Speaking on Both Sides of the Atlantic

Yale University Press’ Little Histories collection is a family of books that takes a closer look at some of the most significant events, ideas, discoveries and people throughout history. As part of our ongoing coverage of the collection, here’s an excerpt from David Crystal’s A Little Book of Language, a work that explores language’s myriad intricacies and quirks. Today, we investigate some of the fascinating differences between British and American English.


People in Britain and America speak the same language … or so we think. Anyone who spends a good amount of time in both countries soon picks up on the little differences in how British and American English-speakers express themselves. In A Little Book of Language, David Crystal gives an excellent sample of such differences:

‘People in Britain say ‘We walked along the pavement’. In most of the USA this would be ‘We walked along the sidewalk’. Think of the parts of a car. In Britain we look out through a ‘windscreen’ at a ‘bonnet’: in the USA we look through a ‘windshield’ at a ‘hood’. At the front of a British car there’s a ‘bumper’ and at the back there’s a ‘boot’: in the USA they are a ‘fender’ and a ‘trunk’. We identify British cars with ‘number plates’, but American cars have ‘license plates’. We switch on our ‘sidelights’ in Britain, but our ‘parking lights’ in the USA. Inside British cars there’s an ‘accelerator’, a ‘gear stick’, and a ‘milometer’; inside American cars there’s a ‘gas pedal’, a ‘gear shift’, and an ‘odometer’.

There are also differences in grammar between British and American English. Ask a British person the time at 3.45 and the answer will probably be ‘It’s a quarter to four’. In many parts of the USA it would be ‘It’s a quarter of four’. Someone from Britain might say ‘I’ve just got a new coat’. The equivalent American sentence would be ‘I’ve just gotten a new coat’. In Britain they’d say ‘The bus hasn’t arrived yet’; in the USA we’d also hear ‘The bus didn’t arrive yet’.’

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg—Crystal also goes on to cover difference in spelling, accent, dialects; so on and so forth. If you’re planning a trip to the other side of the Atlantic any time soon, it might be worth checking his analysis out!

A Little Book of Language

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