Please clarify which is UK English, American English, and where and when to use which:

  • Fall term (American English?)
  • Autumn semester (UK English?)
  • Autumn term (wrong?)
  • Fall semester (wrong?)
  • 1
    Are you talking about university or high school? Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 9:29

4 Answers 4


Fall and autumn are famous differences between British and American use, both recognised in all forms of English, but fall almost never actually used in Britain and Ireland and rarely in Australia or New Zealand, autumn almost never used in America, and Canada using both.

Term and semester are not strict synonyms. Term applies to any part the academic year is broken into, while semester strictly applies only to a bipartite system, with trimester (yes, the same as pregnant ladies have) for a tripartite and quadmester or quarter for a quadripartite system (such as Australian schools have).

To add confusion, if you have three normal terms, but also offer supplementary classes over the summer, then the terms can be referred to both as trimesters (taking the name from the three only) and as quarters (taking the name from all four).

Not long ago you could be pretty confident that a given US college or university would use semesters and a given UK or Irish one would use trimesters. In the last few decades though, many UK & Irish colleges introduced a policy of semesterisation (such a cumbersome word to put on posters at Student Union protests, but put it on, we did) and now have semesters while some US colleges have three-term or three-terms-with-supplementary-summer-term systems.

Since they aren't perfect synonyms, there are times when precision leads to US speakers using term or UK speakers using semester or trimester as appropriate. At times when one could choose freely between them, a US speaker is more likely to use semester while a UK speaker to use term. However students or faculty at UK colleges with semesters are slightly more likely to use that term, given its novelty to the college and that the move toward semesters was a controversial one in many colleges, resulting in the word being strong in people's minds. It is also common for such UK colleges to call them semesters in timetables and official literature, but people refer to them as terms informally.

The names of individual terms in the UK & Ireland differ from college to college. For those with semesters either Autumn and Spring or Autumn and Spring and Summer are common, or they might just be Semester 1 & Semester 2. For those with trimesters, some examples include:

Michaelmas, Lent & Easter; Michaelmas, Epiphany & Easter; Michaelmas, Lent & Summer; Autumn, Spring & Summer; Michaelmas, Hilary & Trinity; Martinmas, Candlemas & Whitsunday.

Traditionally, the English split the year into Hilary, Easter, Trinity & Michaelmas with Ireland following suit (in some ways the history of Trinity College Dublin is as much a British one as an Irish), while the Scots split it into Candlemas, Whitsunday, Lammas & Martinmas. As they each altered their systems in different ways at different times, they ended up having different names from each other.

These sometimes survive into semester names, with e.g. St. Andrews having Martinmas & Candlemas semesters, due to their once having a trimester system with the terms named, Martinmas, Candlemas & Whitsunday.

Edit, mplungjan's comment makes me consider that some of these names may be unfamiliar to some.

Easter: Probably known to all, but included for completeness. The movable feast of the resurrection of Christ. First sunday after first full moon, after 21 March, it can be anywhere between 22 March and 25 April.

Lent: The forty days before Easter.

Michaelmas: Feast of St. Michael the Archangel, 29 September.

Epiphany: Feast of the revelation of God made flesh through Christ, and the recongition of this by the magi. January 6.

Hilary: Feast of St. Hilary of Poitiers, 13 January.

Whitsunday: Generally means the celebration of Pentecost (descent of the Holy Spirit upon the apostles) celebrated on the seventh Sunday after Easter. In Scotland, there was a period when it also refered to a fixed holiday, 15 May.

Trinity: Trinity Sunday is the first Sunday after Pentecost.

Lammas: Feast of St. Peter in chains. August 1, combined in Britain with the Anglo-Saxon hlaf-mas (loaf mass) and absorbing the Lughnasadh of Scotland, Ireland and Man.

Martinmas: Feast of St. Martin of Tours, 11 November.

  • 1
    PS: For those who wonder about Hilary: The Hilary sessions of British High Court and universities (1577) are from St. Hilarius, Bishop of Poitiers, obit. C.E. 368, whose feast day is Jan. 13.
    – mplungjan
    Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 10:58
  • @mplungjan actually, Whitsunday may be the more confusing, since the Scots use it slightly differently to most. I shall add a bit on the name origins.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 11:03
  • 1
    Autumn is catching on in the US though. So much less cumbersome than having to use the definite article with a season. Oh, and fall doesn't give you autumnal.
    – Jez
    Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 14:15
  • 1
    @Jez you'll find occasional use of Fall over here. Still so rare as to count as "hardly ever" though. Both words have some great poetic qualities in their favour (as does Harvest which was the most common term up until the 1700s). Besides, while fall doesn't give you autumnal, nor does spring give you vernal, but we still use it.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 14:21

American usage for September to December in this context is "Fall", never "Autumn". [Correction: a commenter who did more work with Google has found counterexamples. Fall is more common, but not universal] Term is apparently used at Harvard and Princeton, but I believe Semester (for a term of approximately 15 weeks) and Quarter (for a term of approximately 10 weeks) are more common. Not all our universities are so long in the tooth!

Berkeley [Semester]; UCLA [Quarter]; Chicago [Quarter].

I defer to UK readers for usage there.

  • Except for Chicago, DePaul, Stanford, U. Washington, and Denver, which all have "autumn quarters", and Ohio State, which has "autumn semesters", as well as all the U.S. schools which have "autumn terms" (these are harder to find by Googling because so many non-U.S. schools also have "autumn terms"). From this random sample, it seems "autumn" is used more in the Midwest and West than in the East and South. I wonder whether this is statistical fluctuation or a real regional difference in usage. Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 12:30
  • 1
    Never is clearly too strong. Fall is more common. Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 16:27

The British equivalent of American semester is term. Schools have an Autumn Term, a Spring Term and a Summer Term. The University of Oxford has a Michaelmas Term (autumn), a Hilary Term (spring) and a Trinity Term (summer).

  • And a bleak midwinter, if I remember correctly. But perhaps your college had modern central heating. Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 9:40
  • Semester is becoming more common a term in British universities too, though term is the normal form. Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 9:41
  • 2
    @Edwin Ashworth. Central heating? We had to rub two sticks together to make a fire to put the kettle on. Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 9:42
  • @nicodemus13 semester is becoming a more common term in British universities, because semesters are becoming more common. They aren't synonyms, and semester only applies if there are two in the year, while British Universities used to all have trimesters, and many still do.
    – Jon Hanna
    Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 10:11
  • 1
    Yes, you have to define terms. Commented Jan 29, 2013 at 10:15

Term is the hypernym in this context. University calendars are typically based on a quarter (10-week) or semester (15-week) system. At either institution, though, the expression winter term could be used when referencing the winter quarter or the winter semester.

Some universities might offer courses in a condensed format over the summer, in which case, you might hear a professor say something like, "I'm only teaching in the second short term this summer."

Term can also be used in the context of elementary and secondary education: "My daughter got a B in science last term."

From NOAD:

term (n.) each of the periods in the year, alternating with holidays or vacations, during which instruction is given in a school, college, or university

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.