English language varieties

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English is the main language in many places, an important language in others, and spoken as a second language in most of the rest of the world. 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 United States and Great Britain are two countries separated by a common language.” — attributed apocryphally to George Bernard Shaw

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), as well as the United Arab Emirates, generally follow British rather than American usage.
  • A few areas like the Philippines, Israel, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, Saudi Arabia and parts of Latin America are heavily influenced by the U.S. and generally follow American usage.
  • The European Union has mandated the variety of English used in Cyprus, Ireland, Malta and the UK as an official language of the EU, and it is generally standard British English that is taught as a foreign language in European schools, though American cultural influence is strong in Europe as well. Some American terms may be better known than their British counterparts (e.g., truck vs. lorry or fries vs. chips), and some language schools in Europe recruit American and Canadian English teachers.
  • 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, and it is usually the U.S. variety of English that is taught as a foreign language in schools.
  • Canada generally follows British spelling conventions ("labour", not "labor") and American vocabulary choices ("elevator", not "lift"). The commonest Canadian accent is very close to a Midwestern U.S. accent, though for the trained ear it is far less nasal and there are some differences in pronunciation (like the American nasal vowels such as the a in "fast", not present in a Canadian accent).

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.

Spelling[edit]

Noah Webster, compiler of the first major dictionary of American English in the early 19th century, made a number of "simplifications" in the spelling. Some of 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:

American British
color colour
harbor harbour

Words borrowed from French keep the French "-re" ending in British English, but get changed to the more phonetic "-er" in American English:

American British
center centre
liter litre
theater theatre

In British English, 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 in the past participle, 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.

American British
dreamed dreamt
spelled spelt
burned burnt
learned learnt
dove dived

Some verbs retain the older form everywhere, for example "slept" and "wept".

American usage changes the "S" to a more phoenetic "Z" in some "-ise" endings:

American British
organize organise
realize realise

Some words have silent letters dropped in American English or are just spelled differently:

American British Comment
analog analogue
bagel beigel
check cheque As a form of payment; the verb "to check" and its related noun are always spelled "check"
curb kerb As the raised edge of a street; the verb "to curb" (as in "to restrain") is always spelled "curb".
donut doughnut
draft draught / draft UK retains separate words (with multiple meanings for each); U.S. simplifies both to "draft", but may sometimes refer to "draught beer"
program programme UK usage is mixed: "computer program" vs. "television programme"
tire tyre As a noun for the ring of rubber around a wheel. The verb "to tire" is always spelt with an "i"

And a few words are both pronounced and spelled differently:

American British Comment
airplane aeroplane
aluminum aluminium The UK "aluminium" spelling is the international scientific preference, to match other -ium elements.
filet (fih-LEY) fillet (FILL-it) Meat or fish; in engineering it's always "fillet".
Canada distinguishes between "fillets" of fish and "filets" of meat.
inquiry, to inquire enquiry, to enquire The act of asking for information; an official investigation is always called an "inquiry"
insure ensure To make sure of something; "insure" in the context of an insurance policy is always spelt with an "i"
specialty speciality

These last three groups are the ones where Canadian usage routinely includes American spellings, with exceptions like "cheque" and sometimes "programme".

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.

Pronunciation[edit]

Educated people from almost anywhere in the English-speaking world can talk to each other without 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 due to stronger regional accents and use of dialectical words.

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". Linguists call dialects with the "R" "rhotic" and those without "non-rhotic".

  • Dialects with the "R": Some parts of western and northern England, 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).

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. "Advertisement" in the UK is pronounced ad-VERT-iss-muhnt (shortened to "advert" AD-vert), but in the U.S. it's AD-ver-taiz-muhnt (shortened to "ad").

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. (The pronunciation that rhymes with "shouter" is standard in North America for the networking device known as a "router".)

Vocabulary[edit]

“The problem with defending the purity of the English language is that English is about as pure as a cribhouse whore. We don't just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”James Nicoll

All dialects of English include words borrowed from other languages, and many of those such as "bungalow" (Hindi), "robot" (Czech), "canoe" (Carib) or "typhoon" (Chinese) are now standard in all dialects. However, many dialects also include loanwords that are non-standard. Canadians use more terms of French origin than other dialects and are more likely to pronounce them as French speakers do, New Zealanders occasionally mix Maori terms into their English, Indian English has Hindi or Urdu words, and so on. Bilingual speakers of English or those to whom it is a second language may on occasion use English words that make sense in their other language but have a different meaning in English. The reverse case of loanwords being used in a meaning closer to the language of origin is also common. In some cases, particularly when pseudo-English phrases like "Handy" (German for mobile phone) are used, confusion may arise.

