MARCH 1998

An Englishman in New York

American and British English

There is an anecdote that tells of an Englishman who was spending a holiday in New York. The second day he was there, he was doing some sightseeing when he got talking to a girl from Chicago in the queue for the Empire State Building. In the course of the conversation the girl said: "That's a nice pair of pants you're wearing. Did you buy them here? ". The Englishman was lost for words for a moment. How did she know what pants he was wearing? And then - just in time to save himself embarrassment - he realised that in the USA "pants" is the word used to refer to "trousers" in British English, and does not mean "underwear" as in Britain (where pants is short for "underpants"). Our friend was able to complete the conversation without turning red!

Paying the bill with a bill

There are other similar traps for the unwary British on the other side of the "big pond". For example when an American says "I'll just wash up", this means: "I'll just wash my face and hands". Hence the person is not about "to wash the dishes" which is what the sentence would mean in British English. Similarly a bill is a banknote (a $10 bill), not an account to pay for a product or service. In American slang, you might hear a dollar bill referred to as a "greenback", referring to the colour of US banknotes.

Differences can be found in vocabulary, spelling and grammar. As is well known, Americans have their own words for some words in English. Look at this short passage. How many American words can you find and what would the British equivalents be?

Rick took the elevator down to the ground floor, nodding at the janitor as he went, and walked out into the street, squinting in the noonday sun and almost tripping over the piles of garbage that had accumulated on the sidewalk. He looked up at his window and secretly admired the new drapes he had bought the day before a much-needed splash of color, for sure. Summer was turning to fall, he thought, as he kicked through a few fallen leaves on the ground. He walked past the hot dog seller as far as the candy store on the corner and stopped. As ever, the noise of the neighborhood formed an ever-present background drone reinforced by the rattling echo of the subway and the distant roar of traffic on the freeway. Ah, New York, New York...

The American words, with their British equivalents in brackets, are as follows: elevator (lift), janitor (concierge), garbage (rubbish), sidewalk (pavement), drapes (curtains), fall (autumn), candy (sweets), subway (underground railway) and freeway (motorway).

Purse or handbag?

Incidentally, other common sources of minor confusion are the words "yard" (used in the USA to refer to "garden"), "truck" (a general word in the USA for "lorry"), and purse (in British English a small wallet for keeping coins and in the USA a small bag for putting personal possessions in what Britons would call a handbag).

Note also, in the above text, the spelling of color and neighborhood (as opposed to the British versions colour and neighbourhood). Honor/honour is another example of the same rule, whilst words such as centre and theatre in British English invert the last two letters in the US: center/theater. Where there are examples of a double "l" in British English, American English tends often only to use one "l". Hence marvellous and travelled are spelt "marvelous" and "traveled".

As regards grammar, the use of prepositions is a good illustration of differences between US and British English. For example, Americans would say "on the weekend" whereas Britons would say "at the weekend". One of the best known differences in this respect concerns days of the week, where Americans leave out the preposition altogether, saying, for example, "see you Friday", rather than the British "see you on Friday". So the New York Herald might report that "the President was in Moscow Tuesday", but the Times would say "The Prime Minister was in Moscow on Tuesday".

Write me soon

Then there are some verbs for which a preposition is used in British English but not in American English. In Britain you would say "protest against taxes", whereas in America you simply say "protest taxes". Likewise in America "you write someone" and in Britain "you write to someone"; an American girl might write to her English pen friend, saying "write me soon", and the English girl might think to herself: "Yes, I must write to her".

Another noticeable difference can be found in the use of tenses. Where in Britain people would say, "I've already seen him", or "he hasn't come yet" (using the Present Perfect, particularly with the words already or yet), Americans will often use the Past tense instead: "I already saw him" or "He didn't come yet". To the British this sounds grammatically incorrect.

Another aspect that characterises American English is the past participle of "get", which is "gotten" rather than "got". So an American would say "I've gotten the tickets" instead of "I've got the tickets". This is one of those details that immediately identifies a speaker of American English. A Briton would never say "gotten"," unless he/she had lived in the USA for many years.

Keith Worby