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How to Speak American English

Retired counselor, 341 short stories published by FSU. I have 4 sons, love sharing photography, writing, love travel, sunshine, sea & Grace.

When I first came out to America, from England, I had no idea I would not be understood. It was a puzzle. Here I was, speaking perfect English, but very few people understood me. I learned that many of our words are spelled differently and are sounded out differently, but more importantly, have different meanings and can cause some misunderstandings.

For example, when I went to the local Post Office on my first day, I asked someone where the queue began. They told me they didn’t understand me; so I asked another person and then another. With two hands lifted in a helpless gesture I would get “Me no speaky your language” or “Sorry, I only speak English.” I began to think I’d had a sudden stroke and was babbling out gobbledygook; it was very disconcerting. Eventually I reached an “English speaking person” a fellow alien from good old Blighty (England). This chap (guy) explained to me that a queue is a “line” here in America. Relief flooded over me; (I hadn’t gone mad or lost the gift of speech).

The second week we after we arrived, my four year old son attended a pre -school nursery. The first day he got home, he declared that he “wanted to go party.” I was very pleased he had made friends so quickly. I asked him who the party was for. He answered “No! Wanna go party!” (Bearing in mind, this was a child I understood just the day before). It remained a mystery until one day I invited a couple of the children from his pre-school around to play. I heard “wanna go party” several times. It didn’t take long for me to realize this sentence was somehow linked to children needing to go to the loo (restroom). (In England a "potty" is a small plastic receptacle used for toilet-training toddlers).

For the longest time, I wondered what "aloominun" was; we pronounce it “a-la-min-i-um” sounding out each section of the word. Speaking of pronunciations, we pronounce garage “garidge” and tomato “tomartoe” and potato “potaytoe.”

Also, diapers are called ‘nappies.’ We eat porridge for breakfast (oatmeal). Our cars have boots (trunks), we drive on the left-hand side of the road and beer is not a cocktail. We call the yard a garden, the trash can is the rubbish bin and the sidewalk is the pavement. Panties are called knickers and a "fag" is a cigarette. Being "knocked up in the morning" means someone will wake you early, and the word "pretty" is used to describe little girls or perhaps a dress (but definitely not the weather or the day).

A "swimming costume" is a bathing suite and an elevator is called a lift. Candy are "sweets" and chocolate is in a category of its own. We "hoover" (vacuum) the carpet, breastfeed (nurse) our babies, and only ladies have fannies...lets just say, its not your bottom (butt)...

My confusion with this strange new language continued when I was led to several “restrooms” when I asked where the "loo" was ~ (I didn’t need to lie down and thought what a very civilized, but strange country this is, where just about everywhere, there is a room provided for you to rest)!

Spelling was the next problem I had. When typing a letter, I used the spell check on my computer and was amazed when virtually every other word was underlined in red! The British spell many words differently; for example we put a “u” into several words, such as thoroughly, colour, flavour, honour, armour, neighbour.

There are so many differences It was like learning a new language. I hope I haven’t confused you too much, but hopefully you’ll have a better handle on British English if you ever ‘cross the pond’ and find yourself in the UK.

I have left my most embarrassing and memorable faux pas until last. In the UK erasers are called rubbers (because they rub out). My elder son was starting second grade at school. I had taken a trip to TOYSRUS and had all the necessary items except erasers. There was a line at the checkout so I loudly, but politely addressed the counter assistant, "Excuse me, I can't find the rubbers, do you sell them in singles or in a packet?" ...

Helen Lewis 2009

© 2009 Helen Lewis


Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on February 24, 2011:

Hi Chuck, thanks for stopping by and contributing to the conversation. Its amazing really how we ever understand each other at all! :-) Helen

Chuck Nugent from Tucson, Arizona on February 24, 2011:

It is not just the U.S. and Canada which have their own variations on the English mother tongue, the Spanish spoken in Mexico and other parts of Latin America is also different from that spoken in Spain.

I saw this first years ago when a friend of mine sponsored a Cuban refugee who had fled Cuba during the Mariel Boat Exodus.

