How to teach British and American vocabulary

Summary: The most important differences between British and American words and phrases, with teaching tips and classroom activities

By: | Audience: Teachers | Category: Vocabulary | Topic: Varieties and Dialects

First Published: 5th Feb. 2019 | Last Edited: 9th Feb. 2019

Of all the differences between British and American English, variations in vocabulary such as different words for the same thing are by far the most important. This is because vocabulary differences are much more likely to lead to misunderstandings than spelling differences, punctuation differences, grammatical differences, and even differences in functions such as asking for permission (all dealt with in separate articles on this site). This article lists the most important vocabulary differences to teach, then gives some presentation and practice ideas.

 

What students need to know about British and American vocabulary

Vocabulary differences most often come up with the topics:

  • food and drink (“fizzy drink”/ “pop”, etc)
  • transport and travel (“single”/ “one way”, etc, and lots of car vocabulary such as “windscreen”/ “windshield”)
  • places (including things around the house such as “curtains”/ “drapes”)
  • people (jobs like “postman”/ “mailman”, feelings like the different meanings of “pissed”, etc)
  • clothes, accessories and appearance (the different meanings of “homely”, etc)
  • crime, law and punishment (nicknames for the police, etc)
  • education (the meaning of “public school”, etc)
  • medicine (the meanings of “plaster”, etc)
  • engineering/ Technical English (“spanner”/ “wrench”, etc)
  • business, finance and money (“quid”/ “bucks” as nicknames for pounds and dollars, etc)
  • sports and games (the different meanings of “football”, etc)
  • phrasal verbs and other idioms (the different meanings of “wash up”, etc)
  • stationery and OA (“photocopier”/ “copy machine”, etc)
  • arts and media (“series”/ “serial”, etc)
  • medicine (the different meanings of “plaster”, etc)
  • nature (the different pronunciations of “zebra”, etc)
  • brand names (“Sellotape”/ “Scotch tape”, etc)

There is a big list of nearly 900 examples of British and American differences on those topics on this site.

As can be seen from the examples above, the two differences are:

  • British and Americans using the same word with different meanings (the different meanings of “pants”, etc)
  • British and Americans using different words for the same thing (“series two”/ “season two”, etc)

In addition, there are British and American terms like “the dole” and “Medicaid” that don’t really have equivalents in the other country.

 

Teaching words which have different meanings in British and American English

Of those three kinds of differences, the most likely to cause confusion and therefore the most important to learn are words with different meanings in different varieties of English. As with the “pants” example above, such misunderstandings can also lead to laughter and/ or embarrassment.

The ones which are most likely to cause misunderstandings include (in alphabetical order):

