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Getting around in American and
British English

by Susan Stempleski

Second in a series of articles on differences
between American and British English

• Transport vs transportation
• Getting into and around town
• Taking the train
• Parts of a car
• Types of motor vehicles
• Types of roads
• Things on or near a road
• A final note
• Next in the series

Transport vs transportation

Some of the most obvious differences between American and British English are in vocabulary related to transport, or, as we Americans would say, transportation. Speakers of American and British English both use the same verb, transport, to mean to move people or things from one place to another, but when it comes to talking about the business of moving people around, the corresponding noun forms are different. What the British call transport – travel by rail, plane, coach, bus, ferry, metro and tram – is called transportation by the Americans.

This is especially true for areas of transportation that developed during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. For example, the vocabulary related to cars and other motor vehicles varies significantly. An American car has a hood, whereas a British car has a bonnet, and what the British call a lorry we Americans call a truck. This article takes a look at some of the major differences in vocabulary and usage related to automotive and rail transportation and travel.


Getting into and around town

When British speakers arrive in the U.S. by plane, they need a different vocabulary just to get into town. Whereas in Britain people often have the option of taking a coach into town, in the U.S. they would take a bus. And if you want to get into town faster in America, you take the subway, whereas in Britain you take the Underground. If you are planning to use public transportation to travel around an American city, the following terms will be useful.

downtown and uptown
The word downtown refers to the center of a town or city, especially the business or shopping areas. Its opposite, uptown, refers to the areas of a city that are farthest away from the center, and which are often residential areas.

local and express
A local bus or train stops at all the regular stopping places on its route. If you want to get to your destination faster, you take an express.

In big cities like New York and Washington, D.C. you can pay your bus or subway fare with a Metrocard, a ticket that you buy from machines located in subway stations.

In some cities, you can pay your fare with a token, a small coin-shaped piece of metal that you buy at a token booth.

A transfer is a special ticket that allows you to change from one bus or another without paying more money.

trolley (or streetcar)
In a few American cities, San Francisco for example, you can still ride a trolley or a streetcar, an electric vehicle that moves along metal tracks in the middle of the street. Speakers of British English call this type of vehicle a tram and use the word trolley to describe the large basket on wheels that you push around a supermarket, something Americans call a shopping cart.


Taking the train

Because of the great distances to be covered in the U.S., flying is a very popular way of getting around the country. However, some Americans prefer to go from city to city by train or railroad - the American equivalent of the British term railway. Here are some examples of American and British differences in vocabulary and usage related to travel by train.

American British
baggage car baggage van
baggage cart luggage trolley
café car buffet car
engineer engine driver
one-way ticket single ticket
round-trip ticket return ticket
railroad car railway carriage
schedule timetable
train station railway station

Note that the terms one-way and round-trip are sometimes used in Britain, but they are not as common as single and return.


Parts of a car

While there are differences between American and British English in all areas of transportation and travel, the most striking ones are in the vocabulary associated with the parts of a car. Listen to Americans describe their cars, and you'll hear an amazing number of differences. Here is a list of the most common ones:

American British
backup light reversing light
dimmer switch dip switch
fender wing
gas pump/fuel pump petrol pump
generator dynamo
hood bonnet
license plate number plate
parking light sidelight
sideview mirror wing mirror
spark plug sparking plug
stick shift gear stick
tail light tail lamp/tail light
trunk boot
windshield windscreen
windshield wipers windscreen wipers


Types of motor vehicles

There are also differences in the words speakers of American and British English use to describe different types of motor vehicles. The following is a list of examples in which different words and expressions are used for the same type of vehicle.

American British
intercity bus coach
motorcycle motorbike
sedan saloon (car)
station wagon estate (car)
truck lorry


Some styles of American motor vehicles, however, are described by names for which there are no exact British equivalents. This is the case with the following terms:

A sport utility vehicle or SUV is a large road vehicle with four-wheel drive that is designed to be driven on rough ground.

A recreational vehicle or RV is a large road vehicle that people can live in.


Types of roads

Americans use a wide variety of terms to describe the many different types of roads that are part of the national and state highway systems in the U.S. In only a few cases are there direct British equivalents for the American terms. The following is a list of examples in which the American and British English use different terms to indicate essentially the same type of road.

American British
divided highway dual carriageway
superhighway/expressway motorway

Sometimes, however, there are no exact British equivalents for the American terms, as is the case with the following:

The word highway is the most general term for a road in American English. It is used to refer to any road built for fast travel between towns and cities: We drove along the Pacific Coast Highway.

An interstate (highway) is a wide road with several lines of traffic going in each direction and built for travel from state to state as part of the U.S. National Highway System: Driving on the interstate, I decided to exit at the city of Ormond.

A freeway is a large divided highway that is usually in or near a big city and does not cost anything to use: The Santa Monica Freeway passes through business and residential areas.

A parkway is a wide road with an area of trees and grass on both sides and sometimes along the middle of the road: The hotel is located near the Grand Central Parkway.

A tollway is a long wide highway that you have to pay to drive on: Take the North Dallas Tollway north and exit at West Park Boulevard.

A turnpike is a highway in the eastern part of the U.S. that drivers must pay to use: The Massachusetts Turnpike is the main highway leading through Boston.


Things on or near a road

There are a few things found on or near a road that have the same names in American and British English. For example, the terms parking meter, pedestrian and traffic are shared by both varieties of English. However, there are a number of other things that have different names in American and British English. Here is a list of the most common ones:

American British
crosswalk pedestrian crossing/zebra crossing
detour diversion
gas station petrol station
overpass flyover
parking lot car park
rest area lay-by
sidewalk pavement
stoplight traffic lights
taxi stand taxi rank
traffic circle/rotary roundabout


A final note

Note that while American and British English show significant differences in vocabulary related to motor and rail transportation and travel, vocabulary concerning more recently developed means of travel transportation — aviation and rocket science — are relatively minor.


Next in the series

The next article in this series will discuss American and British differences in clothing and shopping terms.