Dialects vs. Standard English

And here is Emmy Stevens’s second blog post already! She also invites you to participate in her survey. Please do so: your input will be very useful for the paper she is writing for the course.

When Huckleberry Finn “snuck” out of a house, he was acting according to his character—and dialect. This is one of many cases in which people’s humorously self-conscious use of dialect has influenced others to adopt it as standard and it is now often seen even in sophisticated writing in the U.S. But it is safer to use the traditional form: “sneaked.” (Brians 2003: 192)

Several usage guides  in the HUGE-database (Hyper Usage Guide of English) discuss dialectal and non-standard language features. An example of such a feature is ain’t, on which Practical English Usage states the following: ‘[a]in’t is not used in standard (“correct”) English, but it is a very common word in dialects and “uneducated” forms of British and American English’ (Swan 1980: 34). This discussion is rather descriptive, but there are other usage guides in which negative evaluations of dialectal and non-standard usage are very explicit. The following example on the distinction between may  and might is taken from Mind the Gaffe: The Penguin Guide to Common Errors in English (2001):

A past-tense verb-form can normally only be followed by might, and not by may. So, the required form is Susie said that she might be here, and not *Susie said that she may be here. (…) The use of may in such sentences is decidedly non-standard, and it will cause many readers to grind their teeth. (Trask 2001: 183; emphasis mine)

The example shows that some usage guide authors do not adopt a descriptive perspective, but are more likely to condemn the language they find non-standard, and thus unacceptable.

The examples illustrate that quite a few usage guides discuss dialectal and non-standard language use. It is interesting to investigate which dialectal and non-standard language features are pinpointed as such, since such an investigation gives insights into which usage problems arise from contact between dialects and other non-standard varieties with Standard English. To this end, I searched in HUGE for all language features that are described as either dialectal or non-standard. These searches yielded some interesting results. HUGE includes 123 usage problems, and for 21 of these, dialectal forms were given (such as snuck and ain’t). Non-standard language features are discussed even more frequently: this was the case for 29 usage problems. Besides these usage problems, there are several other instances that are described in terms of dialectal or non-standard usage. Examples are my for me, quotative like, and the confusion between lend and borrow.

Several usage guide authors discuss usage problems that are related to dialectal or non-standard usage. HUGE contains 77 different usage guides, and dialectal usage features appear in 28 and non-standard features in 20 of them. Some of the dialectal and non-standard language features are more prominent in the usage guides than others. Which usage problems are then most often related to dialectal and non-standard usage? The following table shows a top five for both of them.

snuck and dove (especially snuck)
*irregular verb forms (such as friz for froze and swoll for swelled)
double negatives
double negatives
snuck and dove (especially snuck)
*zero adverbs

*These usage problems were identified by me, as they were not listed as such in HUGE.

The table above shows how usage guide authors classify features into dialectal non-standard usage. For my course paper, I would like to know how other people think about them, and I am especially curious to know how you evaluate such dialectal or non-standard language use. If you’d like to contribute to my research, please fill in my survey here. Your help would be greatly appreciated!

Source: Grammarly


  • Brians, P., 2003. Common Errors in English Usage. Wilsonville (Oregon): William, James & Co.
  • Swan, M., 1980. Practical English Usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  • Trask, R.L., 2001. Mind the Gaffe: The Penguin Guide to Common Errors in English. London: Penguin Books.
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2 Responses to Dialects vs. Standard English

  1. This seems to me to willfully misinterpret what I wrote about “snuck.” I deliberately avoided using the word “standard.” When I say it’s safer to use “sneaked” I mean only that some readers will object if you use “snuck” instead, no matter how well established it is in contemporary usage. Helping writers avoid the censure of people who might be in a position to cause them trouble is my aim—not dictating what’s right and wrong.

    The word “dialect” refers to the sort of language Mark Twain used to create Huck’s speech in the 19th century—not to “snuck” as belonging to a dialect today. Clearly it’s not. But “sneaked” still works better for many people—people whose opinion you might just care about.

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