What Is American English (AmE)?

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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The term American English (or North American English) refers broadly to the varieties of the English language spoken and written in the United States and Canada. More narrowly (and more commonly), American English refers to the varieties of English used in the U.S.

American English (AmE) was the first major variety of the language that developed outside of Britain. "The foundation for an ideological American English," says Richard W.

Bailey in Speaking American (2012), "began shortly after the Revolution, and its most articulate spokesman was the quarrelsome Noah Webster." 

Examples and Observations:

  • "American English is, without doubt, the most influential and powerful variety of English in the world today. There are many reasons for this. First, the United States is, at present, the most powerful nation on earth and such power always brings with it influence. . . . Second, America's political influence is extended through American popular culture, in particular through the international reach of American films (movies, of course) and music. . . . Third, the the international prominence of American English is closely associated with the extraordinarily quick development of communications technology."
    (Andy Kirkpatrick, World Englishes: Implications for International Communication and English Language Teaching. Cambridge University Press, 2007).
  • Some Characteristics of American English vs. British English
    "The economical nature of American English is seen in several commonly observed linguistic processes, including the use of shorter words (math - maths, cookbook - cookery book, etc.), shorter spellings (color - colour), and shorter sentences (I'll see you Monday vs. on Monday). The differences can be captured in the form of what we call principles or maxims, such as 'use as little (linguistic) form as possible.'

    "Regularity is found in the way in which American English changes certain paradigms of English that have some irregular members. Cases of this include the elimination of irregular verb forms (burn, burned, burned, rather than burnt), doing away with shall and keeping only will to indicate future, the regularization of the verb have (Do you have . . .? as opposed to Have you . . .?), and many others."
    (Zoltán Kövecses, American English: An Introduction. Broadview, 2000)
     
  • Dialect Endangerment?
    "As some of the more remote areas of the [U.S.] are opened to intercommunication with the outside world, their distinctive language varieties, fostered in isolation and spoken by relatively small numbers of people, may be overwhelmed by encroaching dialects. . . .

    "Though the ultimate fate of American English dialects in the new millennium is often debated in public and by the media, it is hardly an issue to linguists. Current dialect surveys based largely on phonological systems, in particular, vowel systems, rather than on isolated lexical items and scattered pronunciation details, indicate that American dialects are alive and well--and that some dimensions of these dialects may be more prominent than they were in the past."
    (Walt Wolfram and Natalie Schilling-Estes, American English: Dialects and Variation, 2nd ed. Blackwell, 2006)
     
  • Agreement in American English and British English
    "American and British English often differ in their treatment of agreement with collective nouns, i.e. nouns with singular form but plural meaning, such as committee, family, government, enemy. In American English the singular is usually preferred with such nouns, but in British English they are sometimes followed by a verb form in the plural and a plural pronoun:
    AmE The government has decided that it has to launch a campaign.
    BrE The government have decided that they have to launch a campaign.
    This difference is especially clear in sports writing:
    AmE Mexico wins against New Zealand.
    BrE Mexico win against New Zealand.
    However, staff and police normally take plural agreement in American English as well. . . .

    Although Americans mostly use singular agreement with the verb, they are likely to use plural pronouns to refer to collective nouns (see further Levin 1998):

     

    AmE That's the sign of a team that has a lot of confidence in their players."
    (Gunnel Tottie, An Introduction To American English. Blackwell, 2002)
     
  • Thomas Jefferson, H.L. Mencken, and Prince Charles on American English
    - "I have been not a little disappointed, and made suspicious of my own judgment, on seeing the Edinburgh Reviews, the ablest critics of the age, set their faces against the introduction of new words into the English language; they are particularly apprehensive that the writers of the United States will adulterate it. Certainly so great growing a population, spread over such an extent of country, with such a variety of climates, of productions, of arts, must enlarge their language, to make it answer its purpose of expressing all ideas, the new as well as the old. The new circumstances under which we are placed, call for new words, new phrases, and for the transfer of old words to new objects. An American dialect will therefore be formed."
    (Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Waldo Monticello, August 16, 1813)

    - "[T]he Englishman, of late, has yielded so much to American example, in vocabulary, in idiom, in spelling and even in pronunciation, that what he speaks promises to become, on some not too remote tomorrow, a kind of dialect of American, just as the language spoken by the American was once a dialect of English."
    (H.L. Mencken, The American Language, 4th ed., 1936)

    - "Americans tend to invent all sorts of new nouns and verbs and make words that shouldn't be . . .. [W]e must act now to ensure that English--and that to my way of thinking means English English--maintains its position as the world language."
    (Prince Charles, quoted in The Guardian, April 6, 1995)
     
  • The Lighter Side of American English
    - "We really have everything in common with America nowadays except, of course, language."
    (Oscar Wilde, "The Canterville Ghost," 1887)

    - "The advantage of American English is that, because there are so few rules, practically anybody can learn to speak it in just a few minutes. The disadvantage is that Americans generally sound like jerks, whereas the British sound really smart, especially to Americans. That's why Americans are so fond of those British dramas they're always showing on public television . . ..

    "So the trick is to use American grammar, which is simple, but talk with a British accent, which is impressive. . . .

    "You can do it, too. Practice in your home, then approach someone on the street and say: 'Tally-ho, old chap. I would consider it a great honour if you would favour me with some spare change.' You're bound to get quick results."
    (Dave Barry, "What Is and Ain't Grammatical." Dave Barry's Bad Habits: A 100% Fact-Free Book. Doubleday, 1985)

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