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What Is Nonstandard English?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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Nonstandard English refers to any English that is considered outside the mainstream. There are two meanings for nonstandard: first, dialects other than standard English and second, incorrect English such as grammar and usage. Slang is also considered nonstandard English and is treated as a social dialect rather than a regionalism.

English is an ever-evolving language. It has spread across the world and is the mother tongue for over 100 countries. It is also the most popular second language in the world. The language was formed by the merger of four Germanic dialects: Angle, Saxon, Jute and Frisian.

In the 11th century, the upper levels of English-speaking society were removed and replaced with French-speaking ones. This led to the language being a bottom-up language. There were no rules and no concept of standard English until the 17th century, when the upper classes were all speaking English as their native tongue and intellectuals were trying to apply Latin grammar rules to it.

Standard and nonstandard English is a controversial topic. There is no one universal standard for the language like there is for French, Japanese and Mandarin. No one English-speaking country can impose its standards on the other. The safest definition of standard, therefore, is the school taught or most widely-spoken dialect or any one English-speaking country. In Britain, this means that Queen’s English, a variant of Southern or London English, is the standard.

Due to its fragmented nature, English has no academic body setting standards and overseeing the language’s rules. Many other nations have such a body, for example, the French Academy. English, thus, has more freedom to evolve and more fluidity to ignore the rules. For example, the Oxford English Dictionary in Britain and Webster’s Dictionary in America define what words and spellings constitute standard and nonstandard English.

English is rich with dialects. The largest number of dialects is to be found in Britain, with its longer history of semi- or complete isolation. This has led to such dialects as Lowland Scots, Scouse, Geordie and Cockney. America and other former British colonies developed their languages as mass communication devices such as radios and televisions became more popular. Such devices have been blamed for reducing the prevalence of dialects across the English speaking world.

The other form of nonstandard English is the user of incorrect English. Dialectal words and phrases are not incorrect; they are just uncommon or localized. Incorrect usage means a person does not understand a word’s true meaning or the correct grammar/syntax of a sentence. Such errors are often down to poor education, deprivation or learning difficulties.

The distinction between standard and nonstandard English for any one English speaker has been blurred by modern technology. Australians, South Africans and Brits watch almost as many American television programs as Americans, leading those people to be perfectly comfortable with, what is to them, nonstandard English. The same can be said for books that are not altered to fit a nation’s standard English and the rise of nonstandard English speaking personalities and writers.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By Phaedrus — On Feb 03, 2014

The biggest controversy over nonstandard English I've ever seen was over the acceptance of "Ebonics" as a dialect for schools. Ebonics is a version of English used by a lot of African-American families. African-American children were using it when writing term papers or answering questions in class. Teachers usually tried to discourage Ebonics, because it sounded too informal compared to standard English. Some parents complained that the schools were trying to force their children to conform to "white" English instead of accepting their common use of Ebonics.

The state board of education did consider creating a new policy that would recognize Ebonics as a separate but equal dialect, but the policy was never implemented. Some instructors were concerned that allowing Ebonics in school would hamper students' chances of employment at a time when the use standard English would be expected.

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