Non-standard English: Usage and attitudes


Spoken language is a powerful method of communication that conveys more than intended referential information. Depending on the listener’s attitude, a speaker’s accent or dialect may imply a number of characteristics such as social class and professionalism. Examples of non-standard linguistic features are discussed under Task 1; followed by summaries of two studies under Task 2, which focus on attitudes towards West Indian Patois (Edwards, 1986) and the Cockney accent (Giles & Sassoon, 1982).

Task 1

  1. That’s the girl he gave the bracelet to.

This sentence contains a grammatical, non-standard linguistic feature because it ends with the preposition ‘to’. In Standard English, a preposition usually proceeds a noun, hence the sentence should read: ‘That’s the girl to whom he gave the bracelet.’ However, there are cases where sentences sound unnatural if they are arranged in a way that avoids a final proposition. This is usually seen in conversational English, for example: in relative clauses and questions which feature phrasal verbs, passive constructions, and short sentences which feature an infinitive or verbal noun.

Nonetheless, in formal writing, it is considered better practice to avoid placing a preposition at the end of a sentence where it may seem stranded. (“Preposition”, 2008)

  1. Buffy the vampire slayer is dead cool.

This sentence contains a lexical, non-standard linguistic feature because ‘dead’ functions as an adverb of degree, such as ‘very’; the sentence should read, ‘Buffy the vampire slayer is very cool’, or of a similar effect. ‘Dead’ typically functions as an adjective, meaning ‘no longer alive’, and is used in contexts such as ‘a dead body’or ‘a dead issue’. It has therefore undergone semantic change, and its meaning has been broadened. (“Dead”, 2017)

  1. My old man gave me a set of wheels for my birthday.

This sentence contains lexical, non-standard linguistic features because slang is used. ‘My old man’ is a colloquial, informal noun phrase meaning one’s father or a woman’s husband or boyfriend; ‘set of wheels’ is also a colloquial, informal noun phrase meaning a motor vehicle, as opposed to a literal set of wheels. According to Standard English, the sentence should read: ‘My father gave me a motor vehicle for my birthday.’ The phrases have thus undergone semantic change. (“Old man”, 2017)

  1. The guy that works in the bar is really nice.

This sentence contains a lexical, non-standard linguistic feature due to the use of the informal noun, ‘guy’, meaning ‘man’ (“Guy”, 2017). There is also a grammatical, nonstandard linguistic feature because, in Standard English, ‘that’ should not be used as a relative pronoun when the antecedent is personal. A human antecedent is typically proceeded by ‘who’ in a defining clause. An inanimate antecedent or a human but representative of a class is followed by ‘that’; for example, ‘the chair that collapsed’ / ‘the baby that laughed’. In Standard English, the sentence should therefore read: ‘The man who works in the bar is really nice.’ (“That”, 1998)

  1. Who did you see?

This sentence contains a grammatical, non-standard linguistic feature because ‘who’ is used in place of ‘whom’. In Standard English, ‘who’ is a relative pronoun or an interrogative when it refers to the subject (‘who is there?’). ‘Whom’ is the objective form, hence the sentence should read: ‘Whom did you see?’

However, the use of ‘whom’ is declining and is often replaced by ‘who’ in modern usage. (“Who and whom”, 2017)

Task 2

  1. A study of West Indian Patois, conducted by Viv Edwards (1986)

A study of 45 “British-born black adolescents in a West Midlands community” (Edwards 1997: 409) reveals the attitudes of teachers and pupils towards West Indian Patois.

Attitudes to Patois in the educational world are generally negative. The Association of Teachers of English to Pupils from Overseas (ATEPO 1970) describe West Indian language as “babyish” and “lacking proper grammar” (Edwards 1986: 25); the National Association of School Masters (1969) refer to West Indian language as a “plantation English which is socially unacceptable and inadequate for communication” (Edwards 1986: 25).

These negative attitudes reflect some of the findings of Edwards’ (1986) West Midlands study. Conducted in Dudley, the study consisted of a ‘judgement sample’ and comprised of 3 measures which were applied to the speech of 21 women and 24 men, aged between 16 and 23: “frequency of Patois features, competence in Patois, and patterns of Patois usage.” (Edwards 1997: 410). The study’s findings are presented in 3 sets of interactions, as summarised below: ‘Classroom Interaction’, ‘Pupil-Pupil Interactions’ and ‘Pupil-Teacher Interactions’.

Classroom Interaction

The stereotype that Patois speakers are limited to monolingualism was opposed by recordings of Black pupils using different language patterns in the classroom.