Get in/around[edit]

U.S. UK Notes
bus bus / coach UK distinguishes between local "buses" (such as city buses or school buses) and long-distance "coaches" (such as National Express or Greyhound). In the U.S. "bus" is generally used for all of these.
carry-on bag hand luggage
crosswalk zebra crossing
elevator lift
first floor ground floor UK "first floor" means "first above the ground floor", which is called the "second floor" in the U.S. Hotels tend to label floors like "lobby", "mezzanine", "pool", etc., which may or may not be counted in place of numbered floors.
[pedestrian] underpass subway As a pedestrian tunnel under a busy road or railroad. Singapore follows U.S. usage.
railroad railway
round-trip (ticket) return
sidewalk pavement
streetcar tram Both terms tend to refer to systems in mixed traffic with cars. U.S. "streetcar" usually has a short route only serving downtown. In continental Europe "tram[way]" is used for systems Americans would call "light rail", which run along dedicated rights of way for all or part of their route.
subway / metro / local acronyms underground / metro The London Underground is colloquially known as "the Tube". "Subway" is used in Glasgow. "Metro" is used in places like Montreal, Washington, D.C. and Newcastle upon Tyne. In many American cities the local public transport authority has a more or less well known acronym often ending in RTA (regional transit authority) or RT (rapid transit), as in BART in the Bay Area.

By car[edit]

For some reason, cars and roads have developed a lot of differing terminology between American and British English.

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.

U.S. UK Notes
coupe (pronounced KOOP) / 2-door coupé (pronounced koo-PAY or KOO-pay) / 2-door
divided highway dual carriageway
gas / gasoline petrol
highway / freeway / expressway / limited-access road motorway "Interstate" is the name of a specific American highway system. In the U.S., a "turnpike" is a toll motorway while a "freeway" has no tolls. In Australia, "freeway", "expressway" and "motorway" are all used, though the prevalent term varies by region. The unambiguous internationally-recognized term is a "controlled-access highway".
hood (of a car) bonnet
minivan people carrier
median central reservation New Orleans area: "neutral ground".
overpass flyover U.S. "flyover" generally refers to not just an overpass but a complex interchange with ramps.
parking lot / parking garage car park UK "parking lot" refers to each individual space for one car.
pavement road surface / tarmac U.S. "tarmac" commonly refers to airport surfaces where airplanes move. In Australia, "bitumen" is sometimes used instead.
pickup [truck] no particular usage; see notes South Africa: "bakkie". Australia and New Zealand: "ute" (pronounced yoot) is either a pickup truck, or a coupé pickup (similar to the Chevrolet El Camino). Pickup trucks are extremely uncommon in the UK, so they could be called a "car", a "4x4 / four-by-four" or just a "[pickup] truck" depending on who's talking.
to rent to hire U.S. "to hire" is used only in the sense of "to employ", such as hiring a driver to drive the car.
sedan / 4-door saloon / 4-door Australia and New Zealand follow U.S. usage.
speed bump speed bump / hump / sleeping policeman
[station] wagon estate car Australia and New Zealand follow U.S. usage.
truck lorry U.S. term has multiple meanings; see notes below. UK road signs refer to "HGVs" (which stands for "Heavy Goods Vehicles")
trunk (of a car) boot
undivided highway single carriageway

The term "roundabout" is standard everywhere, but New York state uses "traffic circle", and Massachusetts uses "rotary".

U.S. "truck" can refer to several different vehicles:

  • A pickup truck
  • An SUV (sport utility vehicle), known elsewhere as an "off-road vehicle", "4x4 / four-by-four", or by brand names like "Jeep" or "Land Rover"; sometimes marketed as a "crossover" for light-duty vehicles with no off-road capability
  • A heavy-duty vehicle for moving cargo (includes articulated semi-trailers (UK: "lorry") and box/straight trucks) or specialized jobs (fire trucks, tow trucks, garbage trucks, etc.)

In casual conversation, "truck" is more likely to refer to a pickup, but could also refer to an SUV.

