Q: Some of your pages refer to “standard English.” What does that mean?

A: Standard English does not refer to a specific dialect — there is no area of the country or group of people where everyone speaks “standard English.” Standard English also does not refer to the most commonly spoken form of English, or to the “best” or “most correct” kind.

Linguists use this term (and similar terms like Mainstream American English or Standard American English) to refer to the kind of spoken or written English that is taught in schools and is used in the workplace, in newspapers, on news broadcasts, and by politicians. In our pages, standard English is often used as an umbrella term for dialects that don’t allow the phenomenon in question.

Q: Your page on fixin’ to says that it is characteristic of Southern American English — but I’m from the South, and I would never say that. What’s going on?

A: There are a number of reasons why someone from a certain region might not use all the constructions that we identify as features of that region’s dialect. First of all, the dialect regions linguists use are meant to be broad generalizations — not everyone from a Southern state necessarily speaks Southern American English. Instead, the term “Southern American English” captures a pattern where people from Southern states are more likely to use certain features than people from Northern states.

Secondly, not all speakers of a certain dialect use the exact same grammatical constructions. For example, both dative presentatives and personal datives are said to be features of Southern American English &em; however, many speakers accept dative presentatives but not personal datives.

Q: Do all Black people speak African American Vernacular English? Do any people of other races speak it?

A: Not all Black people are speakers of African American Vernacular English — in fact, because AAVE is highly stigmatized (often due to implicit, thinly-veiled, or overt racism), many African Americans consciously avoid using features of AAVE. Many Black Americans are also fluent in both AAVE and standard English and codeswitch between the two. There are many great resources to learn more about this topic, both for laypeople and for those interested in academic research on the subject.

Many features of AAVE (like finna and stressed BIN) have been adopted by English speakers of all races, especially younger people. Because the use of AAVE features and words is often stigmatized for Black speakers and celebrated for speakers of other races, some people consider use of AAVE by non-African Americans to be a form of cultural appropriation.

Q: Why do people who speak with a Southern accent sound uneducated?

A: There is no correlation between someone’s intelligence and the dialect they speak or accent they have. However, many people assume otherwise — speakers of British English are often thought to be smarter or more cultured, while speakers of Southern English and AAVE are thought to be ignorant or uneducated.

However, linguists have shown that all dialects are equally systematic, rule-governed, and expressive — no dialect is truly better or more correct than any other.

So why are there negative attitudes about certain dialects? This kind of discrimination is often a way of expressing negative attitudes about certain racial or socioeconomic groups, rather than about dialects themselves. Many dialects, such as African American Vernacular English or Appalachian English, are stigmatized not because they are “worse” than standard English (they aren’t!) but because of who speaks these dialects. Calling speakers of AAVE or Southern English stupid or uneducated is a way of covertly expressing racist or classist views — sometimes unconsciously.

Q: I use a grammatical construction that isn’t mentioned on this website. Does that mean it’s wrong or that I’m speaking incorrect English?

A: No! This website is far from comprehensive, and we encourage you to submit any interesting grammatical constructions that you’ve heard or use yourself. You can contact the YGDP at ygdp-mail[at]yale.edu.

Q: Linguists might say that all of these grammatical constructions are correct, but they aren’t taught in school and people who use them sound ignorant and uneducated. Shouldn’t people learn to speak “proper English”?

A: There are a number of reasons why people might speak in their native dialects rather than in standard English. First of all, it’s very difficult to learn a dialect of English that is not your own — as difficult or more difficult than it is to learn a foreign language. Many people also speak both their native dialect and standard English, and switch between the two depending on the setting and context. This is called codeswitching, and there are many interesting articles on the topic.

Q: What’s a dialect? How is a dialect different from a language?

A: The linguist Max Weinreich famously observed "A language is a dialect with an army and navy.” There is no clear distinction between a dialect and a language, although the term “language” is often used to describe a group of mutually intelligible dialects. Often, dialects are classified as languages or vice versa for political reasons. For example, Croatian and Serbian are mutually intelligible (speakers of Croatian can understand Serbian, and vice versa), which might lead us to classify them as dialects of the same language. However, for political reasons, they are now considered separate languages, although before the breakup of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s Serbo-Croatian was considered to be a single language. Similarly, Swedish, Norwegian, and Danish are largely mutually intelligible but have for centuries been described as distinct languages. On the other hand, we may hear references to “Chinese dialects”, when the varieties referred to are mutually incomprehensible although their speakers share the same written forms and nationality (and a single army and navy).

Q: How is dialect variation different from slang?

A: There is often overlap between features of dialects and slang, especially because characteristics of certain dialects, in particular those features relating to words or expressions rather than grammatical constructions, may be adopted by other speakers as slang (this is particularly true of AAVE).

However, dialects are not simply slang — they follow a much more regular and varied set of grammatical patterns. They are also learned from the previous generation, unlike slang, which is usually learned from peers. Dialectal features are also so intrinsic to language that they are difficult to stop using or to learn, unlike slang, which is usually limited to words or phrases that are temporarily adopted. Slang is also generally restricted to an informal speech style (or “register”), which is not necessarily true of the phenomena we discuss. In addition, some slang expressions — for example “cool” (as a positive evaluation of style or behavior), “pot” (for marijuana), or “high” (for intoxicated) — have endured in slang usage for many generations within informal or colloquial English without obvious restrictions to particular regions or social groups.