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Language tip of the week: American and British English differences

Learn English with Macmillan DictionaryIn this weekly post, we bring more useful content from the Macmillan Dictionary to English language learners. These tips are based on areas of English which learners often find difficult, e.g. spelling, grammar, collocation, synonyms, etc.

This week we focus on American English, and today’s post highlights some key differences between American and British English terms:

college / university
In the U.S., a college refers to a place where people study for their bachelor’s degree (=first degree), whether the institution is a college, which offers only bachelor’s degrees, or a university, which offers both bachelor’s degrees and advanced degrees. When British speakers use the word college, they usually mean a place where students over 18 are trained in a particular subject or skill, earning a qualification that is not usually an academic degree. Students in the U.K. who are studying for an academic degree go to a university.

class / course / lesson
In both the U.S. and the U.K., a class is usually a group of students who are learning together: Jill and I were in the same class in fifth grade. In the U.S., you can also use class to mean a group of students who all finished high school or college in a particular year: Tim was in the class of 1998. In the U.S., class is also used to mean a course of instruction in a particular subject: a class in business administration. The usual British word for this is course: a course in business administration. Class can also mean one of the periods in the school day when a group of students are taught: What time is your next class? British speakers usually use lesson in this meaning, but American speakers do not.

student / pupil / graduate / postgraduate
In the U.S., a student is anyone who is studying at an elementary school, secondary school, or college. In the U.K., student means someone who is studying at a college or university. A child in elementary school in the U.K. is usually called a pupil. American speakers often use graduate student to refer to someone who has finished their bachelor’s degree (=first degree) and is studying for an advanced degree. In the U.K., you would call this person a postgraduate.

+ the ‘trickiest word in American’: quite
When American speakers say quite, they usually mean “very”: We’ve examined the figures quite thoroughly. In British English quite usually means “fairly”: The movie was quite enjoyable, although some of the acting was weak. Speakers of British English sometimes use quite to mean “very,” but only before words with an extreme meaning: The whole experience was quite amazing.

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Kati Sule


  • This kind of distinction in the use some words related to the place in which we live is quite (in the American meaning) important to me since it hepls me answer some of my student’s (in the American use of the word) questions about these words. So it makes things clearer. Thank you for that.

  • It always saddens me that Americans have problems accepting the language that they speak; American! English is by now a very different language, and I know, because I am fluent in both. Even Linguaphone recognises American as a separate language from English. American, or American-English if you insist, may be considered English Light; often referred to as ‘Dumbed down English’ having changed spellings and vocabulary out of convenience, without considering the reason for the English word or its spelling or grammatical usage. Truthfully, if it wasn’t for Bill Gates making American the default language on the Internet, you would all struggle to be English users! I personally have no issue with the language spoken in America and other countries. However, it is no more ‘English’ than Irish-English, Pidgin-English or Dutch-English for that matter! So, don’t be shy; be a proud American speaker, and release those of us who speak English as their Mother tongue to ownership of our language too. 🙂

  • As a native American I haven’t had much exposure, let alone any organized study of British English. I was told by a British English maven that it is perfectly permissible in BE to not differentiate between the singular and the plural when using a collective noun, as in “team” or “teams.” He offered no further explanation – in fact his response was delivered curtly so I decided to not question him further. It is certainly necessary to differentiate between the singular and the plural somehow; consequently, the BE speaker and hearer must rely totally on sufficient context to do so. If so, it is perhaps usually possible, but it seems to this American to be far less helpful to accurate communication than our way of doing it. . .

  • The observations about British usage of “college”/”student” seem to me to be a little outdated.

    When I went to university in the late 70s, we spoke of “going to university” or, equivalently, to “college”; and a student was taken to mean a university student.

    By the time my children went to university, the primary meaning of “college” had shifted to be “sixth form college” (or Further Education college): already at age 14/15 (around ten years ago), the talk was of which of their friends were going to “college”, i.e. to stay in education after GCSEs.

    Every child or young adult in education from high school upward (age 11 onward) is now routinely referred to as a student, though the term remains in use for university students, and in phrases such as “student loans”, “student accommodation”, where the practical context is unambiguous, it is still clearly understood to refer to university students.

  • Thanks for this great article! However, I found a spelling mistake: the word “bacherlor” in “American speakers often use graduate student to refer to someone who has finished their bacherlor’s degree” should be “bachelor”. Thanks for your attention!

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