Standard English Definitions and Controversies

Standard English
In Studying the English Language (2010), Rob Penhallurick characterizes Standard English as "a bit of an enigma, attended by muddle, with a rather clouded history.". (Yagi Studio/Getty Images)

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

For some of those people, Standard English (SE) is a synonym for good or correct English usage. Others use the term to refer to a specific geographical dialect of English or a dialect favored by the most powerful and prestigious social group. Some linguists argue that there really is no single standard of English.

It may be revealing to examine some of the presumptions that lie behind these various interpretations. The following comments--from linguists, lexicographers, grammarians, and journalists--are offered in the spirit of fostering discussion rather than resolving all the many complex issues that surround the term "Standard English."

Controversies and Observations About Standard English

A Highly Elastic and Variable Term

[W]hat counts as Standard English will depend on both the locality and the particular varieties that Standard English is being contrasted with. A form that is considered standard in one region may be nonstandard in another, and a form that is standard by contrast with one variety (for example the language of inner-city African Americans) may be considered nonstandard by contrast with the usage of middle-class professionals. No matter how it is interpreted, however, Standard English in this sense shouldn't be regarded as being necessarily correct or unexceptionable, since it will include many kinds of language that could be faulted on various grounds, like the language of corporate memos and television advertisements or the conversations of middle-class high-school students. Thus while the term can serve a useful descriptive purpose providing the context makes its meaning clear, it shouldn't be construed as conferring any absolute positive evaluation.

(The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition, 2000)

What Standard English Is Not

(i) It is not an arbitrary, a priori description of English, or of a form of English, devised by reference to standards of moral value, or literary merit, or supposed linguistic purity, or any other metaphysical yardstick--in short, 'Standard English' cannot be defined or described in terms such as 'the best English,' or 'literary English,' or 'Oxford English,' or 'BBC English.'
(ii) It is not defined by reference to the usage of any particular group of English-users, and especially not by reference to a social class--'Standard English' is not 'upper class English' and it is encountered across the whole social spectrum, though not necessarily in equivalent use by all members of all classes.
(iii) It is not statistically the most frequently occurring form of English, so that 'standard' here does not mean 'most often heard.'
(iv) It is not imposed upon those who use it. True, its use by an individual may be largely the result of a long process of education; but Standard English is neither the product of linguistic planning or philosophy (for example as exists for French in the deliberations of the Academie Francaise, or policies devised in similar terms for Hebrew, Irish, Welsh, Bahasa Malaysia, etc); nor is it a closely-defined norm whose use and maintenance is monitored by some quasi-official body, with penalties imposed for non-use or mis-use. Standard English evolved: it was not produced by conscious design.

(Peter Strevens, "What Is 'Standard English'?" RELC Journal, Singapore, 1981)

Written English and Spoken English

There are many grammar books, dictionaries and guides to English usage which describe and give advice on the standard English that appears in writing...[T]hese books are widely used for guidance on what constitutes standard English. However, there is often also a tendency to apply these judgments, which are about written English, to spoken English. But the norms of spoken and written language are not the same; people don't talk like books even in the most formal of situations or contexts. If you can't refer to a written norm to describe spoken language, then, as we have seen, you base your judgments on the speech of the "best people," the "educated" or higher social classes. But basing your judgments on the usage of the educated is not without its difficulties. Speakers, even educated ones, use a variety of different forms...

(Linda Thomas, Ishtla Singh, Jean Stilwell Peccei, and Jason Jones, Language, Society and Power: An Introduction. Routledge, 2004)

"Although Standard English is the kind of English in which all native speakers learn to read and write, most people do not actually speak it."

(Peter Trudgill and Jean Hannah, International English: A Guide to the Varieties of Standard English, 5th ed. Routledge, 2013)

Standard English Is a Dialect

If Standard English is not therefore a language, an accent, a style or a register, then of course we are obliged to say what it actually is. The answer is, as at least most British sociolinguists are agreed, that Standard English is a dialect...Standard English is simply one variety of English among many. It is a sub-variety of English...

Historically, we can say that Standard English was selected (though of course, unlike many other languages, not by any overt or conscious decision) as the variety to become the standard variety precisely because it was the variety associated with the social group with the highest degree of power, wealth and prestige. Subsequent developments have reinforced its social character: the fact that it has been employed as the dialect of an education to which pupils, especially in earlier centuries, have had differential access depending on their social class background.

