What are some *subtle* differences among various dialects of English?

Today I happened to think of a story I heard a few years back, in which some little British girl and her family were flying somewhere, and she wrote this funny note to the pilot. It made the rounds and everybody thought it charming/funny/cute/whatever. I can’t remember a thing she said in her note, other than a reference to the possibility of the “wings breaking away”.

I remember that bit because it points to a definite but subtle difference between American and British usage. An American child (or adult) would more likely refer to the “wings falling off”. I don’t know why I wouldn’t say “wings breaking away” except that, being American, it’s not the first expression I’d think of to denote that contingency. As for the words involved, we all understand them in the same way, and they individually mean the same thing across all dialects. This is quite different from the usual examples cited, where the same thing may be denoted by completely different words, like all those terms having to do with cars, mechanics, or electronics.

So I’m wondering if we can come up with further examples of subtle differences between the dialects similar to the one that I just gave. What with AmE being the oldest of the overseas dialects, I imagine most of the differences will be between it and the other dialects, though that may well be due to parochialism on my part of which I am not consciously aware.

One of my best friends grew up in Ireland, and moved to the US as an adult. I’ve had several occasions in which something I’ve said to her was interpreted by her in a very different fashion than I’d intended (and she’s experienced the same with me), because of the differences in dialect. Two examples:

  • She’s a web designer, and sometimes will ask me to critique her designs. Once, I remarked that I thought a design choice she made was “nice.” I’d intended it as a compliment; in American English, “nice” is generally seen as such. But, she was crushed by my use of the term. For her, “nice” is damning with faint praise – in Irish English, it’s what you say when you have nothing really positive to say about something, but you can’t come straight out and say, “it’s no good.” I don’t use “nice” anymore with her.

  • While talking with her one day, she told me that she was feeling “shattered.” I took it to mean that she had become emotionally distraught over something I’d said (since that’s a typical American use of the term), but what she had, in fact, meant was that she was physically exhausted (a common use of the word in Irish English).

I’m not sure it is subtle, but the, ‘You OK?’ in Northern England certainly threw me for a loop. It’s a way of saying, “Hello.”

My spouse often mocks me for saying “sweeties” instead of “lollies”. Or is it “lollies” instead of “sweeties”? I can never remember. Anyway, one of them’s British and one’s Australian. There’s a boatload of those kinds of things (soda/soft drink/pop … sofa/couch/divan etc etc) that it’s hard to keep straight even within a country.

One that I think is quite subtle is the uses of the term “visit” or “visit with”. In Aus/UK this has a pretty definite meaning- you went to the place where someone lives or is temporarily staying or in some sense “owns” (“We visited her in hospital”/“visited him at the office”) But I’ve heard it used more inclusively in American contexts I think, as just meaning meeting together…so for instance you could visit or visit with someone at a park or a cafe.

In Northern English, it is common to hear very affectionate terms of endearment used in normal friendly greetings and exchanges between people who may not know each other. Hello, darling! Thank you, love! Excuse me, sweetheart! It is most common when adults talk to children or between senior citizens. I guess it arises because people feel relaxed in their community and it is certainly charming to hear. It tends to be a working class thing and is often very funny.

It does not happen so much in London and the South, you just don’t do that with strangers, people think you are rude, over familiar or patronising. Northerners are unimpressed by that sort of attitude and will let their feelings be known.

In British English, you have to develop a keen ear for irony and hints of insincerity in the way a word is said. ‘Nice’ is one of those words. ‘Lovely’ is also used ironically. You can usually tell by the tone in which it is expressed and absence of the habitual string of superlatives to which the English seem addicted when they are happy about something.


My daughter mocks me whenever I tell her to put something up. She holds it over her head. According to her New England dialect, the correct term is to put it away. The two terms mean the same thing in my Southern dialect but I tend to use the former.

The wife, a life-long Manhattanite, says things that strike me as odd (I’m a Western U.S. girl). Here are two I can recall at the moment:

“Put out the light” (I say “turn off the light”)

“Not for nuthin” (I understand what this conveys, but I’ve spent a lot of time trying to parse this phrase)

The one that always struck me was the British use of the tern “brilliant” when describing something. The first time I heard it, I knew it was supposed to mean something other than what I normally expected it to mean (i.e., very clever), but it took me quite some to figure out what. I think this is also common in Ozzie speak. Not sure where else.

UK = in hospital
U.S. = in the hospital

Until very recently, in the UK knocked up meant woken up (usually by someone knocking on the door). However my understanding is that this usage has now been superseded by the U.S. meaning of getting someone pregnant. You can still see the original British usage in older books and movies.