See and do[edit]

U.S. UK Notes
football American football Multiple meanings; see notes below.
soccer football Multiple meanings; see notes below.
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.
movies / films / flicks films / pictures
movie theater / cinema cinema
  • football refers to the dominant code in the respective country.
    • In the UK, that would be soccer (originally an Oxfordian word formed from association football much like "rugger" was formed from rugby football).
    • In Australia, the usage varies by region, but most often refers to Australian rules football.
    • In the U.S., "American football" is meant when referring to "football" unqualified.
    • In Canada "football" refers to either the Canadian or the American variety of the game (very similar to each other).
    • In some places or contexts "football" or "footy" may also refer to rugby football; this is especially so in the Australian states of New South Wales and Queensland, where "football" most often refers to rugby league.
    • In Ireland, "football" may refer to association football, Gaelic football, or sometimes rugby union. National media typically avoid confusion by not using "football" by itself to refer to any sport, respectively using "soccer", "Gaelic football", and "rugby" to refer to the three aforementioned sports.
    • In New Zealand, "football" historically referred to rugby union, but since 2005 this has dramatically changed, with "football" now referring almost exclusively to association football.
    • In South Africa, "football" would most often refer to association football. However, the word is rarely used outside of official contexts (such as the name of the national governing body for the sport, the South African Football Association). All cultural groups in the country, when speaking English, refer to the sport as "soccer"; this is reflected in the name of the country's top league in that sport, the Premier Soccer League, and national media usage.

Buy[edit]

U.S. UK Notes
ATM cash point / cash machine / hole-in-the-wall "ATM" stands for "automated teller machine", and is becoming more widely-used in the UK. Australia, New Zealand and Canada follow U.S. usage.
bill (money) banknote "Banknote" is often shortened to just "note". Canada follows British usage.
cash register till U.S. "till" refers specifically to a money drawer, such as that of a cash register or a bank teller's station.
downtown city centre Some cities have their own special terms for "downtown"/"city centre". Philadelphia uses "Center City", Charlotte often uses "Uptown", and New Orleans (where "downtown" traditionally referred to a different area) uses "the CBD" (short for "Central Business District").
fanny pack bum bag UK "fanny" is obscene slang for female genitalia. Singapore: "waist pouch"
jumper pinafore [dress]
line (of people waiting) queue
mall shopping centre
Main Street high street
pants trousers 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. U.S. "trolley" may refer to a streetcar or a bus built to outwardly resemble an old style streetcar
sneakers / athletic shoes trainers
sweater jumper
vest waistcoat

"Flip-flops" go by various local names: Australia "thongs", NZ "jandals" (short for "Japanese sandals"), South Africa "slops", Hawaii "slippa" (the local pronunciation of "slippers"). They're also just called "sandals", but this term can cause confusion since there are various other types of sandals.

Eat[edit]

U.S. UK Notes
appetizer / starter starter / entrée
biscuits scones The two are similar, but not identical. Unlike North American biscuits, British and Irish scones are often sweet. The two foods differ slightly in preparation, though their appearance is virtually identical. In Canada, the word "scones" is starting to see use, but most of the country still refers to "biscuits" in the U.S. sense. In the UK, there is much debate as whether "scone" should rhyme with "cone" or "gone", with the disagreement itself being one of the most well-known features of accent and dialect differences around the country.
candy sweets
check (restaurant) bill "Check" is U.S.-only; even Canadians use "bill."
chips crisps Australia uses both terms interchangeably.
cookies biscuits
corn maize See notes below. Southern Africa: "mealie"
dessert dessert / pudding / sweet U.S. "pudding" without qualification usually means the same as UK "custard" or "blancmange".
eggplant aubergine India/Singapore/Malaysia: "brinjal". Australia follows U.S. usage.
entrée / main course main course
[French] fries chips But "fish and chips" is always called such, never "fish and fries"
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, New Zealand and Britain distinguish paper "serviettes" from cloth "napkins". Canada uses both terms interchangeably.
pastrami salt beef Canada: "smoked meat" is not identical to pastrami but very closely related
shrimp prawn
steakhouse chophouse
takeout / carryout / to go takeaway
zucchini courgette Australia follows U.S. usage.
  • coriander: In the UK, refers to both the seeds and leaves of Coriandrum sativum. In North America, "coriander" refers only to the seeds; the leaves are called "cilantro".
  • corn:
    • North America, Australia, New Zealand — A cereal that grows on tall stalks, with the edible grains (most often yellow or white, though other colors exist) forming "ears" growing from the stalk. This plant and its grain are called "maize" in the UK and Ireland, and by botanists worldwide (at least within a scientific context).
    • England and Wales — "Corn" can refer to any cereal, but most often to wheat.
    • Scotland and Ireland — Similar to England and Wales, except that the most common reference is to oats.
    • However, in culinary contexts, "corn" with an additional word refers to maize, even in the UK and Ireland (e.g. "popcorn", "sweet corn", and "corn flakes").

