The Grammarphobia Blog

Why can’t Americans learn to speak?

Q: Why do you refer to “American English” and “British English”? Surely it should be “American English” and “proper English.”

A: I can’t tell whether your question is a serious one or not, but I’ll answer it as simply as I can.

The terms “American English” and “British English” refer to the two major branches of English, and reflect the changes in the language since the Colonies separated themselves linguistically from England.

The differences may be many, but they’re minor. Most have to do with spelling, pronunciation, and usage, but not with grammar. English grammar is English grammar, no matter where you live.

In some respects, American English is “purer” than British English, in the sense that we’ve preserved some usages and spellings and pronunciations that have changed over time in England.

In Britain, for example, the only acceptable past participle of the verb “get” is “got”; in the United States one uses “gotten” in some cases and “got” in others, depending on one’s meaning.

At one time, English routinely had both past participles. But after the two branches of English split and began developing in different directions, American English retained both forms, and British English dropped “gotten.” (The old form survived in the expression “ill-gotten gains.”)

The result is that Americans have a nuance of meaning the British have lost. Here’s a link to an entry on my blog about that subject.

Spelling differences are too numerous to go into fully, but keep in mind that these evolved over time in England, and kept evolving after the American Revolution. Take “grey” (the currently preferred British spelling) as opposed to the American “gray.”

The Oxford English Dictionary notes that when its editor conducted a survey of British preferences in 1893, the inquiry “elicited a large number of replies, from which it appeared that in Great Britain the form grey is the more frequent in use, notwithstanding the authority of Johnson and later English lexicographers, who have all given the preference to gray.”

In the 20th century, the OED notes, “grey has become the established spelling in the U.K., whilst gray is standard in the United States.” So Samuel Johnson would be with the Americans on this one.

Pronunciations and spellings are still evolving in Britain, just as they are in the United States. For example, Americans pronounce “herb” with a silent “h,” which is the way Englishmen used to pronounce it. Pronunciation has changed in England and now the British pronounce the “h” in “herb.”

On the other hand, some British speakers still use “an” before words in which the initial “h” is pronounced (as in “hotel”). In fact, “a hotel” and “a historic site” are right; “an hotel” and “an historic” are not standard English on either side of the Atlantic. Those usages are mere affectations when used by anyone who pronounces “hotel” and “historic” in the standard way with the aitches sounded. Since I’ve discussed this issue in my blog as well, I’ll provide the link.

Usage too, as you’ve no doubt noticed, can be very different in the US and the UK.

In Britain, many collective nouns are plural, such as the names of companies, sports teams, government bodies (“Mobil invite you to join them”). In the US, the preference is for the singular (“Mobil invites you to join it”).

Similarly, the use of the singular “they” – as in “If anyone objects, they must be batty”” – is more acceptable in Britain than in the US, where such a usage is still widely considered a grammatical error. [Note: An updated post on the use of “they” in singular references was published on May 22, 2017.]

Another usage difference: the distinction between “that” and “which” (a relatively recent phenomenon, from the early 20th century) seems to matter more to Americans than to the British.

And in legal terminology, “pled” is a common variant of “pleaded” in the US, though not in Britain. So it’s quite common to say of an American perp that he “pled guilty” or “has pled guilty.”

To cite another example, we treat articles (“a,” “an,” and “the”) differently where some institutions are concerned, notably hospitals and universities. The British say “He’s in hospital” while the Americans would say, “He’s in the hospital.”

Many such usage issues go one way in the US and another in Britain, but correctness is not an issue. These are the idiosyncrasies of idiomatic usage.

This is a very long and windy way of saying that we share a common language, both branches of which are still evolving. They couldn’t possibly have remained identical, since the populations that determine common usage are separated (and have been for quite some time) by a rather wide ocean. Neither variety is more “correct” or “proper” than the other.

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