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Differences between UK and US English grammar?
July 8, 2007 4:27 AM   Subscribe

What are some essential differences between UK and American English Grammar?

I am traveling to the UK today for the first time in many years. And looking for some language tips. One thing I have noticed in dealing with Brits at work is that they seem to have a different rule for case (singular or plural) agreement with the subject of a sentence if the subject is a proper noun.

For example, in American, you would say that Manchester United IS the best team in the league this year. Yet, I've heard both footballers and BBC posh people alike say that Manchester United ARE the best team. I presume that the subject in that case is either implied to be the Manchester United players, or else that the subject is a collective, and therefore plural. In American English, of course the case of the verb has to agree with the case of the noun, regardless of what it represents. Did I get this right?

Beyond this, what are some other essential grammatical differences between UKian and USian English?
posted by psmealey to Writing & Language (71 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
I guess I should clarify and say that I'm not looking for strict rules of grammar, just conversational ones. The difference I noted in the example above was most jarring (and I don't even know if the British rule is "officially" different than the American one) and am looking for other similar ones.
posted by psmealey at 4:41 AM on July 8, 2007


Wikipedia has a lot of information on this, including the aspect you mention.
posted by grouse at 5:05 AM on July 8, 2007


Case is the difference between "I" and "me", or "he" and "him" ("I" and "he" are nominative case, "me" and "him" are objective case). What you're talking about is number.
posted by Aidan Kehoe at 5:12 AM on July 8, 2007


Right. Thanks Aidan.
posted by psmealey at 5:14 AM on July 8, 2007


Fanny means vagina and pants are underwear not trousers.

Have a great trip!
posted by fire&wings at 5:15 AM on July 8, 2007


Whoo, vacation! (Right?)

I teach English to non-native speakers, and as an American who has worked in schools full of Britons, a few things have reminded me that I was not of their kind:

- their insane system of timekeeping phrases, like half eight, that doesn't tell you if it's 8:30 or 7:30
- their ability to pick up on relatively localized accents/dialects, like which side of a river one was born on
- animals being on heat instead of in heat in mating season
- filing cabinet v. file cabinet; sailing boat v. sailboat
- whilst
- needing to know my weight in stone whenever discussing diet and exercise

Luckily I watched a lot of Mystery! as a kid, so I'm usually OK. The presence of Australians and Canadians at work has bridged any serious gaps in understanding between our two peoples, and brought out some previously-unknown differences, like how Americans and Canadians know what a dress shoe is but no one else seems to (or doesn't want to admit they watch that much American TV).

The long Wikipedia page linked in grouse's comment on the subject describes quite a few of them. Do be aware that the idea of what is "proper" or "correct" English - be it of an American or British variety - is always a sensitive subject with lots of undertones of class and education hiding inside that you might not want to open, and you may run into people who will tell you the British word for something is X, only to meet another person from another part of the country who will tell you that the word is actually Y, unless you're from Little Whereverbury, in which case you'd call it Z. Here's a cool page from the British Library with lots of regional UK dialect samples and pretty good grammatical explanations.

PS: I see you're in Connecticut in your profile - perhaps the locals you meet will be entertained by any "New Anglicisms" you share (I nominate Masshole, especially if any of your UK friends have nearly been killed while trying to cross the street in Boston.)
posted by mdonley at 5:19 AM on July 8, 2007


I'm amazed that anyone would be confused by 'half eight', its just lazy speak for half past eight.... now I'm going to have to watch all my DVDs of US TV and see if they really never use that phrase. I've never noticed before.

There are *very* few posh people on the BBC and if they were talking about football, chances are they are ex-footballers - not english teachers. What they say and what is technically correct are not the same thing. But in that particular context, I dont think anyone (apart from maybe english teachers) would give it a second thought, regardless of which you used.

You're more likely to be tripped up on double meaning words like fanny, bum, fag, jam, biscuit etc than on specifics of grammar. These words have a 'global' meaning throughout the UK whereas specifics of grammar will depend on where you're going and the types of people you will meet whilst you're there.
posted by missmagenta at 5:43 AM on July 8, 2007


ah, the americans and the english: two nations divided by a common language.

i once heard a brit say "swimming costume" in perfect earnestness.

i think the difference is more vocabulary (solicitor vs. lawyer, flat vs. apartment, etc) than grammar. the "is/are" example you mention is probably the most noticeable difference. i notice brits say "got" instead of "gotten" and "got" instead of "have" and "has [verb]" instead of "did [verb]" sometimes. "sea" instead of "ocean." "nice" instead of "good." mmm, that's all i can think of.
posted by thinkingwoman at 5:44 AM on July 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


I'm amazed that anyone would be confused by 'half eight', its just lazy speak for half past eight.... now I'm going to have to watch all my DVDs of US TV and see if they really never use that phrase. I've never noticed before.

