What is Standard English?

What is Standard English? Who uses it? Where is it used?

Standard English is a controversial topic, but one that is pivotal in linguistics, education, and societal communication. Understanding what constitutes Standard English, its implications, its benefits, and challenges is crucial for anyone engaging with the English language.

Defining Standard English

Standard English, fundamentally, is a variety of English that is deemed by society and linguistic authorities to be ‘correct’ or ‘acceptable’. It’s generally the form used in formal written documents, literature, and public speeches, and it’s also the type taught in English language classes worldwide.

Standard English is primarily characterized by its grammar rules and extensive vocabulary, but also by its pronunciation, which is typically based on Received Pronunciation (RP) in the UK, or General American (GA) in the US.

History and Evolution

The concept of Standard English has evolved over centuries, starting from the Middle English period. It became more defined with the advent of printing, which necessitated a standard form for broad communication. The form of English used in the region of London and the southeast, where political and economic power was concentrated, became the model for this standard variety.

In modern times, with the spread of English globally, the idea of Standard English continues to evolve, reflecting the changes in our multicultural and increasingly globalized society.

The Benefits of Standard English

There are several reasons why Standard English is considered beneficial:

  1. Communication: Since Standard English is universally recognized, it facilitates communication across different regions and cultures.
  2. Education: Standard English forms the basis of teaching English as a first or second language, providing a uniform platform for learning.
  3. Professionalism: In many professional and academic settings, a good command of Standard English is often considered a marker of education and competence.

The Controversy Around Standard English

Despite the perceived benefits, Standard English is not without controversy:

  1. Varieties of English: English has many dialects and sociolects, each with its unique expressions and rules. Some argue that Standard English marginalizes these varieties, privileging one form of English over others.
  2. Cultural Implications: Critics suggest that Standard English reinforces social hierarchies and may be a form of linguistic discrimination, as it is often associated with a particular socioeconomic class or educational level.
  3. Global Englishes: With the spread of English worldwide, many different ‘Englishes’ have evolved, each adapting to local cultural and communicative needs. The concept of a single ‘standard’ may not accommodate these global Englishes.
Standard EnglishNon-Standard English
I didn’t do it.I ain’t done it.
They aren’t going.They ain’t going.
You’re going to enjoy the trip.You gonna enjoy the trip.
I’ve been waiting for you.I been waiting for you.
It’s mine.It’s mines.
He doesn’t like it.He don’t like it.
We were talking.We was talking.
It isn’t raining.It ain’t raining.
She can’t do it.She can’t do nothing. (Double negative)
I saw them yesterday.I seen them yesterday.
The children are playing outside.The children is playing outside.
It doesn’t matter.It don’t matter.
I have done my homework.I did my homework.
They’re happy.They’re happily.
Who are you going with?Who you going with?

Note: Non-Standard English is not necessarily ‘incorrect’; it’s a reflection of different dialects, sociolects, or cultural backgrounds. However, Standard English is often preferred in formal, academic, or professional settings due to its universal recognition.

Where and when is Standard English use?

Standard English is widely used in a variety of contexts, particularly those that require formal, clear, and universally understood communication. Here are some of the primary areas where Standard English is used:

  1. Education: Educational materials and textbooks generally use Standard English. It is also the norm in classroom instruction, particularly in English Language Arts or ESL (English as a Second Language) classes.
  2. Examinations: Many exams assess students’ knowledge and command of Standard English. These include English proficiency tests like the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language), IELTS (International English Language Testing System), Cambridge English exams, and national examinations like the GCSE in the UK, SAT in the US, or PSLE in Singapore.
  3. Professional Communication: Standard English is expected in most professional communication, including emails, reports, presentations, meetings, and conferences. It is also frequently used in job interviews, CVs, and cover letters.
  4. Media and Publishing: Newspapers, books, magazines, academic journals, and online articles often use Standard English. Similarly, broadcast media like television and radio news programs typically use this form of English.
  5. Government and Law: Legal documents, court proceedings, laws, regulations, official speeches, and government correspondence usually employ Standard English due to its clarity and universal acceptance.
  6. Science and Academia: Research papers, academic articles, and scientific publications predominantly use Standard English. It is also the medium of instruction in most universities globally.

In essence, Standard English is extensively used in any context that values clear, precise, and universally understood communication.

Striking a Balance

The key to addressing the controversy around Standard English may lie in striking a balance. We can acknowledge the practical benefits of a standard variety for certain contexts while respecting and valuing the diversity of English dialects and global Englishes.


Understanding Standard English, its history, benefits, and challenges can enhance our approach to language learning, teaching, and usage. The key is to strike a balance, using Standard English as a tool for wider communication, while respecting and recognizing the richness and diversity of English in its many forms. In an increasingly globalized world, the concept of ‘standard’ may be fluid and adaptable, just like the English language itself.