I had taken some Spanish classes in college so my friend asked me to come over and meet the young man from Cuba. My friend tried to help the man learn English but the only book (this was pre-Internet) the local Berlitz store had for teaching English to a Spanish speaker was a book and audiotape for teaching British English to a European Spaniard.

While we were taught Latin American Spanish in college, I had had one teacher who knew both Castilian Spanish and the Latin American version and had pointed out some of the word differences. I had also known some people from England while growing up and while in Air Force Navigation school one of my instructors was a Canadian Forces exchange officer who was originally from one of the Maritime provinces and was very familiar with British English.

I have forgotten the Spanish words on the tape but I remember that the Cuban fellow was somewhat baffled as to what was being said in Spanish and my friend was equally at a loss with much of the English portion.

The people on the tape talked about taking pictures with a Kodak, going to the cine to see a movie, shipping things on a lorry, going for a walk and pushing the baby in a pram, ringing up a friend on the telephone, and promising to go over and knock up a friend soon (i.e., go over and knock on their door for a visit).

Great Hub. Enjoyed it.

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on January 30, 2011:

Hi Silver Poet - I'm fascinated with Gaelic - good for you on your ability to translate 'old English' too. Thanks for your comments - :-) Helen

Silver Poet from the computer of a midwestern American writer on January 30, 2011:

I have always been a student of British English. I find the word differences fascinating. I can usually understand old English and even a few Gaelic phrases because for a long time I have fancied stories and films where it is used. C.S. Lewis, one of my favorite writers, was British and used a lot of such terms. I am also enamored with such films as the old Disney classic rendition of Kidnapped. I end up translating what they said to other people in the room.

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on November 16, 2010:

Hi ReuVera - Hello and very nice to meet you too! I love that you learned Royal English and laughed when you described how you thought that 'thrice' was normal - how sweet! Yes, indeed there is such a word as thrice and can be found in old literature and fairy tales... And Lorry, well I understand because I too used the term Lorry several times over here in US before realizing I was again 'speaking a foreign tongue." I think its wonderful that you speak the Queens English (as we say)...keep it up! Thank you so much for popping by and reading this hub, and for making me laugh with your story. You are welcome!

ReuVera from USA on November 16, 2010:

Hello and so nice to meet you. I studied English in Russia and it was what they called Royal English, not American at all..... And though I've heard about differences, I realized it in full on my own skin only when I moved to America 9 years ago. It was even fun, in a way. My son and his friends rolled with laughter when once I said "thrice" and since they didn't understand, I explained that it meant "three times". They said, "then four times should be 'fries'" and they laugh and laugh! Then one of my son's friends called him and told, "You won't believe, there IS such a word, I've checked the dictionary".

Another time the confusion was with a word "lorry" heard in an educational movie. I had to "translate" it for my friends into American's "truck".

Well, no wonder. Though it is the same language basically, it goes different ways divided by the ocean.

My son is still amused by how I pronounce words like "actually" and the like...

Thanks for a great read!

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on November 16, 2010:

Hi Alayne, been there with the measuring fiasco; my cake was somewhat deflated as was my ego. I have just taken a look at a couple of your poems and I loved them - thank you!

Alayne Fenasci from Louisiana on November 16, 2010:

I had time this afternoon to come back and read this again (without a 1-year-old hanging onto my leg) and I laughed all over again. You made me remember a cookbook I bought shortly after I got married. I desperately needed to learn some basics. When I went to use it, I realized it was all in British English, down to the units of measure. Instant immersion. I figured out most of the terms and references, though shopping from the lists was a bit difficult. Later when I got a cookbook in American English, I had to almost start over again.

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on November 16, 2010:

Hi Susan, Poor you at school! I am glad you enjoyed the hub and I too am looking forward to reading your lovely hubs, thank you!

