I often encounter students who want to know whether they should use British English or American English in their IELTS tests. Sometimes, when I am marking an essay as part of my writing correction service, I have to leave a comment about it because it is a surprisingly important issue. In this article, I will explain the differences between British and American English and which one you should use in the IELTS exam.

British vs American English

british and american dictionary - IELTS – British or American English?

First of all, let’s ask the obvious question: What’s the difference between British and American English? Maybe some of you didn’t even know that there was a difference. After all, it’s still English, right?

Correct.

However, there are regional differences in languages. There is accent, for example, and also dialect. People in Scotland sound different from people in Canada or South Africa or Australia. However, what we’re really talking about today is whether there is a major difference between British and American English – not just in terms of accent, but other areas.

There are indeed some differences, and although they are quite minor to native speakers, they might appear confusing to IELTS students who are learning English. One of the biggest differences between British and American English is in spelling. In fact, you have probably noticed before that there are some words that appear to change in terms of spelling, and maybe you wonder why it happened.

British vs American Spelling

Let’s take the word “neighbour,” for example.

Does that look strange to you? Or does it look normal?

How about this one: “neighbor”?

The first word was in British English and the second was in American English. Isn’t that interesting? Well, actually, the Americans dropped the “U” in many words. You can find out why in this BBC article.

Here are a few more examples:

British English American English
Colour Color
Flavour Flavor
Favour Favor
Humour Humor

You can see that in each word, the British add “-our” while the Americans just make it “-or”. That’s not too hard to remember, right?

Another common one is the “-re” ending in British English, which the Americans have changed to “-er”. Here are a few examples:

British English American English
Theatre Theater
Centre Center
Metre Meter
Litre Liter

Another really common area of difference between British and American spelling is in the use of “-ize” endings. Basically, these are elements of American English, whereas in the UK we tend to use “-ise”. This is also true with “-yze/-yse” endings, although these words are a bit less common. You can see this in the following table:

British English American English
Recognise Recognize
Organise Organize
Advertise Advertize
Theorise Theorize
Analyse Analyze

**Note: This is also true when these words turn into nouns: organisation/ organization.

Finally, the last difference between British and American English that will be of interest to IELTS students is the trickiest one. The examples above are actually pretty easy to remember. You could summarise them as

  • -our–> -or
  • -re–> -er
  • -ze–> -se

However, this last example is harder, and even some native speakers make mistakes with it!

Basically, if a word ends in a vowel (a,e,i,o,u) and then the letter l, in British English we double the l when changing the form. Americans don’t do this, and they keep the single l. Let’s take “travel” as a good example because it is such a common word.

British English Travel Travelling Traveller Travelled
American English Travel Traveling Traveler Traveled

There are many more differences between British and American spellings, but I think that the ones I have explained above are the most important for IELTS students to know. If you want to study more on this topic, you can check out this post on the Oxford English Dictionary website.

Can I Use American English in the IELTS Test?

homer english - IELTS – British or American English?

The answer to this question is simply: Yes! You can use American spellings in the IELTS writing test or an American pronunciation in the IELTS speaking test. You can also fill in answers for the reading or listening exam in American English, if that is the correct answer.

In fact, it is perfectly acceptable to use either British or American English in the IELTS exam. Both of these are considered correct and acceptable forms of English, and IELTS examiners are trained to give equal marks to candidates using British or American spelling.

However, the most important thing is that you don’t use both British and American spelling in the IELTS exam. This would be considered a significant error. You can use 100% American spelling, or 100% British spelling, but not a mix of both.

Why?

The reason why you can’t use both American and British English in the exam is that these are considered separate forms of English. The IELTS is an international exam (that’s what the I stands for in the abbreviation) and as such you can use either form of English, but you cannot mix them together. If you wrote “colour” in one sentence and then “realize” in the next, you would be penalised for mixing your spellings.

As soon as you use British English, the examiner will mentally acknowledge your work as British English. Therefore, if you switch to American English, any words spelling this way would be considered misspellings, and you would lose marks for Lexical Resource.

British vs American Accents in IELTS

The IELTS test is an international English test and you will hear different accents during the listening exam, or when speaking with different examiners. (You can read about the different accents on the official IELTS website.) For example, you may hear Irish accents and American accents communicating during a listening passage, and then you might speak with someone from London during your speaking exam. You would be expected to understand all these different accents, as they are all representative of the English language.

benedict cumberbatchjpg - IELTS – British or American English?
Practice by listening to British people speaking.

