Differences in British and American grammar, spelling and punctuation are probably more famous, but I would say that differences in requesting, asking for permission, thanking, etc in the UK and US are second only to vocabulary differences in importance, due to real possibility of misunderstanding what is meant.
The most important differences in functional language in the UK and USA include:
- Checking/ Clarifying
- Dealing with complaints/ Apologising
- Small talk
- Giving directions
- Opening and closing letters and emails
- Starting and ending phone calls
- Restaurant language
- What to say when someone sneezes
There are also differences when checking progress and making arrangements, but those are more to do with grammar (“Have you… yet?” against “Did you… yet?”) and vocabulary (“at weekends” versus “on weekends”, etc) and so are dealt with in other articles on those topics on this site.
Differences between British and American functional language
This section explains the major differences in approximate order of importance. Unless stated otherwise, differences are given with British English then American English.
Requests in British and American English
In British English, “Can I/ you…?” is the basic level for requests, and “Could I/ you…?” is more polite. In contrast, in American English “Could…?” is the basic level and “Can…?” is usually considered impolite or even wrong.
In British English, “May I…?” is used to ask for permission rather than requesting, and so “May I go to the toilet?” is quite funny to hear from an adult student in a UK classroom. In American, “May I…?” is used for polite requests and so would be fine for an adult in that situation. Perhaps for that reason, other forms for polite requests like “Could I possibly…?” and “If it’s not too much trouble,…” seem to be more common in British English than in American English.
Checking/ Clarifying in American and British English
When someone doesn’t hear or catch what the other person said, a Brit is most likely to say “Pardon?” or “Sorry?” where an American might say “Excuse me” or “Pardon me?” In the UK, “Excuse me” is mostly used to get people’s attention, for example while trying to ask for directions from a passer-by. In some situations and with particular pronunciation (especially intonation), “Excuse me?” and “Sorry?” can mean “What on earth are you saying?” “Pardon me” is also sometimes used by someone when they burp or fart to mean “Please forgive my rudeness”. Therefore, there is some slight chance of misunderstandings when using expressions other than “Pardon? Alternatively, you can use longer and more useful phrases like “Sorry, I didn’t catch that” and “Sorry, can you say that again (a little more slowly)?”
Dealing with complaints and apologising in British and American English
American employees are often told not to actually apologise, in case the other person takes “Sorry” to be an admission of guilt and so decides to sue. Instead, American companies teach their staff to use sympathetic expressions like “I’m sorry to hear that”. This is also becoming common in British business, but is likely to enrage British customers, as saying “Sorry” is traditionally very important in the UK, including often apologising when someone else treads on your foot!
Small talk in British and American English
Particularly in London and Southeast England, interactions with waiters, shop assistants, bus drivers, etc are very polite (from both sides) but don’t involve much or any small talk. In America, there tends to be much more chatting with such people, and the same is also true further north in the UK and/ or in smaller towns.
In both British and American English, people often use more informal versions of “How are you?” This is because “How are you?” “I’m fine thank you, and you?” doesn’t sound so friendly or lead to much of a conversation, particularly with people you know well. American variations include “How are you doing?” and “What’s up?” In the UK, “How’s it going?”, “How’s life?”, “How are things?” and “Alright?” are more common. In the UK, “What’s up?” actually means “What’s wrong?”
The answers to “How…?” questions can also vary, with British people preferring understated expressions like “Not bad” (actually meaning “Good”, not “So so” as some may think) and even “No complaints” or “Mustn’t grumble”. Americans are much more likely to say “Great” than any of those rather lugubrious-sounding expressions.
Americans are more likely than Brits to ask about and talk about families, with questions like “How’s your family?” and “Your son must be starting college by now, isn’t he?” more common in American English. In answering, British people are more likely to use modesty, false modesty or “humble bragging”, with answers like “He’s at Oxford, but I don’t know how he’s going to cope!”