Lately I’ve been reading a blog written by a woman in Ireland. She often uses the phrase “call over to [somebody’s] house,” which seems to mean physically visiting them at their house. As an American, I would understand that phrase to mean, if anything, to telephone someone at their home number.

Speaking of visiting, my wife (American like me), usually says that we are “going my mother’s house.” I would say “going to my mother’s house.” It’s a curious little difference.

In my American dialect (Cleveland, heavily influenced by Appalachia), those two terms have different meanings. If you “visit” someone, then you’re at “their place” (which might be their home, their office, or even something as transient as the campsite or hotel room where they’re staying, but at least in some sense “theirs”). On the other hand, you can “visit with” someone anywhere at all: Their home, your home, a park where you both happen to run into each other while walking your dogs, whatever. And it’s also possible to visit someone without visiting with them: If you go to your gramma’s house, but spend all of your time there playing with your cousin, and don’t see Gramma herself except for hugging her when you arrive and leave and passing her the mashed potatoes at supper, then you’ve visited her, but you haven’t visited with her.

One that I’ve noticed: In my dialect, when one person is borrowing something, another is lending it. In some parts in the West, though, both parties are borrowing: If someone is temporarily using my stapler, then one could say both “I’m borrowing Joe my stapler” or “Joe is borrowing my stapler”.

I’ve spent several months living in England and many years with British friends, but only in the past month or two did I learn that “fancy dress” meant costumes and not formalwear. Thank god I had never been invited to a fancy dress party.

Also, in Scotland, when I was telling my co-workers there about hitchhiking and how I got a “ride from Ms. McLeod,” I was summarily corrected that what I got was a “lift,” not a “ride,” and that’s how rumors get started. :slight_smile:

The use of stood, versus standing.

In North America we don’t use stood: always standing.

“We were stood at the bar.”
“We were standing at the bar.”
Also, we don’t use the word nearly: always almost.

“I nearly got hit by a car.”
“I almost got hit by a car.”

Of course someone will be along shortly to tell me how wrong I am…

ETA: When renting something in North America we use the same verb for both the, say car company renting a car, and me renting it from them. In the UK they rent the car and I “let” it.

That one’s interesting, because the US does have that same construction, with the same meaning, when applied to almost everything but “hospital”. In the UK, if you’re “in the hospital”, you might be doing volunteer work, or visiting a patient, or dropping off a friend, but if you’re “in hospital”, then you’re a patient.

But in the same way, if you’re “at the school”, you might be at a PTA meeting, or helping to decorate the gym for the dance, or picking up your kid, but if you’re “at school”, then you’re a student. Or if you’re “at the church”, then you might be helping to set up for the fish fry, or going over the parish finances, or taking pictures of the statues, but if you’re “at church”, then you’re engaging in worship. Basically, if you include the definite article, then you’re just in a place, but if you omit it, then you’re at that place for purposes of receiving the service that is offered there. It’s curious that Americans kept this distinction for church and school (and I think for a couple of other establishments that I can’t remember), but still dropped if for hospital.

Don’t feel too bad. I’ve heard/used the idiomatic form* of that expression or my whole life and couldn’t parse it.
Does your wife understand/use “She thinks who the hell she is”? I’ve never known someone who grew up in Manhattan who did, but it’s common in Brooklyn/Queens.

  • yes, there’s also a literal form , where it basically means " for a good reason"

Of course :slight_smile: I hear “We stood at the bar” (without “were”) all the time. Sometimes it means “We were standing at the bar” and other times it means “We stayed at the bar”( rather than going somewhere else)

Funny thing though is that Americans make a slightly diffent distinction. " In the hospital" means you’re a patient staying overnight, but “at the hospital” means you are visiting or volunteering or even a patient at a clinic.

My New York buddy has to stand on line. Everybody else I know has to stand in line.

One that I’ve noticed as a US/UK thing is the use of the term “mad”.

UK “mad” = crazy, insane
US “mad” = angry, upset, irate

Though we have “Mad” magazine, which is meant to be “crazy” and “insane” for humor sake, for the most part people in the US tend to use “mad” to indicate “angry”.

Most places in the South; I grew up Oop North, but the first time some total stranger in Bristol, a customer in a shop I was working at, replied to my giving him change with ‘Cheers, my lover’, it was a bit of a shock :eek:
And Leaffan, I don’t think the ‘rent/let’ works like that here in England. I certainly rented a van a few weeks ago, I don’t think I’ve ever heard ‘let’ for anything that wasn’t a building.

I’m renting a flat as well, via a lettings agent. I’ve got a copy of the government ‘How to rent’ guide, and my rental agreement right here.