I have lived in or visited all areas of the US, and this is the first time I have ever even heard the phrase "half eight."

I would probably assume it means half-past, but I can see where some might think it means half an hour before eight. (The overwhelming majority of people I know say "eight-thirty" however.)

The only time-related dialect difference I have heard in the US is when someone says, "It's a quarter of eight," whereas I, and the vast majority of people I have ever known, says, "It's a quarter till eight."
posted by The Deej at 6:02 AM on July 8, 2007


We also use the word 'shop' instead of 'store'. I believe in the US 'shop' means 'workshop' or something of that nature.
posted by essexjan at 6:15 AM on July 8, 2007


I'm amazed that anyone would be confused by 'half eight', its just lazy speak for half past eight

I think this is consistent in the UK—I've never heard anyone here say "half eight" and mean 7:30. But that doesn't mean it's immediately obvious to people who didn't grow up with it. I still find it confusing after living here for four years. And it's made worse by the fact that in other languages such as German, the translation of "half eight" does mean 7:30.

i once heard a brit say "swimming costume" in perfect earnestness.

Yeah, that's what they call it. They think that "bathing suit" sounds equally silly. I mean it's not a suit, and you aren't usually taking a bath in it. </seinfeld>

solicitor vs. lawyer

These terms are not synonymous. In the UK, you can be a lawyer without being a solicitor or even a barrister.
posted by grouse at 6:18 AM on July 8, 2007


We also use the word 'shop' instead of 'store'. I believe in the US 'shop' means 'workshop' or something of that nature.

That's generally true. "I have to go to the shop" would have people assume you either have a workshop as a hobby, or that your business took place in a workshop of some kind, including an auto mechanic's workshop. My father worked in a Cadillac factory, and always referred to it as "the shop."

However, many businesses do use the word "shop" to mean store. The hobby shop, and the butcher shop, are very common. The craft shop, the second-hand shop, etc., less so. But I have heard it in relation to all kinds of businesses, but usually connected to small, locally owned ones. An electronics shop might refer to Joe's Electronics, but I don't think anyone would refer to Best Buy as a "shop."
posted by The Deej at 6:51 AM on July 8, 2007


The only time-related dialect difference I have heard in the US is when someone says, "It's a quarter of eight," whereas I, and the vast majority of people I have ever known, says, "It's a quarter till eight."

Yeah, that sounds a bit odd to Brits. We would say:

a quarter past eight
half eight
quarter to nine

Perhaps the biggest grammatical confusion I had coming the other way (I now lve in DC) was hearing Americans say "I did that already". We would say "I've already done that".

Nth-ing the stuff about regional differences too. The Liverpool accent and dialect is completely (completely) different to Manchester, only 60 miles down the road.
posted by tonylord at 7:19 AM on July 8, 2007


My American wife got slightly anxious when I told her I was taking her to the doctor's surgery. In the US it's a doctor's office. The surgery is where you get cut up. Here, we call that an operating theatre.

Then she realised we had socialised medicine and relaxed
posted by Happy Dave at 7:33 AM on July 8, 2007 [3 favorites]


In my "quarter till eight" example, that also includes "quarter to eight." Or actually, the most common is "quarter ta eight." :)
posted by The Deej at 8:06 AM on July 8, 2007


Present perfect used for posession:

"Do you have?" = "Have you got?"
"I have." = "I've got."

Also, get / got / gotten = get / got / got

That threw me for a loop when I first started teaching English using UK textbooks.
posted by Meatbomb at 8:08 AM on July 8, 2007


One of the biggest differences, even more than the actual words, is the accent (obviously) and the cadence. I grew up watching Monty Python, Fawlty Towers, and other British shows on PBS, so I got acclimated. I would make my friends watch Monty Python when they visited, and many of them could not understand a word that was said!
posted by The Deej at 8:09 AM on July 8, 2007


Apropos half eight, what about "Thursday week"?

