In the United States, United Kingdom and most of their former territories, English is the main language. However, there are some significant differences in spelling and word usage among the British influenced varieties (also called Commonwealth English) and US English. This article discusses some of these differences that may be useful for travellers to know.
Usage by countries
Commonwealth English is the most important language variety in Australia, Anguilla, the Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Bermuda, the Cook Islands, Dominica, the Falkland Islands, Gibraltar, Grenada, Guernsey, Ireland, Jamaica, Isle of Man, Jersey, Malta, Montserrat, Nauru, New Zealand, the Pitcairn Islands, Saint Helena, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Singapore, Turks and Caicos Islands and the United Kingdom.
It is widely used, especially by the educated elite and is an officially used language in Botswana, Cameroon, Eritrea, Fiji, the Gambia, Ghana, Guyana, Hong Kong, India, Kenya, Kiribati, Lesotho, Malawi, Mauritius, Namibia, Nigeria, Pakistan, Papua New Guinea, Rwanda, Samoa, the Seychelles, Sierra Leone, Somaliland, South Africa, Southern Sudan, the Sudan, Swaziland, Tanzania, Tonga, Trinidad and Tobago, Tuvalu and Uganda, Vanuatu, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
It is not an official language, nor the most important language, but is widely used by the educated elite in Brunei, Cyprus and Malaysia.
It is usually the Commonwealth variety of English that tends to be taught in European schools and a widespread and high degree of English fluency has been achieved in such countries as Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland - especially in those under 60. However, US spell checkers have had a deleterious effect in the last 10 years.
US English dominates in the United States of America, the British Indian Ocean Territory, the British Virgin Islands, the Cayman Islands, Liberia, the Marshall Islands, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau and the Philippines.
It is not an official language, nor the most important language, but when used by the educated elite, US spelling predominates in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and much of Latin America.
Canada uses a mixture of British English rules for spelling and US English for vocabulary and many idioms. An exception to this rule is for terms related to motor vehicles, in which US English terminology and spelling are exclusively used ("tire" instead of "tyre", "gas" or "gasoline" instead of "petrol", "truck" instead of "lorry", etc.).
In all countries where English is used there are variations in vocabulary and usage that are peculiar to that country.
Words spelled the US way tend to be shorter (silent letters are often dropped) and spelt more phonetically.
Editors might want to consider substituting a word that is spelt the same in both varieties; eg rather than using airplane or aeroplane, substitute aircraft.
US - Commonwealth
airplane - aeroplane
aluminum - aluminium
The International Union for Pure and Applied Chemistry, which controls the naming of elements, prefers "aluminium" but accepts "aluminum". The US and Canada use "aluminum"; most other countries use "aluminium".
analog - analogue
armor - armour
center - centre
check - cheque
color - colour
dispatch - despatch
e.g. - eg (from the Latin exempli gratia, for example)
gram - gramme
i.e. - ie (from the Latin id es, that is)
license - licence
liter - litre
meter - metre
inquire - enquire
offense - offence
practice - practise
program - programme
theater - theatre
tire - tyre
In common speech, some 4,000 words are used differently in the UK from the US. World Wide Words is a mine of information if you wish to know more.
US - Commonwealth
anesthesiologist – anaesthetist
In US English, "anesthetist" often refers to a nurse who is specially trained to administer anesthesia under a doctor's supervision.
apartment – flat
The word "apartment" is used in Commonwealth English, but specifically for rented luxury housing units in larger or historic buildings
Asian (people) – Like many words, terms vary within Commonwealth English:
Australian English – Refers to all people with origins on the continent of Asia
British English – When used by itself, "Asian" refers exclusively to South Asians. East Asians are usually called "East Asians" and sometimes "Orientals", or are described by their specific ethnicity.
Canadian English – Same as Australia
US English – In government usage, "Asian American" includes East Asia and South Asia, but excludes West Asia. In the popular language, "Asian" by itself usually refers specifically to East Asians, with South Asians referred to by their specific ethnicity (Indian, Pakistani, etc.) or as "South Asians".
ass/buttocks/fanny - Bum/bottom/arse
US: Generic term for sport. By extension, "athlete" refers to any sportsperson
British: Sport consisting of track and field, cross country running, road running, and race walking. An "athlete" is a person who participates in this specific sport
ATM - Cash point/cash machine/Hole-in-the-wall
attorney/lawyer - barrister (or advocate in Scotland)/solicitor (UK-wide)
The US English terms "attorney" and "lawyer" are interchangeable, but the corresponding Commonwealth English terms are not. The legal professions in the US and UK are fundamentally different. In the UK, clients generally deal directly with solicitors, who provide legal advice and can represent their clients in lower courts. Barristers, titled advocates in Scotland, are specifically trained in trial advocacy, and are usually hired by solicitors to appear in higher courts, draft pleadings, and provide more specific advice on a given case. Historically, only barristers/advocates could appear before all courts; today, solicitors who receive additional special training can appear in the same courts as solicitor advocates. By contrast, the US has a "fused" legal profession; the functions that are divided between two different classes of professionals in the UK are all part of a single profession. Other countries that use Commonwealth English generally follow the UK terminology; however, in Canada (apart from Quebec), New Zealand and some Australian states, the legal profession is fused.
bangs (hair arrangement) – fringe
bankruptcy/insolvency: Another concept where legal terms, though not necessarily popular usage, vary between English-speaking countries.