Drink[edit]

U.S. UK Notes
apple juice / [apple] cider apple juice U.S. "apple juice" is filtered and "cider" is unfiltered (and both are non-alcoholic).
hard cider cider In a U.S. bar, "cider" by itself would be assumed to mean hard cider, but elsewhere would usually be taken to mean unfiltered apple juice
liquor store / package store off licence Sometimes called "ABC store" in U.S. states in which some or all alcohol can only be sold in state-run stores
lemon-lime soda (e.g. Sprite, 7-UP) lemonade
lemonade (squeezed lemons and sugar) traditional lemonade / still lemonade
soda / pop / soft drink / coke 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. "Soda" is the standard term in New England, California, Arizona, Nevada, Hawaii, and the Mid-Atlantic states except for Western New York and Western Pennsylvania, where "pop" is used, as it is in much of the Midwest, Great Plains and Rocky Mountain states.

Sleep[edit]

U.S. UK Notes
apartment flat In the UK, "flat" is the generic term; "apartment" is used for similar dwellings in expensive residential areas. Canada uses "apartment" (French: appartement). Australia uses both terms interchangeably, plus "unit".
to rent / to lease to let / to lease

Learn[edit]

U.S. UK Notes
class / course module / unit
college university Usage varies by country; see notes below. "University" may be shortened to "uni".
degree program course [of study] / degree programme
to give / to write (an exam) to set (an exam) From the instructor's perspective. UK "to set" means both preparing and administering the exam, while U.S. distinguishes between preparing the exam ("writing"), and administering it to students ("giving").
grades / points marks / grades Also U.S. "to grade" versus UK "to mark".
to major in (a subject) to read / to study (a subject) U.S. "to study (a subject)" can mean majoring, or simply to take any class, or reviewing before an exam
private school public school / independent school / private school See notes below.
proctor / [exam] supervisor invigilator
public school state school See notes below. As in a government-owned, publicly-funded school open to all students. U.S. "state school" typically means a state college or university.
to review to revise
to take (an exam) to sit (an exam) From the student's perspective. Canada: "to write (an exam)". India: "to give (an exam)". However, U.S. law graduates "sit for" their bar examinations.
tuition tuition fees UK "tuition" refers to the educational content transferred to students
  • college:
    • U.S. — Generic term for post-secondary undergraduate education. An American student will "go to college" even if his or her institution is formally called a "college", "university", or some other term, and whether or not the school awards bachelor's degrees. This usage of "college" does not extend to graduate (UK: "postgraduate") education, which is usually called "grad school".
    • Canada — Mainly refers to a technical, career, or community college (U.S.: "community college" or "junior college"). Canadians draw a sharp distinction between "going to college" (implying a community, technical or career college diploma) and "going to university" (studying for a bachelor's or post-grad degree). College mostly offers two or three-year programmes which prepare students for practical employment. A few exceptions:
      • Quebec inserts two years of community college, locally known as CEGEP, between its secondary education and university. Quebec students graduate from high school after grade 11, as opposed to grade 12 in Anglophone North America. Undergraduate degrees from Quebec universities are completed in one less year than in Anglophone North America, as the first year will have been completed at a CEGEP.
      • In Ontario, a "CVI" (Collegiate and Vocational Institute) is a secondary/high school facility (not a college) which offers technical or machine shops
    • UK — Can refer to any post-secondary institution that is not a university, or sometimes to a secondary school. Students at post-secondary institutions will say that they are "going to university" (or "uni") instead of U.S. "college", regardless of the formal title of their school. Can also refer to a constituent college of a university, some of which are considered universities in their own right (e.g. Imperial College London).
    • Ireland — Follows U.S. usage for historic reasons unique to that country. Before 1989, no Irish university provided teaching or research directly; they were instead offered by a constituent college of a university.
    • Australia — Usually refers to a private (i.e., non-government) primary, or especially secondary, school. Can also refer to a constituent college of a university.
    • New Zealand — Normally refers to secondary schools; used interchangeably with "high school".
    • Singapore - Generally refers to high school. Short for "junior college".
  • prep school: In the U.S., a secondary/high school that prepares students for college; in the UK, a primary school that prepares pupils for fee-paying public (private) schools
  • public school:
    • U.S. — A government-owned, publicly-funded school; most often used to refer to an elementary or secondary school open to all students within the geographic boundaries designated for that school.
    • UK — Can have several meanings:
      • "Public" education as opposed to "private" education by a tutor
      • Exclusive fee-paying secondary schools, typically boarding schools (which are "public" because they aren't restricted based on home location, religion, etc.)
      • Any independent school (also called "private schools" following U.S. usage); this usage of "public school" is rare in Scotland and Northern Ireland
  • student:
    • UK, Ireland — Traditionally refers exclusively to those attending university-level institutions. Attendees of primary and secondary institutions are generally called "pupils". However, the North American sense of the term (see below) is beginning to see some use.
    • New Zealand — Broader than in the UK and Ireland; "pupils" refers only to children in primary school (years 1–6). "Student" is used for all higher levels, from intermediate to postgraduate.
    • U.S., Canada, Australia — Refers to all people attending educational institutions at any level, from primary to postgraduate. "Pupils" is understood but not generally used in North America.
  • student union or students' union:
    • U.S. ("student union" only) — One of several terms used to describe a college/university building intended for student recreation and socialising. Synonyms include "student center" and "student activity center".
    • Other English-speaking countries — A college/university student organisation devoted to representing the interests of the students before the administration. The recreational aspect is also looked after by the unions as in the U.S., but their political role is often emphasised. The most common U.S. equivalent is "student government", with "student senate" also seeing some use.

