Standard or Non? Answers and Comments

The sentences I posted on 22 June illustrate a number of features of Standard English that are often disputed. I would apologise for raising them again, but those who dispute them might find it illuminating to see them juxtaposed with sentences that contain examples of genuine nonstandard usage.

Any readers who are unsure of what exactly Standard English is might like to read my own attempt at a definition here and what others more highly qualified have said about it and related matters here.


3. Someone should have told us, shouldn’t they?

The OED’s second definition of they is ‘often used in reference to a singular noun made universal by every, any, no, etc., or applicable to one of either sex (= “he or she”).’ As Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum, the authors of ‘The Camridge Grammar of the English Language’ confirm in ‘A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar’, ‘semantically singular they is well established in fine literature and completely natural in both conversation and writing.’

5. This check-out is for less than five items.

The OED’s definition 1c of less is ‘a smaller number of; fewer’, with the comment ‘frequently found but generally regarded as incorrect.’ As with all such comments, the OED distances itself from the judgement. The supporting citations range from King Alfred’s ninth-century translation of Boethius’s ‘De Consolatione Philosophiae’ to two from the second half of the twentieth century. As Pam Peters writes in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ the choice between fewer and less:

was and is essentially a stylistic choice, between the more formal ‘fewer’ and the more spontaneous ‘less’. ‘Fewer’ draws attention to itself, whereas ‘less’ shifts the focus on to its more significant neighbours.

6. Can I go now?

(From the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ by Douglas Biber and others)

Despite a well-known prescription that ‘may’ rather than ‘can’ should be used for permission, this use of ‘may’ is rare in the [Longman] Corpus. When it does occur, ‘may‘ indicating permission is usually produced by parents or teachers talking to children.

8. You’ll need to slowly back out and then turn round.

There should really no longer be any argument that placing an adverb between to and the infinitive is a normal Standard English construction, as Geoffrey Pullum explains here. Whether or not a writer or speaker does so is mostly a matter of style rather than grammar. Peter Harvey  gives a teacher’s pragmatic view here.

11. I’m afraid I don’t really know who you’re referring to.

There is no rule of English grammar that forbids stranded prepositions. Who rather than whom, is preferred in informal contexts.

12. They invited my husband and I to lunch.

This, I suspect, is the sentence which will cause the greatest sucking of teeth. To forestall the response some might have to this assessment, let me say that I am concerned here only with whether or not the construction can be considered Standard English, not with whether or not anyone likes it or would ever use it.

The case is often made against this use of I that when the pronoun occurs on its own in object position or following a preposition, it takes the form me, and that it should therefore take the same form in coordination. In ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’, Huddleston and Pullum challenge this approach:

But why should we simply assume that the grammatical rules for case assignment cannot differentiate between a coordinated and a non-coordinated pronoun? As it happens, there is another place in English grammar where the rules are sensitive to this distinction – for virtually all speakers, not just some of them.

Their example of where the rules show this sensitivity is:

a. I don’t know if you’re eligible. b. I don’t know if she and you’re eligible.

They point out that:

The sequence ‘you are’ can be reduced to ‘you’re’ in [a], where ‘you’ is subject, but not in [b], where the subject has the form of a coordination of pronouns. This shows us not only that a rule of English could apply differently to pronouns and coordinated pronouns, but that one rule actually does . . . The argument from analogy is illegitimate.

In ‘A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar’, the stripped-down version of the ‘Cambridge Grammar’, they write that the construction with and I  in object position ‘is used by many highly educated people with social prestige in the community: it should be regarded as a variant Standard English form.’  I reported in 2012 the use of the construction by one of those very people. Peter Harvey has discussed the related between you and I  herewhere he doubts, as do I, that  hypercorrection tells the whole story.


(The quotations following each sentence, except where indicated in 7 and 10, are from Peter Trudgill’s paper ‘Standard English: What It Isn’t’. Trudgill is also the co-author of ‘English Accents and Dialects: An Introduction to Social and Regional Varieties of English in the British Isles’)

1. Yon house hasn’t been lived in for a year.

Standard English has only a two-way contrast in its demonstrative system, with this (near to the speaker) opposed to ‘that’ (away from the speaker). Many other dialects have a three-way system involving a further distinction between, for example, ‘that’ (near to the listener) and ‘yon’ (away from both speaker and listener).

2. I ain’t seen nothing.

Standard English lacks multiple negation, so that no choice is available between ‘I don’t want none’, which is not possible, and ‘I don’t want any’. Most nonstandard dialects of English around the world permit multiple negation.

4. I only done it last week.

Standard English fails to distinguish between the forms of the auxiliary forms of the verb ‘do’ and its main verb forms. This is true both of present tense forms, where many other dialects distinguish between auxiliary ‘I do’, ‘he do’ and main verb ‘I does’, ‘he does’ or similar, and the past tense, where most other dialects distinguish between auxiliary ‘did’ and main verb ‘done’, as in ‘You done it, did you?

