I once encountered a lady who seemed to come from America or the United Kingdom. When I asked Are you an American? she said no. I was reluctant to ask if she is an English because it sounded very strange. I learned from this answer that it would be right to say Are you English? but it also sounds strange to me. I know it might be right. I wonder if I can say Are you a British?

I learned from the dictionary that both British and English represent the British people or the people of England. They are both plural nouns.

Are there native ways to ask if a person comes from England? Is this question right? Should I ask if a person is one of the British (or English people)?

  • 10
    Are you British?, Are you a Brit?........... Are you English? is correct and doesn't sound strange at all.
    – Void
    Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 15:32
  • 22
    Note that non-English Brits can sometimes be rather offended if you refer to them as 'English'! Complicated, huh?
    – Strawberry
    Commented Jan 24, 2021 at 23:50
  • 3
    On EL&u a very similar question was posted way back in 2014 Why can we say 'an American' but not 'a British'?
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 12:00
  • 4
    2. The words British and English are sometimes referred to as nouns when they occur in phrases like "the British" or "the English". However, these are still adjectives. It might help to understand them as being short for "the British (people)" or "the English (people)". These types of noun phrases are sometimes called "fused head" noun phrases. The are unusual because they don't contain any nouns. They nearly always refer to groups of people, not singular people and always have the word the not the word a. Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 14:10
  • 3
    As a side note...English and British do not mean the same thing. Scottish people and Welsh people and North Irish people are British, they are not English.
    – swbarnes2
    Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 1:03

9 Answers 9


It's a peculiarity of the language that in some cases the noun for a person of a particular nationality is the same as the adjective, in other cases it is not.

He is American (adj.) - an American (noun).

He is German - a German.

... but we can't say He is a French or She is an English. It's perfectly correct, and much easier, to say She is English/British/French. The nouns would be Englishman/woman and Frenchman/woman. There is a noun for a British person, Briton, but it is not much used in everyday conversation.

Ask "Do you come from Britain?" or "Are you British?"

I'm afraid it is just one more of the odd things about the English language that you have to memorise!

  • 10
    Actually, it’s not as inconsistent as you might think. Most nationalities (I’m saying ‘most’ here to be cautious, I know of none that do not follow this, but my knowledge may be incomplete) where the adjective ends in ‘sh’ or ‘ch’ change for the noun form. Most such cases either append ‘man’ (or ‘woman’ or ‘person’) or shift to a longer noun-phrase utilizing the adjective, though there are exceptions (for example, ‘Finnish’ (or alternatively ‘Finnic’) and ‘Finn’ or ‘Flemish’ and ‘Fleming’). A vast majority of nationalities that do not fit the above mentioned ending do not change. Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 3:22
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    @AustinHemmelgarn: Add -ese, at least, to that list (Chinese, Japanese, Maltese, Portuguese…). After an admittedly short time thinking, I would say rather that the rule is -an is the ending that doesn't change ((an) Australian, (a) German, (an) Italian, (a) Mexican…), and others do. Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 6:54
  • 32
    The referenced noun (Briton) is more often used in its shortened form 'Brit'. "Are you a Brit?" is a grammatically correct, if colloquial, question
    – mcalex
    Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 8:09
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    @nick012000 I hope you are not suggesting that we teach a Chinese person to ask "Are you a Limey?" or "Are you a Frog?"! Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 8:26
  • 5
    @PrimeMover Googling limey, I find that opinions differ as to whether it's an insult or merely a nickname. However, using a nickname for a particular group of people is obviously less polite than using the proper word. Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 9:57

National identity is a complex thing, especially when a person can have more than one identity. Consider "Are you Chinese?". A person can be "Chinese" but live in Singapore, the US or anywhere in the world. A person can live in China, but is not Han Chinese (Yi, Tibetian, Uighur and so on). Or be Han Chinese, but from one of the regions (Hakka, Wu, Yue etc). Are you "Chinese"?

Are you English? is a perfectly correct question. I'm English, but I'm also European and British, a Sussexite, and a Citizen of the World. My brother-in-law is Scottish, though he lives in England. His kids are English (but support Scotland in the rugby). My friend is British, and English, and Indian, and Keralese. My nephew is American and British and Canadian and Indian and Pakistani and a Marylander...

As with any personal question, first think "Do I need to know?" So if not, then it's probably best not to say anything. If you ask "Are you American" and she says "no" but doesn't say anything else, then that is a strong hint that she doesn't want to talk about it. If you do decide to ask then "Are you English?" is correct and doesn't mean "Do you speak English". But be aware that many people in the UK do not identify as "English". "Are you British?" is also correct, (but for people in Northern Ireland, that question can start fights.) "Are you from the UK?" is also correct.

The question you ask depends on why you want to know.