(Peter Trudgill, "Standard English: What It Isn’t," in Standard English: The Widening Debate, edited by Tony Bex and Richard J. Watts. Routledge, 1999)

The Official Dialect

In countries where the majority speak English as their first language one dialect is used nationally for official purposes. It is called Standard English. Standard English is the national dialect that generally appears in print. It is taught in schools, and students are expected to use it in their essays. It is the norm for dictionaries and grammars. We expect to find it in official typed communications, such as letters from government officials, solicitors, and accountants. We expect to hear it in national news broadcasts and documentary programmes on radio or television. Within each national variety the standard dialect is relatively homogeneous in grammar, vocabulary, spelling, and punctuation

(Sidney Greenbaum, An Introduction to English Grammar. Longman, 1991)

The Grammar of Standard English

The grammar of Standard English is much more stable and uniform than its pronunciation or word stock: there is remarkably little dispute about what is grammatical (in compliance with the rules of grammar) and what isn't.

Of course, the small number of controversial points that there are--trouble spots like who versus whom--get all the public discussion in language columns and letters to the editor, so it may seem as if there is much turmoil; but the passions evinced over such problematic points should not obscure the fact that for the vast majority of questions about what's allowed in Standard English, the answers are clear.

(Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. Cambridge University Press, 2006)

The Guardians of Standard English

The so-called native speakers of standard Englishes are those people who have somehow espoused a particular set of conventions that loosely have to do with the way English has been codified and prescribed in dictionaries, grammar books and guides to good speaking and writing. This group of people includes a large number of those who, having espoused the conventions, nevertheless do not consider themselves to be excellent users of those conventions.

For many of these so-called native speakers the English language is a unique entity that exists outside or beyond its users. Rather than considering themselves owners of English, users often think of themselves as guardians of something precious: they wince when they hear or read uses of English that they consider to be sub-standard, and they worry, in their letters to newspapers, that the language is becoming degraded...

Those who do feel they have rights and privileges, who have a sense of ownership of the English language and who can make pronouncements about what is or is not acceptable, as well as those to whom these attributes are accorded by others, do not necessarily belong to a speech community whose members learned English in infancy. Native speakers of non-standard varieties of English, in other words, the majority of native speakers of English, have never had any real authority over Standard English and have never "owned" it. The actual proprietors may, after all, simply be those who have learned thoroughly how to use a standard English to enjoy the sense of empowerment that comes with it.

So those who make authoritative pronouncements about a standard English are simply those who, irrespective of accidents of birth, have elevated themselves, or been elevated, to positions of authority in academe or publishing or in other public areas. Whether or not their pronouncements will continue to be accepted is another matter.

(Paul Roberts, "Set Us Free From Standard English." The Guardian, January 24, 2002)

Toward a Definition of SE

From the dozens of definitions [of Standard English] available in the literature on English, we may extract five essential characteristics.

On this basis, we may define the Standard English of an English-speaking country as a minority variety (identified chiefly by its vocabulary, grammar, and orthography) which carries most prestige and is most widely understood.

(David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. Cambridge University Press, 2003)

  1. SE is a variety of English--a distinctive combination of linguistic features with a particular role to play...
  2. The linguistic features of SE are chiefly matters of grammar, vocabulary, and orthography (spelling and punctuation). It is important to note that SE is not a matter of pronunciation. . . .
  3. SE is the variety of English which carries most prestige within a country... In the words of one US linguist, SE is "the English used by the powerful."
  4. The prestige attached to SE is recognized by adult members of the community, and this motivates them to recommend SE as a desirable educational target...
  5. Although SE is widely understood, it is not widely produced. Only a minority of people within a country...actually use it when they talk...Similarly, when they write--itself a minority activity--the consistent use of SE is required only in certain tasks (such as a letter to a newspaper, but not necessarily to a close friend). More than anywhere else, SE is to be found in print.

The Ongoing Debate

It is in fact a great pity that the standard English debate is marred by the sort of conceptual confusions and political posturings (no matter how poorly expressed) ...For I think there are genuine questions to be asked about what we might mean by "standards" in relation to speech and writing. There is a great deal to be done in this respect and proper arguments to be made, but one thing is clear for sure. The answer does not lie in some simple-minded recourse to the practice of the "best authors" or the "admired literature" of the past, valuable though that writing is. Nor does the answer reside in "rules" for speech laid down by either the "educated" of any official body held to be able to guarantee spoken "correctness." The answers to the real questions will be found to be much more complex, difficult and challenging than those currently on offer. For these reasons they might be more successful.

(Tony Crowley, "Curiouser and Curiouser: Falling Standards in the Standard English Debate," in Standard English: The Widening Debate, edited by Tony Bex and Richard J. Watts. Routledge, 1999)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Standard English Definitions and Controversies." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 26). Standard English Definitions and Controversies. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Standard English Definitions and Controversies." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).