Money conversations tend to be difficult anywhere, but the British are particularly sensitive about talking about things in cash terms. However, this is changing when it comes to topics like house prices. You can also get round this taboo by talking about things in percentage terms (“Property prices here have doubled in the last three years!”, “I got 33% off in the sales”, etc).
From listening in to conversations between Americans abroad, I’ve found that they often start by trying to find places and people in common, e.g. that one of them briefly lived in the town where the other one was born. This is of course a good conversational tactic in any culture, and also a good way of making friends and influencing people. However, British people don’t do this so much and can find some “connections” such as someone’s great uncle having married someone from that town to be a bit of a stretch and so probably not worth saying.
Sport is a good topic in both the US and UK, but you might need to research snooker, cricket, Wimbledon, American football, baseball, etc to have something to say on the topic, depending on who you will be talking to.
The British love of talking about the weather is somewhat exaggerated, with the tendency to comment on the coldness etc probably more reliant on local weather conditions and the age of the speaker than on nationality. The famous British love of understatement often appears when talking about 37 degrees Celsius days with “It’s a bit warm, isn’t it?” Brits also love to complain together, with conversations like “Awful weather, isn’t it?” “I know! And they say it’ll be like this for days!” being common. Similar bonding through sharing a good “whinge” are also common about transport, politics, etc. In such situations disagreeing with the other person by being positive (“Actually, I think the prime minister is doing a good job”) is almost taboo and is likely to spoil the conversational atmosphere.
The British also love complaining about their country in general, but under no circumstances should foreign people join in when a Brit says “The whole country is going to the dogs” and “Why on earth would anyone come here on holiday?” Americans tend to be more positive, including quite a lot of compliments, something that can make British people uncomfortable.
English speakers tend to like a fairly long transition between small talk and the main topic, often with expressions like “It’s been great to chat but we have a lot to talk about, so let’s get down to business”. The British are perhaps even more fond of smoothly linking to the main topic without any clear transition, as in “Talking about…, we need to speak about…” and “I’m glad you mentioned that, because I wanted to talk to you about…”, something that can make getting down to business take even longer.
Greetings in the US and UK
“Alright?” and “What’s up?” are often used more like greetings right at the beginning of conversations. Americans also have the informal greetings “Yo!” and “Hey”, which are much less common in the UK. Americans often put these together with expressions like “man” and “bro’” even with people they know, while British equivalents like “Alright, mate” are mainly used with people whose names you don’t know.
British people, especially men, often show affection by using insults with each other, and this can lead to greetings, “George! How have you been, you old bastard?” and “Morning John. You look like crap. Hangover?”
British people sometimes use “Happy Christmas” instead of “Merry Christmas”. In America, “Merry Xmas” is changing more towards non-religious-specific expressions like “Happy holidays”.
Some British people use the goodbye greeting “ta-rah”, although it tends to be regional and/ or used ironically. Similar to its use at the end of emails, Brits also sometimes end conversations with “Cheers”. This is often used without any real meaning, but it’s actual meaning is something like “Thanks (in advance) and bye”.
“Have a nice day” is seen as very American by British people, particularly when used by service staff, but “Have a good weekend” etc with friends is very common.
In American English, the “on” in “See you (on) Monday” is often dropped in informal speech.
Invitations in British and American English
Despite what you may have read online, there is little difference in the modern uses of “shall” in British and American English, and “Shall we…?” can be used for an invitation in both. Brits also have the expression “Do you fancy…?”, most famously in the sentence “Do you fancy coming out for a pint?”
Brits are much guiltier than Americans of making what seem to be invitations but are in fact just trying to make for a pleasant ending to a conversation and would cause surprise if they were actually taken up. This that can be spotted in the vague language (lack of dates, etc) in expressions like “We must go out for a pint sometime”.
Thanking in British and American English
There are quite a few specifically British ways of saying “Thank you”, including “Cheers”, “Ta (very much)”, “Nice one”, “Much obliged”, “You’re a star” and “You’re a legend”.
