What's the Difference Between England, Great Britain, and the UK?

Did you know that England, Great Britain, the United Kingdom, and the British Isles are all different? Here's a diagram to help you see the difference.

Mignon Fogarty
2-minute read
Episode #437

What’s the difference between England, Great Britain, and the UK>


I know all you European listeners think it’s ridiculous that Americans don’t know the difference between England and Britain, but a British friend told me that many of you don’t know the difference between Britain and the United Kingdom, and that this would be a good topic for a podcast even though people should already know. 

I first became aware of the confusion when I was using Stamps.com to mail out the Peeve Wars decks, it took me at least 20 minutes to figure out that if I wanted to mail something to England or Scotland, I needed to select Great Britain from the long list of countries. 

Even then, I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know until I saw a diagram posted on the @copyediting account on Twitter that shows the relationship between the British Isles, British Islands, the United Kingdom, Great Britain, England, and so on. 

Great Britain is made up of England, Scotland, and Wales. Add a fourth, Northern Ireland, and now you have the United Kingdom.

Add the Crown Dependencies and you have the British Islands, and add the whole island of Ireland and you have the British Isles.

On the image, you’ll see that Scotland is still part of the United Kingdom. Their recent vote for independence—to leave the United Kingdom—would have changed that, but the people voted to keep things as they are, so we don’t have to make new diagrams.

Scandinavia Versus the Nordic Countries

People sometimes similarly confuse Scandinavia and the Nordic Countries. The most commonly accepted definitions are that Scandinavia is made up of Denmark, Norway, and Sweden; and if you add Finland and Iceland, you then have the group known as the Nordic Countries.

That leads me to a question from a listener named Mark, who asked about a sentence that talked about something happening “on behalf of the Norway government.” Shouldn’t it be the “Norwegian government,” he wondered. He’s correct. 

Capitalizing Country Adjectives

Writers should use the adjective form of the country name in phrases such as on behalf of the Norwegian government. Just as at the beginning of this segment, I said, “you European listeners think it’s ridiculous,” instead of “you Europe listeners,” it should be the Norwegian government, and the Swedish government, and with Denmark you’d talk about the Danish government.

Of course, these national adjectives are capitalized just as you’d capitalize the country names themselves.

Want More? Here is a vastly more detailed @cgpgrey video about England, Britain, and the UK.

The diagram with this article was remade from the public domain image at Wikimedia. See the Wikimedia page for answers to frequently asked questions about the diagram. Background image courtesy of Shutterstock.

About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.