“I don’t drink coffee I take tea my dear, I like my toast done on one side” – thanks to the song “Englishman in New York” by Sting, we already know some tips how to tell an Englishman from an American. Putting dietary habits aside, there are several differences of which you need to be aware when it comes to British and American English.
Learning the list of typically British words and their American equivalents is pointless. Understanding the cause of various pronunciation patterns – not really worth the effort. Getting frustrated at grammar rules which you were painstakingly learning throughout primary and secondary school about the usage of Present Perfect – and which Americans rather not use – forget it!
No matter if you say motorway or highway, autumn or fall, tube or subway – you’d be understood on both sides of the pond*. The same with the pronunciation, it can’t get you into deep trouble. But keep our pieces of advice close to your heart because these words are the reason of confused looks, embarrassed smiles, and genuine misunderstandings between British and American English speakers!
1. Manners maketh man
Sting believes manners are the most striking characteristic of an Englishman among Americans. OK, let’s be fair, gentlemen are a rare species, but still you need to remember about courtesy while talking to an English person, which means using excuse me, sorry, pardon me, and please whenever possible. Believe me, not using these words is considered rude in the UK.
in the US: “Can you pass me the bread?”
in the UK: “Could you pass me the bread, please?” (eating with the Queen: “Would you be so kind as to pass me this delicious bread, please?”)
2. I’m so pissed…
If you’re at work and got angry at your boss, don’t say “I’m pissed” to a British colleague. In England, pissed means drunk so he might report your state to the boss. There is still hope for you, though: if your boss is American, he’ll understand that you’re just annoyed with him, which – let’s face it – is completely normal.
3. Are you going to wear pants?
Whaat? Why are you asking about my underwear? And why the most confusing words are related to the most intimate things? So, an Englishman wears pants under his trousers or slacks; an Englishwoman wears pants or knickers under her trousers. An American wears underpants under his/her pants. Knickers is yet another issue there: knee-length trousers, called breeches in the UK.
If you want to be on a safe side, use the words: briefs, underwear and trousers, which seem to be understood well by everybody.
4. Get some rest or a bath!
Loo, John, can — when nature calls, you’d better not use a confusing word to find your way to the facilities. Here’s where the English help us – they are not afraid to call a spade a spade, so they use the word toilet (both for the public and private one). Public toilet is also called the gents or the ladies.
Americans, surprisingly, tend to be more discreet about the topic and use the word bathroom, and in the public building – a restroom or men’s room or ladies’ room.
5. Have you knocked her up?
Excuse me??? Well, this expression in America is usually no good news: knock somebody up means to get a girl pregnant, as you’d suppose, in an unplanned way. In England, however, it simply means to wake somebody up by knocking on the door, like in: “Don’t worry, I will knock you up in the morning.” Sounds great, doesn’t it?
6. Automatic teller machine
Words used to describe a thing from which you withdraw cash are not as intuitive as the machine itself. In America, it’s called an ATM (short for automatic teller machine – dear God, it sounds like it was invented in the 20th century…). In Britain, it is a cashpoint or cash machine.
You could do better, guys.
7. Meet me on the first floor
In the UK (as in most European countries) the floors in a building are numbered as follows: ground floor, first floor, second floor, etc. In the US, though, they start with the first floor, then the second, etc. Which logic is better? No idea, but I wonder how many people don’t get to their business meeting on time when it is scheduled on the first floor…
8. Z for Zebra
Whenever I need to spell my last name, I am confused: should I pronounce the letter “z” as “ziː” or “zed”? Then I need to sing the Alphabet song in my head (going to the kindergarten finally pays off!). So, in America it’s pronounced [ziː], for a British interlocutor we should pronounce it [zed]. Imagine how confused British kids must have been when they started watching Sesame Street!
* the pond – (informal) the Atlantic Ocean