British English – American English: Verbs (grammar)

Conjunctions

Image credit: Mode de Vie Software, “Conjunctions” August 12, 2009, via Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Dear All,
The previous several posts have been examining differences between BrE and AmE and have covered such aspects as pronunciation, spelling, and vocabulary. The next three posts are going to deal with another important aspect – grammar. Grammar is the most static aspect of any language. If in vocabulary changes happen every day, in grammar changes happen over centuries. When we speak about grammar it is important to understand that it is not merely a set of rules that linguists come up with in order to facilitate language acquisition, but rather a system, a “skeleton” which supports all other aspects of a particular language. As such, there is no language without grammar, even artificial languages, such as Esperanto, have their own grammar. Thus, grammar is the most stable aspect of a language. This property helps to insure that parents understand their children, grandchildren and they, in turn, understand their parents and grandparents. Despite the stability of grammar, this aspect of language does change.

In English, for instance, there used to be such grammatical categories as gender and case which are no more in modern English. For example, in the King James version of the Bible translation, there is the following passage in which St. Paul says that love “seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil” (1Cor. 13:5) (does not seek its own, is not easily provoked, thinks no evil). In this old translation of the Bible, “her own” is used instead of “its own” in reference to love. Thus, love is referred to as “she”and not “it” as it is acceptable in modern English. The category of gender is preserved in many modern languages, including Ukrainian, French, and German, but not in modern English (this category was found in the Proto-Indo-European language and in Old English). In present-day English gender is only preserved in reference to battleships and countries:

HMS (note Her Majesty Ship) Victory is one of the most famous British ships. She was Admiral Lord Nelson’s flagship.
Canada is the biggest country in the world. She is situated in North America.

Similarly, modern English does not have the category of case as has already been mentioned before. The category of case usually shows itself in endings of nouns, adjectives, and numerals and is used to show relationships among words in a sentence. For example, the Ukrainian word for peace is “myr“, but when Ukrainians say “I want peace”, the word acquires an ending: “myru“. Grammatical cases are also found in other languages, such as: German, Latin, etc.  The category of case was also present in English in the past; however, in modern English it has declined. Grammatical cases in English today are only preserved in pronouns:

This is Helen. I see Helen (note that the word “Helen” has no ending).
BUT: I see her* (not I see she).

This is Mike. Give the book to Mike (no ending in the word “Mike”).
BUT: Give the book to him (not to he).

Because grammatical changes do not happen fast, BrE and AmE have not yet acquired many distinctive features since the time of their divergence. The changes that are found between BrE and AmE are usually related to verbs, nouns or prepositions. In this post, I would like to focus on verbs. One of the most notable differences is the use of tenses. BrE uses the Present Tense when an action happened in the past and the results of the action are obvious in the present. This tense is often accompanied by such markers as: already, just, and yet. AmE tends to use the Past Indefinite Tense (= Past Simple) in the same situation:

BrE: I have phoned.
AmE: I phoned.

BrE: We have just returned from our trip.
AmE: We just returned from our trip.

BrE: Has he come yet?
AmE: Did he come yet?

It is worth mentioning that the auxiliary words “have” and “has” are often substituted for ” ‘ve” and ” ‘s” in the oral speech which can make it more difficult to hear the difference in the fluent speech. For example, if a BrE speaker says “I’ve collected the stamps”, it makes it similar to what an AmE speaker would typically say: “I collected the stamps”. Therefore, this difference may be quite subtle and usually does not create any difficulties in understanding BrE speakers by AmE speakers and vice versa. Moreover, AmE uses the Present Perfect tense too, although less frequently than BrE. Similarly, AmE tends to use the Past Indefinite Tense instead of the Past Perfect Tense.

BrE and AmE have several differences with respect to the conjugation of certain verbs. Such verbs as learn, smell, spoil, spell, and spill can be either regular or irregular (Creamer et al., 1996; ABBY Lingvo, 2014; CDO, 2014; MW, 2014; OD, 2014).** BrE is more likely to choose the following forms: “learnt”, “smelt”, etc. while AmE is more likely to use them as regular verbs, i.e. “learned“, “smelled“, etc. There are several other conjugation differences between BrE and AmE. The Past Indefinite form of the verb dive is “dived” in BrE and “dove” in AmE. The past participle (third form) of the verb g” is “got” in BrE and “gotten” in AmE. The past participle of the verb prove is “proved” in BrE and “proven” (or “proved”) in AmE. Furthermore, “lit” as the past tense of the verb light is more common than “lighted” in BrE. In AmE, “lit” means “set on fire” or “made to emit light”, whereas “lighted” means “directed light at”. The past participle of “saw” is “sawn” in BrE and “sawed” in AmE.

In BrE, the phrase “have/has got” denotes possession or obligation and is often used in an informal context. In AmE, a single word (“have/has”) is typically used:

BrE: I have got a good friend.
AmE: I have a good friend.

BrE: Bill has got to go.
AmE: Bill has to go.

It may seem that BrE prefers old grammatical forms while AmE prefers new ones. However, it is not quite so. For example, the subjunctive mood in mandative clauses has declined in BrE in the 20th century, but is still common in AmE:

BrE: Ann suggested that John should depart at once. = Ann suggested that John departed at once.
AmE: Ann suggested that John depart at once.

BrE uses the auxiliary verb “shall” to indicate a future action for the 1st person singular and plural. In AmE, the auxiliary verb “will” or the construction “to be going to” are more common.

If a verb is omitted in a sentence in order to avoid repetition, BrE preserves “do” in its place, whereas, in AmE, “do” can sometimes be omitted:

BrE: Has Jane closed the door? She must have done.
AmE: Did Jane close the door? She must have.

When the verbs go and come are followed by another verb, BrE uses the conjunction “and” whereas AmE uses a bare infinitive:

BrE: Come and see what I have brought!
AmE: Come see what I have brought!

In summary, this post has focused on the grammatical differences in relation to verbs in BrE and AmE. One of the major differences is tense use: BrE uses the Present Perfect Tense more frequently, and AmE use it less frequently substituting the Present Perfect Tense and the Past Perfect Tense with the Past Indefinite Tense. The following post is going to concentrate on nouns.

See similar posts:

  1. British English – American English: Pronunciation
  2. British English – American English: Spelling
  3. British English – American English: Education (vocabulary)
  4. British English – American English: Transportation (vocabulary)
  5. British English – American English: Clothes (vocabulary)
  6. British English – American English: Food (vocabulary)
  7. British English – American English: Miscellaneous (vocabulary)
  8. British English – American English: Units of measurement (vocabulary)
  9. British English – American English: Idioms (vocabulary)
  10. British English – American English: Nouns (grammar)
  11. British English – American English: Prepositions (grammar)

References
ABBYY Lingvo (2014). Retrieved April 3, 2014 from, http://www.lingvo-online.ru/en
Cambridge Dictionaries Online (CDO) (2014). Retrieved April 3, 2014 from, http://dictionary.cambridge.org/
Creamer, R.W., Dahmen, G.D., Davidson, M.B., Davies, R., Debakey, L., Deloria, V., Jr. et al.(Eds.)  (1996). The American Heritage Book of English Usage: A Practical and Authoritative Guide to Contemporary English. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
Merriam-Webster (MW) (2014). Retrieved April 3, 2014, from http://www.merriam-webster.com/
Oxford Dictionaries (OD) (2014). Retrieved April 3, 2014, from http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/

*Bold type is used for AmE words.
**These sources have been consulted here and further in this post.

Iaroslav

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