‘They was watching the telly.’ If in a novel you came across a character who spoke like this, you are likely to make certain assumptions about his social standing, because the sentence will be interpreted as an example of incorrect English or, if you prefer, of bad grammar. In what is usually described as ‘good English’ they, which is a plural subject, should be followed by the plural verb were; the occurrence of the singular verb was with the plural they is characteristic of non-standard speakers of English only. All languages exhibit similar variations in usage which have arisen from social and regional factors, and usually one of the variant forms is singled out as the accepted usage for literary and other purposes. This form then gains social prestige at the expense of other varieties. In England this variety, often referred to as standard English or as the Queen’s English, is associated with educational attainment, and that is why speakers who do not conform to this variety in their usage run the risk of being considered poorly educated. In some cases people who fail to observe this standard may find that it affects their career prospects, for some employers still take the view that they should not employ a person who, in their opinion, cannot speak or write properly.
Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.