7. Happen she were in a hurry.

(From ‘Sounds Familiar’, Lexical Variation and Grammatical Variation, The British Library)

The use of ‘happen’ here meaning ‘perhaps’ or ‘maybe’ is an example of lexical variation — differences in vocabulary. It probably locates the speaker somewhere in an area centred on the Pennines: Yorkshire or Lancashire or adjacent areas of the East Midlands.

The construction [with ‘were’] might sound unusual to some ears, but in some dialects in northern England and the Midlands, many speakers indicate the past tense of  ‘to be’ by saying ‘I were’, ‘you were’, ‘he’, ‘she’ and’ it were’, ‘we were’ and ‘they were’. This means the verb is unmarked for person, while speakers of Standard English differentiate by using ‘I was’ and ‘he’, ‘she‘ and ‘it was’.

 9. It was only when I come home that I seen it.

In the case of many irregular verbs, Standard English redundantly distinguishes between preterite and perfect verb forms both by the use of the auxiliary ‘have’ and by the use of distinct preterite and past participle forms: ‘I have seen’ versus ‘I saw’. Many other dialects have ‘I have seen’ versus ‘I seen’.

 10. What was you after?

Standard English has an unusual and irregular present tense verb morphology in that only the third-person singular receives morphological marking: ‘he goes’ versus ‘I go’. Many other dialects use either zero for all persons or ‘-s’ for all persons.

Be is a highly irregular verb, but Trudgill’s point applies to it just as much as it does to regular verbs. As 7 shows, some nonstandard dialects use were as its past tense in all persons and numbers. On the same page, The British Library also comments:

Some dialects, perhaps particularly those in the South East of England, favour a similarly unmarked version using the singular form of the verb ‘I was’, ‘you was‘, ‘he’, ‘she’ and ‘it was’, ‘we was’ and ‘they was.’



Filed under Language

9 responses to “Standard or Non? Answers and Comments

  1. I have only just got round to reading this and I must thank you for the two mentions of my blog.

    Indeed I don’t think that hypercorrection explains all of between you and I but I am sure that it is a part of it; to me the phrase reeks of superior aunts showing off by saying between you and I, and even more superior ones correcting them.

    Spanish also makes a distinction between near and distant that. It is discussed here:

    I must disagree with your comment that the distinction between preterite and perfect verb forms is redundant. On the contrary, verbs that do not show that difference can be ambiguous. In He said he’d put it on the table the he’d could be the contraction of he had or he would in speech or writing, and read is distinguished in speech but not in writing.


    • The comment about the distinction which Standard English makes between the forms used for the preterite and the forms used for the perfect in many irregular verbs is not mine but Peter Trudgill’s. I don’t think he meant his comment to extend to auxiliary verbs such as ‘have’ and ‘would’. ‘Read’ has the same form in speech as well as writing in both the perfect ‘I have read’ and the preterite ‘I read’. His point seems to be that there would be no loss if ‘see’ also had the same form in each case in Standard English.


  2. As a mainly non-‘whom’ user, I didn’t even notice that aspect in No 11; all I saw was the stranded preposition. As for the point about preterite and present perfect, I think Trudgill also makes the point that dialects that have the same form for these, differentiate when it comes to tag questions – “I done it, didn’t I?”, and “I done it, ain’t I?” respectively, for example.


  3. I have found this on El País in English:

    “Mackinlay has told the High Court through video testimony that she never met neither the former treasurer nor his wife.”

    In general the article is well translated, so I must say that this is unacceptable.


    • It certainly offends the rule of Standard English that disallows multiple negation. Do we know if the translator is a native speaker?


      • Unlike translations of articles into Spanish, which are credited (though sometimes to an agency) the translation of EP’s English edition is anonymous, which suggests that it is done in-house. It is American and in general is good journalistic style. For example:

        “High Court Judge Pablo Ruz ordered former Popular Party (PP) treasurer Luis Bárcenas held in custody without bail until his eventual trial late Thursday, after prosecutors had argued that he was a flight risk and had been transferring money from his Swiss accounts to banks in the United States and Uruguay over the past few weeks.

        “The Civil Guard put the 57-year-Bárcenas into a van and took him to the Soto del Real prison, outside Madrid. Members of the public outside the courthouse jeered as the van drove off at about 7.35pm.”

        As a general rule translators only work into their native language, but there are exceptions. Some people are brought up bilingually and others can achieve a sufficient level. Ultimately it’s a question of ability and competence rather than native language. After all, many untrained or inexperienced native speakers make poor translators.


  4. Pingback: Questioning the Standard | Caxton

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