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U.S. English and Numbers – What’s Different? (Plus, Some Helpful Tips!)

If you were to tell an American that your birthdate is 19/11/1998, you’d get some curious glances, and you’d have to explain what calendar you follow that has 19 months. This is because Americans don’t follow the DD/MM/YYYY format for writing dates.

Also, saying that you live at two-naught-six Saint John Street would result in nothing but confusion, as the word “naught” is rarely, if ever, used in American English.

Even ordering a beer at the bar can be a different experience. In the U.S., a pint is 16 fluid ounces, as opposed to the 20 ounces you’d get in many other countries.

These are just a few of the situations where Americans seem to be in a world of their own. For international students in the U.S. who have learned British English, the American way of writing and speaking can take some time to adjust to. While most Americans will understand what you mean – possibly after a little explanation – this guide can help you transition more easily into American ways of speaking, spelling, using numbers, measuring, and telling time.

Spelling Struggles

Americans seem to be in a bit of a hurry all the time. This could be why they tend to prefer removing letters they deem unnecessary from certain words. Colour becomes color, behaviour becomes behavior, and travelling becomes traveling. Americans also like to spell as they speak. This why the word “privatization” is spelled as it is, rather than privatisation.

In most cases, the spelling differences won’t cause much trouble. But it’s better to be precise, particularly in academic work.

Same Word, Different Meanings

When in America, you don’t go on a holiday; you go on a vacation. Holidays are reserved for days of common observance, such as Christmas. Also, your favorite sport is not football (that’s a totally different sport in the U.S.); it’s soccer.

Also, if you ask – ‘Where’s the chemist?’, you’ll likely be directed towards to the science lab where you’ll find someone in a white coat with test tubes in their hand. You need to ask for the pharmacist to get your medication.

You’ll have to take the elevator to go up a tall building. Don’t ask where the lift is; Americans will probably think you’re saying “Lyft,” which is pronounced the same, and is a private car service.

And if you want flat cakes baked with dough, ask for cookies, not biscuits. If you ask for biscuits, you’ll be given small rolls, something similar to muffins.

For referring to the total number of floors in a building, the word story (plural: stories) is used in America. While elsewhere, it would be storey (plural: storeys).

And yes, you won’t be able to buy trainers in the U.S.; that’s because a trainer in American is someone who trains you to use the gym. For the shoes, ask for tennis shoes, or simply athletic shoes.  

Some words also have different connotations in the U.S. Like, scheme for example. When looking for health insurance in the U.S. (which is a must), avoid asking for an insurance scheme. The word scheme has a negative undertone in the U.S., such as criminal activity. Ask for a plan or policy instead.

These differences in word usage can sometimes lead to funny circumstances. Or awkward situations. And can even leave you embarrassed.

For example: If you ask your classmate for a rubber, instead of getting an eraser to correct your mistake, you will get questionable looks. Asking a classmate for a condom in the middle of the class isn’t exactly polite or respectful, you see.

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Know the Numbers – Correctly Giving Out Addresses, Phone Numbers, and Amounts

In America, phone numbers are 10 digits long (including the area code). If your number is 987-650-4321, say “nine-eight-seven-six-five-zero-four-three-two-one.” Don’t substitute the zero with naught or nil. The same holds true for addresses.

Also, if where you live is on the same level as the street, say that you live on the first floor. (In British English this would be called it the ground floor.) What’s traditionally the first floor is the second floor in the U.S.

Also, you might find the American number formatting a bit different. The thousands separator is a comma (,) not a period (.). If you bought something for twelve hundred ninety-nine dollars and ninety-nine cents, write it as $1,299.99, not $1.299,99.

Telling the Right Date and Time

Americans prefer brevity and conciseness in communications.

Instead of saying it is half-past two or quarter to six, just say two-thirty and five forty-five. It might sound less elite, but Americans like to cut to the chase. (Sports jargons like cutting to the chase are also surprisingly common, so be prepared for that too.)

And for dates, follow the MM/DD/YYYY format. While filling out forms, and entering your date of birth or passport expiration dates, be very careful about entering the right date. To be on the safe side, you can use the on-screen calendar to fill in the dates.

Answering ‘How Much?’ With Precision – Measurement Matters

Depending on where you grew up, the system of measurement can also be a source of confusion.

This is especially true when talking about recipes. Make sure you know whether the metric or the imperial system is being used. If you tell your American friend that you need a cup of milk, you might get just 240ml instead of the 280ml that you’d be expecting.

You can find several handy conversion calculators on the internet to make measurements easier.

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Practice to Perfection

Now that you know the peculiarities of American English that makes it different from elsewhere, it is time to get some practice.

Watching American shows and movies and listening to podcasts can be a good starting point. It will also give you a hint about what kind of tone to use. Americans are more informal in their conversation style, and watching shows and movies will help you get the hang of American speech.

If English is not your first language, free or paid English language applications can also help. And you can also get help from your instructors or a mentor. You can also enroll in language courses.

Another way to practice is by making friends and having conversations with them. They can help guide you, so you’ll be able to fit in more quickly. However, international students don’t need to adopt and adhere to all mannerisms and quirks of American English. The truth is, there are so many regional accents and ways of speaking in the U.S., it is impossible to know them all exactly. However, a little bit of knowledge can help you avoid confusion, and feel integrated into your college campus in a shorter amount of time. Just be clear in what you say, and you’ll be good to go.

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