Also note that pudding = dessert. I was puzzled by how damn much pudding British people ate in books till phrases like "ice cream for pudding!" clued me in.

A weird one is "He was sat at the computer" instead of "sitting".
posted by zadcat at 8:18 AM on July 8, 2007


Menopausal American women appear to have hot flashes, whereas British women have hot flushes. I assume it is a corruption of the term.

And of course we don't use "Gotten"

Or "Like" as in "She's like, I've gotten hot flashes."

Best is that Americans would tend to walk up to the counter at a fast food place and say "Can I get..." which for Brits is extremely conditional. The reply is likely to be "Yes, but what do you want?"
posted by A189Nut at 8:31 AM on July 8, 2007


"If you don't eat your meat, you can't have any pudding! How can you have any pudding if you don't eat your meat?"

I, too, was amazed at the English obsession with pudding. Odd how words for specific things evolve to mean everything of that category. Such as "coke" used in the southern US to mean any carbonated soft drink. When I visited Kentucky as a teen, I was confused by "What kind of coke do you want?" This was before Diet Coke, Cherry Coke, Vanilla Coke, etc. There only was one kind of Coke!

One English phrase that still never sounds right is the use of "in future" instead of "in the future." In the movie A.I. there is a scene where the mother is reading Pinocchio. She reads the phrase "be good in future..." and it sounds wrong to me every time.
posted by The Deej at 8:31 AM on July 8, 2007


Oh, and Brits never, ever, refer to themselves as Brits
posted by A189Nut at 8:33 AM on July 8, 2007 [2 favorites]


Phrases such as Thursday week are common in Texas. To us it means a week from the next Thursday coming up. For example: We will go to Granny's house Thursday week. (not this Thursday but the next Thursday) Is this the same meaning in the UK?
posted by rcavett at 8:38 AM on July 8, 2007


Apropos half eight, what about "Thursday week"?

That's quite common in the UK. Literally, once Thursday arrives, add one week.

As for carbonated soft drinks, that varies across the UK, but "pop" is generally used by most people. "Do you want some orange pop?"
posted by afx237vi at 8:44 AM on July 8, 2007


As for carbonated soft drinks, that varies across the UK, but "pop" is generally used by most people.

The 1950s called, they want their slang back.
posted by Aloysius Bear at 8:51 AM on July 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


That's quite common in the UK. Literally, once Thursday arrives, add one week.

It is? I don't recall using it, or hearing anyone else using it. "(A) week on Thursday" certainly, but not "Thursday week".

"pop" is generally used by most people. "Do you want some orange pop?"

Only if you're over 50 or so. :-)
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 9:00 AM on July 8, 2007 [1 favorite]


In Ireland, where I'm from, they use the term "Thursday week". Here in Mass they don't understand it, nor do they understand what a fortnight is (two weeks). Used as:

I'll be there in a fortnight.
I'll be there in 2 weeks.
posted by zaphod at 9:13 AM on July 8, 2007


Phrases such as Thursday week are common in Texas.
Whereabouts? I grew up mostly in San Antonio, and I only saw the phrase in British novels and TV shows.
posted by Robert Angelo at 9:14 AM on July 8, 2007


You will be understood just fine, and will be able to understand others with a bit of checking -- if something sounds odd, just ask again. Enjoy the variety!

The biggest practical difference is that Brits put "Please" and "Thank you" in places that Americans find excessive -- but of course anything less sounds rude to British ears. So turn up the gush quotient a bit.
posted by Idcoytco at 9:14 AM on July 8, 2007


"Brilliant" seems to have a different meaning. Brits apparently use it to mean great. Americans tend to only use it in the sense of something being really really smart or ingenious.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 9:20 AM on July 8, 2007


Why Americans say 'two times' instead of 'twice', I've never worked out.

Anyway, conversational grammar. There's a certain amount of phatic preamble, which I think is meant to allow people time to focus on things like questions and requests. 'Would it be possible to...', 'would you mind...', etc. are polite versions of coughing and waiting for someone to pay attention.

Another difference is modifiers: 'rather' and 'quite', and whether 'quite nice' means better or worse than 'nice' depends a lot on context.

As for carbonated soft drinks, that varies across the UK, but "pop" is generally used by most people.

Really? That's a regionalism. 'Fizzy drink', thank you.
posted by holgate at 9:21 AM on July 8, 2007


pants are underwear not trousers.