  • athlete – someone doing track and field sports – sportsmen generally
  • bathroom – the place with a bath or shower – the place with a toilet
  • casualty – someone who has been injured (as in “casualty department”) – someone who has been killed (as in “casualty figures”)
  • chips – thick-cut hot fried potato, as in “fish and chips” (“French fries” or “fries” in American English) – thin, crispy snacks eaten cold from a bag, as in “potato chips” and “nacho chips” (“crisps” in British English)
  • cider – an alcoholic drink that is similar to beer but made from apples (“hard cider” in American English) – a soft drink made from apples
  • cooker – stove in the kitchen for cooking (“range” in American English) – a person who cooks (“cook” in British English)
  • dormitory – a room for more many people, often with bunk beds, for example in a boarding school – a place where university students live (“halls” or “student halls” in British English)
  • entrée – the first course/ starter – the main course
  • faculty – the largest organisation of a university, often consisting of several departments – professors and similar staff (“academic staff” in British English)
  • fancy dress – dressing up in a costume, e.g. for Halloween – formal wear such as a ball gown
  • first floor – the first floor above the ground (upstairs from the ground floor, “second floor” in American English) – the floor at ground level (“ground floor” in British English)
  • football – footie/ soccer – American football
  • gas – natural gas – gasoline (“petrol” in British English)
  • grill – cook under heat (“broil” in American English) – cook on a hotplate/ barbecue
  • hockey – field hockey, played on grass – ice hockey
  • jelly – a wobbly dessert, as in “jelly and ice cream” (“Jell-O” in American English) – a kind of jam without solid lumps of fruit in it (as in “peanut butter and jelly sandwich”)
  • mad – crazy – angry
  • mean – miserly/ the opposite of generous – unkind/ nasty
  • pants – underwear (“underpants” in American English) – long pants (“trousers” in British English)
  • professor – the very top members of the academic staff of a university – all lecturers at a university
  • public school – an old and usually high status private school (historically, the first schools which were open to the paying public) – a school funded by the (local and/ or national) government (“state school” in British English)
  • pudding – dessert generally, or a hot, heavy dessert similar to Xmas pudding – a kind of custard dessert, similar to crème caramel
  • purse – a small and/ or woman’s wallet – a handbag or shoulder bag
  • roommate – someone sharing the same bedroom, e.g. in a university halls shared room – someone sharing the same house/ apartment (“housemate” or “flatmate” in British English)
  • a rubber – an eraser – a condom
  • sherbet – a powdered sweet which fizzes a little on your tongue – a type of frozen dessert, like ice cream but with less or no milk (“sorbet” in British English)
  • squash – a kind of cordial that needs to be watered down to be drunk – a kind of vegetable similar to a pumpkin (similar to a British “marrow”)
  • state school – a school funded by the government (“public school” in American English) – a school funded by the state (rather than the national government or a more local area)
  • subway – a pedestrian underpass – underground railway
  • surgery – a doctor’s office, like a clinic – an operating theatre
  • sweets – small sugary snacks (“candy” in American English) – dessert/ sweet things generally, such as cakes
  • underpass – a street underground, often under another street – a tunnel for pedestrians under a street (“subway” in British English)
  • vest – underwear worn under your shirt (“undershirt” in American English) – part of a three-piece suit, worn under your jacket (“waistcoat” in British English)
  • wash up – do the dishes – wash your hands (before dinner)

There is a fuller list of 100 words with different meanings in British and American English on this site. There are also others where the main meaning is the same in British and American English but additional meanings are different, such as “school” (also meaning “university” in American English) and “tutor” (also meaning what Americans call a “homeroom teacher” in British English). Others that you might find in online lists like different meanings of “billion” and “corporation” are a little old fashioned, with British people mainly following the American meanings nowadays.

 

Teaching different words in British and American English

Although they are less likely to cause confusion than words with two meanings, there are many more cases where Brits and Americans use different words for the same thing (“trainers”/ “sneakers”, etc). The ones which are most worth teaching are included in the list below, and there are many more in the big list of vocab differences elsewhere on this site.

100 different words in British and American English (in alphabetical order)

