19 September 2021

How to Speak American

This one’s for you, Anne!

When our Dutch colleague Anne van Doorn visited SleuthSayers, we discussed English competency in general, and American English in particular. Following is my own contribution, but I’ll mention Wikipedia contains a surprisingly good article on the topic.


The primary thing that’s driven me mad is the concept of mass versus collective nouns and subject-verb agreement. For example:

  • US: “Tottenham FC is expected to win.”
  • UK: “Tottenham FC are expected to win.”

When I asked a British instructor to explain, all he imparted was, “You aren’t wrong.” If you figure this one out, let me know. (Wikipedia makes a decent stab of kinda, sorta explaining it.)

In parts of Britain, articles (a, an, the) seem to disappear. In Yorkshire you might hear a construct something like, “She dropped pudding on floor.” The tendency appears occasionally in phrases such as, “I took her to hospital,” where an American would say, “I took her to the hospital.”

For some reason, North Americans don’t have a similar problem with school: “I went to school today.” To be clear, that means attending classes, whereas, “I went to the school today,” more likely implies visiting the campus or schoolhouse. We might say, “I attended college,” but also confusingly say, “I attended the university.”

fanny covering (girl in shorts)
fanny covering (girl in shorts)
also fanny

In the US, bath is strictly a noun and bathe is the corresponding verb. In the UK, bath can be both. My ears still aren’t used to someone saying, “I’ll bath this evening,” (where it’s pronounced bawth). When I try to say it, I sound like a smartass. Er, smartarse.


Thanks to internationalism, Americanisms have filtered into the UK and vice versa. However, a few words differ in meaning.

In North America, corn means a particular type of maize. The British use a broader sense of a cereal crop including oats, wheat, and barley.

North Americans tend to use the adjective ‘mad’ when they mean angry. The British limit the word to mean insane.

How do I put this delicately: Never, ever, pat an Englishwoman on the fanny. Bad enough in America, but just… don’t… do it. In the UK, it’s probably not what you think it is.


We come to one of my least favorite (least favourite) words. Feel free to skip to the next topic. I wouldn’t go into this at all, except the English insist upon inserting some derivation of the word piss in every third paragraph– more often if they’re watching a football match in their local pub. North Americans lean toward two meanings, urinate and anger, but the British have come up with many, many more, confusing us poor Americans. These include:

Someone who’s ‘on the piss’ is engaging in a heavy drinking bout until they’re thoroughly ‘pissed’, i.e, drunk. ‘Taking a piss’ can refer to misleading someone, but ‘taking the piss out of’ someone is mocking them. A ‘piece of piss’ refers to something easy to do. A ‘pisser’ is someone or something funny. Telling someone to ‘piss off’ means leave immediately. ‘Piss about’ is to waste time and resources on something foolish. ‘Piss up’ means to ruin something, but plain ‘piss’ means something that tastes bad. Finally the English exploit the word’s versatility with ‘piss on’ implying great contempt and ‘piss in one’s pocket’ meaning virtually its opposite, to ingratiate oneself.

I’m convinced a writer could invent his or her own combination in the form of piss+preposition, and people on that side of the English Channel would intuit exactly what was meant. A wiser choice might be to avoid it altogether. Now excuse me whilst I bath.

French Influence

Despite time and distance, some French spellings and pronunciations have survived in the US. When I was a child, my mother pronounced pot-pourri the French way, ‘POH-puhREE’, but thanks to dumbing down by television and radio, the pronunciation is shifting to ‘pot-porry’. Ugh.

We still pronounce filet mignon as ‘FEElay MIN-yon’ whereas the British say fillet (‘fill-it’) steak. We retain other words the French either seldom use (derrière, double entendre) or the meaning has altered (brassiere). In some cases, North Americans have retained French spelling, such as valor versus valour.

maths symbols

baseball, soccer ball, basketball, football

tyre by the kerb, tire by the curb

Canadians still use serviette but Americans seem to be losing this elegant and useful word in favor (favour) of table napkin.


