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United Kingdom or England?

There is some confusion about the terms United Kingdom, Great Britain, Britain and England, as well as other terms such as British and English. Here we try, as simply as possible, to clarify.

United Kingdom (please see map →)
The United Kingdom is a sovereign country. It is a nation with its own government, and has a seat at the United Nations. Its full name is "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland".

  • Great Britain is the larger island that contains Scotland, England and Wales.

  • Northern Ireland is the northern part of a separate island to the west of Great Britain.

Together, Great Britain and Northern Ireland form the United Kingdom.

The name United Kingdom is often abbreviated to "UK".

The capital of the UK is London, where the UK government and parliament reside.

Great Britain
Great Britain is the main island that includes Scotland, England and Wales.

England
England shares the island of Great Britain with Scotland and Wales. It is an administrative division of the United Kingdom. Some people, including the UK government, call it a country; but it is not a sovereign country (and it does not have its own government or a seat at the United Nations).

Scotland
Scotland shares the island of Great Britain with England and Wales. Like England, it is not a sovereign country but a division of the United Kingdom.

Wales
Wales shares the island of Great Britain with England and Scotland. Like England, it is not a sovereign country but a division of the United Kingdom.

Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland is the northern part of the island of Ireland (the rest being a separate sovereign country or state, the Republic of Ireland). Like England, Northern Ireland is not a sovereign country but a division of the United Kingdom.

Origin and Usage of UK Names

Britain
Britannia was the name the Romans used for the province that they established in what is today England and Wales. Today, people mainly use Britain to refer to the whole United Kingdom.

map showing United Kingdom

British
Today, the adjective British means "relating to the UK". People from the UK are British citizens by nationality and have British passports.

England
The name England came from Englaland [sic] (roughly modern Denmark), whose inhabitants invaded Britain in the 5th century. England is the largest of the four divisions of the UK by population and land area. People often refer to England when they mean the United Kingdom. This is an error that may cause resentment among members of the other three divisions (Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). A native of England is an Englishman or Englishwoman, and usually a British citizen by nationality.

English
The adjective English means "relating to England". Somebody born in England may describe himself as English but he is a "British citizen" by nationality (as are his counterparts in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland). As with England, people often use the term English when they really mean British.

Great Britain (GB)
Strictly speaking Great Britain is the island that contains England, Scotland and Wales. The "Great" in Great Britain was introduced to distinguish Great Britain from Lesser Britain - the area in France now called Brittany (or Bretagne in French). Today, the term Great Britain is usually synonymous with the United Kingdom. The currency code GBP for example (Great Britain Pound) refers to the currency of the UK. In the Olympic Games, the United Kingdom's team is called "Great Britain" or "Team GB".

United Kingdom (UK)
The important thing to remember is that the United Kingdom is the whole country and England is just one part of it, albeit the largest. It is wrong to refer to England when you really mean the whole country, though many people do, including some English people who should know better. The abbreviation for United Kingdom is U.K. or UK. You can use the abbreviation "UK" as an adjective, for example "Last year UK exports rose."

Briton
Although the word Briton means a native or inhabitant of Britain (ie the UK), it is very formal and hardly ever used. The abbreviation "Brit", meaning the same, is very informal but may be acceptable among friends. The North American "Britisher" sounds too foreign. In fact, there is no commonly used noun for "British person".

Scotland
Scotland is a division of the UK occupying the northern part of Great Britain. The adjective Scottish (or Scots or the old-fashioned adjective Scotch) means "relating to Scotland". A native of Scotland is a Scot, a Scotsman or a Scotswoman, and usually a British citizen by nationality.

Wales
Wales is a division of the UK in the west of Great Britain. The adjective Welsh means "relating to Wales". A native of Wales is a Welshman or Welshwoman, and usually a British citizen by nationality.

Northern Ireland
Northern Ireland is a division of the UK forming the northern one-sixth of the island of Ireland to the west of Great Britain. The adjective Northern Irish means "relating to Northern Ireland". A native of Northern Ireland is a Northern Irelander, a Northern Irishman or a Northern Irishwoman, and usually a British citizen by nationality. (But note that a long and turbulent history between Ireland and Britain means that some natives of Northern Ireland identify as Irish.)

Test your understanding with UK or England Quiz


See also: What is English? A short history of the origins and development of English

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