Standard English (SE)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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Standard English is a controversial term for a form of the English language that is written and spoken by educated users. Abbreviation: SE. Also known as Standard Written English (SWE).

According to Tom McArthur in The Oxford Companion to the English Language (1992), the term Standard English "resists easy definition but is used as if most educated people nonetheless know precisely what it refers to."

Examples and Observations

  • "The term Standard English refers to both an actual variety of language and an idealized norm of English acceptable in many social situations. As a language variety, Standard English is the language used in most public discourse and in the regular operation of American social institutions. The news media, the government, the legal profession, and the teachers in our schools and universities all view Standard English as their proper mode of communication, primarily in expository and argumentative writing, but also in public speaking.
    "Standard English is thus different from what is normally thought of as speech in that Standard English must be taught, whereas children learn to speak naturally without being taught."
    (The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style. Houghton Mifflin, 2005
  • "We need to know Standard English, but we need to know it critically, analytically, and in the context of language history. We also need to understand the regularity of non-standard variants. If we approach good and bad grammar in this way, the study of language will be a liberating factor—not merely freeing learners from socially stigmatized usage by replacing that usage with new linguistic manners, but educating people in what language and linguistic manners are all about."
    (Edwin L. Battistella, Bad Language: Are Some Words Better Than Others? Oxford University Press, 2005

Tacit Conventions of Usage

"[T]he conventions of linguistic usage are tacit. The rules of standard English are not legislated by a tribunal but emerge as an implicit consensus within a virtual community of writers, readers, and editors. That consensus can change over time in a process as unplanned and uncontrollable as the vagaries of fashion. No official ever decided that respectable men and women were permitted to doff their hats and gloves in the 1960s or to get pierced and tattooed in the 1990s—nor could any authority with powers short of Mao Zedong have stopped these changes. In a similar manner, centuries of respectable writers have shrugged off long-forgotten edicts by self-appointed guardians of the language, from Jonathan Swift’s denunciation of banter, mob, and sham to Strunk and White’s disparaging of to personalize, to contact, and six people (as opposed to six persons)."
(Steven Pinker, "False Fronts in the Language Wars." Slate, May 31, 2012

The Convenience of Standard English

"[Standard English is that] particular variety of English which is regarded by educated people as appropriate for most types of public discourse, including most broadcasting, almost all publication, and virtually all conversation with anyone other than intimates...

"Standard English is not entirely uniform around the globe: for example, American users of standard English say the first floor and I've just gotten a letter and write center and color, while British users say ground floor and I've just got a letter and write centre and colour. But these regional differences are few in comparison with the very high degree of agreement about which forms should count as standard. Nevertheless, standard English, like all living languages, changes over time...
"It is important to realize that standard English is in no way intrinsically superior to any other variety of English: in particular, it is not 'more logical,' 'more grammatical,' or 'more expressive.' It is, at the bottom, a convenience: the use of a single agreed standard form, learned by speakers everywhere, minimizes uncertainty, confusion, misunderstanding, and communicative difficulty generally."
(R.L. Trask, Dictionary of English Grammar. Penguin, 2000

Origins of Standard English

  • "By far the most influential factor in the rise of ​Standard English was the importance of London as the capital of England...London English took as well as gave. It began as a Southern and ended as a Midland dialect. By the 15th century, there had come to prevail in the East Midlands a fairly uniform dialect, and the language of London agrees in all important respects with it. We can hardly doubt that the importance of the eastern largely responsible for this change. Even such Northern characteristics as are found in the standard speech seem to have entered by way of these counties. The history of Standard English is almost a history of London English." (Albert C. Baugh and Thomas Cable, A History of the English Language, 5th ed. Prentice Hall, 2002)
  • "Half-way through the 17th century, the lexicographer Thomas Blount declares that the 'Babel' of the vernacular made England a 'self-stranger' nation—one growing alien to itself through this diversity of available forms. He dedicates his dictionary of 1656 to the cause of having 'English Englished.' Arguably, in this context, it is not the rise of a standard variety of language, but a new awareness of dialect and variability of discourse—the 'self-stranger' English of the Renaissance—that best defines the linguistic culture of early modern England." (Paula Blank, "The Babel of Renaissance English." The Oxford History of English, ed. by Lynda Mugglestone. Oxford University Press, 2006

Varieties of Standard English

"[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)

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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Standard English (SE)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Standard English (SE). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Standard English (SE)." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 2, 2023).