AWAL: Standard English(es)


Languages typically have standard, or formal, varieties as well as the informal varieties used in daily communication or within small groups. These varieties may be connected to geographical region, social class, race, ethnicity, or gender, or some combination of these social dimensions. Varieties of language typically evolve through the influence of historical contact with other languages or varieties (Nunan, 2013). Multiple standard English(es) such as American, Canadian, and Australian English exist because of the global spread of English around the world through colonialism (Seidlhofer, 2011). The term “Standard English(es)” describes the varieties of English that have emerged; what makes them ‘standard’ is when they are defined and enforced by dominant social institutions such as schools, the news media, publishing companies, and dictionaries and writing guides (Lippi-Green, 2012).

Standard English(es) are used in formal and professional settings, in spoken and especially written forms. Even though there are different standards for good writing, dominant social institutions typically set standards for “good” academic and professional writing. In academic publishing, a requirement for the use of standard English may be explicitly stated in journal submission guidelines (McKinley & Rose, 2018), though how it is monitored and enforced is often highly subjective (Lillis & Curry, 2015).

Variations and Tensions

Differences exist among varieties of Standard English. Beyond the common example of spelling differences (e.g., humor/humour in American and British English), variations exist in vocabulary and the usage of verbs and prepositions (Canagarajah, 2006). In most cases, these differences do not interfere with understanding.

Informal varieties of English(es) are often considered inappropriate for academic writing (Seidlhofer, 2011). Most style guides proscribe the use of contractions and idiomatic expressions or slang (American Psychological Association, 2019). However, enforcing the use of standard English(es) can disadvantage writers who have less access to privileged varieties of English(es) (McKinley & Rose, 2018). In addition, in some humanities and social science disciplines, there is an increasing acceptance of non-standard uses of language that signal the author’s identity in the text as well as their style and voice (Alim, 2005).

Graduate Student Voice

Learning standard English(es) helps me to understand academic texts and adhere to accepted conventions in writing. On the other hand, becoming aware of the varieties of English(es) makes me aware of the plurality of languages and cultures they represent.-Yanhong Zuo

Reflection questions

  1. What varieties of standard English(es) are you familiar with? If you are familiar with non-standard varieties of English or another language, have you used them in academic communication?
  2. What conventions does your discipline follow in terms of standard English in academic writing and speaking?

For Further Reading

Milroy, J., & Milroy, L. (2012). Authority in language: Investigating standard English (4th ed.). Routledge. This book introduces the debate about standard and non-standard English(es) and critiques the prescriptivist approach.

Seidlhofer, B. (2011). Understanding English as a lingua franca. Oxford University Press. This book discusses the notions of “nativeness” and “foreignness” of English(es) as used by various speakers of English.


Alim, H. S. (2005). Critical language awareness in the United States: Revisiting issues and revising pedagogies in a resegregated society. Educational Researcher, 34(7), 24–31.

American Psychological Association. (2020). Publication manual of the American Psychological Association (7th ed.). American Psychological Association.

Canagarajah, S. A. (2006). The place of world Englishes in composition: Pluralization continued. College Composition and Communication, 57(4), 586–619.

Lillis, T., & Curry, M. J. (2015). The politics of English, language and uptake: The case of international academic journal article reviews. AILA Review, 28(2), 127–150.

Lippi-Green, R. (2012). English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States (2nd ed.). Routledge.

McKinley, J., & Rose, H. (2018). Conceptualizations of language errors, standards, norms and nativeness in English for research publication purposes: An analysis of journal submission guidelines. Journal of Second Language Writing, 42, 1–11.

Nunan, D. (2013). What is this thing called language? (2nd ed.). Palgrave Macmillan.

Seidlhofer, B. (2011). Understanding English as a lingua franca (1st ed.). Oxford University Press.

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