It’s easy to confuse the terms “British” and “English” since they’re so interrelated, but the words are often very distinct from each other, so let’s explore the difference between the two terms.
English refers typically to either the people of the nation of England or their culture or language, originating from the Germanic Anglo-Saxon peoples. British is broader, usually referring to the people of Great Britain — which encompasses England, Scotland, and Wales — or territories of the former British Empire. However, British can also refer to the language and culture of the ancient Celtic Britons.
This last aspect of the word “British” can make it especially ambiguous. To better help you understand the difference, we’ll explore each aspect of those definitions so that you know when you should use “English” or “British.”
Not Just A Matter of Grammar
The English language can be confusing on its own — words that look similar in spelling can have very different meanings altogether. In some cases, the placement of an apostrophe can make a world of difference, affecting the overall meaning of the word’s usage.
When it comes to choosing correctly between British and English, they are categorically different words centering around nationality, ethnicity, and cultural ties.
To remove much of this confusion requires a discussion on the history behind these related cultures and nationalities.
English vs. British
As an adjective, English can refer to either the inhabitants of the country of England or the people of that country, while as a noun it most often refers to the English language or culture (source).
British, on the other hand, is broader, referring to all things pertaining to the island of Great Britain, which contains the countries of England, Scotland, and Wales. When referring to the United Kingdom, this includes Great Britain and Ireland.
A common mistake would be to use England, Great Britain, or the United Kingdom interchangeably. England is one country, Great Britain is one group of three countries, and the United Kingdom is made up of four countries, but England is at the heart of them all.
The “British Isles” is a general term that describes the collection of landmasses associated with Great Britain and Ireland, but should not be confused with the United Kingdom, a political entity.
Despite their close proximity and shared government under the United Kingdom, England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland have very strong national identities.
While you’d be right to describe a person from Wales as being British, you’d likely offend them by failing first to recognize their fierce Welsh national pride.
You’re even more likely to offend a Welshman or Scotsman if you refer to them as English since that brings up a long history of domination by the English.
During the first half of the 20th century, it was not uncommon for an Englishman to refer to England and Wales collectively as “England.” Now, if a politician refers to either Scotland or Wales as “English,” they might experience a wave of protests.
England and English
The English people originated from the Anglo-Saxons, and it is from these Anglo-Saxons that the English language and English culture ultimately derived (source).
England is a country in Europe separated from Europe’s main body by the North Sea and the English Channel. England is a nation on the island of Great Britain, also home to Wales and Scotland.
The nation of England is the largest and most prominent country of Great Britain, and it occupies the central and southeastern portion of Great Britain.
England derives its name from the Anglo-Saxons who invaded the island in the 5th century AD. After the Romans pulled out of Britain in AD 410, bands of Angles, Jutes, and Saxons gradually took over, forcing the Celtic populations into Wales, Cornwall, and Scotland.
Later invasions by the Danish Vikings and Normans from the 9th to the 11th centuries helped shape English identity and language further.
The English Language
The Anglo-Saxons brought with them a form of Old English, and they adapted it to the Latin alphabet around the 8th century AD.
The Danish and Normans’ subsequent influence helped to shape the language further, and the Normans brought a distinctly Latin Romance flavor through the French language.
During the High Middle Ages, Geoffrey Chaucer would become the father of English literature, helping the language reach its potential. He was followed by William Shakespeare and the King James Bible, which would bring the English language to new heights.
In modern times, though it has a whole myriad of dialects and location-based variances, English has essentially established itself as a “common tongue” across the planet.
English is the official language of the United Kingdom, the United States of America, Australia, and New Zealand, and it serves as an official language in countless nations and territories.
The prevalence of English can be seen by the number of schools across the world that teach English either as a secondary or primary language despite the presence of indigenous languages.
To this day, English is still a common language in places where England colonized under the British Empire.
Living in these countries and teaching the locals their language laid the foundation for the modern world using English as a “common tongue” since a vast majority of the world has already had exposure to it.