  • 18 (certificate) – R (rated)
  • A&E/ accident and emergency/ casualty (department) – ER/ emergency room
  • accelerator (pedal) – gas pedal/ the gas
  • AGM/ annual general meeting – shareholders meeting
  • anti-clockwise – counter-clockwise
  • aubergine – eggplant
  • bank holiday – national holiday/ public holiday
  • bin – trashcan/ garbage can
  • block of flats – apartment building
  • bum bag – fanny pack
  • caretaker – janitor
  • carrier bag/ plastic bag – shopping bag
  • cash machine/ cashpoint – ATM
  • chemist’s – pharmacy/ drugstore
  • cinema – (movie) theater
  • class/ form – grade
  • coach – highway bus/ Greyhound bus
  • courgette – zucchini
  • CV/ curriculum vitae – résumé
  • discount – concession
  • dummy – pacifier
  • economy (class) – coach (class)
  • engaged (tone) – busy (signal)
  • estate agent – realtor
  • final year student – senior
  • fizzy drink – soda/ pop
  • fresher/ first year student – freshman
  • fringe – bangs
  • frying pan – fry pan/ skillet
  • full stop – period
  • garden – yard
  • get on (well) with someone – get along with someone
  • GP/ general practitioner – primary care practitioner
  • green peppers/ red peppers/ yellow peppers – bell peppers
  • (student) halls – dorms
  • hand luggage – carry-on baggage
  • hard hat – bump cap
  • high street – main street
  • homework – an assignment
  • humanities – liberal arts
  • indie (music) – alternative (music/ rock)
  • jumble sale – rummage sale
  • jump the queue – cut the line
  • (T-)junction/ crossroads – intersection
  • (sports) kit – uniform
  • knickers – panties
  • lift – elevator
  • lorry driver – teamster/ truckdriver
  • manslaughter – second degree murder
  • mince – chopped beef
  • mobile (phone) (number) – cell(phone) (number)
  • mortgage – home loan
  • mouth to mouth (resuscitation) – rescue breathing
  • nappy – diaper
  • newsreader – (news) anchor
  • noticeboard – bulletin board
  • OAP/ pensioner/ senior citizen – senior
  • operating theatre – operating room/ OR
  • petrol station/ garage – gas station
  • photocopier – copy machine
  • (football) pitch – (soccer) field
  • platform two – track two
  • police car/ panda car – patrol car/ police cruiser
  • postcode – zip code
  • postgrad/ postgraduate student – grad student
  • primary school – elementary school
  • public prosecutor – DA/ district attorney
  • pushchair/ buggy – buggy/ stroller
  • put someone through – connect someone/ transfer someone’s call
  • queue (up) – line up/ wait in line
  • reception – front desk
  • receptionist – desk clerk
  • return (ticket) – round trip
  • revise/ revision – review
  • rubbish – garbage/ trash
  • second year student – sophomore
  • secondary school – (junior) high school
  • series two – season two
  • (television) series – serial
  • shareholder – stockholder
  • shop assistant – sales clerk
  • single (ticket) – one-way (ticket)
  • spanner – wrench
  • surgery – doctor’s office
  • take away – take out
  • tap – faucet
  • text – SMS
  • third year student – junior
  • tick – check
  • ticket barrier – turnstile
  • (train) timetable – schedule
  • tracksuit – sweats
  • (trade) union – (labor) union
  • traffic lights – traffic signals/ stoplights
  • trainers – sneakers
  • tram – streetcar/ trolley
  • wardrobe – closet
  • wellington boots/ wellingtons/ wellies – galoshes/ rain boots/ rubber boots/ gum boots
  • woolly hat – ski hat
  • zebra crossing/ pedestrian crossing – crosswalk

 

An interesting category that is sometimes worth dealing with separately is the use of brand names. In some cases British and Americans use different brand names for the same kinds of things, as in:

  • Sellotape – Scotch Tape
  • (sticky) plaster/ Elastoplast – Band Aid
  • Tippex – Wite Out/ Liquid Paper

Much more commonly, though, there is a brand name in one version but a more generic name in the other. Those with a brand name in British English include:

  • Biro – ballpoint pen
  • Hoover – vacuum cleaner
  • Dormobile/ campervan – RV/ recreational vehicle
  • JCB – excavator
  • Tannoy – PA/ public address system
  • Portakabin – portable building
  • Brillo Pad – scouring pad
  • Stanley knife – utility knife
  • Scalextric – slot cars
  • Zimmer frame – walker
  • Airfix – (plastic) scale models

There are more with a brand name in American English, including:

  • jeans – Levi’s
  • to photocopy – to Xerox
  • tissue – Kleenex
  • ice lolly – Popsicle
  • four wheel drive – Jeep
  • permanent marker – Sharpie/ Magic Marker
  • clingfilm – Saran Wrap
  • cotton buds – Q Tips
  • laundrette – Laundromat
  • jelly – Jell-O
  • estate agent – real estate agent/ Realtor
  • briefs – Jockey Shorts
  • paracetamol – Tylenol
  • bleach – Clorox
  • food processor – Cuisinart
  • skip – Dumpster
  • cagoule/ kagoul – Windbreaker
  • fig rolls – Fig Newtons
  • reclining chair – La-Z-Boy