Math in the US, maths in the UK. Sports in the US, sport in the UK. Consistent, right? And of course US soccer = UK football.

British contrast certain nouns ending in -ce with their corresponding verb forms ending in -se. For example: licence/license, practice/practise. Americans (but less so Canadians) often narrow the spelling of noun and verb to -ce endings. Outside US borders, my memory aid associates the ‘c’ ending with ‘concrete noun’.

Then we have variant spellings: kerb/curb, tyre/tire, gaol/jail. If I could get away with it, I’d use kerb and tyre, being unambiguous with their homonyms. We see a precedent in the word clew that retains its spelling for maritime use, but evolved to clue in the crime and mystery world.

A few authors have proposed we Americans adopt British spellings regarding two ‘writerly’ words. One is cosy (instead of cozy), which one SleuthSayer or another uses. The other is storey (instead of story) when referring to the floor of a building. For example, “She was reading a cosy on her second storey balcony.” Your choice.

Finally, the dot at the end of a sentence… the British refer to it as fullstop whereas Americans usually call it a period. That’s a clue to wrap up.

Good luck, Anne!


  1. Anne, many people are relatively unaware of the Nederlands’ century-long (~1570s-1672) rôle as a dynamic world power and how it relates to the development of a young America. Secondary school classes touch upon the 80 Years War and the 30 Years War, but we’re more familiar with the Dutch purchasing Manhattan and settling eastern New York state. We know of Dutch fur trade and slave trade, but don’t realize Nederlands dominated world trade by floating as many ships and shipping as the rest of combined Europe. Unless students are maritime history fans, they don’t know the Dutch turned their backs on warships and invented fluyts, the Northern hemisphere’s first cargo ships. While we recognize Dutch Golden Age ascendancy in the fine arts during that period, we seldom connect Dutch liberalized notions of human rights, free thought, free markets, innovation, entrepreneuralism, protestant work ethic, and proto-republic ideas that influenced the direction of our nation’s development.

  2. Leigh, thank you! This is a wonderful, informative, and entertaining post. The correct interpretation of the word piss must be very irritating to non-British people. I, for one, gave up!

    I was taught British English at school, so it's a challenge to discover the differences with American English. To make matters even confusing, when reading older American books, I stumble upon British English spellings. Language is alive--it keeps on changing.

    1. You're welcome, Anne, and good points.

      Because of exposure to the BBC, many Dutch and Belgiques have charming British accents.

      Yes, our older books often contain English and French words and spelling. I was surprised when reading Horatio Alger stories 1870± that he used British coinage– pence, shillings, pounds, etc.

      Glad you enjoyed it!

  3. Great post. I enjoy navigating the differences. It's flavor (flavour) to life. I wrote a Very British guy POV once and tried--probably failed--to get all this right.

    Also, technically Tottenham are expected to piss about and somehow lose the match.

    1. Glad you enjoyed it, Bob. I worked in the UK and about the time I felt comfortable I'd conquered the worst of the difference, some subtlety would trip me up. And those damn collective nouns… aargh!

    2. Bob, I like the Hotspurs comment.

  4. Leigh, I've always been interested in, and fascinated by, all the differences between American English and British English (which isn't the right way to put it, but you know what I mean). And some of the differences you mentioned here I wasn't even aware of.

    Great information, as usual.

    1. Thanks, John. I'm glad I could make a difference, so to speak. I feel for the poor Canadians caught between the US and the UK. Which O which spelling to use?

  5. Rubber - which erases in Britain, but (hopefully) stops something in US
    Knocking up - Britain, getting them out of bed; in the US, the rubber failed.

    1. (laughing) That's clever, Eve. We should team-teach.

  6. Just got around to reading this, Leigh. You missed the British term for raining cats and dogs—pissing down!


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