Cope[edit]

U.S. UK Notes
attorney / lawyer solicitor / barrister / advocate / lawyer UK terms are not interchangeable. "Advocate" is the proper Scottish term for the individual called a "barrister" in the rest of the UK. "Lawyer" is the general term covering all these sub-professions in the UK.
crib (infant bed) cot
day care nursery / playgroup / child care Ireland and New Zealand: "crèche"
diaper nappy Singapore distinguishes a disposable "diaper" from a cloth "nappy".
drug store / pharmacy chemist / pharmacy The "Green Cross" symbol in the UK and Europe indicates that store is a chemist or pharmacy, whereas in the U.S. the same "Green Cross" symbol means the establishment is a marijuana dispensary shop.
family doctor / primary care physician GP (General Practitioner) "GP" is also used in the U.S., but it's possible not everyone will understand the term.
laundromat laundrette
pacifier dummy
physician (generic) / [medical] doctor medical doctor
stroller / baby carriage pushchair / pram "[Baby] buggy" is common in both U.S. and UK
restroom / bathroom / lavatory toilet / lavatory / loo / bog / water closet / WC See also Toilets § Talk. "Loo" and "bog" are both slang usages. "Toilet paper" is universally understood, but 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. Americans typically use "lavatory" only for toilet facilities in passenger vehicles (planes, trains, buses).

Connect[edit]

U.S. UK Notes
to call (to use a telephone) to ring / to call
cell [phone] mobile [phone] Britons understand "cell phone", and Americans understand "mobile phone" (but less so "mobile", especially when pronounced to rhyme with "smile"). Singapore: "handphone". Some European second-language English speakers use "handy", from a German misconception of English slang.
collect call reverse charge call
long-distance call / toll call trunk call
mail post
overseas call international call The North American Numbering Plan includes the U.S., its external territories, Canada, Bermuda, and many Caribbean nations. Many calls from the U.S. to other locations that would be "international" in the British sense (and billed as such) are dialed in the same manner as domestic calls.
pound [sign/key] (the "#" key on a telephone) hash [sign/symbol] British usage avoids confusion with "£" as the "pound sign" as in the unit of currency. In North America, # is sometimes used for pound[s] of weight

Depending on context, "#" is also read as "number", "hash", or "hashtag", and telephone technologists call it an "octothorpe".

prepaid pay as you go (PAYG)
toll-free [call] freephone
ZIP code postcode ZIP ("Zone Improvement Plan") was a name trademarked by the U.S. Postal Service, and is only used in the U.S.; use "postal code" or "postcode" everywhere else

Numbers[edit]

You might expect that numbers would be simple, since they always mean the same thing. Alas, differences in how they're spoken (or even written) can sometimes lead to confusion when you're not expecting it.