  • 1
    Only asking personal questions if you "need to know" seems a bit strong, especially since we have no idea what the context is. If it was a social gathering than personal questions are expected, although this particular one may still be problematic. Commented Jan 25, 2021 at 15:51
  • Yes, you are right. My question is more about the spoken language itself, not business English. In that scenario, I just replied to her a single "English?" and she nodded her head. Period. That said, British people sometimes look cliquey (compared to Americans). Commented Feb 2, 2021 at 11:44

"Are you British?" works, or simply ask if they are from the British Isles or if they are from the UK.

Asking if they are "an English" sounds very weird making the "English" part sound like it needs an extra word and that the "English" would serve as an adjective(as in "Are you an English woman?"), compared to asking if they are English. "Are you a Briton" would work as well.

You can sidestep all the problems that might arise from them identifying as Welsh, Scott or as a Briton from Australia or such places by simply asking them where they are from though if you're curious - this is perfectly acceptable and has little risk of offending anyone except if you're asking it near to the place they are from implying that they would have a weird accent or mannerisms for the locale you are currently in - but say if you meet someone abroad in a country and they seem foreign to that country it's perfectly acceptable to just ask where they are from if you're in conversation with them.

If someone is speaking fluent native English though I often just ask "so are you from America, England or where?" because I can make a guess where they are from but it might not be correct. Never had a "kiwi" or an "ozzie" throw a fit over it and if they are from a non English speaking country it just works as a compliment on their English skills.


tl;dr Probably easiest to just ask someone if an adjective describing a nationality fits them. Historically, nouns were constructed as [adjective]+"man", with some being truncated to just [adjective] if the compounding sounded redundant, though since the non-truncated variants may carry some cultural baggage, it may be advisable to avoid them in favor of just using the adjectives.

Ask if they're described by an adjective or are a noun.

You can:

  1. Ask if an adjective describing their nationality fits them.

  2. Ask if they are a noun describing someone of that nationality.

For example:

  1. Are you English?

  2. Are you an Englishman?

Note that the +"man" suffix is sex/gender-neutral. For example, "Englishman" doesn't generally imply masculinity.

In some cases, compounding [adjective]+"man" can sound redundant, e.g. "German-man" or "American-man". In these cases, the +"man" suffix seems to be dropped, such that it's just "German" and "American".

However, the non-truncated nouns aren't as common now; they seem to have acquired some weird cultural baggage. For example:

  • "Englishman" can sound a bit formal in some contexts.

  • "Frenchman" may mostly just sound a bit archaic.

  • "Chinaman" is more likely to be interpreted as offensive.

  • "Scotsman" has held up relatively well. It's not commonly seen as offensive nor quite so dated.

The truncated-nouns probably dodged acquiring this baggage by being homonyms of the adjectives, so while "American" and "German" are pretty neutral, it's probably advisable to avoid most of the terms that explicitly end with "man".

Note: The [adjective]+"man" construction still works elsewhere.

The above discussed [adjective]+"man" with respect to nationalities.

The same construction is used in other places. Examples:

  1. A businessman is someone who does business.

  2. A fireman is someone who puts out fires.

  3. A Congressman is someone in Congress.

    • Note that "Congressman" is typically capitalized, despite being a generic noun, as it's simply constructed from "Congress"+"man", where "Congress" is typically capitalized.

These terms are still in widespread usage.

The major caveat is that there's a lot of interest in gender shifting some perceptions of "man" being exclusively masculine. So in some cases, folks'll use [adjective]+"woman" for females or [adjective]+"person" for gender-neutrality.

  • Even 50 years ago the acceptance of -man as gender neutral was shifting, but in particular I would never ask a woman if she was an "Englishman". I wouldn't use "Englishwoman" either because it sounds very stuffy to my ears. Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 2:12
  • @DaleHagglund: Yeah, I recently read a US Supreme Court opinion from 1874 in which their discussion indicated that there was popular confusion on the topic (though the Court itself was clear on the topic). I think the larger issue's primarily that the literal English doesn't simplify well, allowing there to be confusion. Most language conventions correspond, where someone who isn't fully literate can still get an approximate understanding, but the genderedness of "man" is largely non-correspondent in that it's not well-approximated in simpler understandings of English.
    – Nat
    Commented Jan 26, 2021 at 2:16

You are discussing locatives. Since locative usage can differ from that of other uses of the same word, there can be some confusion.

One would not say

Are you an English?

The two correct alternatives use the locative and use "English" as an adjective:

Are you English?
Are you an English person?

The use of "Are you an English?" Sounds as odd as "Are you a tall?" I am a tall person, but I am not an instance of the abstract idea of tallness. Similarly, I am an American person, but I am not an instance of the abstract idea of American-ness.


Be careful what you ask, if she's Welsh, she should answer 'yes' to "Are you British", but 'no' to "Are you English". England is a part of Britain, but so are Scotland and Wales. This doesn't directly answer your question, but may help clarifying what you should ask and what the responses may mean.