 

British and American collocations

As well as the compound nouns in the lists above, other collocational differences include:

  • “have” or “take” with nouns like “a bath”, “a nap”, “a rest” and “a shower”
  • prepositions with expressions like “at/ on the weekend”
  • phrasal verbs like “fill in/ out (a form)”

There are also a few examples of longer fixed phrases which are different in British and American English, as in:

  • touch wood/ knock on wood
  • blow your own trumpet/ blow your own horn
  • flogging a dead horse/ beating a dead horse
  • you can’t see the wood for the trees/ you can’t see the forest for the trees
  • sweep something under the carpet/ sweep something under the rug
  • take something with a pinch of salt/ take something with a grain of salt

None of these are particularly worth teaching as they are easily mutually comprehensible, but a teacher must be careful not to “correct” a student who uses the variation which the teacher is less familiar with.

 

How to present British and American vocabulary

I tend to just present UK and US vocab as I go along, mainly by giving the other version in brackets each time I mention a word which has variations in the UK and USA. Ways of deciding which form to put first and which to put in brackets afterwards include:

  • Always put one variety first and the other in brackets afterwards, e.g. always American and then British in brackets (so that students hopefully subconsciously learn which is which)
  • Put the form that students are likely to be familiar with first with the form that is likely to be new for them in brackets afterwards
  • Put the form that students are likely to be unfamiliar with first (so that they learn something new) with the form that they are more likely to know afterwards in brackets (to help them understand the new form)
  • Put the most internationally recognised/ most internationally useful form first (so that your students will be understood when they use that word in their future international communications) then put an extra form in brackets afterwards, for example “apartment (flat)”, “curtains (drapes)”, “elevator (lift)” and “handbag (purse)”

 I usually do the last of these, because I think that most students just need to know both forms, without worrying too much about which is which.

This technique of giving a second form in brackets can be used with lists of words to speak about (e.g. a list of things to complain about in a hotel). It can also be used with lists of words to test each other on as Pictionary, miming games, etc. You could also put the words into context in roleplay cards, problems for students to discuss the solutions for, discussion questions, etc. When they finish that activity, you could then test them on their memory of both forms with a task such as joining up words with the same meaning.

 

British and American collocations dominoes

The main problem with the activities just explained above is that students can easily do the tasks without having to actually look at the less familiar version of the words. This can be improved somewhat by getting them to do an actual language task in which both forms are given. For example, if you put both British and American collocations on the same dominoes so that students can join “fire + engine/ truck”, you can then later test them on their memory of both forms.

 

British and American collocations pairwork

Find some useful collocations which have both British and American forms and which your students are only likely to know one version of. Split the unfamiliar forms and put the first halves of some on the Student A worksheet and the first halves of the others on the Student B worksheet, with the endings on the other worksheets. After the endings, also give the form that they probably know in brackets, as in “bump” + “hat (hard hat)”. Without showing their worksheets to each other, students try to match the beginnings and endings, only using the clues in brackets later to help or to start checking their answers. They can then be tested a different way on both forms.

 

British and American vocabulary strings

Another nice activity for a Test Teach Test approach is to give students British and American versions next to each other in a long string of words without gaps such as “bintrashcantapfaucet”. Ask students to rewrite the lists as paired up British and American words and expressions. If that is too easy, you could also produce a list of the British words with no gap (“undergroundcoachtram”) and a matching list of the American expressions with no gap (in the same order, as in “subwayhighwaybusstreetcar”) for students to split and then match.

 

The activities near the top of the practice section below should also work as presentation activities when using a TTT approach.

