Wednesday, August 28, 2013

10 differences between British and American English

Because of its proximity to the UK, most English teachers in Spain teach British English as opposed to American English.  Both of my schools used British English textbooks, and so did my private English students.

Over time I picked up on the pertinent UK lingo and grammar (learning to keep my mouth shut when my kids said "I have got a sister" instead of correcting them, "You have a sister.").  Sometimes in class I would have those I-have-absolutely-no-idea-what-this-word-means moments when we'd come across certain British English words in the textbook.  Then I would take it home and look it up.

So here are the ten differences that stuck out to me the most while teaching basic and intermediate English in Madrid:

10. Maths

The school subject of mathematics is pluralized in its shortened version, so I'd often hear students say simple sentences such as: "I need to study maths".

9. University

If you went to college in the states and got a Bachelor's Degree (for example), you'd best say to your European friends and students that you went to University.

8. Spanner

One day with a small class of "electronics" students, they had a matching activity in their workbook -- word to picture.  I could figure most of them out by elimination, but I did not know what a freaking spanner was.  It's a wrench!

7. Lift

I remember my Tues/Weds teacher making a deal about this one in front of the class.  It means elevator, but here's how she pointed out the two different vocabulary words.  First she wrote "lift" on the board, saying how logical and simple it was, because it lifts you up to higher floors (and the word is short).  Then she wrote "elevator" below, saying "I don't know why it's such a long, complicated word.  Elevator.  But in the United States, it's what they say".  Biased much?  And yes I know it comes from the verb to elevate.

6. Travelling, favourite, etc.

You will come across many spelling variances between British English and American English, but since many of my students learned present progressive (am/are/is  ____ing) that year, and the textbook used "travel" as one of the six verbs to practice with, I saw an awful lot of "travelling"s.  Luckily the teachers recognized the American spelling as well, and accepted both spellings on exams.

5. Rubbish

Trash.  Put it in the rubbish bins!

4. Torch

No, my students are not carrying around flaming torches to see at night, but rather, flashlights.

3. Have got

The British use the verbal phrase "have got" where we Americans simply say "have".  This one really sounded strange to me at first, but after two years of drilling my students, I now find myself using this verb all the time -- even back in the states!  "Have you got any pens?"

2. Pet hate

There was a small section about "pet hates" in one of my school's textbooks.  By context clues, I figured out it means pet peeve, but again, at first I was puzzled when the English teacher asked me what was my pet hate.

1. Rubber

Last (first?), but certainly not least, I will never forget the day when my 8-year-old Rodrigo started talking about his rubbers.  You have what in your pencil case?!  They're erasers.  What were you thinking?

What other British English have you picked up or been exposed to while teaching English abroad?


  1. Hahah I hang around a lot of British and Irish English at work in Germany and there are SO many things that confuse me - particularly how often they eliminate the long As. I haven't encountered #2 yet, so bizarre, so glad I'll be prepared now.

    1. I'm a bit mortified that it took me three years to see this comment... but yeah, #2 caught me off guard—I still have never seen it used outside of that textbook. : )

  2. "Have you any pens?" That sounds ridiculously over-formal to me.....

    1. Yeah, I somehow got used to the "Have you got any...?" questions, and will use it myself!

  3. When I taught ESL in Madrid, I generally skipped over the pronunciation exercises in the book. Lol. It was frustrating that so many text books were British English. It was practically like a foreign language to me.

  4. Hello, I am thinking about teaching private English lessons in Madrid next year. Where do I begin searching. How do I find families who are looking for private tutoring for their children. And do we come with our own grammar books or do the parents provide them.