Questioning the Standard

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.


Filed under English Language, Language, Standard English

12 responses to “Questioning the Standard

  1. Excellent post.

    The idea of a continuum is such an important one, it’s surprising how often it and the context (the ‘communicative purpose’ being one aspect of that) are overlooked in the rush to impose rules. As a younger and more pompous editor, I was very focused on what was right or wrong; now I wear a Zen-like smile and focus on what works.


    • Thank you.

      It’s much the same with the history of the language. Our ancestors didn’t wake up one day in the eleventh century finding they were all speaking Middle English instead of Old English.


  2. Native speakers can recognise Standard English, but only because it is taught by teachers and imposed by editors — in other words with a certain degree of prescription.


    • English teachers certainly teach Standard English, or they should, but, for me, it is a little too strong to say that editors impose it. They and others like them just work in the appropriate dialect, which happens to be the one we know as Standard English.

      Native speakers of a nonstandard dialect who knew no other would surely recognise at least that Standard English was a different dialect from their own, even if they couldn’t give it a name. It would, after all, be no different from recognising any other dialect as different.


  3. An editor’s job is to remove or correct non-standard spellings and grammatical features so as to maintain a standard. Of course, I am talking about language that is intended to be ‘correct’. Journalists may have their personal idiosyncrasies and novelists obviously occasionally write non-standard forms as dialogue but a copy-editor should have spotted and corrected that double negative I posted the other day, for example.


  4. Thanks for the mention. Elsewhere you say that Standard English is the language used in published writing, and typically in areas of life such as education, courts of law, public service broadcasting and government. I think, however, that this is a bit restrictive.

    Both you and Trudgill suggest that Standard English is a dialect, and I quite I agree with you. But this indicates to me that it also the dialect of those of us who don’t speak a regional dialect, and of those who do, when not speaking their regional dialect.

    What we hear on BBC News etc could be seen as a neutral to formal version of this; many non-regional-dialect speakers will speak a less formal version of this at home and with friends, for example. I bet we hear a lot more “whoms” on Radio 4 than the majority of non-regional-dialect speakers use in real life, for instance.

    The reason why I think that certain constructions, such as “Me and the others are going to the pub”, can be seen as informal Standard English, is because they are used and accepted (in informal use) by people who do not use any of the features of regional dialect, so who must be assumed to be speaking Standard English – what else is there?

    And this is reflected in the English we teach foreign learners: the everyday language of Standard English speakers, with pointers on different levels of formality, depending on their needs.

    Finally, it might be as well to recognise that there is not simply one Standard English: British Standard English differs from American Standard English in certain grammatical features as well as in vocabulary. Scottish Standard English varies slightly from English Standard English, for example in certain words and expressions -“outwith”, “do the messages” and arguable grammar “this needs washed” (for “needs washing”). Is there also perhaps a Standard Northern English?


    • There are clearly different kinds of Standard English, often indicating varying degrees of formality. Each major English-speaking community, as you say, has its own standard, each with its own vocabulary and grammar. We are all familiar with the way in which the vocabulary of American Standard English differs from the vocabulary of British Standard English. The grammatical differences, with, for example, a preference for grammatical rather notional or proximity agreement, or for the past tense over a perfect construction, are less obvious.

      In speaking of ‘each major English-speaking community’, I choose my words with care, because I am not sure how fine the gradations can be in speaking of standards. A standard dialect is one that does not betray the regional or social background of the writer or speaker (although the accent in which it is spoken may very well do so). Even that needs some qualification, because speakers of Standard English are likely to be of a higher socio-economic status than speakers of nonstandard dialects. When it comes to British dialects, I think we have to recognise British Standard English as being the standard dialect for the whole of the United Kingdom, because it seems to me that ultimately a standard dialect is politically determined. On those grounds, Scottish, northern and other variants are nonstandard dialects, rather than standards in their own right, but saying so does not diminish their linguistic and cultural value.


      • I take your point about a British Standard English, but I don’t agree that Scottish Standard English is a dialect (in terms of regional dialect) – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fife , the West Highlands and many other parts of Scotland all have their own dialects, but Scottish Standard English is the recognised standard in Scottish broadcasting, the Scottish legal system and education (exactly your own definition). And it is recognised as such by, for example, the languages department at Glasgow University.


        • SSE is absolutely not a regional dialect in the sense that Fife dialect is. But it is a regional dialect in a larger sense: that is, it is confined to the Scottish region of Greater Anglophonia, as the RP accent is confined to the British region and the Yat dialect/accent is confined to parts of the city of New Orleans. It is only Standard English as a whole that is non-regional on a global scale, being spoken with one accent or another in every English-speaking country, and indeed in every other country as well.


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  6. I see the makings of a new post in all of this, Will and John, which I will now ponder.


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