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I'll be as specific as possible: Is it the case that written English tends to exclude region-specific words and expressions?

The context is the expression on the go, whose regionalism is either changing or debatable. But it can be extended to cover all region-specific words and phrases.

Also, what type of English is used in writing that excludes or tends to exclude region-specific words and phrases? Is there an internationally recognized region-free form of English?

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    You would have to avoid talking about cars. If you say hood, it's AmE. If you say bonnet, it's BrE. If you say cover for the compartment at the front of the car that holds the engine, it sounds stupid. – Peter Shor Mar 25 '15 at 22:52
  • It's hard to notice if one is using regionalisms in one's writing if one has not traveled to, or met people from, other regions. on anther note, re speaking: Most television newspeople used to be trained to speak in a fairly non-regional accent. Yet even Dan Rather would slip in a Texas idiom now and then. – Brian Hitchcock Mar 26 '15 at 4:58
  • @PeterShor Thanks for the example. I just used it in my answer. – Ben Kovitz Mar 26 '15 at 5:05
  • @Brian Hitchcock: I don't know about that. For instance, I recognize a lot of British usages from reading murder mysteries (and lately Terry Pratchett), and did so long before I ever travelled to Britain. – jamesqf Mar 26 '15 at 18:36
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Written languages in general

Written languages are not vernacular languages. Written languages tend to be more formal, more refined, more stable, more standardized, and regarded with more authority than the spoken languages they co-exist with.

People learn their local spoken language from birth, just by picking it up. Written languages are normally taught in schools. Whatever the children speak, learning the written language gives them access to a tradition of written literature stretching back for centuries, and makes them part of the wider world of all the people who share that written language, regardless of local dialect. The larger the number of people who use a language, the more important the written dialect becomes, because of the impossibility of standardizing pronunciation and regional vocabulary. Because writing stays put on the page, unlike speech which disappears into the air, the written language tends to be more stable than spoken dialects, and also "anchors" the rapid variation in the spoken dialects to some degree.

Many written languages do not even reflect spoken language very well. For example, the same written Chinese, with relatively few local variations, is used throughout China, despite the great variation among the Chinese languages, some of which vary even in grammar from written Chinese, not to mention Japanese, which uses Chinese characters and has a grammar utterly unlike any Chinese language.

Written English

English is no exception. To illustrate, there are numerous regional dialects throughout Britain, which include vocabulary that has almost never been written down. For example, in Yorkshire dialect, "nowt" has meant "nothing" for hundreds of years (though it's now fading), but it's almost never found in print. In writing, you would write "nothing".

Scots dialect was occasionally written, but usually with an "apologetic apostrophe" to indicate where it diverged from standard written English. Much of Scots dialect lacks standard spellings, because people seldom made any attempt to write it. In person, I've sometimes found Scottish speech nearly incomprehensible, but I've never had a problem communicating with Scots in email. There is a recent movement to write in Scots. They're trying to make a variant of written English to correspond with speech—and they've already run into the usual problems. The Scots Wikipædia recommends that "fowk uises 'tradeetional' pan-dialect spellins."* In other words, in order to make Scots into a written language, they need to find a common denominator across regions (of Scotland), and they're treating older, traditional spellings as precedents to follow in order to create that standardization. That's how written languages tend to work in practice.

English in the United States has much less regional diversity than in Britain, but there are definitely vernacular dialects in the United States. AAVE is spoken nationwide, but, like Scots dialect, has seldom been written and lacks standard spellings. It's a true vernacular. Regional terms in the United States often cover such a large region that people don't know they're regional, so they go more often into published writing, yet even so, the pressure to standardize often leads to a single word's dominating in print: for example, look what "seesaw" has done to its regional competitors. Words unique to smaller regions seldom see print. For example, compare "papaw" and "grandfather". When regionalisms do appear in print, in stories, poetry, diaries, proverbs, dialogue, advertisements, etc., they usually impart a regional "color", because they diverge from the trans-regional standard and readers are expected to notice.