Susan Zutautas from Ontario, Canada on November 16, 2010:

I understand totally how you must have felt. I moved to California from Canada when I was sixteen and was constantly being chastised in school for many words being spelt incorrectly such as colour neighbour, flavour and so on. Now that I am back in Canada I can spell these words the way in which I was taught to…except when writing anything on an American site. Anyways-great story! I really enjoyed reading it and look forward to reading more of your work.

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on November 12, 2010:

Hi shil1978 thank you for your comments - even now I find myself not being understood at times (that's after 14 years here)!

dahoglund - yes, it comes from the Hoover brand, but its like we didn't acknowledge the action (just the brand)...LOL

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on November 12, 2010:

I always assumed that that Hoovering came from the Hoover brand vacuum cleaner which was very popular when I grew up.

Shil1978 on November 12, 2010:

Lovely read - it is quite funny really!! All the variations in spellings and pronunciations. Thanks for sharing :)

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on November 12, 2010:

Hi dahoglund, thank you for your comments, glad you were amused. I often wonder why we call vacuuming "Hoovering" - maybe the term "boot" came from the carriage days?

Don A. Hoglund from Wisconsin Rapids on November 12, 2010:

This is amusing and useful. I read enough British mysteries and used to be a fan of old English comedies, to be familiar with some of these terms. G.K. Chesterton sometimes wrote on the same subject. He wondered why Americans who want everything to fast and short tend to use such long abstract words. His example was English "lift" American "Elevator"

I was just remarking to my wife the other day why the English call a car trunk a "boot"

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on November 11, 2010:

Why thank you Alayne! Nice to meet you - I look forward to reading your hubs.. I am now a follower of you!

Alayne Fenasci from Louisiana on November 11, 2010:

Oh this is wonderful! I enjoyed it so much! I want to come back later when I have more time and read it again, along with all the comments.

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on October 26, 2010:

Hi evvy_09 - so glad you had a laugh. These misunderstandings have given me plenty of leverage at parties! Yes, porridge is indeed oatmeal - I prefer the word porridge to oatmeal, don't you? I realize oatmeal accurately describes the product but its just not a cool name, is it? LOL!

evvy_09 from Athens, AL on October 26, 2010:

Oh i almost fell of the bed laughing. Asking where the "rubbers" where in Toys R Us. Also I never knew porridge was the same as oatmeal. for some reason I thought it was different. I learned something today thanks

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on October 17, 2010:

well attemptedhumour it has obviously enhanced your writing - living in Oz - because you write so well and I have heard that the Oz's are a good lot. Odd word, Brownout (conjures up disturbing images of bodily functions gone wrong). Micky mouse must make you feel at home as we have our rhyming slang also... apple and pairs etc..

Oh by the way, Barrack means "President" over here... Cheers for your wonderful comments.. or should I say, "All the hairy vest" (very best)!

attemptedhumour from Australia on October 17, 2010:

Hi i'm an Englishman living abroad, in Oz. I wonder how it affects our writing? Rhyming poetry in particular. Lots of things are different here. A brownout, is a blackout. Dirt tin, dustbin, Micky mouse is slang for grouse which is good instead of bad or cheap like a Micky Mouse watch. Barrack means to cheer the team on at the Football. The list goes on, but time sorts it out, but doesn't fix hubpages. Cheers

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on September 07, 2010:

hi liswilliams - how do you teach British English? Sounds interesting! Thanks for your comments - I look forward to reading your hubs.

liswilliams from South Africa on September 07, 2010:

This was brilliant. I was taught British English in school, but of course it's like a whole new language writing on the internet.

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on June 15, 2010:

Hi pinkhawk, yeah.. you got it - trousers. You must obviously know a British chap eh! Thanks for stopping by. I look forward to reading your hubs.

pinkhawk from Pearl of the Orient on June 15, 2010:

...thank you for sharing your experience ma'am, I learned something useful today..^.^! hmmm... trousers instead of pants? ^.^

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on June 15, 2010:

Hi epigramman thanks again for your very kind comments. I heard about the Canadian accents from Duchess OBlunt (see comments above). What have we got? Where to start... well, Marmite, Heinz Beans, Muligatawny Soup, Shepherds Pie, Bangers and Mash, Sausage Rolls, Bubble & Squeak, Spotted Dick, Welsh Rabbit...I could go on for days (feeling homesick now) Have a good day yourself and thanks again!

epigramman on June 15, 2010:

always a pleasure to embrace your fine hubs and learn and listen and be entertained.

