Non-standard English is English that does not follow the rules of the standard English dialect. This definition by exclusion covers a wide variety of dialects found in a wide variety of social groups, sharing for the most part lack of prestige and hence are vernacular.
There is inevitable confusion over the boundaries between standard English and non-standard English. Non-standard English may be found as whole texts, or as shorter strings embedded within a larger text.
Non-standard English is generally not taught to English language learners - for practical reasons standard English is taught. However, students above intermediate level will inevitably be exposed to it and should be expected to appropriately deal with it.
Examples of non-standard British English
The verb "to be" is the most complex in English, but some non-standard usages seem to be attempting to regularise it:
- we was is used in place of "we were". Especially by footballers, as in "we was robbed."
- if I was you is used in place of "If I were you".
- they was waiting for us is used in place of "they were waiting for us".
- ain't is frequently used - even if in a jocular vein - instead of (be) not (and also (have) not)
- innit = isn’t it? – It’s cold today, innit?
- I be is is used in place of "I am" in some regional dialects.
- gotten is not used in British English but is very common in American English. It is interesting that Oxford A-Z of English Usage somewhat snootily claims that "even there it is often regarded as non-standard" while the American Merriam-Webster simply notes its existence.
- don’t for doesn’t - as in The Beatles song "Ticket to Ride": "she’s got a ticket to ride and she don’t care."
Register and "unrecognised" contractions
Then there is the question of register and unrecognised contractions. While some contractions such as "isn't" are recognised and acceptable in speech and informal written registers, others are acceptable in speech but frowned on in all written forms of the language, some include:
- gonna for (be) going to. First recorded in the OED in 1913
- gotta for have (got) to. First recorded in the OED in 1924
- outta for out of – Get outta here!
- sorta for sort of First recorded in the OED in 1790
- wanna for want to. First recorded in the OED in 1896
- y’all. A second-person plural pronoun used informally in the South of the United States.
One form of non-standard language is slang. It is especially common in pop, rock, jazz and rap music, as well as in films, all of which tend to have international audiences, and many foreign speakers who have learnt more formal registers are sometimes surprised when they hear expressions like: “I gotta go!” (I have to go now). In certain regions, certain dialects may have this non-standard language incorporated into “normal” speech.
- C’mon! = Come on!
- cop = policeman
- ’cos = because (first recorded in the OED in 1828)
- cuppa = cup of tea
- don’t = doesn’t – He don’t love me.
- dunno = don't know (first recorded in the OED in 1842)
- gimme = give me – Gimme my bag!
- kinda = kind of
- lemme = let me – Lemme see that book!
- lil’ = little – He’s gotta nice lil’ house in the country.
- lotta = a lot of – He’s gotta lotta money!
- ma = mama
- OK = all right. Originally a deliberate misspelling of "all correct" (oll korrect).
- ol’ = old
- yeah = yes
- wotcha = What are you ...? – Wotcha gonna do when you get there?
It is also quite common to hear words finishing in /ɪŋ/ (written form -ing) pronounced /ɪn/. The final g is substituted by an apostrophe. Examples include the upper class expression huntin’, shootin’ and fishin’, and the lyrics of pop and rock songs: cryin’ – drivin’ – dyin’ – livin’ – lyin’ – rockin’ – singin’ – sittin’ – talkin’ – walkin’ – etc.
Deliberate misspellings can be thought as written slang.
Jargon is the common vocabulary used by specific professions or groups of people within those professions. It can be similar to slang or it can be highly technical: legal jargon; medical jargon; police jargon;
- This sentence is attributed to American boxing manager Joe Jacobs. The American Heritage® Idioms Dictionary, We wuz robbed.
- Jeremy Butterfield,Oxford A-Z of English Usage, Second edition, 2013.
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary, gotten
- Crystal, David. The Story of English in 100 Words. Profile Books (2012)
- "sorta". Dictionary.com Unabridged. Random House, Inc.
- For more information see Wikipedia article on y'all.