Nonstandard usage or error: where should we draw the line?

collins cobuild grammar





This article has been written by Penny Hands, who is one of the contributors to the Collins COBUILD English Grammar.

If we’re going to talk about nonstandard English, it’s a good idea to start by asking what Standard English (SE) is.

As David Crystal (1994) states in his article ‘What is Standard English?’:

          [It is] the variety of English which carries most prestige.

He goes on to quote US linguist James Sledd as observing that SE is:

          the English used by the powerful.

But where did this variety of English come from? Well, as with many of these things, it happened through pure accident, thanks to a victory by King Alfred over forces in the north of England in 878 AD. Because of this, the government became established in London, and so the type of English spoken in southern England became the British English standard, and has remained so throughout the centuries, even though it has changed dramatically over that time.

Standard English is only one of the many varieties of English used in the UK and the world today. What distinguishes it from other varieties is the fact that it is not locally based. Indeed, British SE can be spoken in a wide variety of accents including Scottish and Welsh, as well as the prestigious ‘Received Pronunciation’ of the influential classes (also controversially known as ‘Oxford English’, ‘the Queen’s English’, or ‘BBC English’).

Many people are surprised to find out that British SE is actually a minority variety, that is, it is spoken by very few people. Since these are generally people who are in a position of power and usually highly educated, SE is the desirable form that is often aspired to.

There are plenty of good reasons for establishing a standard form of a language; for example, it enables the media to reach as many people as possible, and children can be taught homogeneously so that they are not at a disadvantage if they move to another part of the country. The downside is that the existence of a standard leads many people to regard local varieties as ‘substandard’ or as an indication of ignorance.

Let us now turn to nonstandard English. As will have become clear from the discussion above, nonstandard English is any variety (or dialect) that does not conform to the nominated norm. While nonstandard grammar may be regarded by some as ‘incorrect’, it is actually just the grammar of a particular variety. What people really mean is that certain forms are not appropriate in more formal situations. Most people would avoid using their local dialect in a job application, for example.

A nonstandard variety might be geographically based, or it might be typical of a certain group in society, such as the young or people of certain ethnic backgrounds. Here are some examples:

Geographically based varieties:

The car needs washed. (instead of … needs to be washed: Scottish)

Your man’s after buying another drink. (instead of … has just bought …: Irish)

I were right proud of you, son. (instead of I was …: Yorkshire)

Are yous all coming to the party? (instead of Are you all …: Scottish, Geordie, Northern Irish)

Varieties used by particular groups in society:

I got fired, innit. (instead of ... didn’t I? British multicultural English)

She was like, ‘What are you on about?’ (instead of She said …: mainly young people)

I’m liking the new lipstick. (instead of I like …: social media users, journalists, advertisers)

While many of us get a lot of pleasure from the various regionalisms we hear as we travel around the country, there are plenty more who rail against the use of nonstandard grammar, particularly when it comes from their children or their students.

A 2014 worksheet provided by BBC Voices (a series of lesson plans for use when teaching pupils about accent and dialect) tries to put things into perspective. The teacher’s notes exhort educators to help students to ‘recognise how the grammar of their native dialect differs from that of Standard English’. The sub-text here seems to be that young people should not be pilloried for speaking a dialect; instead, they should simply be made aware of which variety to use when.

While many educators are coming to understand this need to respect local varieties, and starting to simply point out the differences between these and Standard English, there are many more who are far less willing to accept varieties such as those listed in the second section above – varieties that are used by particular groups in society. These are often forms that have made their way into the language more recently, leading those who prefer the status quo to berate younger people for their ‘slovenly’ ways.

An article on the BBC website back in September 2010 reported on how Emma Thompson, the much-loved British actor of Nanny McPhee and Love Actually, fumes at the sound of those ‘sloppy’ teenage words such as the filler like and the all-purpose question tag innit. Interviewed by the journalist, the then editor of the Collins English Dictionary explained that like is simply a filler, just like um. He went on to note that:

          When words break out of a specific use and become commonly used in a different way,                         people come down on them. […] Using um may seem more correct to Emma Thompson                         because using like as a filler is not a feature of the language she uses. The more                                     disassociated you are from the group that uses the word in a different way, the more that                     use stands out. It will be invisible to teenagers.

As a descriptive grammar, Collins COBUILD English Grammar records a wide variety of examples of this type. Careful analysis of the Collins Corpus has enabled us to identify typical contexts for such new forms as the all-purpose question tag innit, quotative like, and the use of stative verbs with progressive aspect, always with a usage note explaining that these forms are nonstandard, or appropriate only in spoken, informal situations.

Other examples of language change that are gradually coming to be accepted as standard rather than errors are:

Me and Amy went to the park. (instead of Amy and I …)

If I was better at cooking, I’d have a dinner party. (instead of If I were …)

Who did you want to speak to? (instead of Whom did you want …)

There were less than 20 people in the audience. (instead of … fewer than 20 people …)

So, if all of these various nonstandard examples are not errors, what does count as an error?

Michael Swan (2016) identifies four types of ‘true’ error:

  1.  slips of the tongue
  2.  using a word wrongly because you are confusing it with another word, or you are not sure of its meaning
  3.  errors of spelling or punctuation
  4.  foreign learner mistakes

Language teachers need to be aware of the latter in particular, but even then, things are not cut and dried. Since English is used globally as a lingua franca, often between non-native speakers, it can be heavily influenced by speakers’ first languages. Linguists have identified certain common features of ‘ELF’ (English as a lingua franca), questioning whether these should be regarded as errors at all in global communications, particularly since they do not impede communication. Examples of ‘ELF’ grammar include dropping the 3rd person s in the present simple, leaving out articles, and using all-purpose questions tags such as isn’t it. The ELF discussion raises a whole new set of questions for both learners and teachers, but as Scott Thornbury concludes in his 2011 ‘E is for ELF’ article:

          It is the learner, in the end, who must decide what code best serves his or her needs, and what             is achievable in the available time and with the available resources.

Explore this topic in greater detail with our free guided worksheet .



Crystal, D. (1994) ‘What is Standard English?’ Concorde, English-Speaking Union, 24–26

Swan, M. (2016) Practical English Usage, Oxford University Press

Thornbury, S. (2011)

BBC news website (2010)

BBC Voices (2014)