Being able to follow these different accents is really important, so make sure that you don’t spend too much time focused on any one accent during your IELTS preparation. It is really common for people to do all their listening practice to the BBC News and only become familiar with British English, or to fixate on American movies and only learn American English. However, there are lots of different accents you would need to know. Many people struggle to understand Australian English, for example, and yet it is likely to appear during your IELTS exam!

Do you Need to Speak with a British or American Accent?

Quite simply, no you don’t need to speak with any particular accent during the IELTS speaking exam. The speaking rubric states that the IELTS examiner must be able to understand you clearly, but it makes no mention of accent. You should be able to express all your ideas easily, and your words should be clear and simple to understand. This means placing the correct stress on each word and saying the right sounds. However, a Japanese or Nigerian speaker may still retain their accent and that it absolutely no problem.

I made a video last year about this topic. When you have some free time, you should watch it. It will tell you everything you need to know about IELTS and accents:

Words that are Different in America and the UK

In a previous section, I talked about differences between British and American spellings, but did you know that we often use completely different words?!

Actually, these days most British people would understand American words because of TV and movies, and some Americans also understand British words, too. However, for an IELTS student it can be a little hard to recognise the differences.

Here are a few examples of words that are different in the USA and the UK:

British English American English
Anticlockwise Counterclockwise
Aubergine Eggplant
Biscuit Cookies
Car park Parking lot
Flat Apartment
Football Soccer
Full stop Period
Jumper Sweater
Lift Elevator
Lorry Truck
Maths Math
Mobile phone Cell phone
Number plate License plate
Pavement Sidewalk
Petrol Gas(oline)
Roundabout Traffic  circle
Solicitor Lawyer
Sweets Candy
Trainers Sneakers

There are many, many more of these words, but I have collected the ones above which might possibly appear in the IELTS exam. To be honest, if there is a word that would be completely different in British or American English, the IELTS examiners would probably avoid it or make its meaning clear. For example, you may be listening to a passage in the listening test and the speaker may mention “sneakers.” They might then say, “that’s what American people call trainers.”

reading a dictionary 1024x682 - IELTS – British or American English?
Find new words in a dictionary.

In the listening exam, you may also hear people giving directions or explaining the different parts of a town or university campus. In this section, it is normal to hear words describing streets or buildings. In fact, these can be different in British and American English. For one thing, as you saw above, the word “pavement” is changed to “sidewalk” in American English. A “roundabout” is called a “traffic circle”.

It is much more common to hear British words in the test as it is more or less a British exam. Although you will hear American accents, the words you read and hear will probably be from British English rather than American English.

If you were required to write down one of those words, it would be perfectly acceptable to use either the British or American word in most cases. Only if you were required to actually use a word from the text would it become important which one you chose. For example, if two people were talking about playing football at the weekend, and you had to fill in a gap using words from the text, you could not say that they will play soccer.

How to Prepare for IELTS – British and American Words

It can be really confusing learning both British and American words for IELTS, but actually it’s not that difficult, and I would recommend that you don’t worry too much. If you have a balanced approach to studying, you will probably hear both accents in your daily listening practice, and you will probably read both types of word during your reading practice.

I don’t think that it’s really necessary to learn both sets of spellings, as you can just use one consistently throughout the whole exam. As I mentioned before, the biggest problem is mixing American and British spelling together! That is something you should definitely avoid in the writing test.

As long as you consider all these words as just part of the English language, you should be fine. In the beginning, it might seem strange that some people say, “I live in a block of flats,” while others say, “I live in an apartment building.” However, as long as you know what these mean, you are doing just fine. Don’t worry so much about the origin of the word or phrase.

At a certain point, you will be quite advanced in your IELTS studies and looking to score higher than band 7. This is the time when it might be worth paying attention to the differences. At this stage, spelling one word in British English and another in American English will cost you a few points, and so your score might be affected. However, below a band 7 it probably doesn’t matter much.

I always recommend to my students that they take a balanced approach to studying for IELTS (which I outline in this article). That means looking at all sorts of resources instead of fixating on just one type. I think that this would help you a lot for preparing to learn British and American English because if you are looking at all sorts of books, podcasts, TV shows, and so on, then you will hear lots of different types of English, and you will learn a diverse range of words.

Conclusion

There are some differences between British and American English, even though they are mostly the same. In the IELTS exam, you can use either form of English, but you should not mix them together. Learning both British and American English can be achieved through a balanced range of IELTS study materials, but you could probably just study British English and succeed, as this is the main branch of English used for the IELTS exam.