Reliable sources on the English language include the Oxford New English Dictionary or the Oxford New Essential Dictionary, which are available on Amazon.
Britain and British
Before the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the island of Great Britain in the 5th century AD, England was inhabited by a Celtic group of people that the Romans called Britons.
When the Romans conquered the Britons in the first century AD, they named the province Britannia.
During the Middle Ages, the Celtic Brettas for Britons became Brettisc in Old English (7th-11th centuries), Bruttische in Middle English (11th-15th centuries), and then, finally, British.
The Kingdom of Great Britain emerged as a result of the Act of Union in 1707 that formally united the kingdoms of Scotland and England.
The unification of England and Scotland occurred under the Stuart line of kings, who reigned in Scotland before ascending the throne of England after Queen Elizabeth I’s death.
Referring to the kingdom as “Great Britain” helped to emphasize the common Celtic roots of the island, which now hosted the kingdoms of England, Scotland, and Wales.
England comprises the southeastern portion of Great Britain, Wales is located in the west, and Scotland is at the northernmost point, and each of these countries includes a series of small islands.
The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
Off the western coast of Great Britain is the Island of Ireland, with the northernmost part of Ireland being politically separate from what is now the Republic of Ireland.
The Acts of Union of 1800 created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with all of Ireland under British rule.
The Irish attempted to break away and form their own republic in 1916 and eventually succeeded in establishing the Republic of Ireland.
The Irish fought hard for their independence from the British, and including them in either Great Britain or the United Kingdom would be considered a great insult, so knowing the difference here is especially critical (source)!
To make it easier to remember, it may help to know that the United Kingdom’s proper full name is the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which highlights the fact that it is essentially one and a half island’s worth of countries in an alliance.
The Ambiguity of the Word British
“English” is rather easy to define — it’s either a noun or adjective describing things relating to the country of England.
Defining what is and isn’t “British” is a much more difficult task since it requires a broader understanding of the history of Great Britain.
Even dictionaries struggle to provide a comprehensive definition of what being British truly means, but here are some helpful points to show the difference between “British” and “English.”
Is London British or English?
One common question that often arises is whether the city of London is British or English. While you could argue valid points either way, it is perhaps most accurate to say that London is English, given that it is England’s capital.
At the same time, London is actually a very ancient city that was known as Londinium in Roman times and was part of the Roman province of Britannia.
With that in mind, you could argue that London is more British than English as the ancient Britons established it.
If you limit the use of “British” to the broader sense of Great Britain, it makes more sense to associate London with the more immediate territory of England.
If you apply the term British to the Celtic Britons and their culture, things can really get murky.
British vs. English in a Sentence
It’s helpful to learn the difference by using them in a sentence. Here are some correct examples of when to use the word English:
- After landing in Dublin, I’ll be flying to the English capital, London.
- My friend has lived in Newcastle for a year now but still struggles to understand the English accent.
- You’ll need to excuse me if I make a mistake, my English is not very good.
These three exemplify the different uses there are for the term English. Now let’s take a look at the word British:
- Our cruise will take us around the British coast, stopping in Liverpool, Edinburgh, and Belfast.
- The British first settled in Barbados in 1627.
The last two examples show how we often use “British” in a broader geographic context. The second example is historical in nature, using the term “British” to refer to the British Empire’s colonial activity.
The Former British Empire
The United Kingdom, Crown Dependencies, and British Overseas Territories are all part of what was the “British Empire.”
At the beginning of the 18th century, what is now known as the Colonization Era began. In it, the United Kingdom — the grouping of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland — sought to develop a British Empire that spanned across the world.
There were other nations involved in colonizing at the time, though the United Kingdom was undoubtedly the most active, claiming land and resources from Australia to the Americas (source).
As part of their colonization method, England brought with them modern aspects of civilization, such as hospitals and schools and, through this, the settlers shared the English language with those living in the countries they colonized.
Of course, numerous atrocities took place in the name of development as these countries colonized the world. The historical excesses of colonization is a major socio-political issue that is a whole different topic altogether.
