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Real World English – Holiday and vacation

Real World English

Welcome to the third in this series of posts on Real World English by Ed Pegg. In this series of videos and blog posts we are looking at how words are used in context around the world and how differences in usage in different countries and cultural contexts can cause misunderstanding. We look at differences between US and British English, some common expressions in other English speaking countries and also give you an understanding of the complex topic of pragmatics – how language is used in context. In the third video Ed teases out the differences between holiday and vacation.


I’m going on holiday next week. Or am I going on vacation? Does it matter which word you use? Not really, but it does depend which variety of English you are speaking.

In Britain we normally talk about a holiday when we take a week or two off work, whereas that’s a vacation in American English.

Holiday is often used in the plural. You can chat about what happened on your holidays, for example, or look forward to the summer holidays. Remember you can’t use vacation in the plural in this way, so you can’t say the summer vacations.

Vacation isn’t used much in British English, except to refer to a period of time when a university is closed, but holiday is used in American English, where it means a national, legal day off, like Thanksgiving or Independence Day.

So, if you’re in America, it’s possible to have a holiday during a vacation. This would be true if you are having a vacation when Thanksgiving takes place, for example.

British people talk about bank holidays. These are also legal days off, like Christmas or Easter, but also include specific days of the year, such as the first Monday in May. If it’s not Christmas, a bank holiday is normally on a Monday in the UK.

It can be confusing to know which word to say, but don’t worry too much. Most people in either country will understand if you use holiday or vacation and, if you’re not sure what to say to talk about a legal day off, you can always use public holiday instead. Public holiday is common to British and American English and is used all over the world.

Probably the best advice when you’re communicating internationally is to use the word you feel is best and always check that other people understand you. As long as you smile while you do this, you’ll be fine.

I hope you are enjoying learning about English in the real world and I look forward to seeing you next time. You can catch up on the previous videos and posts, and you can follow my series of monthly blog posts on this topic using the tag realworldenglish.

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Ed Pegg

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