The terms “flat” and “apartment” are confusing for learners of English who wonder where and when to use each. This page explains that the difference is down to which side of the “pond” you happen to be on, but why this rule is not just black and white.
Flat vs. Apartment
The major difference between the words “flat” and “apartment” is that the “flat is more commonly used in the UK, and “apartment” is more common in the US. In British English, some newer built homes are also referred to as “apartments”, while in American English they almost exclusively use “apartment.”
The key to the definition of both words is that the “flat” or “apartment” must be in a building that contains other people living in similar “flats” or “apartments.” The buildings in which they are contained are known as either “blocks of flats” or “apartment blocks.”
Whilst it states that in the UK, the word “flat” is more common, in recent decades, people in the UK have started to call more modern or upmarket homes “apartments” rather than “flats.”
Furthermore, when British people travel to other countries in Europe, for example, they use the word “apartment” rather than “flat” to refer to a set of rooms in a shared building.
What Is a “Flat”?
The Cambridge Dictionary states that a “flat” is a group of rooms used for living that is part of a building that contains other homes. They are usually, but not always, on one floor, hence the name “flat.”
The word is more common in the UK and Australia than in other English-speaking countries, which tend to use “apartment” instead.
The Collins Dictionary shows us that there are many other meanings for the word “flat”, such as an “even surface” or the geographical feature as in “flatland”, which is an “area of flat uncultivated land” often referred to as “flats.”
Here are some examples of the word “flat” in sentences in the context of homes:
- I bought a new flat last year for £200,000.
- For first-time home buyers, it is often cheaper to buy a flat rather than a house.
- The woman in the flat below mine constantly plays loud music, making my floor vibrate.
- I lived in a top-floor flat, so I had to walk up 20 flights of stairs when the lift was not working.
- You should come to my flat warming party on Saturday night.
What Is an “Apartment”?
The Cambridge Dictionary states that an “apartment” is a set of living rooms usually situated on one floor of a building.
The word “apartment” is commonly used in the US and Canada for what the British call a “flat.” It is essentially a home that is part of a building in which there are other homes.
In the UK, New Zealand, and Australia, the word “flat” is more frequent. However, the term “apartment” is often used for newer, more “upmarket” styles homes in modern blocks.
There is also a somewhat less frequent definition for “apartments”, which is a “set of large rooms with expensive furniture or decoration in a large public building such as a castle or stately home.” For example, the private chambers of a monarch within a palace would be known as “apartments.”
Here are some examples of how to use the word “apartment” in a sentence:
- My friend’s new apartment overlooks Central Park. The view is spectacular!
- Some new apartments are being built at the end of my street.
- I prefer to stay in a hotel rather than an apartment when I go on holiday.
- When I got home from work, I saw that my dog had trashed the apartment.
- More than half of the apartments in my building are empty.
Flat or Apartment in British English?
In British English, “flat” is the more familiar word for a home in a building with other dwellings. The Google Ngram Viewer shows us that in the UK, “flat” has always been more common than “apartment”, although this trend will also be somewhat influenced by the other uses of the word “flat.”
From the 1950s to the 1990s, the use of the word “flat” declined slightly in the UK in terms of frequency before rising again in the early 2000s. Conversely, the expression “apartment” increased gradually over a similar period and saw a sharp rise in frequency in the early 2000s.
The sharp rise in the frequency of “apartment” is probably due to the growth of new apartment buildings constructed in the last 20 years.
Flat or Apartment in American English?
The word more commonly used in the US to refer to a home is “apartment.” However, the Google Ngram Viewer shows that “flat” is a more common word in the US, although this is probably due to its alternative meanings, such as “an even surface.”
The graph shows that the use of the word “flat” in the US has gone down since the 1960s, while the frequency of “apartment” has risen steadily throughout the century.
Also, as well as the word “apartment”, several other terms are used in the US to describe homes that are not classed as houses. “Apartment” is often reserved for rented spaces, whilst “condo” or “condominium” is used for owned units in a communal building. Also, a building with only two homes on separate floors is often known as a “duplex.”
“Flat” and “apartment” have the same meaning, but “flat” is more commonly used in British and Australian English, whilst “apartment” is found more in American and Canadian English. However, the word “apartment” has increased in popularity in the UK and Australia to describe modern homes in communal buildings.