I am Canadian eh - and there is quite a difference between our dialects and the way we write/speak - eh!

and oh yeah - we have TIM HORTONS' DONUTS AND COFFEE

...what you got? (intended bad grammar here) and have a good day eh!

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on June 15, 2010:

Thanks for your kind comments Betty! I look forward to meeting you on your hubpages.

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on June 15, 2010:

Hi 2uesday ~ a range is an oven; the newer ovens (ceramic hobs) are called hobs in UK. Older ovens have 'rings.' A rental car is a 'hire' car. Its true, these differences are fun and do make life 'more interesting!' Thanks for stopping by; I'm looking forward to reading your hubs!

2uesday on June 15, 2010:

Interesting to read and useful to know about.

I sometimes get comments relating to me using UK English words. for example after a comment on a recipe -I try to think what else a cooking hob could be called and I do n't know. I get confused over the words/terms like hire car and rent a car - I made someone think I had a chauffeur driven car when I wrote about a holiday I was on. Still, such things make life more interesting I suppose. Thank you.

Betty Reid from Texas on June 14, 2010:

Oh my gosh! Great stories and well-written.

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on June 14, 2010:

Hi M, thanks for stopping by. I look forward to reading your hubs from your unique perspective - we have things in common already!

M Selvey, MSc from United Kingdom on June 14, 2010:

Thank you for introducing yourself to me by becoming a fan. I have now found you and found your wonderful hub! My life is similar but in reverse as I am living the translatlantic life now with my origins in California and my home in England. Oh, so many language faux pas...so many! All you can do is laugh! And, I have lived here now for so long that I use English words instead of American words when I go back "home" to visit. My family and friends are like, what are you talking about??? Especially things like queues, trolley for the shopping cart, loo for the restroom...

Anyway, looking forward to reading more of your hubs!

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on June 10, 2010:

Hi creativlady - a fellow 'alien' eh! I look forward to reading your hubs, thanks for stopping by!

Alla Goltsman from USA on June 10, 2010:

How about a Russian woman that came to America and saw a sign on a store 'Kandy' instead of 'Candy'. That was me in 1979. My first thought was "Who is insane here? Should I go in and tell them how to spell the word 'candy'? It took me at least a year to understand that it was just an advertising trick. Loved your hub, Brightforyou. It struck a nerve and brought old memories back. By the way, I studdied British English since I was 10 years old and I would have understood what a 'queue' was. I also had problems understanding American English.

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on June 06, 2010:

Hi Petra - LOL, I hear you!

Petra Vlah from Los Angeles on June 06, 2010:

If English people are having a hard time and can't be understood in America, imagine the rest of us. The nightmare never ends

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on February 10, 2010:

Hi Tdarby, thanks for stopping by and for your comments. We say mum in UK too - I hear Canada has many dialects which are only comprehended by folk who live in that particular area?

tdarby on February 10, 2010:

Funny. Even here in the US there are fairly significant differences in pronunciation of words. Sometimes I hear someone from the South and can barely understand them unless I focus. I am originally from Canada and still call my MOM my MUM. My kids make fun of me but that is okay. I think it is a little funny too.

prasetio30 from malang-indonesia on January 20, 2010:

This hub open my mind about the American English. Going to US is my dream for a long time ago. This help us when traveling to US. thanks

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on January 19, 2010:

Hi Rob ~ Its amazing how different the shared language is! thanks for stopping by and for your comments.

Rob Dee from Florida on January 19, 2010:

You should have seen me the first time I went to the UK!!!!!!LOL! Talk about having to learn a new lingo - but after dating a girl in Notts, she got me all sorted out.

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on January 18, 2010:


american english on January 18, 2010:

George Bernard Shaw said that the English and Americans are two people divided by the same language :)

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on January 06, 2010:

That would be great! Thanks The Indexer!

