During a chat with a native English-speaking friend, he used the phrase "get on with it". I asked him about it, and he said it is a slang phrase. I looked it up online, and this phrase shows up on Urban Dictionary, so it seems my friend is correct in saying that it is slang. But who decides whether a word or phrase is proper English or slang?

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    Xiu, if you replace the word "correct" with "standard" this question might be better, I would say.
    – user114
    Feb 13, 2013 at 17:33
  • whereabouts on urban dictionary?: urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=get%20on%20with%20it
    – mcalex
    Feb 13, 2013 at 17:55
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    Pretty much everything on Urban Dictionary is not standard English.
    – Matt
    Feb 13, 2013 at 18:18
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    I do! Seriously, for most purposes, all native speakers are qualified to say whether their terminology is "proper" English or "slang". If they use a word on the assumption that it's one or the other of those classifications, that's how they mean it to be understood. And in general, the people they're talking to will have the same understanding, even if certain people in certain other groups of native speakers might feel differently. Feb 13, 2013 at 22:32
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    The OED documents usage, it doesn't determine it.
    – user230
    Aug 22, 2013 at 3:04

4 Answers 4


Everybody, and nobody.

Some countries have formal institutions which lay down rules which state what language is considered proper. English does not. All speakers and writers get a vote, and may exercise that vote as many times as they wish, both by speaking or writing themselves and by hearing and reading and approving what others speak or write. It is the most completely democratic institution in the world.

This is not to say there are no rules. There are, many thousands of them. Language at bottom is nothing but rules.

But the rules govern within larger and smaller communities. The rule which says that the present indicative form of the verb be which is used with the pronoun he shall be is is very widespread, but there are substantial communities where be is employed in some or all circumstances. By contrast, the community which maintains the rule that shall shall be employed in the first person where will is called for in the second and third persons is small and growing continually smaller. And the community which holds that my brother shall be referred to and addressed as Quid is quite small: probably only nine people.

So when you ask this question—which is an important one, and passionately debated—you must also specify ‘correct to whom’? To whom are you speaking or writing?

And when you have specified to whom you will have answered your question. They determine what is correct English.

  • I have to upvote this, since it says pretty much exactly the same as the comment I wrote before scrolling down to read it! Feb 13, 2013 at 22:33
  • +1; but even when there is a formal institution that lays down supposed rules, the reality is that correctness works just the same way as in English.
    – ruakh
    Feb 14, 2013 at 0:13
  • @ruakh Oh, yes. Academies can oppose innovation, restrain innovation, even in some circles suppress innovation; in some cases they may also encourage innovation; but in the end the writers will follow their own stars, and their readers'. Feb 14, 2013 at 2:18
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    @SF The people you're talking to - the people asking the questions. Dec 16, 2013 at 16:09
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    @SF. "Standardized" tests emerge from a specific speech community, and the grades reflect that community's standard of what is "correct" - which may or may not be what (just for instance) you or I regard as "correct". Dec 16, 2013 at 16:49

Slang describes a special kind of vocabulary, so Get on with it isn’t slang. It’s an informal idiom, almost entirely confined to speech. The distinction you have in mind is perhaps not so much between what is slang and what is ‘correct English’ as between Standard English and nonstandard English. In the words of the linguist Richard Hudson,

Roughly speaking, Standard is the kind of English which is:

  1. written in published work
  2. spoken in situations where published writing is most influential, especially in education (and especially at University level)
  3. spoken “natively” (at home) by people who are most influenced by published writing - the “professional class” ’.

Another linguist, Peter Trudgill, has said

Standard English . . . is the variety of English normally used in writing, especially printing; it is the variety associated with the education system in all the English-speaking countries of the world, and is therefore the variety spoken by those who are often referred to as "educated people"; and it is the variety taught to non-native learners. But most native speakers of English in the world are native speakers of some nonstandard variety of the language, and English . . . can be described . . . as consisting of an autonomous standardised variety together with all the nonstandard varieties which are heteronomous with respect to it. Standard English is thus not the English language.

There is no body that says what is Standard English in the way that the French Academy says what is Standard French. If you want to know in what contexts a word or a construction is used a good dictionary will help, or perhaps a corpus-based usage guide such as 'The Cambridge Guide to English Usage'. But there is really no substitute for paying attention to the way in which native English speakers and writers use the language in different situations.

