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", 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 in the US 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
- 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 (Singapore: handphone)
- 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 – Canadian football or American football (both gridiron codes)
- 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.
- 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")
- Commonwealth English: clear, carbonated, lemon-flavoured drink
- leverage (finance) – gearing
- line (where you wait your turn to be served) - queue
- 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 is used 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 theatre - cinema
- The US live theatrical community generally uses "theatre" on its own to describe its art form.
- muffler (of a motor vehicle) – silencer
- In US English, "silencer" typically refers to a firearm accessory, also 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/loo/WC
- However, people from the US also use 'toilet paper' to refer to the exclusively British term 'loo roll'.
- 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 in a form of transportation
- 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
- table (verb)
- 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
- 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".
- zucchini - courgette
Merriam Webster US Dictionary
Commonwealth English: Oxford University Press dictionary
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