12 Ways to Speak and Spell Like an American

Fancy a cup of tea and digestives (cookies)? (Photo via AP)

Working as a journalist in Los Angeles, I often read requests for people who can speak and understand “British English” or “American English” – but what does that mean? As a new arrival in the U.S.A. you will notice that some things are different – and sometimes very different.

1. Swaps
Thanks to modern communication, movies and television, nearly everyone knows that “candy” is the American word for sweets, “cookies” means biscuits, “chips” mean crisps, “soccer” is what David Beckham occasionally plays, and “bathroom” or “restroom” is preferable to asking for the “toilet”. “Elastic” bands are preferred to rubber ones, though the old comedian’s joke about “rubbers” – here it means condoms, not the “eraser” you’re looking for – and you can get in a twist with “pants” (which we know as trousers).  

2. Car Talk
Here in Los Angeles where the car is king, the cost of “gas” (petrol) is an obsession on a par with Brits talking about the weather. There are quite a few differences between describing car parts though; when I took my Driving Test I knew that the “trunk” was the boot, but I also found out that “turn signals” were the indicators, “flashers” were the hazard lights, and that a “stop” light was a traffic light (all pretty obvious really).

3. Differencez
When you pass your Driving Test you get a license (with an “s” and not a “c” – it changes for defense/defence too), and if you’re writing a document or sending email, the computer’s Spellcheck will usually underline Brit spellings as an error. For words like “prioritise,” Americans replace the “s” with a “z.” If in doubt, set your Language option to “English (United States)” and it will notice all similar letter changes.

4. In Labour  
The most common spelling change involves “-our” words. Where Brits would write “colour,” here in the USA it’s “color.” The same for “labour” and “labor” (though not Ed Milliband’s party – they’re still written as “Labour” not “Labor”, a mistake even the venerable Los Angeles Times made). Then there’s humor, parlor and so on.

5. Dot, Dot, Dot
What we know as a full stop is called a “period” here (phnar! – see no. 7) and it can get thrown about with initial and titles. U.S.A. is the norm here, whereas Brits would use USA, and Mr. or Mr is lacking too, though – perhaps because they’re so feared – the tax collecting IRS is always the IRS. 

6. Accents
With 50 states and countless regions and dialects, even Americans can have trouble recognizing an accent (I can only just about guess someone’s from “The South”, which is half the country!). Best advice if you’re a Geordie (from Newcastle) or from the Scottish Highlands? Speak more slowly!

7. Say That Again?
As the famous Ella/Louie song says, there are some differences. You’ll have to get used to a silent “h” in “herbs”, “indernet” instead of “internet”, “aluminum” losing its second “i” and “schedule” sounding more like “schedule,”  though Brits are terrible for dropping their “r’s” and “h’s” anyway. Also, the hard “war” sound in “water” is more “wah” here – you’ll find that in “bath” too, appropriately enough – but it’s always a treat to hear someone say “oregano” or “Worcestershire sauce”, as they couldn’t sound more different.

8. Dry British Wit   
Americans are always interested in meeting someone from England, but do remember that sarcasm, wit, derogatory-but-meant-as-friendly comments and humor/humour in general can easily get lost crossing the pond. Anglophenia lists some words that Brits would see as rude, which aren’t the same at all here.

9. Trash Talk
Americans like to swear as much as anyone, but using certain swearwords as a term of affection (especially c**t) is definitely looked down on, and it’s not that cool to be known as a “potty mouth.” Loose lips? Worst case scenario you end up “in the hospital” here (not just “in hospital”) and require some Band-Aids (not “plasters”).     

10. Mine’s A Beer…
When you’re out and about, you’ll probably want an “imported” beer, as this means they’re from anywhere but the U.S.A., while “domestic” beers are your Millers, Buds etc. When you clink glasses, “cheers” means good health, but not “thank you” as well. That said, most see it as a charming way to say au revoir.

11. Two Lumps, Please
Also, you might buy some glazed donuts or doughnuts (sometimes it depends how much space they had left on the sign), and be sure when you ask for tea that you say “hot tea” with milk; otherwise you could end up with a cup of hot water with a slice of lemon in it – or even iced tea, which is cold tea served with ice and a slice of lemon. Ugh!

12. Let’s Make a Date
Finally, one of the things all Brits will be tripped up by early on is the way Americans write the date. They go month/day/year – i.e. 10/23/12 – instead of 23/10/12, and it makes sorting out your taxes and bank paperwork much easier.

You are now prepared to socialize (socialise) — let us know how it goes!

James Bartlett

James Bartlett

James Bartlett writes about travel, film and the weird and wonderful side of living in L.A. He has been published in over 90 magazines and newspapers including the Los Angeles Times, the LA Weekly, Los Angeles Magazine, Angeleno, Hemispheres, Delta Sky, Westways, Variety and Bizarre. He is also a contributor to BBC radio and RTE in Ireland, and is the author of Gourmet Ghosts - Los Angeles, a "history and mystery" guide to bars and restaurants in L.A. - details can be found at www.gourmetghosts.com.
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