US: "Bankruptcy" is used for all formal insolvency proceedings, for both individuals and businesses.
UK: Under British insolvency law, only individuals, sole proprietorships, and partnerships can go "bankrupt". Other types of businesses go into "administration" (similar to a U.S. "Chapter 11" bankruptcy) or "liquidation" (a complete closure, similar to U.S. "Chapter 7" bankruptcy). However, in non-legal usage, "bankruptcy" is commonly used for business insolvencies.
Australia: Same as the UK.
Canada: Both "bankruptcy" and "insolvency" are used for individuals and businesses alike.
Ireland: Same as the UK, except that "administration" is replaced by "examinership".
bill (money) - bank note
biweekly - fortnightly
a fortnight is a period of two weeks
call (verb form) - ring
carry-on bag - hand luggage
cash register - till
cell phone - mobile phone
in Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, the word handphone is informally used though mobile phone is what is formally accepted
check (in a restaurant) - bill
chips (snack food) - crisps
In US and Canadian English, a circus pertains exclusively to a group of performers that do amazing stunts, often with animals
In Commonwealth English, this word has the same meaning, but may also refer to an intersection in the shape of a circular road in a city (US English: "traffic circle")
closet - cupboard (room)
construction zone (road) – roadworks
cookies - biscuits
cot – camp bed
counter-clockwise - anti-clockwise
course (post-secondary education) – module
In Commonwealth English, the word "course" in this context refers to the entire program of study leading to a degree.
crib (infant bed) – cot
day care – crèche
In US English, "crèche" refers to a nativity scene (ie relating to the birth of Jesus).
diaper - nappy
driver's license - driving licence
drug store - pharmacy/chemist ("pharmacy" is also widely used in US English)
drunk driving – drink driving
The associated legal terms are also different — US English DUI/DWI (driving under the influence, driving while intoxicated); Commonwealth English DIC (drunk in charge of a motor vehicle) or "driving with excess alcohol". Canadian English uses DUI as an umbrella term for two offences in its criminal code.
eggplant - aubergine (India/Singapore: brinjal)
elevator - lift
expressway or freeway - motorway
fall (season) - autumn
fanny pack – bum bag
In Commonwealth English, "fanny" is obscene slang for the vagina.
fender (of a car) - wing
field (sports) – pitch
first name - Christian name/given name
The term "Christian name" is now rarely used in Commonwealth English.
flashlight - torch
football - gridiron football (not soccer)
In some English-speaking countries outside of the US and UK, "football" may refer to yet another code of football.
Australia – Australian rules football (in most of the country) or rugby league (in the ACT, New South Wales and Queensland)
Canada – Similar to the US, but with its own unique usage. The country has its own code of gridiron football, formally known as Canadian football. American football is also widely popular, but mostly as a televised sport. "Football", by itself, can refer to either the Canadian or American game; when the context does not make it clear which game is referred to, "Canadian" or "American" will be added.
Ireland – Gaelic football, especially among Irish nationalists
New Zealand – Historically, "football" referred to rugby union, or sometimes rugby league. However, since roughly 2005, "football" has seen increasing use for association football.
South Africa – Rugby union, mostly among whites. All cultural groups in the country generally use "soccer" for association football when speaking English. The country's top league in association football is known as the Premier Soccer League.
fries - chips
garter – suspenders
gas (intestinal) – wind
gasoline - petrol
in British English, "gas" is used to refer to energy used to power buildings and other infrastructure (US and Canadian English: "natural gas" when necessary to distinguish from "gas" as a short term for gasoline)
US and Canada: ice hockey; Commonwealth: field hockey
Among non-native speakers, "hockey" will usually refer to the sport most common in the speaker's country—usually ice hockey in the Nordic countries, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the former Soviet Union; and field hockey elsewhere.
However, some people with personal connections to one of these two sports will call that sport "hockey", regardless of their country of origin.
hood (of a car) – bonnet
In Commonwealth English, "hood" as an automotive term refers to the top of a convertible
(public) holiday – same and also bank holiday
See also "vacation".
