The ground floor and first floor in British and American English

Let’s take a look at a small but important difference in British and American English: the naming of floors in a building.

In British English the floor of a building at street level is called the ground floor. The floor above it is the first floor and the floor below is called the basement.

In American English, however, the floor at street level is usually called the first floor. Go up one floor and you are on the second floor (which, of course, is the first floor for the British). The floor below street level is called the basement, the same as in British English.

One or two of my American friends tell me that in public buildings in the US it’s also possible to call the street-level floor the ground floor, like in Britain.

Storey, storeys / story, stories

Another important word to consider here is storey. This word describes the level (height) of a building and the total number of its floors. Thus we say that a building has eight storeys, or is an eight-storey building (don’t forget the hyphen there, please!)

From the word ‘storey’ we get single-storey and multi-storey buildings. Just to make it more confusing, storey is often spelled story (plural ‘stories’) in American English.
  
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Stuart is an English teacher and runs the Speakspeak website. He currently lives in Prague and has been teaching for over 20 years.

14 Comments

  1. Ankit Shah - April 13, 2012, 8:15 am Reply

    This is informative article.

  2. Dan Dumitrache - May 11, 2012, 8:02 am Reply

    So, let’s say … a building has basement, ground floor, first floor and second floor. How many floors does the building have?

    • Profile photo of Stuart Cook

      Stuart Cook - May 11, 2012, 11:17 am Reply

      I’d say it has three floors, as they’re the ones visible from outside the building. And in any case, the basement isn’t a ‘floor’. I’m not sure if there’s a difference in the US, though.
      What would you say, Dan?

      • Dan Dumitrache - May 11, 2012, 11:48 pm Reply

        Well, first of all I have to say that I am not an English native speaker (I am from Romania). Secondly, why the ground floor is a floor but the basement is not a floor? Is it correct to say “the building has 3 floors but 4 levels”? (this is how I will say in Romanian language).

        • Profile photo of Stuart Cook

          Stuart Cook - May 13, 2012, 3:37 pm Reply

          Yes, three floors and four levels is probably the best way of describing it.

          • elayne - May 30, 2012, 2:15 am Reply

            yes, three floors and four levels is probably the best….

  3. Neal - January 21, 2013, 3:15 pm Reply

    This is simple vocab that can easily cause confusion for learners of English.

    The history of why the word ‘storey’ is used to refer to levels within buildings is also fascinating.

  4. How many of u know this, the difference between floor and storey? - www.hardwarezone.com.sg - October 19, 2013, 11:35 am Reply

    […] nowadays most people do not differentiate them liao… ie "x floor = x storey". Quote: The ground floor, first floor (and storeys) in British and American English The ground floor and first floor in British and American English April 9, 2012 By Stuart Cook 7 […]

  5. Anu Priya - May 28, 2014, 10:04 pm Reply

    So if a building has one ground floor and a 1st floor and 2nd floor (British). How many storeys does it have?
    Do we count the ground floor too while we speak about the storeys and what about basements?

    • Profile photo of Stuart Cook

      Stuart Cook - June 2, 2014, 12:46 pm Reply

      Yes, we count the ground floor, but not the basement. (There’s a mention of basements higher up in the comments.)

      • Jimi Eke - September 15, 2014, 8:57 am Reply

        How then do you describe a bungalow in terms of storeys? Will you call it a one-storey building? How also will you describe a building with a ground floor and 1 upper floor in the same way?

        • Profile photo of Stuart Cook

          Stuart Cook - September 15, 2014, 7:53 pm Reply

          I’d simply call it a bungalow. By definition it’s a building with just one floor, i.e. no upstairs.

          >> a building with a ground floor and 1 upper floor
          In the UK that’s the majority of houses, so if you say ‘house’, people will automatically understand that it has a ground floor and an upstairs level. If you wanted to be more specific, you’d say it’s a two-storey building.

        • Daim - November 16, 2014, 4:10 pm Reply

          I found this both usefull and confusing at the same time. Do appartments work in the same way?

          • Profile photo of Stuart Cook

            Stuart Cook - November 24, 2014, 12:14 pm Reply

            Hi, Daim

            In an an apartment block it’s the same: the ground floor is where you enter, then up to the first floor, etc.
            As I mention above, in British English the floor of a building at street level is called the ground floor.

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