  • ... but it was a native speaker who said it was a 'slang phrase' in the first place
    – mcalex
    Feb 13, 2013 at 17:54
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    @mcalex Just because a native speaker says something is true, doesn't mean for sure it is. Even native speakers can be wrong :) "Get on with it" is not slang. It is an idiom, which is probably what your friend meant.
    – WendiKidd
    Feb 13, 2013 at 18:05
  • @WendiKidd I understand that, I was merely pointing out a possible cause of confusion given the last sentence of the answer. ;-)
    – mcalex
    Feb 13, 2013 at 18:12
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    @mcalex. Most native speakers don't know much about language, and the terms used to describe. But, if they've had a modest amount of education, they do have some idea of what to use when. Feb 13, 2013 at 18:39
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    @mcalex: Their subconscious impressions of usage are generally correct. But their conscious applications of terms like "slang" are unreliable. If a speaker genuinely treats a word as slang -- e.g., using it only with friends -- then it's most likely slang. But if a speaker merely describes it as "slang", that doesn't mean as much.
    – ruakh
    Feb 14, 2013 at 0:15

My linguistics prof had a nice buzzword for the standard flavor of a language. He called it the socio-economically preferred dialect.

Who decides what is or isn't in the socio-economically preferred dialect is, why, the socio-economic elite which practices and promotes that dialect, through its media and various institutions.

There isn't a single such a dialect of English because there are numerous English-speaking societies in the world, with their own socio-economic elites with their own dialects.

If we were to identify something as Standard English for the entire world, it would have to be some kind of cmmon subset of all those dialects. Unfortunately, one of the implications would be that some objects would be left without names. For instance petrol appears in the socio-economically preferred dialect used in Britain, but in America's equivalent dialect it is gasoline. So in an international Standard English that is understood by everyone, there can be no word for a highly refined-fuel for spark-ignited internal combustion engines.

  • "The socio-economically preferred dialect": absolutely! Language is socially judged everywhere; language is culture, not just grammar rules. But when we teach English as a foreign language (EFL), we teach both petrol & gasoline: the international standard cannot afford to be exclusive.
    – user264
    Feb 14, 2013 at 1:40
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    Identifying dialects is a nice way to escape the prescriptive versus descriptive trap. An utterance is not correct or not; but rather, which dialect does it belong to, if any.
    – Kaz
    Feb 14, 2013 at 1:43
  • This is closely related to the idea of a prestige dialect. As Wikipedia says, "the most prestigious dialect is likely to be considered the standard language, though there are some notable exceptions to this rule".
    – user230
    Feb 15, 2013 at 0:45

I think these are great answers though I’d like to advance a couple of examples that clarify and simultaneously confuse the picture. I have long relied on examples such as diplomacy, law, medicine, aviation, navigation, hard sciences and commerce to demonstrated that consistent rules and definitions are an absolute for a society to remain intact, if they weren’t, people and nations couldn’t function.

In all these cases, precision with definition and standard usage is a must. It doesn’t take much imagination to visualize what happens when they are not. Chemistry recognizes metals such as gold as transitional metals. At first when I heard this I was indignant saying to my son that given the accepted definition of the word ‘transition’, that telling ones bride to be that her gold wedding band was in fact a transitioning metal would not be met with joy.

Then I realized it was accepted language within a specific discipline I simply wasn’t familiar with since I also knew that gold was non-reactive to just about anything and thus such a claim made no sense. So that helped me further understand that discipline specific bodies, such as the ones I mentioned above, governed the use of language within those disciplines and that they were international in scope and more or less accepted final authorities.

Countries couch as Iceland are a unique footnote but show the complexity of how language is developed and regulated, the Icelandic people jealously guard their own language and, as I understand their practice, will create a new word rather than adopt a foreign word precisely to preserve the integrity of their unique linguistic tradition. Importantly, however, they are fluent in languages that call upon international understanding.

I would advance the position that there are indeed narrow bodies of people that govern the vocabulary and use of language but that often they are ‘industry’ or activity specific because it’s the only way to reliably assure understanding and cooperation. The vernacular and slang of everyday local, regional and even national speech would overwhelm and impossibly complicate fundamental areas of human activity. This being the case, formal English and rules (now being taught everywhere) are vital to assure vital activities can take place effectively. Vernacular changes daily, nuclear disarmament treaties and banking contracts and agreements should not.

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