -e
British English seems to have retained both -ae and -oe spellings in addition to the -e spellings in words like mediaeval, foetus, paediatrician, oesophagus, manoeuvre, anaemia, amoeba. American English seems to prefer the simplified -e spellings in these cases. Thus, in American English, the usual spellings of these words are medieval, fetus, pediatrician, esophagus, maneuver, anemia and ameba.


How do you spell these words in American English?
  1. behaviour ....................
  2. humour ....................
  3. honour ....................
  4. metre ....................
  5. criticise ....................
  6. organise ....................
  7. industrialise ....................
  8. defence ....................
  9. offence ....................
  10. licence ....................
  11. mediaeval ....................
  12. enquiry ....................
  13. gipsy ....................
  14. traveller ....................
  15. marvellous ....................
  16. woollen ....................
  17. kidnapped ....................
  18. focussed ....................

Check your answers against those given at the end of this unit.

Think first!

Can you avoid some of the most common confusions arising between British and American speakers? Try the following quiz.

1. Where would you take (a) an American visitor (b) a British visitor who said they wanted to wash up - the kitchen or the bathroom?

2. Would (a) an American (b) a Brit be expected to get something hot or something cold if they asked for some potato chips?

3. Which would surprise you more - an American or a British man telling you that he wanted to go and change his pants?

4. You have just come into an unknown office block. If (a) an American (b) a Brit says that the office you need is on the second floor, how many flights of stairs do you need to climb?

5. If (a) an American (b) a Brit asks for a bill, is he or she more likely to be in a bank or a cafe?

Check your answers against the information given in section 2.3.1.

2.3 Lexical differences in main subject areas

The main causes of the vocabulary differences between British and American English are related to social and cultural developments, technology and linguistic processes. The range of lexical differences can be suggested by the large number of lexical entries marked as Americanisms in Webster’s New World Dictionary, i.e. 11,000 items, out of which 4,000 items belong to ordinary vocabulary.
Concerning the subject areas which provide most of the lexical differences, Kovecses (2000: 148) mentions the central theme of ’people and their immediate environment’; slightly removed from this central theme we have the theme ‘human interaction and communication’; next we can set up the theme ‘social institutions’ and finally, the theme of ‘natural environment’.

2.3.1 People and their immediate environment

This theme includes the subcategories household and building, clothing, food and shopping:

British American

Building and household
round floor first floor
lift elevator
tap faucet
flat (rented) apartment
cupboard closet
flat (owned) condominium
dustbin trashcan

dinner jacket tuxedo
trousers pants
underpants shorts
waistcoat vest


tin can
sweets candy
chips French fries
jam jelly
biscuit cookie


bill check
queue line
shop assistant sales clerk

2.3.2 Human interaction and communication

This subject area involves such subcategories as travel and accommodation, personal communication (telephone and post) and transportation (car, train, road).

Accommodation and travel
uggage baggage
left luggage office baggage room
receptionist desk clerk
to book to make reservations
timetable schedule
toilet(s) restroom
return ticket round trip ticket
single ticket one way ticket
post code zip code
Telephone and post office
ing up call up
postman mailman
parcel package

Road, traffic and transportation
ar park parking lot
pavement sidewalk
motorway freeway
roundabout traffic circle
taxi/cab cab/taxi
traffic lights stop lights
high street main street
underground subway
coach bus
tram street car
sledge sled

2.3.3 Social institutions

This theme contains such subcategories as school and education, business and banking, as well as media and entertainment.

School and education
ecturer instructor
senior lecturer assistant professor
reader associate professor
professor (full) professor
hall of residence dormitory
mark grade
postgraduate graduate
secondary school high school
university college/university
maths math

Business and finance
urrent account checking account
deposit account savings account
shares stocks
note bill

ooking office ticket office
film/movie movie
cinema movie theater
interval intermission

2.3.4 Natural environment

The subcategories of plants and animals can be viewed as parts of this theme:

and animals
aize corn
insect bug
ladybird ladybug
cock rooster
Alsatian German shepherd


Change the following into British English.

