I have had lots of emails this month asking if it is OK to use American English in the IELTS test. Whenever this topic comes up in class students get very worried about it and ask lots of questions. My answer is always not to worry about it too much, but this is never a satisfactory answer so here is a more detailed guide on the subject.
Are American and British English Really Different?
To begin with I should say that they are 99% the same. They have 99% percent the same grammar, the same vocabulary and the same spelling. The pronunciation might be a little different, but not so much that you can’t understand what the other person is saying. You could put lots of Americans and lots of British people in a room and everyone would understand what is being said just fine. You should, therefore, stop worrying so much about the differences.
Additionally, American culture is so prevalent all over the world these days that there are very few words and phrases that Americans use that are not easily understood by other English speakers.
What Are The Differences?
Despite them being overwhelmingly the same, there are some differences that an English learner should be aware of. The main differences are vocabulary, spelling and grammar.
Firstly, there is no need for you to get a long list of words that are different and learn them. This really is a waste of time for IELTS students because you are being tested on how wide and accurate your vocabulary is, not the difference between American and British English.
Below are some common words that are different in America:
Below are some common words that Americans spell differently. Do you notice any patterns?
There are many subtle differences in grammar including:
- use of present perfect tense
- verb agreement with collective nouns
- use of the verbs ‘have’ and ‘take’
- use of auxiliaries and modals
- use of prepositions
- past tense forms
The British Council has a useful guide on the grammar differences above.
Which Should I Use?
Let’s look at what IELTS say on their website:
So in other words, it is fine to use both British and American grammar, spelling and vocabulary.
The IELTS test is supposed to represent ‘real life’ and in the real world people use both American and British English interchangeably all the time.
The one thing I would not do is try to show the examiner how you know the differences and try to show off your knowledge of American and British English. In general, you should choose one and stick with it, but it is fine if you occasionally use the other.
Is One Better Than The Other?
No. Please don’t listen to anyone who tells you that one of them is better than the other. The truth is that no version of English is better or worse than the other. They are just different. In the UK and Ireland accents and choice of words change about every 20 miles, so how could one be better than the other.
There is also no evidence to suggest that one dialect is more easily understood or clearer than the other. In the IELTS Listening test you might hear accents from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Canada, Australia, South Africa, America, New Zealand or any city in England. If you find that one accent is difficult to understand, it is not because that accent is ‘unclear’. but rather that you are not used to it.
Language is a living thing that is changing all the time. Approximately 355 million people speak English as their first language and over 500 million speak it as a second language, if we decide one of the thousands of dialects is ‘correct’ nearly a billion people are speaking ‘incorrectly’- I don’t think so.
What do you think? Comment below.