English language varieties
English is the main language in many places, an important language in others, and spoken as a second language more-or-less everywhere. However, there are some significant differences in pronunciation, spelling and word usage around the world. This article aims to provide a list of some of these differences that may be useful to travellers.
The clearest distinction is between what can be loosely called the Commonwealth and American varieties of English.
- Many areas — Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and other former British possessions in Africa, Hong Kong, Singapore, India, Pakistan, Malaysia, and current and former British possessions in the Caribbean — (not all of them Commonwealth members) generally follow British rather than American usage.
- Some areas like the Philippines, Israel and parts of Latin America are heavily influenced by the US and generally follow American usage.
- People in areas without a history of direct colonial or military influence by English-speaking nations now tend to be more familiar with American usage because of the overwhelming popularity of U.S. films, TV series, music and spell-checkers. However, all 28 countries of the EU have mandated the variety of English used in Cyprus, Ireland, Malta and the UK as an official language.
- Canada generally follows British spelling conventions (labour, not labor) and American vocabulary choices (elevator, not lift). Most Canadian accents are very close to a Midwestern U.S. accent. Canadians also use more terms of French origin than other dialects and are more likely to pronounce them as French speakers do.
Some exceptions to the purely dichotomous treatment of English are noted in comments in the tables below, but this guide is meant to be a practical aid for travellers, and not exhaustive.
Noah Webster, compiler of the first major dictionary of American English in the early 19th century, made a number of "simplifications" in the spelling. These are now standard in the U.S., but generally not used elsewhere.
See Wikivoyage:Spelling for discussion of which variants to use in articles.
British English doubles the final consonant in some words when adding an ending, for example in "traveller". American English usually spells it "traveler".
British English changes a "C" to an "S" to distinguish a noun from a verb. James Bond has a "licence" to kill, and was "licensed" after qualifying as a spy. The American form always uses the "S".
American usage drops the "U" in "-our" endings:
Words borrowed from French keep the French "-re" ending in British English, but get changed to the more phonetic "-er" in American English:
In all Englishes except US, a "metre" is a unit of length while a "meter" is a measuring instrument. In American English both are a "meter".
For a number of verbs, the older irregular spellings are more common in British English but the regular -ed forms predominate in American English. The verb "dive", however, has the opposite usage pattern.
Some verbs retain the older form everywhere, for example "slept" and "wept".
Some words have silent letters dropped or are spelled more phonetically in American English:
|program||programme||UK usage is mixed: 'computer program' vs. 'television programme'|
This last group is the only one where Canadian usage routinely includes American spellings, with exceptions like "cheque" and sometimes "programme".
Many American spellings of words, such as "program" and "analog", are widely adopted and understood outside the U.S.
Incidentally, punctuation usage differs slightly as well, but doesn't follow the same division between British and American English. Quotations are marked by double quotation marks (“…”) in the U.S., Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, while single quotation marks (‘…’) are used in the UK and South Africa.
English has an enormous range of accents and dialects — the UK alone has dozens — and some can be almost incomprehensible to other English speakers, let alone the poor traveller for whom English is a second language.
Educated people from almost anywhere in the English-speaking world can talk to each other without serious difficulty. Consider an international crew on an oil rig somewhere. The engineers and managers would almost certainly be able to talk to each other without any real problems, whether they studied in Edinburgh or Edmonton. However, two working guys from the same two countries — say working class Glasgow and a Newfoundland fishing village — would be quite likely to find communication a bit difficult.
An important difference in English dialects is whether "R" is pronounced after a vowel. Words such as "fork", "word" or "mother" are quite different in the two types, though everyone pronounces the "R" in other contexts, for example in "rabbit" or "area".
- Dialects with the "R": Scots, Irish, Canadian, much of the U.S.
- Dialects without "R": Most of England, Wales, Australia, New Zealand, India, Pakistan, Boston, parts of the Southern U.S., some New York City-area accents, and African American Vernacular English (used by many African Americans interchangeably with the standard dialect of their region).