...depending on where you are.
posted by vbfg at 9:26 AM on July 8, 2007


Only if you're over 50 or so. :-)

And English, and not from anywhere remotely near London.

If you've never heard anyone say "Thursday week" in the UK, I swear to $deity that you're extremely unusual indeed. Clearly also you've never watched television.
posted by genghis at 9:28 AM on July 8, 2007


Um, vbfg, 'pants' doesn't mean trousers anywhere.
posted by genghis at 9:32 AM on July 8, 2007


Is it simply "taking a piss" or "taking a piss on me?" When referring to someone messing with you. I think it's the former.

And that reminds me, in the UK is it acceptable to put the end of sentence punctuation outside the quote? "like this"? as opposed to "like this?"
posted by DieHipsterDie at 9:36 AM on July 8, 2007


Thursday week - hear that all the time, both in the NE where I was born and in the SE where I live.

I never hear fortnight in America
posted by A189Nut at 9:56 AM on July 8, 2007


It's neither. It's "taking the piss."
posted by kindall at 9:58 AM on July 8, 2007


In the UK, the comma and period go outside, but the question mark and exclamation point vary, as in American English, on the content of the sentence as far as I understand. The biggest difference that still grates on me, other than the rejection of "gotten," is "different to" as opposed to "different from" or "different than": I know language makes no sense anyway, but you just can't be different to; "to" goes with "similar"!

I am also a big user of "quarter of" minus the number altogether.
posted by dame at 9:58 AM on July 8, 2007


I can remember a story from an American who mentioned it was usually best to have a Canadian around when dealing with differences in dialect between US English and British English because while Canadians tended to speak American English, they generally understood both.
posted by Deep Dish at 9:59 AM on July 8, 2007


Thursday week comes up on occasion, although it inexplicably seems to be more common among rural folks, at least in my experience. Fortnight.... never!

"Fizzy drink" seems to pop up (pun!) often in English produced TV shows. In the US, it's regionally pop, soda, coke, soda pop, soft drink, without regard to the speaker's age.

Don't get me started with bag vs. sack vs. poke.
posted by The Deej at 10:04 AM on July 8, 2007


"Thursday week" common in Texas? I grew up there; went to college there. I have never heard of such a thing.

I do remember hearing something like, "a bugger when he's pissed" on Monty Python when I was a kid and wondering, "What the hell?"
posted by Lockjaw at 10:13 AM on July 8, 2007


Well, looks like I was wrong about "pop". I'm from South Wales and everyone I know would understand that it refers to a fizzy drink. Even today, most of my young relatives (I'm only 25 btw) use it.

While we're at it, what about "lemonade"? I would associate lemonade with a clear fizzy liquid like Sprite or 7-UP. The thicker, yellowy stuff I would call "traditional lemonade".

Re: pissed / pissed off. If you're drunk, you're pissed. If you're annoyed, you're pissed off.

"John was pissed a fortnight ago and really pissed me off by nicking my pop."
posted by afx237vi at 10:21 AM on July 8, 2007


Knocked up.

"I'll knock you up in the morning" means "I'll wake you up in the morning" in the UK, and "I'll get you pregnant in the morning" in the US, so I've been told.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 10:32 AM on July 8, 2007


Oh and another good one. Dirt means soiled, as in grime, not soil as in earth, which is called soil.
posted by A189Nut at 10:53 AM on July 8, 2007


croutonsupafreak: I've never heard "knock you up" used to mean "wake you up" before. I have heard it mean both "make pregnant" and "beat up" though.

Interestingly, there are massive differences between Northern Irish spoken english, as spoken by myself, and the english spoken in Britain (by which I mean the island of England, Scotland and Wales). And I'm not just talking about accents!
posted by knapah at 10:55 AM on July 8, 2007


Here's some practical experience from someone who spent high school working in a tearoom in Stratford-upon-Avon...

Your grammar's not going to be a problem, we've grown up with lots of American telly.

If you want to use the toilet, ask for it... an inexperienced Brit may not understand what a restroom is, and might direct you to a chair in the corner where you can sit for a while. Please do not be offended if the rest of the serving staff are too busy pissing themselves (i.e. laughing) to help out their colleague and his unfortunate customer.

Clotted cream is supposed to look like that. Eat it.

Bubble and squeak is nice. Eat it. You're in a new country, part of the experience is trying new food. It's hard for the waitress to explain what it is because she's trying to find a nice way to tell you that it's yesterday's leftovers fried up with potatoes.

