How do we define ‘Standard English’? JAMIE GLASSON discusses the difficulties

What is ‘Standard English’? Many linguists have different ideas as to what they perceive Standard English to be, but is there actually a universal definition for this term? Some believe it is the correct way to speak English, others believe that it is just a way of separating the intelligent from the unintelligent. So many different definitions, where do we begin?

Tony Crowley (1999, p.271) believes that “Standard English is the medium of writing in the English language, grammatically stable and codified”. Based on this, Crowley is saying that Standard English is applied to just writing, and not so much speech, and is essentially the ‘correct’ way to write using the English Language. While this is definitely a good attempt at trying to define what Standard English is, it doesn’t cover spoken English and therefore needs to be addressed. Ronald Carter (1999, p.163) states that “Standard English consists of a set of forms which are used with only minimal variation in written English and in a range of formal spoken contexts in use around the world.” With this definition, Carter acknowledges that Standard English is not just limited to writing, but also applies to speech as well. With this interpretation, we are at least getting a broader idea of what Standard English is, in the sense that it is not just limited to written or spoken English, but is rather a mix between the two instead. However Crowley (2003, p.266) also acknowledges that there is standard spoken English as well. It is ‘standard’ not in the sense of making and having something in common. It is ‘standard’ in the sense of being able to share sense and meaning through common effort and participation.” This encourages the belief that as long as you and the person you are talking to are able to understand each other successfully, then it is classed as Spoken Standard English.

 Hayley Davis (1999, p.70) goes on to say that Standard English is a “variety of English which is usually used in print, and which is normally taught in schools and to non-native speakers learning the language.” Davis here is saying that Standard English is the preferred variety to be taught in schools and to non-native speakers. Whilst I firmly believe and agree that having Standard English as the set way to teach English in schools, it is definitely a skewed concept because of the fact there is no exact definition of what Standard English actually is. Yes there are many different ways of interpreting what Standard English is, and while we seem to have managed this long without coming to a conclusive idea as to what it is, it certainly makes the idea of teaching it in schools questionable.

John Honey (1997, 21-22) believes that “[t]he speakers of non-standard social and regional dialect forms suffer comparable forms of disadvantage.” This is because Honey believes those who are not able to speak or write Standard English are dubbed as unintelligent. However, Honey’s idea of what Standard English means seems rather skewed as well, claiming “[b]y standard English I mean the language in which this book is written, which is essentially the same form of English used in books and newspapers all over the world.” (Honey, 1997, p.1). Again, just like the definitions shown earlier on, none of these interpretations can seem to agree on what Standard English is, and each seem to offer a different perspective of what it could actually mean.

After exploring the different interpretations of what other linguists believe Standard English to be, it is clear that this particular term is void of an exact definition. I believe that if you are able to understand each other, and are able to communicate successfully between one another when using different varieties of English, then the need for Standard English is surely exaggerated. However, it is blatantly clear that nobody can actually define what Standard English is, and therefore it has to remain described only by its characteristics.

JAMIE GLASSON, English Language undergraduate, University of Chester, UK


Carter, R. (1999). ‘Standard Grammars, spoken grammars: Some educational implications’ in Bex, T. and Watts, Richard J. (eds) (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate. London: Routledge.

Crowley, T. (1999). Curiouser and Curiouser: Falling Standards in the Standard English Debate. In: Standard English: The Widening Debate,ed. by Bex, T & Watts, R.J., London.

Crowley, T. (2003). ‘Language against Modernity’ in Standard English and the Politics of Language. (2nd edn) Basingstoke, Palgrave Macmillan.

Davis, H. (1999). ‘Typography, lexicography, and the development of the idea of ‘standard English’’ in Bex, T. and Watts, Richard J. (eds) (1999) Standard English: The Widening Debate. London: Routledge.

Honey, J. (1997).  Language is Power: The Story of Standard English and its Enemies. London, Faber and Faber



One thought on “How do we define ‘Standard English’? JAMIE GLASSON discusses the difficulties

  1. Rachel Sadler says:

    Jamie, I agree entirely with this idea that there is not a ‘universal’ definition of standard English. That many linguists seem to link ‘incorrect’ usages of English to unintelligent speakers. When in actual fact, like you have stated it is difficult to pinpoint what exactly is Standard English, and why preferences are still given to the ‘educated people’. As Crystal (1996) claims to make judgement about what should be deemed ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ usages of English.

    Moreover, Crowley’s (1999) definition of Standard English is not sufficient enough to define it. I agree that yes, Standard English comprises of more than just a written mode. It is fair to say that spoken English does need to be addressed when one is considering Standard English as a whole. However, whilst I do agree, that yes, Carter (1999) has acknowledged the fact that Standard English should be viewed as a combination of spoken and written English. I feel that it could be mentioned the different linguistic categories in which spoken and written English are said to adhere to in terms of phonology, spelling, punctuation and grammar. Considering that when one is to judge written Standard English, then they are to examine their spelling and punctuation. Likewise, with spoken English one would scrutinize phonology and dialectal variations.

    In particular I agree with the comment put forward regarding Crowley (2003). That if one can interpret the correct meaning that the speaker had intended, then why should it matter if their speech or written language does not conform to the Standard English that is perhaps prescribed in grammar handbooks. Although, I still think that some level of Standard English needs to be followed in formal written texts, such as academic writing.

    That is an interesting point in regards to Davis (1999), Standard English is a variety of English, which is the preferred form of English used in print, but that does not mean it has to be the preferred variety among all English language users. Again, points back to how Standard English has proven to be undefinable, like you have mentioned. I also agree with your point; how can it be taught in schools if the concept of Standard English is not yet known? Should it not also be noted here that, it is thought Standard English was not being taught in schools as it once were. Many linguists have commented that there has been a standardisation among spelling that is used in print. Heffer (2010) in particular claims that spelling has become standardised in the OED, and that if a group of people insisted in using a word in an ‘incorrect’ manner, the OED has surrendered to its usages.

    I agree that it is ‘incorrect’ to label someone as unintelligent based on an interpretation of whether they use Standard English or not, again brings us back to the point that it seemingly cannot be defined. So why should we try to define another’s language as ‘incorrect’? Honey (1997) does not explicitly define what standard English is, so it is difficult to understand what is meant by non-standard speakers suffering as a result of not being able to speak Standard English.

    I also believe that to some extent this excessive need for a Standard English is unnecessary, if people can communicate effectively using different varieties if English. However, there should be some forms of Standard English for formal speech or academic writings.

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