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English Online. Every child literate - a shared responsibility.
Ministry of Education.

Standard English

Standard English has nothing to do with pronunciation. It refers only to the syntax of spoken and written English.

Standard English is spoken with many different accents. New Zealanders speak standard English with a New Zealand accent.

Standard English is the variety of English that has always been accepted and taught in New Zealand schools, usually without question.

Standard English is the form of English that is used in writing, and it is the same or very similar wherever it is used, irrespective of the dialects or accents of its speakers. There are some differences between standard British English and standard American English, for example, but these are very few when compared with the vast amount that is the same.

The stability of standard English is one of its advantages: it means that it can be used, and has been used, throughout the English-speaking world.

In its origins, standard English was one of many English dialects, coming from the East Midland area. This was the dialect used at the royal court, and it was the dialect used by Caxton when he introduced printing. It was not chosen to be the standard for English because it was in any way better or more aesthetically pleasing than other dialects. If the court had been in Wales or in Cornwall, a different dialect would have prevailed, and people today would be saying that it was the best. Over the years, the East Midland dialect gained prestige, and today it is generally taken to be "correct English", with some of the other varieties seen as incorrect.

One of the features of standard languages anywhere is that they avoid variation and resist change. Writers of dictionaries and grammar books have codified the language, and people look to these books as authorities for what is right and wrong. In traditional English grammar books, much emphasis was given to defining one correct form. Children were taught, for example, that only different from was correct, even though many speakers used different to or different than. In the past, the study of the English language often presented students with a minefield of possible mistakes, no doubt contributing to the sense of linguistic insecurity some people experience in social situations where they are anxious about using incorrect English.

Exploring language content page

Exploring Language is reproduced by permission of the publishers Learning Media Limited on behalf of Ministry of Education, P O Box 3293, Wellington, New Zealand, © Crown, 1996.

Published on: 24 Feb 2009