Nonstandard English Definition and Examples

A historical photo of Mark Twain with a tobacco pipe

Nonstandard English refers to any dialect of English other than Standard English and is sometimes referred to as nonstandard dialect or non-standard variety. The term Nonstandard English is sometimes used disapprovingly by non-linguists to describe "bad" or "incorrect" English.

Examples and Observations

  • "It is no simple matter to define the difference between a standard and a nonstandard variety of language. However, for our purposes, we can define a standard dialect as one that draws no negative attention to itself... On the other hand, a nonstandard dialect does draw negative attention to itself; that is, educated people might judge the speaker of such a dialect as socially inferior, lacking education, and so on. A nonstandard dialect can thus be characterized as having socially marked forms, such as ain't. A socially marked form is one that causes the listener to form a negative social judgment of the speaker.
    "It is important to understand that identifying a dialect as standard or nonstandard is a sociological judgment, not a linguistic one."
    (F. Parker and K. Riley, Linguistics for Non-Linguists. Allyn and Bacon, 1994)
  • "Nonstandard dialects of English differ from Standard English most importantly at the level of grammar. Examples of widespread nonstandard grammatical forms in English include multiple negation."
    (Peter Trudgill, Introducing Language and Society. Penguin, 1992)
  • "In fiction nonstandard forms are mostly found in dialogue and they are used as a powerful tool to reveal character traits or social and regional differences."
    (Irma Taavitsainen, et al., Writing in Nonstandard English. John Benjamins, 1999)

Nonstandard Usage in Huckleberry Finn

  • "I see Jim before me, all the time; in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him agin in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and suchlike times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was. And at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had smallpox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.
    "It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
    "'All right, then, I'll go to hell'—and tore it up."
    (Mark Twain, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, 1884)
  • "The kinds of errors that Huck makes [in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn] are by no means haphazard; Twain carefully placed them to suggest Huck's basic illiteracy but not to overwhelm the reader. Nonstandard verb forms constitute Huck's most typical mistakes. He often uses the present form or past participle for the simple past tense, for example, see or seen for saw; his verbs frequently do not agree with their subjects in number and person; and he often shifts tense within the same sequence."
    (Janet Holmgren McKay, "'An Art So High': Style in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn." New Essays on Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, ed. by Louis J. Budd. Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985)

The Stigma of Nonstandard English

  • "We should not be so naive... as to begin thinking that nonstandard English will ever shed its stigma. Many who argue against teaching Standard conventions seem to believe it will. The reality is that failure to teach the conventions of Standard and formal Standard English in our classes is unlikely to have any effect on society's attitudes toward speakers of nonstandard English, but it will most certainly have an effect on our students' lives. Their horizons will be limited, and many at the bottom of the socioeconomic scale will remain ghettoized. On this basis alone, I would argue that we must push students to reach their full potential, especially with regard to language. Our society is growing ever more competitive, not less, and Standard English, because it is inclusive rather than limiting, is a basic requirement for social and economic opportunities."
    (James D. Williams, The Teacher's Grammar Book, 2nd ed. Routledge, 2005)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Nonstandard English Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Nonstandard English Definition and Examples. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Nonstandard English Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. (accessed April 1, 2023).