Standard or Non?

Six of the following sentences are written in Standard English. Which are they? Answers and comments in my next post.

1. Yon house hasn’t been lived in for a year.
2. I ain’t seen nothing.
3. Someone should have told us, shouldn’t they?
4. I only done it last week.
5. This check-out is for less than five items.
6. Can I go now?
7. Happen she were in a hurry.
8. You’ll need to slowly back out and then turn round.
9. It was only when I come home that I seen it.
10. What was you after?
11. I’m afraid I don’t really know who you’re referring to.
12. They invited my husband and I to lunch.


Filed under Dialects, English Language, Language, Standard English

25 responses to “Standard or Non?

  1. I’d say 3, 5, 6, 8, 11, 12


  2. Congratulations on being the first, Keith. Now let’s see if anyone agrees or disagrees.


  3. Jill Child

    ‘Standard English’, Barry, what’s that? Is that the same as ‘correct English’, is it non-dialect English, is it English like wot it’s spoken? If I have to pick 6 then it would be the same ones as Keith above as they are non-dialect, but pedants would surely say 5, 11 and 12 were not ‘correct’? In fact, looking more closely, I think 3, 6 and 8 also contain oddities, so I suppose the answer here could be that even the ones that appear to be standard break some rule or another?


    • For some comments on Standard English, Jill, see here and my own attempt at a definition here . I’ve been saying recently that Standard English is what you hear when you watch, say, the News at Six on BBC1, but it’s helpful to remember that Standard English is a dialect as much as any other.

      I’ll give my answers and explanations when there has been time for a few others to comment.


      • Ania

        I would agree with Keith although not entirelly sure about the hypercorrection in 12. Is it ‘officially’ standard English?


        • There’s no ‘official’ Standard English, but there is fairly widespread understanding of what it is and where it is to be found. No one, I imagine, has have any difficulty in recognising, for example, that ‘I’m tired’ is Standard English and that ‘I be tired’ isn’t.


  4. So standard are most of Keith’s six that I didn’t even notice the ‘problems’ in 3, 6 and 11 until I read Jill’s comment. In TEFL we teach ‘singular they’ after impersonal pronouns (3) and ‘can’ for permission as absolutely standard (and so Standard).

    I don’t think many people (apart from the Economist apparently) bother much about split infinitives, so No 8 is OK (although personally, I think ‘back out slowly’ sounds more natural). And ditto for stranded prepositions, so no problems with 11.

    As regards No 5, I take much the same attitude, when teaching, as Michael Swan does in ‘Practical English Usage’, where he says ‘Less is quite common before countable nouns, especially in an informal style. Some people consider this incorrect’. I know that I (BrE – RP) do it myself, especially in ‘less people’. In other words, it’s fine in normal conversation, but in exams and more formal work they’re better sticking with ‘fewer’.

    I think No 12 is the trickiest. I’m not sure that it would be accepted in Cambridge certificate exams, for example. Having said that, it seems to be increasingly used; Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage calls it a ‘polite fixed unit’ and quotes examples from Shakespeare and Pepys, amongst others. To quote Swan again – ‘I is often used in co-ordinated objects’ in informal use, but considered incorrect in more formal use’. So I think we have to accept it as Standard English; as one of the linguists at Language Log has said – ‘informal is normal’

    On a different note, I’ve always felt that ‘My husband and I’ was one of those phrases, like ‘Daddy’s yacht’ , ‘one tends to agree’ and ‘actually’ etc, that many Brits try and avoid, because of their royal and upper class associations.

    Now I’ve one to add to your collection, heard on a Radio 4 dramatisation of a Swedish crime novel (not read by a Northerner) – ‘Larssen was sat at his desk’. This idiom, which I rather like, seems to me to becoming increasingly Standard in BrE. Perhaps you could do a follow-up with things like ‘Hi Mum, it’s me’, ‘Me and Jim went to the same school’ and ‘between you and I’.


    • Thank you, Will, for that view from a TEFL perspective.

      It may well be that there are certain expressions that some of us avoid for fear of seeming to be above ourselves. Equally, I suspect there are those who seek them out for the opposite reason.

      There is certainly material for further discussion of variation in the use of ‘I’ and ‘me’, and we touched on it in a previous post. The use of ‘sat’ where many might prefer ‘sitting’ (and of ‘stood’ for ‘standing’) is another interesting area. I posted about it in 2010, but it could perhaps bear revisiting at some point.


  5. Jonathan Hammond

    I agree entirely with Keith (and I didn’t look first!)

    I’m also sure that Will’s “Larssen was sat at his desk” is standard, although I’ve have others argue that I’m mistaken on that point. Mind you, I’ve seen people argue quite strongly that all those six examples are not only ‘non-standard’ but are also simply ‘wrong’. The ‘non-standard’ argument can be annoying, but I get irritated when people blatantly state, with a deal of pride, that they look down on others who use the language so wrongly.


    • Yes, Keith, many (most?) judgements of that kind are social rather than linguistic.


    • As I’ve noted, “Larssen was sat at his desk” can only mean to me, or other Yanks, that someone sat him there, probably forcibly. As such it is of course standard.


      • There may be some speakers of British English, John, who would understand ‘Larssen was sat at his desk’ in the same way, but my guess is that for the vast majority it would pass unnoticed as meaning the same as ‘Larssen was sitting at his desk’.


        • Does this extend to other verbs of human posture? “John was knelt at the altar”? “John was run down the street”? “John was hung on by his fingernails”? How about figurative uses like “John was sat on the fence on that issue” or “John was stood out like a sore thumb in that group”?

          Inquiring Yanks want to know!


      • Hi. I can’t really imagine anyone’s going to forcibly sit a police inspector at his own desk :). As Barrie says, it is also used for ‘stood’, but not , I think, for much else. It’s an idiom, so probably not to be too carefully grammatically dissected. On the other hand, I see it as adjectival, as in “the forest is situated between two rivers” – nobody situated the forest there, forcibly or otherwise.


        • I think the adjectival interpretation might be the right approach, Will. In my 2010 post I suggested there might be a parallel in the pairs:

          1 (a) He was parked on double yellow lines. 2 (b) He was parking on double yellow lines.

          2 (a) He was stopped at the traffic lights. 2 (b) He was stopping at the traffic lights.


        • I happen to have been reading this evening Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, in which he said ‘We are met here on a great battlefield of that war.’ ‘We are met’ seems to be on much the same pattern as ‘Larssen was sat’.


        • That “we are met” is Early Modern English for “we have met”; it does not mean “we are meeting” in this context. English once had verbs whose perfect auxiliary was “be” rather than “have”, as French and German still do (but not Spanish). For example, in Shakespeare, Caesar says to the soothsayer “The Ides of March are come”, and gets the ominous reply “Ay, Caesar, but not gone”, i.e. “they are not yet gone”). Even as late as the King James Version we still have is come, is gone, is become. Lincoln’s style, like that of many Americans of his day, was founded on the Bible.

          Some other archaisms in the Gettysburg Address: “four score and seven” for “eighty-seven”, the use of “add or detract” without following prepositions, “little note nor long remember”, “to be here dedicated” for “to be dedicated here”, “they here gave” for “they gave here”, “we here highly resolve” for “we strongly resolve here” or the like.


  6. Rob

    I agree with Keith.


    • It certainly extends to ‘was stood’, John, for which the BNC has 34 records (compared to 50 for ‘was sat’). I can imagine someone saying ‘John was knelt at the altar’, although the BNC has only three records for ‘was knelt’. My intuition is that the construction is not found in figurative contexts.


  7. Pingback: Standard or Non? Answers and Comments | Caxton

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