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Can You Use American English in Your UK Exams?

Let’s face it. As much as I love British English and try to stick to it as much as I can, American English has a lot of influence over most people. It’s all over the place on the internet. It’s in the books we read. Most of the films we watch come from Hollywood. You can’t escape it! And when it comes to young people here in the UK, lots of them write like an American online. It makes sense. It is all around them, after all.

So it is important for us to know if you can get away with using American English in your exams. Do examiners care? Will you lose a mark or two if you put a Z where an S needs to be? What happens if you forget to add a U in the word “colour”? Surely the English examiners aren’t patriotic enough to care?

Then there’s the fact that British exams aren’t limited to Britain only. According to the COBIS website, there are loads of British schools all around the world. There’s even one in New York! So, surely they are going to use American spellings, right? We can’t stop them from writing how they were raised to write! If they have to learn a whole new type of English just for an exam, they’re going to make mistakes, right? They’re going to mix them up. Surely!

Well, that is true. The fact is that there isn’t one clear right answer. Things are never as simple as that, are they? You will find that there are some exams where it is fine to use American English and others where you should avoid it like the plague.

Here is some info on when you can write like an American and when you can’t.

Don’t Use American English in UK-Specific Exams

First of all, you should stick to British English for British exams. It makes sense, right? All of these exams are exclusive to the UK and so you need to write like you’re from here. For people who recently moved to the UK, this can really suck. The chances are that you learnt American English and now you have to change things up to write in a whole new way. I don’t envy you!

But what exactly are “UK exams”? Well, they’re the exams that are only made for students in the UK. This isn’t just about the English exams, either! Don’t forget about Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales! They are super important!

Here is a list of some of the UK exams:

  • GCSEs
  • BTECs
  • Functional Skills
  • A-Levels (that includes both AS and A2)
  • Scottish National 5
  • Scottish Highers

So why do I recommend sticking to British English? There doesn’t seem to be any clear advice on most exam board websites, right? What makes me so sure? Well, since 2014, the education secretary has made it clear that British exams need to focus on British literature. No more Of Mice and Men! All of that great American literature! Gone! If we’re being so patriotic about the texts we study, you can be sure that we’re going to be the same with the English that students use.

I feel like I have to say this: what I’m saying is specifically about essay subjects. Think English, history, drama and other, similar exams. If you get a wrist cramp from all of the words you have to write, that probably means you have to stick to British English! I don’t know if maths and science examiners care very much. Ask a teacher or tutor who specialises in those subjects!


In International Exams, Either One is Fine

However, there are plenty of exams boards that let you use American spellings of words. Usually, these will be the international exams. By that, I mean exams that are made in the UK but are for anyone in any country. Or, maybe they were made somewhere else in the world but were endorsed and accepted by us here in the UK.

There are lots of exams that fall under this category. However, I’m going to focus on the ones I know well.

  • International Baccalaureate (IB)
  • International A-Levels (IAL)

The Cambridge International website specifically says that they are fine with both American and Australian English for the IGCSE. So, you can use any of them! Edexcel doesn’t say, but it would be weird if they didn’t accept either one! I mean, there are loads of kids all over the world taking these exams! You can’t be sure that they will be exposed to British English. Since there are no clear resources to help students with British spellings, it would give British students an unfair advantage. They wouldn’t allow that.

While I did say that you can use American English for the IELTS exam, I have one small recommendation. If you’re taking this exam so that you can study in the UK, I recommend trying to learn British English. British universities have a lot more control over what they do and how they grade you. They don’t have to answer to the government like schools and colleges have to. However, it is better to be safe than sorry. Lots of unis feel very patriotic about British English and would prefer if you avoid Americanisms for any English exams. It’s better to get used to it ASAP.

Make Sure You Stick to One in International Exams

Cambridge International makes one thing clear: consistency is the key. Even if they didn’t say it on their site, I’d say the same thing. If you’re doing an international exam, it is fine to write in American English. It is better to do that than to keep switching between the two dialects. If they forced kids all over the world to write in British English, they might find lots of awkward slip-ups. They’d rather avoid that.

While lots of international exams write in British English for the actual questions. Don’t feel pressured by that, though!

The most important thing to think about is this: stick to one. If you want to write in British English, stick to it for the whole exam. The same goes for American spellings. Don’t mix a “color” with a “realise”. It will just confuse your examiner and they’ll think that you don’t know the difference. That’s not great!

Of course, don’t try to correct quotes from the texts you read! There is a system for making corrections in quotes, but no one does it for a variant spelling. Just write it out how you see it. That’s the only exception, to be honest.

As for me, I prefer British English. I like to stick to it as much as I can because I like it. It’s how I was raised and I like to stick to my roots. Plus, I’m mainly a tutor and teacher for UK exams. I can’t confuse the kids I teach!

But how can you tell the difference between American and British English? How do you know which one you’re using? There are loads of great resources you can use. The British Council has a great page on their website to help you. Lots of dictionaries let you know if a variant of a word is British. Plus, you can always come here on the forums and ask me! All members can contact me through the website with their questions. I’m happy to help!

I hope this helped!

Happy studying!

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