21 US and British English

21.6 Grammatical and syntactic variation

The subtlest area of variation between US and British English involves text that contains no spellings or words that would be unfamiliar or unclear to readers who are fluent in a different English variation, but that nonetheless contains a usage common in one dialect but not the other. Putting these right depends mainly on the ‘ear’ of the editor to recognize usages that don't quite sound right. Examples of these include:

  • • differences in the number and countability of nouns (British accommodation, US accommodations). Other classes of words showing variability in this respect include some common ailments (US uses an article a toothache/cramp), certain foods when cooked (British scrambled egg, mashed potato; US uses plural forms), and a few other words that do not belong to a class: main/mains (as a conduit for water, electricity, etc.), overhead/overheads, scale/scales (weighing device), math/maths (mathematics).

  • • variability in predication of group nouns (a plural verb is used in British where individuality or corporateness are being emphasized, e.g. Barclays are still recruiting in Poole; US English would use Barclays is ...)

  • • variability in the preferential use of modal verbs (especially must, would, and should). The modal contractions daren't and shan't are uncommon in US English and are commonly regarded as Briticisms.

  • • different status with regard to the transitivity of some verbs (the most frequent verbs requiring attention here are agree, appeal, approximate, bath/bathe, catchup, give, impact, loan/lend, notify, protest, provide).

  • • variable usage and preferences for submodifiers (especially rather and quite). Many perfunctory uses of quite as a submodifier in British English are considered superfluous in US English and may be simply deleted. British English also shows greater frequency of very before adjectives when there is no clear reason for it to American ears, and it can often be deleted. Americans tend to use fairly and somewhat in many cases where British writers use rather.

  • • minor differences in the wording of some idioms (British home from home, US home away from home; British write to me, US write me). There are dozens of these and their rectification depends on the ear of the editor.

  • • variation in use of the subjunctive mood. US English more readily uses the subjunctive after nouns, verbs, and adjectives of requiring and demanding (She insisted Jane sit here). These uses are acceptable but not always idiomatic in British English, which uses modal verbs or the declarative form to say the same thing (She insisted Jane should sit here).

  • • variation in the uses of tenses. Informal US English often uses the simple past with adverbs such as already, ever, just, and yet; British English is more likely to use the present perfect. In conversational US English it is acceptable to say We already ate or She just got here. British English and more formal US English uses perfect tenses in these constructions (I’ve already eaten or She has just got here).

  • • variable preferences for introducing subordinate clauses. See 4.3.1.

Subscribe to remove adverts and access premium resources

New Hart's Rules


Preface Editorial team Proofreading marks Glossary of printing and publishing terms