Although probably less common than “You’re welcome”, British people fairly often say “Not at all” in reply to “Thank you”. The Australian version “No worries” is also becoming common in the UK.
Giving directions in British and American English
In American English you might hear “going to…” in situations where a Brit would use “will…”, as in “You’re going to see a gas station on the corner”. This may even extend to the actual instructions, with “You’re going to hang a right” instead of just “Turn right”. Other differences in giving directions are mainly just vocabulary, as in:
- opposite/ across from
- behind/ in back of
- turn right/ hang a right
There are also many differences in the names of many places such as “petrol station/ gas station”. Perhaps the most confusing is that British walk through the front door onto the “ground floor” and then walk upstairs to the “first floor” (meaning the first floor above the ground), whereas American buildings start from the “first floor” and then they walk upstairs to the “second floor”.
The American taboo against directly mentioning the toilet is particularly true when asking for directions, where “bathroom” and “restroom” are the normal way of asking where you can relieve yourself. “Toilet” is fine in British English, and other words tend to be used just to be more colourful or comic, as in “the gents”, “the ladies”, “the little boys’ room”, “the smallest room”, and even “the shitter”.
Opening and closing letters and emails in British and American English
“Dear Sir” and “Dear Sirs” have mainly be replaced by the less sexist-sounding “Dear Sir/ Madam” and “Dear Sir or Madam”, but the older forms seem to be hanging on more in the US than in the UK (despite other PC forms like “fire fighter” being more common in the US).
As a closing line, British people often use “Cheers” as an informal way of saying “Thanks (in advance)”. This is very useful, because “Thanks in advance” can seem quite heavy and so a lighter version is better when possible. However, it has yet to become common in the US. Like “Thanks”, “Cheers” is often used without an additional closing greeting like “Best wishes” after it. All this means that “Cheers” is so convenient and useful that many British people write it when the email doesn’t include a request (a bad habit that should not be copied!)
I have also found a difference specific to cover letters. Americans tend to finish with a specific appeal to the reader such as “I hope I have the chance to tell you more about what I could offer your company soon”, whereas British people tend to stick to more general closing lines like “I look forward to hearing from you”.
The most formal American English closing greeting/ closing salutation is “Sincerely” or “Sincerely yours”. The British have the similar “Yours sincerely”, but in UK English “Yours faithfully” should be used instead when the email or letter starts with “Dear Sir/ Madam”. In British English, “Best regards” can’t be used with the most formal emails and letters.
There is another article on this site with more details of British and American emails.
Starting and ending British and American phone calls
British people quite often use “ring” to mean “phone/ call” in sentences like “Thanks for ringing me back” and “I’m ringing about…”
To ask to speak to someone, standard UK English is “Can I speak to…?” and American is “May I speak with…?”, matching the descriptions of requests and asking for permission above. Brits also often use the phrasal verb “put through” as in “Can you put me through to…?” where Americans might say “Can you connect me to…?”, which sounds too formal for British ears. The same is true in responses like “Of course. I’ll put you through/ I’ll connect you”.
There is another whole article on the topic of UK and US phone calls on this site.
British and American restaurant language
American waiters are much more likely to introduce themselves and make small talk, something that the customer is expected to reply to. This is becoming more common in the UK, but is still seen as an American import.
Americans sometimes use imperatives like “Give me…” when ordering, but British people use “Can I have…?” or “I’d like…” even in bars and fast food restaurants, or else avoid a verb with phrases like “Two pints of best, please”.
Although it is changing and was probably always an exaggeration, British people are famous for not wanting to raise their voice when calling the waiter (often using unfinished sentences like “Sorry, can I?” as the waiter passes). The same is true about complaining, with British people sometimes even hiding their real feelings from the staff, saying “It’s lovely, thanks?” when they ask “How’s your meal?” when the exact opposite is true.
Sneezing in British and American English
Americans quite often say the German word “Geshundheit” (literally “Health”) instead of “Bless you” when someone sneezes. This is very rare in the UK.