Definition and Examples of Standard British English

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

Standard British English
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The term Standard British English customarily refers to a variety of the English language that's generally used in professional communication in Britain (or, more narrowly defined, in England or in southeast England) and taught in British schools. Also known as standard English English or British Standard English (BrSE).

Although no formal body has ever regulated the use of English in Britain, a fairly rigid model of Standard British English has been taught in British schools since the 18th century.

Standard British English is sometimes used as a synonym for Received Pronunciation (RP). John Algeo notes, however, that despite numerous differences in pronunciation, "American English resembles present standard British English more closely than it does any other British type of speech" (The Origins and Development of the English Language, 2014).

Examples and Observations

  • "[D]uring the 18th and 19th centuries publishers and educationalists defined a set of grammatical and lexical features which they regarded as correct, and the variety characterized by these features later came to be known as Standard English. Since English had, by the 19th century, two centres, Standard English came to exist in two varieties: British and US. These were widely different in pronunciation, very close in grammar, and characterized by small but noticeable differences in spelling and vocabulary. There were thus two more or less equally valid varieties of Standard English—British Standard and US Standard. . . .
  • "[T]here is no such thing (at present) as a Standard English which is not British or American or Australian, etc. There is no International Standard (yet), in the sense that publishers cannot currently aim at a standard which is not locally bound."

(Gunnel Melchers and Philip Shaw, World Englishes: An Introduction. Arnold, 2003)

The Perceived Prestige of British English

"[D]uring most of the 20th century Europeans preferred British English, and European instruction in English as a foreign language followed the norms of British English in pronunciation (specifically RP), lexical choice, and spelling. This was a result of proximity, the effective methods of language teaching developed by British institutions such as the British Council, and the perceived 'prestige' of the British variety. As American English grew more influential in the world, it became an option alongside British English in mainland Europe and elsewhere. For a while, especially during the second half of the 20th century, a prominent attitude was that either variety was acceptable for a learner of English as long as each variety was kept distinct. The idea was that one could speak British English or American English but not a random mix of the two."
(Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, 5th ed. Prentice Hall, 2002)

"The prestige of British English is often assessed . . . in terms of its 'purity' (a baseless notion) or its elegance and style (highly subjective but nonetheless powerful concepts). Even those Americans who are put off by 'posh accents' may be impressed by them and hence likely to suppose that standard British English is somehow 'better' English than their own variety. From a purely linguistic point of view, this is nonsense, but it is a safe bet that it will survive any past or future loss of British influence in world affairs."
(John Algeo and Carmen A. Butcher, The Origins and Development of the English Language, 7th ed. Wadsworth, 2014)

Irregular Verbs

"The researchers [using a new online tool developed by Google with the help of scientists at Harvard University] were also able to trace how words had changed in English, for example a trend that started in the US towards more regular forms of verbs from irregular forms like 'burnt,' 'smelt' and 'spilt.' 'The [irregular] forms still cling to life in British English. But the -t irregulars may be doomed in England too: each year, a population the size of Cambridge adopts "burned" in lieu of "burnt,"' they wrote. 'America is the world's leading exporter of both regular and irregular verbs.'"
(Alok Jha, "Google Creates a Tool to Probe 'Genome' of English Words for Cultural Trends." The Guardian, December 16, 2010)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Standard British English." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Definition and Examples of Standard British English. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition and Examples of Standard British English." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).