1. Pass me the cookies.
2. One-way or round trip?
3. It’s in the closet.
4. He left the faucet on.
5. Open the drapes.
6. We’re leaving in the fall.
7. We’ve run out of gas
8. I hate waiting in line.

Check your answer against the suggested answer given at the end of the unit.


Speakers of American English have developed a form of communication that requires less attention and effort. This is reflected by the casual nature of their way of speaking, generally characterized by nasalizing and drawing out certain vowels. In contrast with this, the British way of speaking has a so called ‘clipped’ nature.
Unlike British English, American English discloses a tendency towards simplification proved by (1) the reduction of certain diphthongs* to simple vowels and (2) the elimination of some unnecessary letters in spelling.
American spelling differs from British spelling in that the former usually tries to correspond more closely to pronunciation (showing a tendency towards phonetic spelling) while the latter preserves its etymological spelling.
British and American vocabularies also reveal differences related to general themes such as (1) people and their immediate environment (2) human interaction and communication (3) social institutions and (4) natural environment.

Key concepts

  • American drawl
  • American nasality
  • flap
  • phonetic spelling
  • postnasal /t/
  • rhotacity

Further reading

  1. Iarovici, Edith. 1994. Engleza Americană. Bucureşti: Editura Teora, pp.99-111
  2. Kovecses, Zoltan. 2000. American English. An Introduction. Ontario: Broad View Press, pp.139-155, 240-247
  3. Neagu Mariana. 2001. Variety and Style in English. Buzău: Alpha, pp. 123-148.

SAA No. 1

Which variety of English is taught and preferred by Romanian teachers and students? Try to find out why that particular variety is preferred and point out its characteristics, using the information in Unit 2 and in the books recommended under Further reading.

Write a 250 word essay and send it to your tutor.
The maximum score for this assignment is 20 points:
  • 10 points for providing solid arguments
  • 5 points for language accuracy
  • 3 points for identifying the variety features correctly
  • 2 points for organizing ideas in paragraphs.

Answers to SAQs

If your answers to SAQ 1 and SAQ 2 are not comparable to the ones suggested below, please reread section 2.1.

1. :/ in British English (BE) is turned into /æ/ in American English (AmE), when this vowel is followed by fricatives such as /s/: class, glass, fast, pass, castle. The same change, that is :/ in BE becomes /æ/ in AmE when it is followed by the nasals /n/, /m/ followed by other consonants: aunt, dance
  1. BE is pronounced without lip-rounding and sounds like /Λ/ in AmE: Tom, dollar, got, bottle, rock, frog
  2. /i/ in unstressed syllables in BE is replaced by /ə/ in AmE: greatness, tigress, interest
  3. /əu/ in unstressed final position in British English is replaced by /ə/ in American English: window, piano, mellow
  4. /ju/ in BE is reduced to /u/| in AmE when preceded by /t/ or /d/: tune, due. The same reduction, that of /ju/ to /u/, occurs when /ju/ is preceded by /n/: nuclear, nude

  • Intervocalic* /t/ in British English sounds like /d/ in American English: writer, latter, whiter
  • /r/ is pronounced in all positions in a word in American English, while in standard British English /r/ is only pronounced before a vowel: offer, turn, etc.
  • word stress tends to fall on the first syllable in American English and on the second syllable in British English: princess, address, research, entire, museum, resource.
  • disyllabic verbs ending in –ate have the stress on the first syllable in American English: dictate, frustrate, migrate, vibrate. In words that have three syllables, Americans emphasize the ending: secretary, dictionary, laboratory, conservatory, inflammatory

If your answer to SAQ 3 is not comparable to the one suggested below, please reread section 2.2.

behavior, humor, honor, meter, criticize, organize, industrialize, defense, offense, license, medieval, inquiry, gypsy, traveler, marvelous, woolen, kidnaped, focused

If your answer to SAQ 4 is not comparable to the one suggested below, please reread section 2.3.

  1. Pass me the cakes
  2. Single or return (trip)?
  3. It’s in the cupboard
  4. He left the tap on.
  5. Open the curtains!
  6. We’re leaving in autumn.
  7. We’ve run out of petrol
  8. I hate standing in a queue.