In US English, "the holidays" is often used to describe the entire period between Thanksgiving (late November) and New Year's Day
Jell-O - jelly
jelly - jam
jumper (dress) – pinafore/pinafore dress
last name - surname
US and Canadian English: non-carbonated drink made from lemon juice, sugar, and water (UK: "traditional lemonade")
line (where you wait your turn to be served) - queue
In the New York City area, one waits "on line". In the rest of the US, one waits "in line".
liquor store - off licence/off sales
mail (method of communication) - post
ironically, the central postal authorities in the US and UK use the terms of their counterparts in their names; i.e. US: United States Postal Service; UK: Royal Mail.
in the US the word post refers to the amount charged to send something through the postal system and the word is combined with the suffix -age (hence the more accurate word is postage)
in the UK, the word mail refers to the item that will be sent through the postal system
median (road) – central reservation
Note that in the New Orleans area, this feature is called "neutral ground".
mom – mum
movie - film
movie theater (or theatre) - cinema
The US live theatrical community generally uses "theatre" on its own, with Commonwealth spelling, to describe its art form.
muffler (of a motor vehicle) – silencer
In US English, "silencer" typically refers to a firearm accessory, more properly known as a suppressor.
napkin - serviette (now largely obsolete in Commonwealth English; "napkin" has always been used by the British upper classes and speaking of a serviette marks one as lower class)
overpass – flyover
pacifier - dummy
pants - trousers
in most dialects of Commonwealth English, "pants" refers to underwear. However, many dialects in Northern England agree with the US English usage for "pants".
pass gas – break wind (the slang term "fart" is standard across all major varieties of English)
pavement - road surface
period (punctuation) – full stop
physician – doctor/medical practitioner
In the UK, a "physician" is a specialist in internal medicine or one of its many sub-specialities. The term specifically excludes surgeons of all types.
"Doctor" is also widely used in US English as a generic term for medical practitioners of all types.
prepaid - pay as you go
US English – refers to academic staff of all ranks, with typical progression of Assistant Professor, Associate Professor, and (Full) Professor.
Commonwealth English – the highest academic rank, largely equivalent to the US (Full) Professor.
pump (women's shoe) - court shoe
Some Americans use "court shoe" as a catch-all term for athletic shoes designed for indoor court sports.
push cart - trolley
ramp (highway exit) – slip road
In US English, a "slip road" is a term for a street alongside a main highway to allow access to local businesses, sometimes also called a "frontage road" or, in both US English and Commonwealth English, a "service road".
restroom/bathroom - toilet(s)/loo/WC
in the UK, Australia and Hong Kong, the singular form (toilet) is used to refer to the individual cubicles/units found in the room while in Singapore, the singular form refers to the entire room
in Philippine English, the term comfort room (or CR) may alternatively be used.
in Commonwealth English, a bathroom is where you take a bath or shower. A restroom is a place for office staff to take breaks (US English: "break room").
in US English, a lavatory is used to refer to a restroom on-board transportation; British English still uses the term toilet(s) in this context.
people from the US also use 'toilet paper' to refer to the exclusively British term 'loo roll'.
revenue - turnover (in finance)
review (exam preparation) – revise
round-trip (ticket) - return
Roundabout, as a noun, refers exclusively in US English to a circular intersection in which entering traffic must yield to vehicles already in the circle. (A circular intersection in which entering traffic is controlled by traffic signals or stop signs, or has no formal control, is called a "traffic circle") - Commonwealth English has the identical meaning but also refers to a circular fairground device offering rides for entertainment.
run (for elective office) – stand
sedan (car) – saloon
shot (inoculation) – jab
sidewalk - pavement
sneakers/athletic shoes - trainers
soccer - (association) football
The term "soccer" originated in British English, but is now often incorrectly viewed in the UK as an Americanism.
The dichotomy between "football" and "soccer" is not strictly a US/Commonwealth split. It instead depends on whether football codes other than association football enjoy large popularity in a given country.
"Soccer" is the most common term for association football in Australia, Canada, Ireland and South Africa, as well as the US. "Soccer" still sees some use in New Zealand, but since roughly 2005 that term has been steadily giving way to "football".
soda/pop/Coke - soft drink/pop
US English has no universal term for this type of beverage. Each of the listed terms is standard in at least some regions, with the most widely used terms being "soda" and "pop". "Coke" is the generic term for carbonated beverages in the Southeastern US.
(television) season - series
in US English, the word 'series' refers to the entire run of a television show.
US: primarily refers to employees in a non-managerial/supporting/clerical role in an office
Commonwealth: primarily refers to any employee of a particular organisation (use of the phrase "member/s of staff" is also common)
station wagon – estate car
stroller - pushchair (for babies)
US English – person of any age studying at any educational institution
Commonwealth English – person studying at a post-secondary institution; young people at primary or secondary schools are typically "pupils"
subway - underground train / tube (colloquially)
subdivision – housing estate
suspenders – braces
sweater – jumper
In Commonwealth English it means to put a motion up for consideration; in US English it means to remove the motion from consideration.
trash/garbage - rubbish/litter
In US English, "litter", as a noun, refers specifically to pieces of refuse discarded in plain sight (i.e., not in a trash can). The word is even more often used as a verb, referring to the act of dumping refuse in public (generally illegal, though enforcement varies).
truck - lorry
trunk (of a car) - boot
tube top – boob tube
In US English, "boob tube" is a slang term for a television.
US English – money paid to receive an education at any educational institution (Commonwealth English: "tuition fees")
Commonwealth English – educational content transferred from teacher to student at a university
(pedestrian) underpass - subway
vacation – holiday
wrench (tool) – spanner
In Commonwealth English, "wrench" in this sense is usually used in combination, such as "torque wrench".