We say the t in water. (Actually, that one comes from my recent experience in San Francisco)

Asking for ice might get you a slightly panicked look when your waitress realises she's forgotten to fill up the ice cube trays (particularly if it's November and freezing outside. Who wants ice in November?). Ditto a cold beer if we've forgotten to fill the fridge.

Yeah, it's old. We've got lots of old things. We might not be quite as excited about it as you are, or be quite as precious about it as you would like, some of us have to live here you know. Mind your head on that beam.

The middle ages wasn't particularly known for it's innovate heating systems. Complaining and asking for the heating to be turned up won't get you anywhere. Bring a sweater with you.

We love you because you tip way more than our other customers, even if we do a not particularly great job of serving you. Thank you very much. We hope you enjoyed your visit. Please come again.
posted by Helga-woo at 11:33 AM on July 8, 2007


Um, vbfg, 'pants' doesn't mean trousers anywhere.

Except, say, most of the West Riding. Bradford, Leeds, Sheffield, Halifax, etc. There are many who don't, but everyone I grew up with in Bradford did.
posted by vbfg at 11:50 AM on July 8, 2007


and of course pants now also means "not very good"
posted by A189Nut at 12:40 PM on July 8, 2007


I highly recommend British English A to Zed:
Besides the familiar lorry and pub, the approximately 5,500 Briticisms covered in this dictionary include words and phrases that will be unknown to many Americans as well as terms used in both the U.S and Britain but that have different meanings (lame duck, for example, which in Britain means a person unable to cope). Entries indicate the American equivalent for each Briticism and usually provide additional explanation. Appendixes outline the basic differences between British and American English regarding syntax, pronunciation, punctuation, and spelling, and provide a means of identifying terms in specific areas, including cricket, currency, and weights and measures. An index to American equivalents completes the volume. New to this edition are armcake, gastropub, and lager lout, among others.
posted by languagehat at 12:40 PM on July 8, 2007


I do remember hearing something like, "a bugger when he's pissed" on Monty Python

I recall some English show where one character talking to second character about a third character who was angry:
"He's pissed!"
"Oh, has he?"
posted by The Deej at 12:57 PM on July 8, 2007


I was going to ask if anyone still uses "quarter of ...", but I guess dame covered that.

The biggest practical difference is that Brits put "Please" and "Thank you" in places that Americans find excessive -- but of course anything less sounds rude to British ears. So turn up the gush quotient a bit.

What is it Americans say after you say "thank you"? I think it is "Uhh-hunhhh", or something..
posted by Chuckles at 2:38 PM on July 8, 2007


On a recent episode of Doctor Who, the American president introduced himself as the 'President-elect of the United States'. I assume someone on the writing staff heard that term and thought it sounded good, but didn't realize that the 'President-elect' is a person who has been elected but not yet sworn in as president.
posted by happyturtle at 3:13 PM on July 8, 2007


"Thursday week" common in Texas? I grew up there; went to college there. I have never heard of such a thing.

I grew up in central Texas and now live in north Texas and I've heard it all my life. Then again, maybe it's a hick thing.
posted by rcavett at 3:58 PM on July 8, 2007


re: happyturtle

Yeah, I noticed the same thing, I was wondering where the real president was, and why he let the president elect do the honors!

Sorry, no additional relevant information for the thread. I'm glad pudding was cleared up though, I've been confused by that for years.
posted by defcom1 at 5:27 PM on July 8, 2007


Also, bookmark separated by a common language ("Observations on British and American English by an American linguist in the UK").
posted by languagehat at 5:34 PM on July 8, 2007


To the post commenting on the excessive use of "please" and "thank you," I've been witness to that, having worked retail in Hawaii and getting a lot of English tourists. It was really only noticeable when they'd thank you as they handed you their credit card for payment. It's always kinda strange to be thanked when the transaction's still going on.

One thing that stands out for me in written UK grammar at least is quotation marks. It seems to be common to use single marks, online anyway (including this thread). eg: "Half-eight" vs 'Half-eight'

I have no idea if they're used in books and periodicals are the same way. And I wonder if UK folks do that somewhat annoying finger-quotation gesture like Americans do, and whether they only one one finger on each hand when they do.