Phrasing the question in terms of the national identity of the individual, either as a noun or adjective, has commplexities. Many historically-normal nouns are gender-specific; as two of the prior comments say, "Englishman" is not suitable for a woman, no matter how convenient it would be if it were. And many countries' names have been co-opted as ethnic identifiers; so someone may identify as Chinese even though they're several generations North American born, when what you wanted to know if if they were, themselves, from China. Conversely, a member of an ethnic minority group might not identify with the name of the country they're a citizen of, where ethnic or regional idenities are strong. (I once asked a new neighbour if she was Italian and she said, "No, No, Calabria!")

A very good tack might be to phrase the question as "Are you from —". This is much safer as country names are well standardized and do not bear on the gender or ethnic identity of the person. There are a few difficult cases; what Britain means, for example, remains opaque to many anglophone North Americans, and a few nations have names in a state of politically-charged flux, but these are rare and if you use the name generally accepted internationally you should be ok.

I want to add, though, that in your example, I would take it as odd that the lady you spoke to just said "No" and nothing more. Far more common would be to say, "No, Canadian" or "No, Australian" or even "No, why do you ask?". Just a simple No is more likely to indicate she didn't feel like talking; and I doubt very much she'd welcome a game of 20 Questions where we listed off all the countries we could think of.


-ish 1. a suffix used to form adjectives from nouns, with the sense of “belonging to” (British; Danish; English; Spanish); “after the manner of,” “having the characteristics of,” “like” (babyish; girlish; ...

The noun is Britain/Brit, the adjective form is British.

"Are you British?" means "Are you [belonging to Britain]?"

"Are you [adjective]?" "Are you fast?"

In the above, don't use "a" because "British" is an adjective.

"Are you a citizen?"

"Are you a [noun]?" "Are you a runner?"

In the above, you use "a" because "citizen" is a noun.

"Are you a British citizen?"

"Are you a [adjective] [noun]?" "Are you a fast runner?"

In the above, "British" clarifies the type of "citizen" as an adjective. Still use "a" because "citizen" is a noun.

Other nationality-words like "American" get used as both a noun and an adjective, the other answers already went into detail about that.

  • 1
    "Are you a British Citizen?" is a question about a legal status that the UK government has tried to remove from groups hitherto accepted as belonging here (Windrush, Gurkha veterans, etc) and not the same question as the OP's "Are you British, you have a different accent?" Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 14:18
  • 1
    It's an example of a case where you do use "a" before "British". By the necessity of the sentence structure it has to be more specific than simply "Are you British". But by all means, feel good about yourself for downvoting a bigot on the internet because I failed include enough of your political neuroticism into my answer about grammar.
    – gunfulker
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 18:57
  • This isn't just a English grammar site, it is for learners of English who can be assumed also not to have a native's grounding in the culture. So while your example is grammatical, it is also not a question that people without the understanding of the possible implications of the question should be encouraged to ask. Think of an example which isn't treated as a micro-aggression by 10% of the UK population and I'll remove the downvote. As you don't list a location on your profile, my assumption is lack of knowledge not any bigoted intent; the downvote is on the answer not on you as a person. Commented Jan 28, 2021 at 14:17

I learned from the dictionary that both British and English represent the British people or the people of England.

Then you need a new dictionary, with regard to that "English represent the British people".

Tl;dr - asking some Scottish, Welsh or Irish "are you English" may result in a sore nose.

How is your mathematics? Have you covered Venn diagrams? The internet is full of the likes of this:

enter image description here

which is odd, in that it starts with Britain (England plus Wales). Here's a very simplified version:

  • Scotland, England Wales and Northern Ireland are each individual countries (for proof, just look at international sporting competitions ;-)
  • England plus Wales equals Britain
  • to make it great, add Scotland, and you get Great Britain
  • add Northern Ireland and you have the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland

The whole "British, or associated" thing gets vastly complex. For further, fascinating, detail of all things Brit-related, see this excellent page, which goes as far as

enter image description here

  • 2
    This is fascinating, but doesn’t answer the question, and isn’t really about learning the English language.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 15:26
  • I posted it fully expecting downvotes. However, 1) it corrects a mistake in the OP's understanding and/or dictionary 2) it contains enough information to answer the question "... it would be right to say Are you English? but it also sounds strange to me. I know it might be right. I wonder if I can say Are you a British?"" (when in doubt, use British) 3) it might help readers avoid a punched nose (or worse, and I am not joking. Wherever you hail from, I am sure that you have an equivalent - asking a redneck if he is Canadian, for instance;a Bavarian if he is Prussian ...)
    – Mawg
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 21:11
  • Plus 4) as you said, it is fascinating
    – Mawg
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 21:13
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    I did not downvote it, because it’s well-written and tangentially related. It’s not really appropriate as part of this Q&A though. It’s a shame there isn’t a separate linked “discussion” page to capture these things. Since we don’t have that, I’m not going to make a stink about removing helpful information.
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 21:15
  • 1
    (also “redneck” is one of those descriptors that you have to be able to apply to yourself to use politely and is completely different from “hillbilly” ;) )
    – ColleenV
    Commented Jan 27, 2021 at 21:20

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