American English Grammar Rules

If you’ve been studying English for a while, you probably know that there are several differences between British and American English spelling. You may even remember that British people write ‘colour’ and ‘centre’ while American people write ‘color’ and ‘center’. But it turns out that it is not spelling, but American English grammar rules, that set the two varieties apart and may even cause minor misunderstandings.

Think of it for a minute. When we talk to another person, we have no way of knowing how they would write the words they’re saying. What we do become aware of is that they use tenses, prepositions, and modal verbs in different ways than the speakers from your British English textbook. If you’ve ever noticed these differences and you’ve wondered what they’re all about, this article is for you.

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Here are four distinctively American English grammar rules that will help you sound just like Rachel or Ross from Friends.

1.  Transitive and intransitive verbs work differently in American English

Transitive verbs are actions that always take a direct object. Take the verb ‘bring’, for example. It would be a bit weird to say “Hey, I brought!” wouldn’t it? I need to say what I brought. For example: “I brought ice cream”.

Intransitive verbs, on the other hand, need no direct objects. Consider the verb ‘smile’. It doesn’t need an object to make sense, right? You don’t smile something. You just smile. You can, however, smile at someone. Intransitive verbs (this is an easy way to spot them!) are often followed by a preposition and an indirect object.

American English grammar rules, however, do not always coincide with British rules as regards transitive and intransitive verbs, and these categories often flip depending on what variety we are using.

Here are two common verbs that follow different grammatical rules in American English vs. British English.

  • Agree

British English: The two parties agreed the treaty. (Transitive)

American English: The two parties agreed to the treaty. (Intransitive)

  • Appeal

British English: The woman’s lawyer appealed the decision. (Intransitive)

American English: The woman’s lawyer appealed against the decision. (Transitive)

If you want to sound like an American, complying with American English grammar rules regarding transitive and intransitive verbs is as important as working on your American accent or learning American idioms.

2.  ‘Have got’ is not as popular in American English as it is in British English.

If you studied English in a British academy, you surely remember being taught expressions such as “I’ve got a pet” or “I’ve got a lot of homework”. Indeed, ‘have got’ is the most common way to express possession in England and other British countries.

If we take a look at American English grammar rules, we’ll see that ‘have got’ is not as common on the other side of the Atlantic. In the US, if you want to show possession, the most natural way of doing it is with ‘have’:

British English: I’ve got a headache.

American English: I have a headache.

Similarly, while British English speakers tend to use ‘have got’ to talk about responsibilities and obligations, American speakers opt for the more straightforward ‘have’ once again.

British English: I’ve got to fill out this form.

American English: I have to fill out this form.

You may be tempted to conclude that American English rules are simpler, but not so fast! While British English uses ‘got’ as both the past simple and past participle forms of ‘get’, American English speakers use ‘got’ and ‘gotten’, respectively.

British English: Your pronunciation has got a lot better!

American English: Your pronunciation has gotten a lot better!

Isn’t it crazy how many differences a word as small as ‘got’ can have in the two main varieties of English?

3.  The use of modal verbs is slightly different in American English

Modal verbs are auxiliary words that speakers use with another verb to express specific meanings such as possibility, obligation, permission, or necessity. The most common English modal verbs in English include ‘can’, ‘could’, ‘‘will’, ‘would’, ‘may’, ‘must’, and ‘shall’.

One of the main features of modal verbs is that they have fewer forms than normal verbs. For example, we say “she runs”, but we don’t say that “she cans”!

But, is the usage of modal verbs the same according to British vs. American English grammar rules?

Not always. ‘Shall’ and ‘shan’t’ for example, are very common in British English but they are rarely used among American speakers, who find it too formal. In American English, the preferred options to talk about future events are ‘will’ and ‘won’t’.

See a few examples:

British English: We shall go to the party.

American English: We will go to the party.

British English: We shan’t attend tomorrow’s meeting.

American English: We won’t attend tomorrow’s meeting.

The second big difference between British and American English rules for modal verbs has to do with the use of the expression ‘should like to’. This is a common phrase in British English that people use to talk about a future plan or an intention to do something.

But not in American English. When American speakers want to express this meaning they go with ‘want to’ or ‘would like to’ instead.

Here is an example:

British English: I should like to get to know you better.

American English: I would like to get to know you better.

If you want to know if someone is from England or from the US but you’re not very good with accents, pay attention to the way in which they use modal verbs!

4.  The Present Perfect Tense Is Not Very Common in American English

In British English, the present perfect tense is used for a variety of purposes, including finished actions in the past. Phrases like “He has gone to the store” or “I’ve just finished dinner” are very common among British people. In American English, the most widely used verb tense to talk about finished actions is the past simple tense:

British English: I’ve just called you.

American English: I just called you.

British English: He’s gone to the supermarket.

American English: He went to the supermarket.

So, what is the role of the present perfect tense according to American English grammar rules?

In the United States, speakers use the present perfect tense merely to talk about ongoing activities that started in the past and are still taking place:

British and American English: I have been sick since Thursday; I have seen a movie every day this week.

Were you aware of these distinctive characteristics of American English grammar? Is there any other feature of either variety that helps you tell them apart?

At Language Trainers, we believe that studying the nuances of different varieties of English can help learners communicate better in the target variety and have a deep understanding of the interplay between grammar and meaning in any given dialect.

For this reason, we work with native teachers of all English-speaking countries who are very experienced at teaching the features that make their way of speaking special and unique. If you want to delve deeper into American English grammar rules, all you have to do is send us a quick message and we’ll march you with an American instructor for a tailored English course designed to fit your needs and learning goals.

Sandro Dutra, a client who took a private course in his home in the Bronx, New York, had this to say about his experience:

“Lessons with Francesca are just amazing. She’s a consummate professional, and she’s very committed to the work we are doing. The course is just what I needed, as it’s helping me achieve my goal of learning English fast.”

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Would you like to do a one-to-one American English course with one of our teachers? Just tell us when you would like to start and we’ll get back to you in no time. Plus, if you decide to take an online course, we can offer you a free trial lesson so you can make up your mind without any pressure!