All dialects, except for some Southern U.S. dialects, pronounce the linking "R" in an expression like "the mother of", even the ones that would not pronounce it in "I saw his mother." Some insert a linking "R" sound between words like "the arear of a circle".
People not familiar with dialects other than their own sometimes lump all "R"-less dialects together, as when an American takes a New Zealand accent for British, and others make the opposite error, like an Englishwoman taking a Canadian accent for Irish.
Certain words are pronounced very differently. In parts of the U.S., "borough" rhymes with "furrow" but elsewhere the final consonant is an "uh" sound.
The words "route" and "router" can be pronounced to rhyme with "shoot" and "shooter" anywhere, but in North America they can also rhyme with "shout" and "shouter". Sometimes it is safer to use the latter pronunciation, whatever your own dialect has, because in Australian and New Zealand English, "root" is slang for sex, much the way "screw" is in North American English.
Note that for terms related to motor vehicles, Canadian English uses American terminology and spelling exclusively. This is likely because Canada's auto industry has been dominated by U.S. firms from its beginning.
|car/automobile||car/motorcar||"Motorcar" is understood but very old-fashioned in the U.S.|
|carry-on bag||hand luggage|
|divided highway||dual carriageway|
|highway/freeway/expressway/limited-access road||motorway||"Interstate" is the name of a specific U.S. highway system|
|hood (of a car)||bonnet|
|median||central reservation||"Neutral ground" is used in the New Orleans area.|
|parking lot||car park|
|rent||hire||In the U.S., "hire" is used only in the sense of "employ".|
|speed bump||speed bump/hump/sleeping policeman|
|subway||underground/tube||"Subway" is used in Glasgow. "Metro" is also used in places like Montreal, Washington, D.C. and Newcastle upon Tyne.|
|trunk (of a car)||boot|
|undivided highway||single carriageway|
See and do
|football||American football||Occasionally called "gridiron football". Don't confuse with "soccer".|
|soccer||football||The U.S., Canada, Ireland, and Australia all have varieties of football that are quite distinct from what is known in the UK and much of the rest of the world as "football" (formally known as association football). In South Africa, all cultural groups use "soccer" for this sport when speaking English.|
|hockey||ice hockey||The game played on ice, the national sport in Canada.|
|field hockey||hockey||The game played on grass (or artificial turf), popular in India and Pakistan.|
|movie theater||cinema||European usage follows the French pattern where a "salle de cinéma" (a moviehouse) is distinguished from the "théâtre" (a live performance venue) by using different terms for each. "Cinema" is also a universally recognized term in the U.S.|
|ATM||cash point/cash machine/hole-in-the-wall||"ATM" stands for "automated teller machine"|
|cash register||till||In the US, "till" refers specifically to a cash register's money drawer.|
|fanny pack||bum bag||In the UK, "fanny" is obscene slang for female genitalia.|
|jumper (dress)||pinafore/pinafore dress|
|mall||shopping centre||In the U.S., a "shopping center" usually refers to an open-air venue. Many such locations are informally called "strip malls", especially if they are part of a larger commercial strip along a major local road.|
|Main Street||high street|
|pants||trousers||In the UK, "pants" refers to underwear. Australia, New Zealand and Canada follow U.S. usage.|
|pump (women's shoe)||court shoe|
|shopping cart||trolley||Also called "buggy" in some U.S. dialects|
|check (restaurant)||bill||"Check" is U.S.-only; even Canadians use "bill."|
|entrée||main course||"Main course" is also understood in the U.S.|
|Jell-O||jelly||"Jell-O" is a trademark for a specific brand of gelatin desserts, although the term is widely used generically in both the U.S. and Canada.|
