Standard English and Nonstandard English

(just what authority makes English standard and where does that authority come from?)

How is Standard English determined?

Is Standard English determined by speeches made by reporters, writers, politicians, preachers, and teachers? Is it based on the usage of magazine writers, or of the Congressional Record, or of local newspapers?

Considering the various forms of English that is spoken in North America alone, just whose standard is the standard? Just what authority makes it standard, and where does that authority come from?

Some scholars define Standard English as the “prestige dialect” of our language. A Mark Twain or a Will Rogers can achieve humorous effects by the deliberate use of nonstandard idioms; however, radio and television news is usually delivered in a formal, generalized Standard English with little or no distinctive regional content.

Business letters, legal arguments, scientific descriptions, magazine articles, and ceremonial speeches are also normally written in Standard English. Mastery of this "prestige dialect" is a key to success in most of the recognized global activities.

An unofficial acceptance exists that recognizes some idioms as standard and others as definitely nonstandard, but it leaves others as uncertain or debatable. Is it standard to split an infinitive, to write different than or the reason is because? Is flaunt misused for flout, or infer for imply? Are the words hopefully and finalize acceptable? Does disinterested mean “not interested” or “not motivated by self-interest”?

These questions remain because Standard English is not defined or fixed by any official authority. It emerges from a common acceptance that leaves plenty of room for disagreement and a variety of choices for changes. It does not exist in a vacuum; however, it is part of the huge pattern of usages that make up the English language on a global scale.

The true basis of determining usage is to look at what the language itself is doing; that is, at how people are in fact using it. Some applications are "better" than others, better because they are clearer, more effective, more pleasing, more sensitive; or sometimes, better merely because a consensus of influential people prefers them.

Some issues are "head-on collisions", with admired writers and speakers irreconcilably opposed on both sides. Other language elements turn out to be so complicated that few people, if any, dare take a strong position on how they should be utilized.


Beware of heard, a dreadful word
That looks like beard and sounds like bird.
And dread: it’s said like bed, not bead
For goodness’ sake don’t call it “deed”!

Watch out for meat and great and threat.
(They rhyme with suite and straight and debt.)
A moth is not a moth in mother,
Nor both in bother, broth in brother,

And here is not a match for there,
Nor dear and fear for bear and pear,
And then there’s dose and rose and lose
Just look them up—and goose and choose,

And cork and work and card and ward,
And font and front and word and sword,
And do and go and thwart and cart
Come, come, I’ve hardly made a start!

A dreadful language? Man alive!
I’d mastered it when I was five.
And yet to write it, the more I tried,
I hadn’t learned at fifty five.

—T.S. Watt, as seen in Crazy English
by Richard Lederer; Pocket Books; New York;
1989; pages 121-122.

Pointing back to Confusing Words Quizzes, Part AConfusing Words: Units, Groups A to Z.