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Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, 8th edition

Flat: noun. [ countable ] ( BrE ) a set of rooms for living in, including a kitchen, usually on one floor of a building.

Apartment: noun. ( especially NAmE ) a set of rooms for living in, usually on one floor of a building

Does that means Flat is used in BrE and Apartment is used in AmE? And is there any other difference for the two words when one uses it?

I feel that flat is used more widely, is that right?

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No citations, so I won't post it as an answer, but your sentiment generally agrees with my experience with one caveat: I don't feel that "apartment" in the US has the connotation of a single floor. –  Ben Hocking Jul 11 '11 at 0:21
    
In Minneapolis, "flats" appear on apartment building signs, I presume to market to a more urban, cosmopolitan audience. –  NateMPLS Jul 11 '11 at 2:02
    
@Ben Hocking: In fact, I live in a so-called "duplex apartment" in the US, which has two floors and a staircase. –  Kosmonaut Jul 11 '11 at 2:30
    
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4 Answers

up vote 15 down vote accepted

Flat is used in British English, and apartment is used in North American English. The exact meaning of the word apartment depends on where you live.

In large parts of Canada and in or near New York City, it is used for a residence in a multi-unit building; this meaning is the one given by OALD, and is a synonym of the British word flat.

In most of the rest of the U.S. and on the West Coast of Canada, the word apartment is reserved for a rented residence in a multi-unit building; if the residences in the building are individually owned, they are called condos.

As Ben Hocking says in his comment, an apartment doesn't have to be on just one story (although the majority of them are). But if you live in a multistory residence which doesn't have anything either above or below your unit, even though there are residences attached on both sides, this is more commonly called a townhouse. If there are just two residences in the same building, you have a duplex.

See also this question.

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Flat is used everywhere I've lived in the U.S. where there are multi-flat (two-flat, three-flat, etc.) apartments for lease. –  Robusto Jul 11 '11 at 0:33
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@Robusto I'm not sure where you've lived in the U.S. but I've never heard of anyone referring to apartments as "flats". In which cities have you heard people talking about "flats"? –  nohat Jul 11 '11 at 5:27
    
Ditto nohat. I've never heard an American say flat, but the US is a big place with varied terminology. –  theidiotbox Jul 11 '11 at 5:49
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@nohat: I'm from Chicago, and have lived at various places in the U.S. The usage is not to call an apartment a flat per se, but as I said to call a certain kind of apartment building, in which the residences occupy an entire floor, a 2-flat or a 3-flat. That kind of residence is not found in Southern California, I think, but that's one of the places I haven't lived. –  Robusto Jul 11 '11 at 10:15
    
@Robusto: In Boston, if I understand you right, 3-flats are called triple-deckers. –  Peter Shor Jul 11 '11 at 13:26
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No, it's not that clear-cut.

Both words are used in the UK: a "flat" would generally be a fairly 'ordinary' residence that doesn't constitute the entire space within a building, whereas an "apartment" tends to imply a similar concept, but more luxurious. As I understand, "flat" is rarely used in the US.

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Agreed. In the UK an apartment often means an up-market flat. –  FumbleFingers Jul 11 '11 at 2:25
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@FumbleFingers - isn't that just a modern copying of AE usage to sound 'upmarket'? –  mgb Jul 11 '11 at 3:51
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Just to clarify: "flat" is distinctly British, and I've never heard an American say it (I'm from NY/NJ and went to college/have lots of family in New England). In America, your apartment can be a crap hole and it would still be called an apartment. Also, if the BrE usage is a modern way to sound upmarket, then I'll point out the French word "appartement". I don't know about origins or anything... –  theidiotbox Jul 11 '11 at 5:46
    
@theidiotbox: I'm not sure whether the French apartment or the Italian appartamento came first. Anyway, it derives from appartare, eventually from Latin partire which means to divide, to separate. –  nico Jul 11 '11 at 6:03
    
@theidiotbox, @nico: Adding to the language list, Spanish "apartamento" means (in Spain) a small, often too small, apartment, whereas a nicer and larger apartment is called "piso". There's no upmarket connotation to "apartamento" at all; quite the opposite. –  CesarGon Jul 11 '11 at 7:21
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An answer based on British English:

There are several components to this: number of storeys; sole-use versus shared-use buildings; and the target market.

As the OALD says, flats tend to be flat - i.e. on just one floor of a building. And they imply that they don't have sole use of the building - that there are other units in the same building; either other dwellings, a shop, offices, whatever.

If it's got more than one storey, but does not have sole use of the building, then it's a maisonette.

If a flat or maisonette is being sold/rented to an international market, it tends to get called an apartment, as that's better understood in International English.

If it's the sole use of a one-storey building (i.e. if the dwelling occupies the entire building), it's not a flat, it's a bungalow.

If it's the sole use of a building with more than one storey, then it's not a maisonette, it's a house. Bungalows are sometimes considered to be a subset of houses.

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And if it's semi-attached, it's semi-detached ! –  Joe Blow Jul 11 '11 at 8:55
    
Your descriptions of the different terminologies is mostly correct, but a maisonette has one more requirement (and I know this because I own one and the legal definition has been debated in legal tribunal hearings I've been involved with with my freeholder). A maisonette must have its own entrance to outside as opposed to a flat which has its own internal entrance, but shares a communal entrance to outside. In legislation, however, a maisonette is considered a flat for brevity. –  Neo Dec 12 '12 at 16:25
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To confuse things further, apartment in BrE also means a room - for instance you could have a three apartment flat.

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