Still, it is necessary to raise it while on the subject of the spread of the English language.
Even more confusing, there are islands off the coast of Great Britain that are self-governing, yet considered to be possessions of The Crown, meaning they belong to the reigning monarch of the Commonwealth.
In essence, that means they fall into a grey area — though they are autonomous, they are not recognized as countries in and of themselves nor do they form part of the United Kingdom (source).
It’s an interesting study to learn how these islands fell into what seems to be a limbo between being separate from the United Kingdom but also still very much intertwined.
There are only three territories that are considered Crown dependencies, and they are Bailiwick of Guernsey, the Bailiwick of Jersey, and the Isle of Man.
Among those names may be a word you’ve never seen before that points towards the complicated nature of governing these independent islands — bailiwick.
Bailiwick refers to an area of jurisdiction under control of a bailiff. Essentially, instead of an elected political official, Guernsey and Jersey are overseen by a sheriff, and it’s every bit as wild west as you’d imagine.
This shows the seemingly odd space that these Crown dependencies operate in. Geographically, they’re almost a stone’s throw away from mainland Britain and have been heavily influenced by the United Kingdom.
However, as we’ve discussed, they are most definitely separate, and referring to any of these three islands as “British” or “English” would be incorrect.
It’s likely that you weren’t trying to refer to the Bailiwick of Guernsey, the Bailiwick of Jersey, or the Isle of Man when you got “English” and “British” mixed up, but at least now you know!
The final piece of the British puzzle is what’s referred to as Overseas Territories. Again, to make things confusing, these are correctly referred to as the British Overseas Territories, though you can also call them the United Kingdom Overseas Territories.
These territories are of particular interest as they are the last remnants of the British Empire — what the United Kingdom strove to build through colonizing the world.
Many countries that were colonized have since declared independence from the United Kingdom. In doing so, they become sovereign states in their own right.
These declarations of independence stretch from as far back as 1776, when the United States of America famously separated from the United Kingdom to as recent as 1984 when Brunei gained its independence (source).
This means the British Empire slowly whittled down, leaving just sixteen remaining British Overseas Territories. As a distinction, the territories are constitutionally linked to the United Kingdom but do not form part of it.
In general, these territories are self-governing, but the United Kingdom remains responsible for representing them in foreign relations and defending them. This mostly makes sense, given their small population size.
Refocusing on the initial question and applying it to British Overseas Territories, it would be difficult to classify whether Gibraltar, one of these territories, should be referred to as English or British.
On the one hand, it’s literally in the name — it’s a British Overseas Territory. As we’ve already covered, they’re the last places that could even begin to be considered British outside of being found on the island of Great Britain itself.
Many of these territories use a version of the pound as their currency. Importantly, this is not the pound sterling, as used in the United Kingdom, but it’s significant all the same to note that they’ve adopted a currency very similar, and in parity, to the United Kingdom.
Nevertheless, these territories are still very much their own unique place. Even in cases where the British influence drastically outweighs local customs, it is much different to what living in England is like.
The British Empire sought to make “Little Britains” out of the islands that they colonized and, while some were more successful than others, what often happened was a mixing pot of cultures that resulted in something completely unique.
So one could say that these territories are ultimately more British than they are English, though a strong argument could be made that their self-autonomy means they are, in fact, neither.
When a country has a significant history spanning back centuries as England does, there generally isn’t a quick and easy way to fully understand the difference, which is why we had to touch on so many historical points to get to the bottom of this.
To summarize, picking between “English” and “British” depends on exactly what you’re wanting to reference. When you wish to talk about England, the culture of the people who live there, or the language that they speak, then “English” is the word you’re looking for.
When you’re wanting to talk about the island of Great Britain, which includes but is not limited to England, the British empire, and territories it is responsible for, then “British” would be correct.
For additional points, knowing when it is correct to refer to the United Kingdom helps as well, which is the combination of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Now you know which phrase to use in what circumstances so you can look smart in front of your family and friends!