linguist • writer • editor • lecturer • broadcaster
[Thursday 03 January, 2013]
If you went to Australia, and picked up a daily newspaper, you’d be able to read it. The words, the grammar, and the spelling would be hardly any different from the newspapers you can buy in this UK. If you went to India, and saw an English-language newspaper there, you’d get the same impression. There’d be a few words and phrases referring to local Indian matters, but on the whole you’d see straight away that the paper was written in the same kind of English as appears in Britain. And in the USA, you’d see the same thing again (apart from a few spelling differences). What you’re noticing is the fact that the English language is written in basically the same way all over the English-speaking world. The grammar is largely the same. The vocabulary is largely the same. And the spelling is largely the same. The usage, we can say is standard, and we can describe this international kind of written English as standard English.
When we speak, there are great similarities all around the world, too. Our accents are very different, of course. You’ll always be able to tell an American from a British speaker, for instance (see the entry on accent, for more about this). But most of the sound patterns, grammar, and vocabulary will be the same. The idea of a standard English applies to speech, too. If you listen to the radio programmes coming from different English-speaking countries, you’ll hear standard English (along with the local accent).
When people don’t speak or write according to the rules of standard English, you can say that they’re using language in a nonstandard way - it’s nonstandard English. When people disapprove of this way of talking or writing they sometimes call it, rather more rudely, substandard English. I ain’t doing nothing is a good example of a widely used piece of nonstandard English. The standard version would be I’m not doing anything. Shut your gob uses a piece of nonstandard vocabulary. Standard English would say Shut your mouth. Slang of any kind - the informal words or phrases used by particular groups of people - is a nonstandard way of talking.
One of the things a school tries to do is teach you to write in standard English, and to speak it (if you don’t use it already). It can seem a bit of a bore at times, especially if you’re used to talking in a local dialect, and you find it easier to write things down in your homework just as you’d say them with your friends. But that won’t help you when, one day, you find you have to write or talk to people in other parts of the country, or other parts of the world. They won’t always understand you, if you insist on using your local patterns of speech.

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