Dialects of written English

The "user base" of English is so huge, however, that the written language itself comes in several dialects. English has on the order of 400,000,000 native speakers, in several countries spread across more than half the Earth. Another 800,000,000 speak it as a second language. It's an official language of many countries where people don't even speak it as a mother tongue.

One reason why English has such wide use among so many peoples is that it has a pretty well-standardized written form. The main reason, of course, is access to international trade, but without a standard written form, English could not enable such far-flung usage and communication across national boundaries and regional dialects.

Yet there are distinct written dialects, though the differences are (to me) amazingly small. The biggest difference in written dialects, of course, is the British and American spellings: "colour" vs. "color", "programme" vs. "program", etc., though I understand that even these are showing some tendency to standardize. Standard Liberian English has a distinct written form: for example, "President pro temp" instead of "President pro tem" (technically, that's a distinct form of Latin used within English but it's still a regional English variant). In some cases, there just isn't any common term: for example, "bonnet" vs. "hood". In those situations, one is forced to write for only one part of the English-speaking (or rather, -reading) world.

The English Wikipedia tries not to favor any one national variety of English. Since there is no one international written dialect, different pages get different national varieties. In practice, despite the national differences, most of the conflicts tend to be stylistic, not endangering intelligibility. To see how Wikipedia deals with national varieties, read here. The pressure to standardize competes with the pressure to respect national differences, and usually wins—but not always.


Shouldn't it be "pan-dialeck"?

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    Not entirely true, for English, if you consider fiction. A good writer will use at least some of the regionalisms of the story's setting, so for instance I'm quite familiar with the Yorkshire use of "nowt" (though I don't recall ever actually hearing it when I visited), many Scots expressions, and various regional version of grandfather, from reading. – jamesqf Mar 26 '15 at 18:49
  • @jamesqf Which proposition are you saying is not entirely true? If the proposition is "Regional English dialect has never been used in writing", could you suggest a graceful way to indicate that I don't mean such an extreme thing (beyond mentioning that it has occasionally been put into writing, usually without standard spellings)? – Ben Kovitz Mar 26 '15 at 20:54
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    That "Written languages are not vernacular languages." While I can't speak for other languages, written English, and especially fiction, includes many different regional variations. Thus someone who reads widely will become familiar with many different regionalisms. – jamesqf Mar 26 '15 at 22:32
  • @jamesqf Thanks for the clarification! Now I'll see if I can clarify the wording above. I like opening by contrasting written with vernacular language, but "vernacular" has multiple senses. What I mean doesn't contradict representations of regional speech in writing, because these are usually understood as divergences from the standard written language for artistic or rhetorical effect, similar to catachresis. Another example: Many YouTube comments are gibberish by written standards but represent the authors' speech fairly well. – Ben Kovitz Mar 27 '15 at 1:16
  • I'm not at all familiar with YouTube comments, but I'm guessing that there's a good degree of ignorance involved there. I was thinking more of regional variations (both spoken & written) that would be considered "correct" in their native habitat. As for instance the way I became familiar (at a young age, too) with many British regionalisms by having a parent who was addicted to murder mysteries. Or the way I came to understand Shakespeare's English. – jamesqf Mar 27 '15 at 5:26
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Fiction written in English often uses dialect, archaic expressions, idioms and even coined words, such as "grok" (from Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land) or "borogove" from Rev. Dodgson. This helps remind the reader of the setting of the story, and can make a character more authentic.

Technical writing, such as users' manuals, avoids regionalism, where possible. Of course, that is not completely possible, where such common phrases as "different from", "different to" and "different than" might be acceptable in one English-speaking country and not in another.

Though I don't know of a complete style guide, most word processors, such as MS Word and LibreOffice, offer grammar correction of some limited use; one can specify English (UK), (USA) and (Australia) in the grammar checker or in the setup for the application.

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