My post of 22 June, followed by my comments on 24 June, placed some Standard English variants alongside some nonstandard forms to show the difference, but the grammatical structures of Standard English are not generally all that difficult to recognise. There is, as the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ write,
remarkably widespread agreement about how sentences should be constructed for such purposes as publication, political communication, or government broadcasting. This widespread agreement defines what we are calling Standard English.
Native speakers, for example, will instantly know that He’s a grandfather now, I was about 13 at the time and They did well are Standard English and that He be a grandfather now, I were about 13 at the time and They done good are not.
In his paper on Standard English, Peter Trudgill writes ‘grammatical differences between Standard English and other dialects are in fact rather few in number’. He lists eight of what he calls the idiosyncrasies of Standard English, which include its failure to distinguish between the forms of the auxiliary forms of the verb do and its main verb forms, its lack of multiple negation and its irregular forms of the verb be. Nevertheless, there are some features of Standard English that are disputed. The ill-informed are eager to pounce on things like they referring to a singular antecedent, stranded prepositions and word placed between to + the infinitive, but these have existed in English for centuries, and have been part of Standard English for as long as the concept of a standard has existed. What may be less clear is the way in which Standard English can deploy different styles depending on the degree of formality required. Trudgill illustrates the point with these three sentences:
Father was exceedingly fatigued subsequent to his extensive peregrination.
Dad was very tired after his lengthy journey.
The old man was bloody knackered after his long trip.
All three employ the grammatical structures of Standard English, but different degrees of formality are indicated by the words used. Some might question the third, but Trudgill has no hesitation in saying that it ‘is clearly and unambiguously Standard English’, on the grounds that it allows swearing (in this case mild) and slang.
But it’s not only through the choice of words that Standard English can show degrees of formality. It can do so through different grammatical structures as well. Examples of grammar indicating an informal style are who in complement position or following a preposition, the indicative If I was you . . . rather than the subjunctive (or ‘irrealis’), If I were you . . . , There’s + [plural noun phrase] and the use of this in place of the indefinite article (There was this man at the bar, and he’d got this dog). Warsaw Will, the creator of the blog Random Idea English , has also commented on my post of 22 June that me in subject position and coordinated with a noun phrase (Me and the others are off to the pub if you fancy a pint), might also be an example of informal Standard English.
The fact that some of these features might also be found in nonstandard dialects should not prevent us from acknowledging their admissibility in the standard as well. But it does suggest that the dividing line between Standard English and nonstandard dialects might not be as sharply drawn as some might think. As the authors of ‘Linguistics: An Introduction’ have written,
Sociolinguistic research has demonstrated that the speech of most people is, at least in some respects, variable, combining, for example, both standard and non-standard sounds, words or grammatical structures.
What all this suggests is that the varieties of English can be understood as a continuum. At one end there are the most formal written texts, found in areas such as academic writing, the law and public administration. These are incontestably written in the dialect of Standard English, although that does not guarantee that all native speakers will understand them. At the other end there are nonstandard dialects, mostly spoken, which, at their most extreme, are as impenetrable to outsiders as the most complex statute drafted in Standard English. In between there are varieties of the language which shade off imperceptibly one into the other. What really matters is not whether any piece of discourse is standard or nonstandard, but whether it meets the communicative purpose of the writer or speaker, taking account not only of the efficiency with which it conveys meaning, but also the extent to which it is received in the manner which the originator intends.