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Non-standard English


Admission requirements

A BA degree in English Language and Culture or in English Linguistics (or equivalent).


In his book English for the Natives (2013), Harry Ritchie argues that native speakers need not feel insecure about whether or not their language use is correct since, after all, as native speakers, they cannot get it wrong. And yet usage guides – language advice manuals – are published in large numbers, and have done so since 1770 in the UK and 1847 in the US. Usage guides are not grammars or dictionaries, but they function as a kind of all-in-one, telling readers what linguistic features (in the fields of spelling, pronunciation, vocabulary, grammar and style) are problematical and should be avoided. In doing so, they often focus on groups of speakers or writers (the young, the illiterate, football reporters or greengrocers) that are singled out for making particular linguistic mistakes.

Usage guides are the product of the prescription stage, the final stage in the English standardisation process, which started as long ago as in the days of Chaucer. Unlike in countries like France or Spain, where there are national language academies, they are not the product of what might be called institutionalised prescriptivism but of efforts made by individuals who, more often than not, are not linguists but journalists, novelists and even scientists. In this course we will look at what these use guides contain, and why non-standard and other linguistic features were singled out for attack by their authors. We will do so by drawing on a publicly available database called HUGE (Hyper Usage Guide of English), recently constructed at the Leiden University Centre for Linguistics. When studying different usage problems that are considered to be typically non-standard, such as the use of double negation, ain’t, could of, have went, between you and I, them as a demonstrative and the like, we will look at their treatment in usage guides over the years, but we will also look at actual usage in a number of available corpora (of British and American English), and we will test attitudes towards these features as held by members of the general public.

Course objectives

This course aims to equip students with tools and methodologies to study the relationship between language prescription and actual usage, in particular as we find it in non-standard English. Building on insights gained during BA programmes in English language and culture studies, particularly in relation to developments in the later history of the English language, a critical and objective approach will be adopted that will enable students to study topical questions in (historical) sociolinguistics, with a special focus on issues relating to prescriptivism.
After completion of the course, students will

  • have a good insight into the nature of the final stages of the standardisation process of the English language (prescription and prescriptivism)

  • have a good understanding of the usage guide as a genre

  • have learnt to work with several modern linguistic corpora (e.g. British National Corpus, Corpus of Contemporary American English), including the electronic research tools WordSmith Tools, as well as survey building software like Qualtrics

  • have learnt to work with the HUGE database

  • have learnt how to compare centuries-old prescriptions with actual usage

  • have learnt to contribute to the ongoing debate on prescriptivism through the Bridging the Unbridgeable blog (

  • be well equipped to write a master’s thesis in a topic of central interest to this field.


The timetable is available on the MA Linguistics website

Mode of instruction

  • Seminar

Course Load

  • time spent on attending the seminars: 26 hours

  • time for studying the weekly background literature and doing weekly assignments: 130 hours

  • time to prepare for making a presentation (40 hours) and writing a paper (84 hours) (including reading/research): 124 hours

Assessment method

  • presentation (including giving peer feedback) 20%

  • a final paper 60%

  • course contribution (including the writing of blog posts) 20%

Please note that weekly attendance is compulsory. Should any classes (with a maximum of three) have been missed due to unforeseen circumstances such as illness, a summary of the background reading will have to be submitted. In case of an insufficient mark for either the essay or the blog posts, these may be rewritten. There will be no opportunity to resit the presentation.


[Blackboard] ( will be used for all information provided during the course, such as the weekly reading and the assignments as well as other relevant information. Presentations will be submitted though Blackboard, and we will make use of Discussion Board

Reading list

Course book:
Milroy, James and Lesley Milroy (eds.). 1993. Real English. The Grammar of English Dialects in the British Isles. London/New York: Longman.

Additional reading (articles, book chapters on British as well as American English) will be specified in the weekly programme in Blackboard and will either be available through the University Library catalogue or will be placed in the reading room in the library.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available in [English]) and Dutch

Students other than MA Linguistics need permission from the coordinator of studies before enrolling.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


Please contact Student administration van Eyckhof for questions.


Please note that we will need the course book from week 1 onwards, so make sure that you order it well ahead of time.