 

How to practise British and American vocabulary

Matching British and American vocabulary pairwork

Make a list of British English on a Student A worksheet and equivalent American words mixed up on a Student B worksheet, then write different example sentences for each (with British and American punctuation, spelling and grammar to match the vocabulary in each case). Without showing their worksheets to each other, students try to match up the words by meaning, first of all without reading out the example sentences and then using the example sentences to help. You can then test them on their memories of the two forms, without any help this time.

 

How British is Your English vocabulary?

Students predict how British or American they think their own English vocabulary is (e.g. “Almost totally American”), then take a quiz to see if they were right.

First of all, the teacher reads out some definitions of the words and expressions that they want to present (e.g. “It’s the covering of the engine of a car”), without giving any options at this stage. Students try to write down just one word or expression that they would usually use to describe that thing when they are speaking English (not when speaking L1), e.g. “bonnet” or “hood”. If they can’t understand the definition or no words come to mind, they should just leave that one blank until the next stage.

Students then hear the same definitions but with British and American options such as “elevator/ lift”, without being told which is which. They must choose one of those options if they left any blanks in the previous stage, choosing which they like the sound of if they aren’t familiar with any of the options. If they didn’t leave a blank, they should usually not change their original answer, unless it wasn’t one of the options or (very rarely) if they suddenly realise that they would be more likely to use the other option.

In the third stage, students compare their choices with a partner and try to guess whose choices are more British and whose are more American. After the teacher tells them which are which, they check if they were right about whose vocabulary was more British/ American.

For more speaking, students can then do the same for each other, making up definitions of words on their (Student A and Student B) worksheets such as “chemist’s/ pharmacy/ drugstore” and then telling their partner how British or American all their choices were.

 

British word, American word, or not?

A lesson on British and American vocabulary can also be a good chance to deal with local forms that are constructed from or abbreviations of English words but aren’t used elsewhere, such as “sharp” for “automatic pencil/ mechanical pencil” in Konglish and “dust box” for “bin/ trash can” in Janglish. The tricky part of planning the class is to make sure that students can’t just go through the list crossing off the forms that they are familiar with from their own language, ignoring the British and American forms. One way of doing this is to mix up some British/ American/ Janglish lines with some British/ American/ completely made up lines such as “patrol car/ police car/ police officer car”.

 

British and American vocabulary list dictation

A list dictation is an activity in which students listen to a long list of words and expressions and guess as quickly as they can what those things have in common. Perhaps the best way of doing this for British and American English is to read out a list of both kinds (e.g. “estate, station wagon, windscreen, windshield”, etc) until students guess the topic (“cars” in this case). They can then be tested another way on the matches between the words.

With students who are particularly hung up on which is which, you could also read out a list of just British words or just American words until someone is sure which kind they are hearing. This can be combined with the version above if students have to guess “British food vocabulary”, “American clothes words”, etc.

 

British and American vocabulary jigsaws

Perhaps the most common textbook activity for British and American vocabulary is to match up words with the same meanings and/ or to say which word is British and which is American. However, this is almost completely useless without more context, as students either know all the words already or have no way of knowing apart from completely guessing. A jigsaw is one way of giving students more clues and so letting them guess better than randomly.

Make a two-column table with British English on the left and the equivalent American English word or expression next to each thing on the right. Alternatively, you could also add a third column in the middle with a definition and/ or example sentence for those words. Make sure that the words and expressions are a mix of ones which students know but need to revise and ones which they only know one form of but would benefit from knowing the other form of. Cut up the worksheet as a kind of jigsaw, with each box being joined to at least one other box, so that students can use the ones they know to match the ones that they don’t. Don’t leave any individual cards on their own. If students get stuck when they try to put the jigsaw back together, you can:

  • Tell them which cards go at the top and bottom
  • Give them some matches
  • Let them look at the worksheet without touching the jigsaw, then continue matching after the worksheet is turned over

Copyright © 2019

Written by Alex Case for UsingEnglish.com

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