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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  • Mark Smith

    Is solialising socialism in disguise? Discuss :-)

  • Martha Turner

    A bathroom is just that, a room where you can take a bath. A restroom is a euphemism, like loo, and has toilets and lavatories (and urinals). We don’t say restroom at home or bathroom while in public places.

    • Amelia pond

      Well I say bathroom for public and home. Restroom, rarely to never and I think thats true for most folks.

  • gn

    This blog is rapidly going downhill. It used to actually contain useful information for expats. Now it’s descended to ignorant, ill-informed linguistic blather.

    Please stop this at once. I don’t care how many extra page views you’re getting. If you really care about this subject then go to Lynne Murphy’s excellent blog “Separated By A Common Language”.

  • Vikehi

    I have to say this one was a little confusing. I never knew which was which. For example I have never heard an American pronounce Internet with a d in it. Is this a Brit thing?

    • gallifreygirl2007

      personally i say internet lol :) i don’t know what all this other bs about innernet is about O.o

  • Jason

    This is the dumbest article ever. Nobody here (in the USA(OMG, I didn’t use periods!)) says elastic bands instead of rubber bands. And if you hear some body say “indernet” it’s probably because they have a speech impediment, not because they’re American.

    • Brandy

      “Elastic” is sometimes used here in the US to refer specifically to hair ties, not the regular office supply type rubber band.

      • Kaiti

        Also, WAY off on the beers. Sure, “domestic” can mean “fizzy yellow water”, but we also brew up some awesome craft beers.

        • Mish Mosh

          The Brits can’t say s**t about our beer. Theirs taste so bad they put lemon juice in it.

    • BRossow

      Yep. That elastic band claim is a load of old pony, which is something I know for a fact will be understood by the writer. They’re rubber bands.

    • Alice Spaulding

      Actually, here in Chicago, we had a new manager who just arrived from Massachusetts ask us where he could get some “elastics”. We all gave him a hard time about that one! Logically, some areas of the country have closer ties to England than others.

  • iCrunch

    Relax, guys. James is new in town. And he doesn’t mean that we say (or spell) “indernet” as opposed to internet, but instead that we don’t pronounce some t’s and roll our r’s. One additional common spelling difference is “-ter” when you Brits spell it “-tre”, but you guys pronounce it like “-ter”, where as we (see above) don’t pronounce the “t”, so no, we don’t say/spell “center” like “cender” (my U.S. error-checking just tried to change it to “tender”, by the way. Which brings me to yet another difference: We are the U.S., not the USA. If you feel you need to have all three letters, you may abbreviate it this way: The U.S. of A. (yes, with plenty of periods, and not trousers. 😉 )

    As far as this article is concerned, I had fun reading it and would recommend it to anyone. At the very least, it’s entertaining, if not informative. This is my first visit to BBC America, by the way.

    James, before I forget, welcome to L.A., dude!

  • Posie

    Indernet, no, innernet, maybe. Elastic bands are for hair and usually wrapped with some kind of thread to keep from damaging the individual hairs. Rubber bands, are the same, and in some places they are gum bands. Anyone here every heard the contraction “daresen’t”? How that ‘s’ ended up in the middle of “dare not” is beyond me, but it’s unique to communities with a high Amish influence. So is the phrase “Red up (something)”, as in, “Red up (Clean) your room.” That’s the fun thing about American English, drive a few hundred miles, and you’ll hear a completely different version of it.

  • Caitlyn

    Yes – I agree with the comments below. LOL – so far none of you have spelled it out yet: While we Yanks do slide our Ts into Ds, we say “Innernet”, not Indernet”. We also don’t say “elastic”. That’s what holds up your drawers (undies). Used in the hair, they’re referred to as “hair ties”, not “elastic bands”.

  • Caitlyn

    PS – Also, we don’t say or write “USA”. No. We use “the US”. :)

  • Terry

    I am such a fan of Brits. My husband & I will be going to England – London this Nov. I cannot wait. I love the way they all speakk. A little hard to understand sometimes. I am sure they say the same about us.

  • Katie

    The thing that I’m sure makes coming to the U.S. even more difficult is that while everything mentioned may be true, it may only be true in that area. I’ve never used an “elastic band” or “flashers,” but I’m sure that’s what they are called in areas. A perfect example of this is that carbonated beverage that is know as “pop,” or “soda,” or “soda-pop,” or (if you’re in the south) “coke.”