|jelly||jam||In the U.S., "jam" contains fruit flesh and "jelly" is filtered to just the thickened juice, with pectin (and often sugar, etc.) added.|
|napkin||serviette||Australia and Britain sometimes distinguish paper "serviettes" from cloth "napkins". UK "napkin" used to mean "(baby) diaper", but those are now called "nappies".|
|cider||pure apple juice||In the U.S., the alcoholic drink is called "hard cider"; "apple juice" is filtered and "cider" is unfiltered, and both are non-alcoholic|
|liquor store/package store||off licence/off sales|
|lemon-lime soda (e.g. Sprite, 7-UP)||lemonade|
|lemonade (squeezed lemons and sugar)||traditional lemonade|
|rent||let||"Lease" is also used in both varieties of English.|
|attorney/lawyer||solicitor/barrister/advocate||UK terms are not interchangeable; see note below|
|crib (infant bed)||cot|
|drug store||chemist||"Pharmacy" is also used in all dialects|
|stroller||pushchair/pram||"(Baby) buggy" is common in both U.S. and UK|
|family doctor/primary care physician||GP (General Practitioner)|
The American terms ("attorney" and "lawyer") are interchangeable; the British terms ("solicitor", "barrister", and "advocate") are not. In the UK, clients typically deal directly with "solicitors", who provide general legal advice on a given issue and can also represent clients in lower courts. "Barristers", known in Scotland as "advocates", are typically hired by solicitors (but ultimately paid for by clients) to appear in higher courts, provide more detailed legal advice on a case, and draft pleadings. By contrast, the U.S. legal profession is "fused", with a single profession handling all matters.
Most Commonwealth countries follow UK usage, although the legal profession is fused in Canada (apart from Quebec), most Australian states, and New Zealand. In South Africa, the profession is split between "attorneys" (solicitors) and "advocates".
|call (to use a telephone)||ring||"Call" (to use a phone) is also used in the UK|
|cell phone||mobile phone||Singapore: "handphone". Some European English speakers use "handy", from a German misconception of English slang|
|prepaid||pay as you go|
|ZIP code||postcode||ZIP ("Zone Improvement Plan") was a name trademarked by the U.S. Postal Service, and is only understood in the U.S.; use "postal code" or "postcode" everywhere else|
Weights and measures
The U.S. is the only major country still exclusively using the old Imperial system of weights and measures rather than the metric system. See Metric and Imperial equivalents for conversion information. The UK is partially metricated, and uses the metric system for some measures such as temperature and fuel volume, but uses imperial units for other measures such as road distances and beer volume. Measurements in scientific fields use the metric system in all countries including the US. All other English-speaking countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand officially use the metric system, though the imperial system survives to varying extents in colloquial usage.
In measures for liquids, the U.S. uses its own variant of Imperial measures (simply called "U.S. customary measures"). An Imperial gallon is 160 fluid ounces (4.5 liters) but a U.S. gallon is 128 ounces (3.78 liters). Both sizes of gallon are subdivided into four quarts or eight pints. A handy but very rough approximate conversion is to treat a liter as a quart; actually 1 liter is about 34 fluid ounces, more than a U.S. quart (32 ounces) but less than an imperial quart (40 ounces). The main exception to the use of U.S. customary measures is large soft drink bottles, which are typically 2 liters (some 3-liter bottles can also be found in stores). The 2-liter bottle is the last major legacy of a failed U.S. push toward metrication in the mid-1970s which coincided with the introduction of the now-standard plastic soft drink bottles.
In road signs, both the U.S. and the UK continue to use the old Imperial system. This means that speed limits are marked in miles per hour, and distances are also written in miles. 1 mile is roughly equivalent to 1.6 km.