Pupil-Pupil Interactions

Contrary to the beliefs of the White community, Black pupils, who reduced the frequency and range of their nonstandard linguistic features, made a marked choice not to speak Standard English (despite their competence to speak both varieties).

The use of Patois in the classroom was rare but virtually all black pupils could understand it, and used features in at least some situations. Within Black peer groups, it marked solidarity and acceptance; in mixed-raced groups, it functioned to exclude the White outsider.

However, a few White pupils sought acceptance from Black friendship groups by using Patois, but their degree of competence varied. Some Black pupils responded with amusement and approval; most responded negatively to the White community for using a variety of English that was distinctively Black.

Pupil-Teacher Interactions

Black pupils used Patois to exclude their White teacher as means of defiance. Teachers then felt threatened when Patois was used in a confrontational way. Teachers who responded punitively elicited negative attitudes towards Patois. Other reports of teacher responses included learning nonstandard linguistic features in an attempt to understand Black dialect.

Edwards (1997) concludes that teachers’ punitive responses and the use of Patois to exclude the White community are a reflection of the issues caused by negative attitudes towards nonstandard varieties of English.

  1. A study of Cockney, conducted by Howard Giles and Caroline Sassoon (1982)

A study of a speaker’s accent and social class reveals the attitudes of 120 undergraduate listeners towards Cockney, in comparison to Received Pronunciation (RP).

Based, on Ryan & Sebastian’s (1980) study of the attitudes of middle class listeners towards Mexican-American in the USA, both studies were reminiscent of Lambert’s (1967) matched-guise test and consisted of a tape-recording, followed by a questionnaire. Ryan & Sebastian (1980) found that by disconfirming the listeners’ assumption of the accented speaker’s social class, their evaluations improved. Giles & Sassoon (1982) referred to this as the ‘Ryan & Sebastian effect’, which they later opposed in their hypothesis: awareness of a Cockney speaker’s social class would not “attenuate significantly the unfavourable status associations commonly levied against nonstandard speech” (pp. 306).

The participants of the study (Ss) consisted of 63 males and 57 females, aged between 18 and 23. Ss heard 1 combination of a male student’s voice and social class information who was recorded reading two stimulus passages using RP and Cockney accents. The legitimacy of his bidialectal skills was assessed in a pilot study by 24 undergraduates.

The study’s dependant measures involved 5 small questionnaires, each consisting of 7-point rating scales and instructions. The questionnaires were: measures of Ss’ perception of the speaker’s social class, accent and formality of speech; “social evaluation scales” based on the speaker’s intelligence, success, friendliness and trustworthiness; “belief similarity items” which measured the extent that Ss “agree[d] with the speaker on social issues such as the legislation of marijuana; “social distance items” which measured how close a relationship Ss were willing to have with the speaker; and “social role items” which determined Ss’ willingness to work with the speaker as “subordinate to, superior over, or colleague with them” (pp. 307).

Ss were recorded in groups of up to 6 other undergraduates; they were handed the 5 questionnaires in the format of a response booklet with the social class information facing upwards. Once they had completed the task, they were debriefed and engaged in discussion.

The results proved Giles & Sassoon’s hypothesis; the awareness of the speaker’s middle class background did not prevent Ss from perceiving him as a low status evaluation when he used Cockney. Accent influenced the ratings on only 1 of 4 social issues; listeners’ shared more beliefs on the legislation of marijuana with the speaker when he used an RP accent; accent had no effect on social distance items; but the findings from the social role items showed that “Ss preferred an RP speaker as their superordinate, and as a subordinate too” (pp. 311).

Giles & Sassoon conclude that the awareness of a Cockney speaker’s middle class background does not prevent the stereotyped negative attitudes towards low status ratings (pp. 311).


The nonstandard linguistic features in Task 1 and the studies summarised in Task 2 portray several varieties of English. The mixed attitudes towards the widespread use of nonstandard linguistic features are a clear reflection of an ever-changing language.

Word count: 1500 words


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Edwards, V. (2007). Patois and the Politics of Protest: Black English in British Classrooms.

In Coupland, N. & Jaworski, A. Sociolinguistics: A Reader and Coursebook. (408-415). London: MacMillan Press.

Fowler, H. & Burchfield, R. (1998). “That”. The new Fowler’s Modern English usage.

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message style on British listeners’ social judgements. Language & Communication, 3(3), 305-313.

Guy. (2017). Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford. Retrieved from

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