And it seems some people online prefer to use single quotes in some ways, and double in others, and it gets rather confusing. I always figured it made more sense to only use doubles to avoid confusion with apostrophes.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 9:02 PM on July 8, 2007


I discovered that the British will look at you oddly if, when offered more food, you say "I'm stuffed," but they have no problem with coming round and knocking you up in the morning.

("Stuffed" as in "get stuffed" seems to refer to pregnancy, while knocking someone up doesn't.)
posted by Joleta at 9:44 PM on July 8, 2007


"get stuffed" seems to refer to pregnancy

Well, it does mean "get fucked".
posted by Wolof at 10:27 PM on July 8, 2007



toque / beanie (if the hat is thin, close fitting and pom-pomless)
toque / woolly hat (if the hat is thick, and pom-pomless)
toque / bobble-hat ( if pom-pommed)

God knows why, given the much greater range of climate in Canada, there is a single term for all woollen head gear, and 3 in the UK. It's like some bizarre inversion of the Many Inuit Words For Snow.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 12:34 AM on July 9, 2007


I think the variety of comments from fellow Brits ( :-) ) on here highlight a pretty major point - the UK is hugely varied, linguistically speaking, and regional variations can be large and potentially confusing.
posted by Nice Guy Mike at 1:50 AM on July 9, 2007


Oh, and while we have french fries (if you go to McD's or equivalent)... they're really called chips (and you really should go to the chippy (fish and chip shop) to get them).

Your chips are crisps.

The biggest grammatical difference I've noticed (while teaching English to speakers of other languages alongside some American teachers) was the difference in use of the present perfect:

Us: Have you seen the Godfather?
You: Did you see the Godfather?

We do use the 'did you see' but normally only when referring to a specific instance.

You can find more in books like Swan's Practical English Usage
posted by itsjustanalias at 2:46 AM on July 9, 2007


happy turtle wrote: On a recent episode of Doctor Who, the American president introduced himself as the 'President-elect of the United States'. I assume someone on the writing staff heard that term and thought it sounded good, but didn't realize that the 'President-elect' is a person who has been elected but not yet sworn in as president.

Huh? It means the same thing here in the UK. Was it referring to the President? Or the President-Elect?

If you like pasta, marinara sauce here is seafood sauce, not just Napolitana sauce as it has come to mean in the States.
posted by goo at 3:03 AM on July 9, 2007


Very few of the differences lead to real noncomprehension, apart from the earlier mentioned fact that half-eight means 8:30 to the British speaker, whereas it can mean 7:30 to some Americans (esp of German background).

However when I moved to the UK I was very surprised that people kept asking me "are you alright". I thought they thought I looked unwell, or something. They didn't, it's just a kind of greeting, like "what's up" to me.
posted by methylsalicylate at 4:25 AM on July 9, 2007


UK: 'Aluminium'
US: 'Aluminum'

UK: 'writing an exam'
US: 'taking an exam'

UK: 'Going to hospital'
US: 'Going to the hospital'

UK: 'Getting pissed'
US: 'Getting drunk'

UK: 'Winding me up' / 'Taking the piss'
US: 'F*cking with me'

UK: 'Fill him in'
US: 'Knock his ass out'

UK: 'Tuck in'
US: 'Start eating'

UK: 'As you do'
US: 'I would do the same'

UK: 'Cheeky Bugger'
US: Self-serving prick

UK: 'Cheese Eating Surrender Monkeys'
US: The French

UK: 'Boot sale'
US: 'Garage Sale'

UK: 'Rucksack'
US: 'Backpack'

UK: 'Jumper'
US: 'Sweater'

UK: 'Havin a jimmy riddle'
US: 'Going to take a piss'

I could go on for days......
posted by jasondigitized at 5:43 PM on July 9, 2007


UK: 'Tuck in'
US: 'Start eating'

I can only imagine how many Americans have been dinner guests of a UK family and been told this, only to end up quizzically looking down at their shirt to see if it's tucked in.

And I guess "going to hospital" would be similar to "going to university." That always puzzled me, but then again, we do say "going to college," so that seem a bit arbitrary anyway.
posted by TheSecretDecoderRing at 10:45 PM on July 9, 2007


We (USians) also say going to school, at school, etc.

We might say "going to THE school" or "at THE school" under certain circumstances. If I was going to the school playground to play baseball during non-school hours, I would tell my folks I was going to THE school. Also, if my mom was volunteering there, she was say she was going to THE school.

