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Standard English: What It Is (and Isn't)

Standard English: What It Is (and Isn't)

At some point, one of your teachers has probably told you that you're learning "Standard English." But what exactly does that mean? Many learners — and even teachers — have misunderstandings about it.

To help you better understand what you're actually learning, let's go over what Standard English is and is not.

1. Standard English is a dialect of English

The most important thing to know about Standard English is that it is a dialect of the English language. A "dialect" is a form of language that is spoken by a certain group of people.

Like other languages, English has a "standard dialect" that is taught in schools and used by the government, the media, and the academic world. This standard dialect is known as "Standard English."

2. Standard English is NOT an accent

Many people think that Standard English is an accent. This is because most dialects are spoken with one specific accent.

For example, someone who speaks the Southern American English dialect would have a Southern American English accent: e.g. they would probably pronounce "dog" as "dawg" and "my" as "mah."

However, Standard English is different. As one linguist explains,

[Standard English] has no ... relationship with any single accent ... this dialect is spoken by speakers of virtually every accent.

Peter Strevens in "What Is Standard English?"

In other words, you can speak Standard English with a Scottish accent, a Canadian accent, or an accent from your country. Just make sure you follow the rules of Standard English grammar since that is what really matters.

For example, do not use the double negative (e.g. "I did not eat nothing"). While it is common in many non-standard dialects of English, it is incorrect according to the grammar of Standard English ("I did not eat anything").

Here are some other grammatical differences between Standard English and some non-standard dialects of English.

Standard English

  • I am not going home.
  • I saw it.
  • We were good friends.

Non-standard dialects of English

  • I ain't going home.
  • I seen it.
  • We was good friends.

3. Standard English is a global dialect with regional differences

A benefit of learning Standard English is that it is a global dialect of English. This means that:

  • It is not limited to one region or country.
  • The grammar rules covered in the previous section apply to Standard English in the US, the UK, Australia, and other English-speaking countries.

However, because English is spoken in many different countries, there are many different regional varieties. These are mostly the same except for small differences in vocabulary and grammar.

For example, here are some differences between the two main varieties: Standard American English and Standard British English.

Differences in ...American EnglishBritish English
GrammarMy family is coming.
Dave was in the hospital.
My family are coming.
Dave was in hospital.

Unfortunately, people who use one standard do not always know about other standards. For example:

  • If you write "tyre" instead of "tire" on a test, and your English teacher is from the US, they will mark it as incorrect.
  • If you say "My family is coming" in the UK, your teacher will tell you to say "My family are coming."

So, when you communicate with native English speakers, it's helpful to learn about the standard they follow.

4. Standard English is the result of a consensus

Many countries have a central authority that decides what is correct in their national language. For example, South Korea has a government institute that people can contact with questions about the proper usage of the Korean language.

English does not have anything like this. At most, there are style guides that set standards on things like spelling and punctuation. But these are for specific types of writing such as news reports and academic research — not English in general.

So in most everyday situations, nobody actually decides what Standard English is and what it's not. Instead, these standards are determined by the people who use it. Here is how one linguist explains it:

What is and what is not [Standard] English is maintained by a mysterious process of world-wide consensus. ... New words enter English constantly and become part of Standard English. Sometimes, when new technology comes along, the same word is used the world over (e.g. DVD); on other occasions regional differences develop (e.g. cell, mobile, handphone.) No-one makes a decision.

Anthea Fraser Gupta in "Singapore Standard English revisited"

5. Standard English is formal and informal

Some learners think Standard English means formal English. However, both formal and informal English can be Standard English.

For example, both of the following sentences are examples of Standard English.

  1. She is a woman whom I have known for many years.
  2. She is a woman I have known for many years.

The main difference is that the first sentence sounds more formal than the second sentence. But that does not make one sentence standard and the other non-standard.

They are both Standard English — just written in two different styles: formal and informal.

How do I get better at Standard English?

So now that you understand what Standard English is, how can you get better at it? We recommend reading and listening to as much of it as possible.

A good place to start is Engoo Daily News. New articles are released every day and they are written in Standard American English that's easy for learners to understand.

There are also many articles on the differences between American and British English. For example:

In addition, you'll master Standard English more quickly if you have a professional tutor who can answer your questions and give you feedback. At Engoo, we have thousands of tutors who can do this for you. Book a lesson today!