  • The number 0 is spoken as "zero" or "oh" in all varieties of English, but Britons are also likely to use "nought" or "nil".
    • When used in the score of a sporting event, British uses "nil" and American may use "nothing" or informally "zip". Hardcore soccer fans and journalists often use "nil" following British usage when discussing soccer (or rather, "football"). Tennis and cricket have unique readings ("love" and "duck", respectively).
  • Most if not all varieties of English informally count in hundreds up to 1,900, which is "nineteen hundred" rather than "one thousand nine hundred"; this is common for money or counting things, or when the number is understood to be rounded to the next hundred. But Americans often continue this trend for even large four-digit numbers above 2,000, so they're likely to read 9,500 as "ninety-five hundred" rather than "nine thousand five hundred".
  • Similarly, all varieties of English invariably group years, except for 2000–2009, into two-digit groups. (Prince's song "1999" would be a lot harder to sing if it were "one thousand nine hundred ninety-nine"!). But Americans also apply this to street addresses and sometimes phone numbers or other sequences of digits.
  • Monetary amounts in the range of one or two major currency units may be spoken differently in the two main forms of English. An American would say that an item costing $1.50 costs "one-fifty", "a dollar fifty", or "a buck fifty". In British English, £1.50 would most often be said "one pound fifty". For amounts over one major unit, Americans typically drop the currency unit; $2.40 would most often be said "two-forty". In British, "two-forty" and "two pounds forty" are both commonly used.
  • In British English, whole numbers of pounds (or other currency units) are spoken by their individual digits, especially in radio and TV advertising. "Three nine nine" implies a price of £399; "three ninety-nine" implies £3.99. American English never does this—"three ninety-nine" can mean either $399 or $3.99, with the context determining the meaning.
  • Britons tend to use "double" when reading sequences of numbers (which is why James Bond's 007 moniker is "double-oh seven" rather than "zero zero seven").
  • The U.S. has always used the short scale, where a "billion" is 1,000,000,000 (a thousand million). But most other countries formerly used the long scale, where a "billion" is 1,000,000,000,000 (a million million). (In that scale, 1,000,000,000 is either "a thousand million" or sometimes a "milliard".) In 1974 the UK formally adopted the short scale, and most other countries followed suit, although some use of the long scale persists. (See also Wikipedia's articles on English number usage and long and short scales.) Most other European languages continue to use the long scale, so you may want to clarify the exact quantity when talking to a non-native English speaker.
    • Be careful in mixed-language countries: Canada uses the short scale in English-speaking regions, and the long scale in French-speaking regions. South African English usually uses the short scale (but sometimes the long scale), and Afrikaans always uses long scale. In the U.S., the short scale is used by English speakers, but the long scale is used by Spanish speakers.
    • Indian English follows the Indian numbering system; numbers are grouped completely differently, and spoken using words derived from Indian languages:
      • 100,000 is written "1,00,000" and read "one lakh"; it's sometimes abbreviated "L", as in "₹‍5L" for "rupees five lakh"
      • 1,000,000 is written "10,00,000" and read "ten lakh"
      • 10,000,000 is written "1,00,00,000" and read "one crore"; it may be written out, as in "₹6 crore" for "rupees six crore"
    (See also Wikipedia's article on the Indian numbering system.)
  • In handwriting, numerals are written the plain way in North America: "1" is a vertical line, and "7" is two lines. European handwriting puts the introductory swash on the top of the "1", making it look more like a typeset "1" and avoiding confusion with the capital letter I and with the lower-case letter L. (In continental Europe the swash can be almost as tall as the body of the "1", which few North Americans would recognize.) Since the "1" with a swash could be confused with a "7", the "7" often gets a horizontal slash through it, a form that's also common in Australia. (See also Wikipedia's article on regional handwriting variation.)