There may be some logic to how we decide to use THE, but it can seem pretty arbitrary.
posted by The Deej at 6:45 AM on July 10, 2007


Thanks, all. Been here three days now and this has all be extraordinarily useful. What's been surprising is the basic difference in day to day stuff. Such as when getting coffee out, you don't ask for it "to go", it's "take away".

What's more jarring is behavior in crowded places and on sidewalks. People are really fucking aggressive here, even by my own New York standards. When you're trying to get by someone in a crowded bar in NYC, you say "excuse me" first, and usually they'll move to get out of your way. Here, that doesn't seem to work. You move first, and if you step on someone's foot, you might possible say "sorry", but that's about it.
posted by psmealey at 4:15 AM on July 11, 2007


vbfg wins.

I'm English. I've heard 'knock you up' used to mean 'wake you up', 'make you pregnant' and 'beat you up' - a potential source of great amusement. Using it to mean 'wake you up' is older, and less common. Trivia point - Royal Marines/Royal Navy slang includes 'Goffer', which can mean a non-alcoholic drink, a large wave which knocks you overboard, or a punch in the face (" "). Confusing?

There's lots of tiny differences that will grate on you for the first few weeks. The shop/store thing was mentioned above, but in the UK we talk of the butcher's shop (note the possessive) and we only mention it when we're complaining about how the supermarkets have priced him out of business.

'The' is used in BrE as a reference to a specific object, so 'I'm going to the hospital to pick up Granddad' because we know which hospital he's at. But 'The ambulance took her to hospital' is non-specific. Does that follow the US usage?

The Deej has reminded me of something that hasn't been mentioned - the (our) British educational system. If you said 'I finished school and got a job', a USAian might think you had a degree and went in to a graduate job, whereas I would think you left school at 16.

In Brit-land, compulsory school finishes at 16 and is followed by (sixth-form) college, usually finishing after two years. Some places combine the two, so college is occasionally referred to as school. After college comes university, which is *never* referred to as school or college ('uni' is the approved abbreviation. Hope that's clear!

Also, Passport to the Pub is quite fun. (Look, I used a British modifier!)
posted by emtanner at 4:46 AM on July 11, 2007


Oh, and apparently, "I tossed all night" means two entirely different things in the US and Britain.
posted by psmealey at 4:52 AM on July 11, 2007


Yes, but you get no sleep either way ;-)

BrE would use 'I tossed and turned all night' without the hint of a smile.
posted by emtanner at 5:12 AM on July 11, 2007


In terms of shops:

UK: High Street
US: Main Street

And I don't think this will come up, but I think it's amazing that both countries have a word for this with similar etymology:

UK: Heath Robinson
US: Rube Goldberg
posted by smackfu at 9:08 AM on July 13, 2007


Weighing in on the "half eight" & "pants/trousers" debate here...

I'm American, living in West Yorks with a husband from South Yorks. I've only heard one person say "pants" for trousers here. She was from North Yorks. I've never heard it off a man. British men & women both wear trousers, but British women wear knickers (not "panties", thats for little children) & men wear... grundies, kecks, shorts. Not sure what kind of holiday someone is taking that they'd be encountering so many British words for underwear, but it sounds like it has DVD potential! :D

Around here it's "half eight". And shop hours, etc given with "while". I.e. "We are open half eight while four"

"Dinner" for "lunch" is fairly common. I'd add "tea" for "dinner", though that's not universal. It's one of those social indicators, like "lav/lavatory" vs "loo" vs "toilet" vs "bog".

You can look at all the dictionaries & word lists you want, but I think the main thing that melts the brains of tourists & expats are word connotations. "Rude", for example, has different connotations on the opposite sides of the Atlantic. US is more aggressive/in your face, while in the UK it can also have a connotation of inappropriate sexual content for the folks present. It's a shifting sort of line, and the word in the dictionary has the same definition of inappropriate behaviour, but...

It's "taking the piss", but if it's a stranger you're talking to, "taking the mick" is probably a safer bet. I think Americans tend to forget that these are real words that have real meaning to the people you're speaking with. At the least, you'd embarrass yourself, at the worst, you'd offend someone. They might think you're taking the mick - and if they're offended enough, you might get a chance to experience the joys of the NHS. ;)

Anyone notice the difference between the American and British use of "I don't care" & "I'm not bothered"?
posted by Grrlscout at 1:53 AM on January 14, 2008


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