A "pint" of beer in many places is now 500 ml. The traditional British pint is 568 ml.
|ass/buttocks/fanny||bum/bottom/arse||UK "fanny" means female genitalia|
|fall (season)||autumn||"Autumn" is also acceptable in the U.S.|
|first name||Christian name/given name||The phrase "Christian name" has fallen out of use|
|last name||surname||"Surname" is also understood in the U.S.|
|restroom/bathroom/lavatory||WC/toilet/loo/bog||However, although "toilet paper" is universal, Brits may refer to "loo roll" or "bog roll". In British English, a WC or water closet is a public toilet and a bathroom is where you take a bath or shower.|
|soda/pop/soft drink||soft drink/pop/fizzy drink/coke||In the Southeastern U.S., "coke" is often a generic name for soda, but in the rest of the U.S., "coke" refers only to Coca-Cola.|
|trash/garbage||rubbish/litter||In American English, "litter" specifically refers to small pieces of rubbish discarded in plain view (i.e., not in a trash can). The gerund "littering" is even more common.|
|vacation||holiday||"Holiday" in American English is roughly equivalent to "bank holiday" in British English. "Vacations" are either longer periods off from work/school (at least a week) or leisure trips.|
Same words, different meaning
- Asian, when used by itself to describe people, has different meanings across the English-speaking world.
- UK — Refers typically to people from the Indian subcontinent, including Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. People from the far east, including East Asia and South East Asia are often referred to as "East Asians".
- US, Canada — Refers to a person having origins in East Asia, South East Asia, or South Asia, including the Indian subcontinent.
- Australia, New Zealand - Refers typically to people from East Asia or South East Asia, but can include the Indian subcontinent as well.
- US — Sport in general, as long as it is based on human physical competition (which generally excludes motorsports and mind sports). By extension, an athlete is any sportsperson by the preceding definition.
- Commonwealth — Sport consisting of track and field, cross country running, road running, and race walking. An athlete is a competitor in this sport. "Sportsperson" is used for the American concept of "athlete". No single American word captures the Commonwealth concept of "athlete"—running athletes are most often described as "runners", field athletes are generally described by their specific event(s), and race walkers are called by that exact term.
- Canada — Mixed usage, but tending more to the American norm, especially in the use of "athlete" to refer to any sportsperson.
- elk: In the U.S. and Canada, refers to a very large deer similar to the red deer of Eurasia; this animal is also known by the Native American name "wapiti". In the UK and Ireland (and also second-language speakers in Europe), refers to an even larger deer whose males have flattened antlers; this animal is known as the "moose" in North America. There is also a smaller species found in India and known as either "Indian elk" or "Sambar deer".
- fag: A slang term for a cigarette in the UK; a derogatory term for a homosexual man in the U.S.
- mad: UK "mad" usually means insane or crazy (as in "barking mad"), while in the U.S. "mad" (at someone) means angry (with someone).
- pissed: UK "pissed" means drunk. U.S. "pissed" is short for "pissed off", which means annoyed or angry in all varieties of English.
- rubber: Refers to an eraser in the UK; a slang word for condom in the U.S.
- student union:
- U.S. — One of several terms used to describe a college/university building intended for student recreation and socialization. Synonyms include "student center" and "student activity center".
- Other English-speaking countries — A college/university student organization devoted to representing the interests of the students before the administration; often called a "students' union". The most common U.S. equivalent is "student government", with "student senate" also seeing some use.
- To table a motion: In the UK, it means to put the motion up for consideration; in the U.S., it means to remove it from consideration.
- tie (in sports): In the U.S. and Canada, refers to a drawn match. In the UK, "tie" most often refers to a contest between two teams, usually in the context of knockout competitions in football (soccer), with a drawn match called a "draw". Note that hardcore North American soccer fans may use the UK terms when talking about their sport. However:
- The UK usage of "tie" is standard in all forms of English when referring to contests in the Davis Cup or Fed Cup in tennis.
- In cricket, a "tie" and a "draw" refer to entirely separate match results. A "tie" occurs in the very rare instances when the two teams are level on runs after they have lost all their wickets. A "draw" is a more common result in first-class and Test cricket (multi-day) matches in which the match reaches its scheduled conclusion before both teams have completed their two allotted innings (times at bat).