Date Formats[edit]

Most countries use DD/MM/YYYY or something similar as their short date format. The biggest exception is the United States, which almost exclusively uses the MM/DD/YYYY format. The Philippines, which was an American possession during the first four decades of the 20th century and is still heavily influenced by American norms, uses MM/DD/YYYY in English-language publications, but DD/MM/YYYY in Filipino-language contexts. In Canada, usage is mixed: English speakers use both formats interchangeably, with newspapers invariably expressing dates month-first, but French speakers exclusively use the day-first format. Therefore, a date written as "01/02/2000" stands for "January 2, 2000" in the United States, but would stand for "1 February 2000" in almost any other country, and could conceivably mean either in Canada and the Philippines. (Note that the long dates are also formatted differently, although with hardly any potential for confusion.)

The International Standards Organisation suggests YYYY/MM/DD, apparently primarily because that is the only format that a computer can sort with a straight text-based sort (not a special date-sorting routine) and get the right result. That format is widely used in China, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, but not in English-speaking countries.

Weights and measures[edit]

See also: Metric and Imperial equivalents

The U.S. is the only major country still almost exclusively using the old Imperial system of weights and measures (or a variant; the U.S. gallon, quart, pint and fluid ounce differ significantly from their Imperial namesakes) rather than the metric system. 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 U.S. 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 4.5 liters (160 Imperial fluid ounces) but a U.S. gallon is 3.78 liters (128 U.S. fluid ounces). Both sizes of gallon are subdivided into four quarts or eight pints. The U.S. fluid ounce is 5% larger than its Imperial counterpart (and both differ from the units of weight also named "ounce".)

The liter (34 U.S. fluid ounces) is very close to the U.S. quart (32 ounces) but less than an imperial quart (1.4 liters, or 40 Imperial fluid ounces).

There are some exceptions to the use of U.S. customary measures, including bottles of wine and spirits, medicines and 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 equivalent to 1.609 km.

A "pint" of beer in many places is now 500 mL. The traditional British pint is 568 mL (20 imperial fluid ounces). A U.S. pint is just shy at 473 mL (16 U.S. fluid ounces), although it's almost always sold in a conical glass that must be filled to the brim to contain 16 ounces. Beer in Australia comes in varying sizes with unique names.

UK measures body weight in "stones" and pounds; 1 stone is 14 pounds (6.35 kg). Someone who weighs "11 stone 6 pounds" (and "stone" is always singular following a number) weighs 160 pounds (72.6 kg), and rough body weight is often given in stones only.

Other[edit]

U.S. UK Notes
butt / ass / buttocks / fanny bum / bottom / arse UK "fanny" is obscene slang for female genitalia. The word "ass" in this sense is also a profanity.
closet cupboard / small room / wardrobe U.S.: "Cupboard" specifically refers to kitchen cabinets; "wardrobe" is a collection of clothing.
fall (season) / autumn autumn
first name first name / given name
flashlight torch U.S. "torch" exclusively refers to a stick with an open flame at one end.
last name / surname surname Australia follows U.S. usage
period (punctuation) full stop
trash / garbage rubbish / litter U.S. "litter" specifically refers to small pieces of rubbish discarded in plain view - i.e., not in a trash can (or, in British usage, "rubbish bin"). The gerund "littering" is even more common. UK "dustcart" and "bin lorry" are the same as U.S. "garbage truck".
vacation holiday U.S. "holiday" is roughly equivalent to UK "bank holiday". UK "vacations" are long periods off from work/school (at least a week)

Also worthy of note is the last letter of the English alphabet is pronounced "zed" throughout the English-speaking world except in the U.S., where "zee" is used instead.

Same words, different meaning[edit]

  • 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".
    • U.S., Canada — In U.S. and Canadian government usage, refers to a person having origins in East Asia, South East Asia, or South Asia, including the Indian subcontinent. Popular Canadian usage generally mirrors government usage. However, popular U.S. usage often excludes South Asians, especially in areas where South Asian communities are less visible than those of East or Southeast Asian ethnicities.
    • Australia, New Zealand - Refers typically to people from East Asia or South East Asia, but can include the Indian subcontinent as well.
North American moose
  • 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.
  • Indian:
    • U.S., Canada — Can refer to native North American people (now called "Native Americans" in the U.S. and "First Nations" in Canada), people from South Asia (commonly known as the Indian Subcontinent), or the country of India.
    • South Asia — Refers only to people from the country of India.
  • gentlemen's club: Refers to a posh, exclusive private club in the UK; a euphemism for a strip club 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.

See also[edit]

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