A Writer’s Guide to UK vs US English


Whether you’re from the UK or the US, as a writer you’re likely to receive work from both countries, which means you need to know how to adapt your writing style to each culture. While UK English is more deeply rooted in history and the original form of the English language, the American US adaptation of English is just as influential and hugely important for any versatile writer. You may not realise how different the two variations are, or how necessary that awareness is, in which case here’s a 101 guide describing the major differences between the two – and some tips for working around them.

1. Change your Language in the Word program you use to UK or US English

The choice should be under Language, For All Text, then either UK English or US English. This will help with simple spelling differences between the two variations of the language. See the screenshot for clearer instruction.

2. Familiarize yourself with the common spelling differences.

There are numerous spelling differences between UK and US English, but a few handy rules of thumb can be learned to help you navigate the pitfalls. UK English often has words that end in ‘-our’, such as colour, while US English often has words that end in -or, such as color. Once you recognise that simple pattern, you begin to notice instances of the discrepancy wherever you look: honour being the UK spelling opposed to the US’ honorfavour for the UK and favor for the US etc.

Another common variation is the suffix ‘-ise’ for UK English and ‘-ize’ for US English. A small selection of words that follow this pattern: recognise as the UK English and recognize as the US English; patronise for the UK English and patronize for the US; generalise as the UK English version and generalize as the US English and so on.

Another suffix discrepancy is that of ‘-re’ for UK English and ‘-er’ for US English. This one is a little less intuitive, so some examples are words like centre as the UK English version and center as the US English version. Following this pattern are lustre for the UK and luster for the US, and, of course; theatre as the UK English against theater for the US.

Some spelling differences don’t follow a particular pattern however, which is why it’s important to make sure that whatever text editing program you favour is set to recognise the correct English dialect. For instance, gaol is the UK spelling of the US word jail; jewellery is the UK spelling of the US word jewelry, and licence is the UK version of the US word license.

The more practice (or should that be practise?) you get using both English dialects, the more you will become familiar with these and more spelling differences.

3. Be aware of vocabulary differences.

English speakers in the UK and US often use completely different words to refer to the same object or action. We’ve put together a short selection of a few common vocabulary variations:

UK English speakers refer to the ‘toilet’ whereas US English speakers tend to call it the ‘bathroom’ or the ‘restroom’.

UK English speakers refer to people wearing ‘trousers’, whereas US English speakers call the same clothing ‘pants’. To a UK English speaker ‘pants’ most closely resembles ‘underpants’, rather than outdoors wear.

‘Subway’ to US English speakers refers to an underground train system, whereas to UK English speakers, the underground train is the ‘tube’ or, simply the ‘underground’. For the most part, ‘Subway’ refers to sandwich outlets rather than forms of public transport, in the UK.

A few other vocabulary differences: UK speakers think of ‘British Summer Time’ where US speakers think of ‘Daylight Savings Time’; UK speakers refer to a ‘coach’ rather than a ‘bus’ to US speakers; UK speakers call a ‘dual carriage-way’ what an American might call a ‘divided highway’; and ‘bank holiday’, to UK speakers, is a ‘public holiday’ to US speakers.

US speakers also refer to taking ‘vacations’ rather than the UK speakers taking ‘holidays’. For most US speakers,  ‘holiday’ is usually a public holiday, most typically used in reference to Christmas, Thanksgiving, and other religious holidays around the same time.

 4. Be aware of your use of verb tenses

Present Perfect

UK English is much stricter on the use of present, perfect verb tense. To say ‘I have eaten lunch. Will you have dessert with me?’ expresses that the first sentence has a direct effect on the second sentence. US English speakers would understand these sentences, but they might also say, ‘I ate lunch. Will you have dessert with me?’

For UK speakers, this would sound incorrect, since the past verb tense is combined with the present tense.

‘Already’ and ‘Just’

US speakers tend to be laxer with their use of ‘already’ and ‘just’; these words can be combined with a variance of verb tenses. US English speakers can say ‘I just had food’ and ‘I already saw that movie’, whereas UK English speakers are stricter when it comes to combining those words with appropriate present perfect verb tenses. A UK English speaker would likely say, ‘I have just had food’ and ‘I have already seen that movie’.

‘Have’ and ‘Have Got’

While using both ‘have’ and ‘have got’ is acceptable in both UK and US English, UK English speakers prefer the use of ‘have got’, while US English speakers prefer the use of ‘have’. US English speakers would probably ask, ‘Do you have any friends?’ while UK English speakers would generally ask, ‘Have you got any friends?’ Likewise, US English speakers would say, ‘She has a new car’ while UK English speakers would say, ‘She has got a new car’.

Past Simple vs. Past Participle

US English speakers tend to use the simple past verb form more often than UK English speakers. US speakers would say ‘She dreamed of sugar plums last night’ while UK speakers might say ‘She dreamt of sugar plums last night.’ The past participle form of verbs is rarely used in US English, although it isn’t incorrect if they are used.

‘You learned’ is more common in US English, whereas you might have ‘learnt’ something in UK English. The same can be said for ‘smelled’ in US English and ‘smelt’ in UK English, ‘leaned’ in US English and ‘leant’ in UK English, and ‘spoiled’ in US English and ‘spoilt’ in UK English.

 5. Pay attention to preposition usage

UK English speakers and US English speakers think about prepositions slightly differently. Where US English speakers like to ‘go out on the weekends’ and UK English speakers like to ‘go out at the weekends’. Neither one is incorrect, in either form.

Another preposition usage difference is with ‘on’ and ‘in’. UK English speakers would say they were chosen to be ‘in a team’, where US English speakers would say they were chosen to be ‘on a team’. In contrast, what US English speakers refer to as an animal being ‘in heat’, UK English speakers refer to the animal being ‘on heat’.

 6. Understand time-telling variations

The most noticeable difference between UK and US English time-telling is the use of the colon. UK English writers would write 12.00 to indicate noon where US English writers would write 12:00 to indicate noon. Thirty minutes after an hour is called ‘half-past’ in both UK and US English, so 12.30 would be referred to as ‘half past twelve’ in both variations of English. However, UK English speakers would say ‘quarter past ten’ to indicate 10.15, while US English speakers might say ‘a quarter after ten’ or even ‘quarter after ten’.

7. Learn punctuation differences.

There are a few key differences between punctuation usage in UK and US English. UK English has a more open punctuation style; you can write ‘Mr Yuko’ in UK English, but would have to write ‘Mr. Yuko’ when writing in US English. For UK English, the full stop, or period, is only used when the last letter of the abbreviation is not the last letter of the full word.

Comma usage is more strict in US English. American writers distinguish between restrictive and non-restrictive clauses and use commas in the case of non-restrictive clauses, but UK English speakers do not use commas in either case. For instance, US English speakers would say ‘The cat, which was sleeping, was full’, or ‘The cat that was sleeping was full’ since ‘which’ indicated a non-restrictive clause and ‘that’ indicates a restrictive clause. For UK English users, either ‘The cat which was sleeping was full’ or ‘The cat that was sleeping was full’ would be correct.

Having versatility in your writing is important, and understanding the key differences between writing both in US English and UK English will help you increase your potential audience and your value as a writer. Once you get the hang of the variations between the dialects, you’ll find yourself switching between the two effortlessly and writing for audiences in both countries.