John Welford from UK on January 06, 2010:

I look after the "English Language" channel on Helium, and have a number of articles there on this very subject. If you're interested, I'll point you in the right direction.

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on January 02, 2010:


Several days later... Just realized the British lady in question... was asking for a "sanitry towel" - I can just hear how that dialogue went - thanks so much for sharing!

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on December 31, 2009:

Thank you for your kind comments Duchess - I'd love to travel across Canada one day. Happy New Year!

Duchess OBlunt on December 31, 2009:

Loved the way you depict being lost in a country that speaks the same language. Here in Canada if you travel from one end to the other you will find so many dialects that you leave shaking your head, so I can understand the confusion.

Loved this - especially the last part. Great fun.

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on December 29, 2009:

Hi akirchner

Thank you for stopping by and reading my hub - glad to hear you learned even more English terms!

Audrey Kirchner from Washington on December 29, 2009:

I actually pick up so much English lingo from reading English novels that I totally 'get' all that you are saying! It is amazing that we speak the same language yet we don't but then I love that about writing and being able to incorporate different parts of it. Great hub and I even learned MORE truly English terms which is great! Audrey

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on December 27, 2009:

That's good, it may help if you come across an "alien" like myself!

Beth Arch from Pearl of the Orient Seas on December 27, 2009:

I enjoyed your hub. I have learned here the difference of some words in Brit. Eng. & Amer. Eng. Thanks.

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on December 27, 2009:

The whole line fell about laughing...they could see I had no idea what I had said...thankfully - thank you for your comment!

Laurel Rogers from Bishop, Ca on December 27, 2009:

I hope the folks at Toys R Us had a sense of humor!

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on December 27, 2009:

Thanks for your comment and for stopping by Lazur!

Lazur from Netherlands on December 27, 2009:

Fun hub to read:D

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on December 26, 2009:

LOL, thanks for sharing guys!

Barbara from Stepping past clutter on December 26, 2009:

What do you mean, fastfreta? Coloradan IS the only way to speak American correctly, lol! Even in the US we claim our accent is the only one that is actually without an accent. Why is it we compare others to ourselves and they fall short, haha! Pop, soda or coke? How about water?

Alfreta Sailor from Southern California on December 26, 2009:

This is soooo funny. It seem that were ever we live we seem to think that our way is the only way to speak. Thanks for sharing your experiences, I'm sure there are more where those come from. Very good hub.

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on December 26, 2009:

Thank you hypnodude - from a fellow hypnotherapist - I appreciate you stopping by and for your kind feedback!

Andrew from Italy on December 25, 2009:

Very funny hub. I've problems with both kinds of English. :)

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on December 25, 2009:

Very funny! Thanks for sharing..

Rochelle Frank from California Gold Country on December 24, 2009:

Very good example of the English and Americans being"separated by a common language". I lived in Anaheim California for several years,(home of Disneyland). Because of that nearby attraction, it was quite common to encounter visitors from various countries.

I once had a Very English and somewhat desperate British lady ask me where to find a particular item in a grocery store.

I was totally unfamiliar with the term she used, and still can't remember her word. Finally, it dawned on me that she was seeking feminine hygiene items, and not a tablecloth.

Sherri from Southeastern Pennsylvania on December 23, 2009:

Fun Hub! Love the kicker at the bottom about the rubbers.

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on December 21, 2009:

Thank you for your kind comments - just off to get a cup of PG Tips...

petermdhart from Cornwall, UK on December 21, 2009:

As a fellow Brit, I've come across similar experiences - very funny hub!

Glenn Stok from Long Island, NY on December 21, 2009:

I find these issues with different meanings and different spellings very interesting. You are right...they are sometimes very funny but can also be embarrassing and even frustrating. I thoroughly enjoyed your hub.

Helen Lewis (author) from Florida on August 03, 2009:

And an English woman...

graham54 on August 03, 2009:

Oh the stories you could tell about an American abroad, lol.

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