Nouns (0)

There are no items for this category

Verbs (19)

pull in one's horns, crawfish out, crawfish, back away, back out, pull back, withdraw, retreat
v. make a retreat from an earlier commitment or activity; "We'll have to crawfish out from meeting with him"; "He backed out of his earlier promise"; "The aggressive investment company pulled in its horns"
pull back, draw
v. stretch back a bowstring (on an archer's bow); "The archers were drawing their bows"
pull back
v. move to a rearward position; pull towards the back; "Pull back your arms!"
move back, pull back, draw back, pull away, retire, recede, retreat, withdraw
v. pull back or move away or backward; "The enemy withdrew"; "The limo pulled away from the curb"

Adverbs (0)

There are no items for this category

Adjectives (0)

There are no items for this category

Fuzzynyms (32)

change by reversal, reverse, turn
v. change to the contrary; "The trend was reversed"; "the tides turned against him"; "public opinion turned when it was revealed that the president had an affair with a White House intern"
withdraw, disengage
v. release from something that holds fast, connects, or entangles; "I want to disengage myself from his influence"; "disengage the gears"
withdraw, retire
v. lose interest; "he retired from life when his wife died"
travel away, go away, depart, go
v. go away from a place; "At what time does your train leave?"; "She didn't leave until midnight"; "The ship leaves at midnight"
take a hop, resile, ricochet, reverberate, recoil, rebound, bound, spring, bounce
v. spring back; spring away from an impact; "The rubber ball bounced"; "These particles do not resile but they unite after they collide"
settle, subside
v. sink down or precipitate; "the mud subsides when the waters become calm"
v. go down; "The roof declines here"
quail, recoil, wince, shrink, cringe, funk, squinch, flinch
v. draw back, as with fear or pain; "she flinched when they showed the slaughtering of the calf"
v. go into retirement; stop performing one's work or withdraw from one's position; "He retired at age 68"

Synonyms (0)

There are no items for this category

Antonyms (19)

v. cover a certain distance; "She came a long way"
v. dash violently or with great speed or impetuosity; "She plunged at it eagerly"
go on, march on, move on, pass on, progress, advance
v. move forward, also in the metaphorical sense; "Time marches on"
work, make
v. proceed along a path; "work one's way through the crowd"; "make one's way into the forest"
go by, go past, pass by, travel by, pass, surpass
v. move past; "A black limousine passed by when she looked out the window"; "He passed his professor in the hall"; "One line of soldiers surpassed the other"
go about, set about, approach
v. begin to deal with; "approach a task"; "go about a difficult problem"; "approach a new project"


English is a West Germanic language that was first spoken in early medieval England and is now a global lingua franca.[4][5] Named after the Angles, one of the Germanic tribes that migrated to the area of Britain that would later take their name, England, both names ultimately deriving from the Anglia peninsula in the Baltic Sea. It is closely related to the Frisian languages, but its vocabulary has been significantly influenced by other Germanic languages, particularly Norse (a North Germanic language), as well as by Latin and French.[6]

English has developed over the course of more than 1,400 years. The earliest forms of English, a set of Anglo-Frisian dialects brought to Great Britain by Anglo-Saxon settlers in the 5th century, are called Old English. Middle English began in the late 11th century with the Norman conquest of England and was a period in which the language was influenced by French.[7] Early Modern English began in the late 15th century with the introduction of the printing press to London, the printing of the King James Bibleand the start of the Great Vowel Shift.[8]

Through the worldwide influence of the British Empire, Modern English spread around the world from the 17th to mid-20th centuries. Through all types of printed and electronic media, and spurred by the emergence of the United States as a global superpower, English has become the leading language of international discourse and the lingua franca in many regions and professional contexts such as science, navigation and law.[9]

English is the third most spoken native language in the world, after Standard Chinese and Spanish.[10] It is the most widely learned second language and is either the official language or one of the official languages in almost 60 sovereign states. There are more people who have learned it as a second language than there are native speakers. English is the most commonly spoken language in the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand, and it is widely spoken in some areas of the Caribbean, Africa and South Asia.[11] It is a co-official language of the United Nations, the European Union and many other world and regional international organisations. It is the most widely spoken Germanic language, accounting for at least 70% of speakers of this Indo-European branch. English has a vast vocabulary, though counting how many words any language has is impossible.[12][13] English speakers are called "Anglophones".

Modern English grammar is the result of a gradual change from a typical Indo-European dependent marking pattern with a rich inflectional morphology and relatively free word order to a mostly analytic pattern with little inflection, a fairly fixed SVO word order and a complex syntax.[14] Modern English relies more on auxiliary verbs and word order for the expression of complex tenses, aspect and mood, as well as passive constructions, interrogatives and some negation. Despite noticeable variation among the accents and dialects of English used in different countries and regions—in terms of phonetics and phonology, and sometimes also vocabulary, grammar and spelling—English-speakers from around the world are able to communicate with one another with relative ease.


Anglic languages
Anglo-Frisian languages
Anglic and
North Sea Germanic languagesAnglo-Frisian and
  Low German/Low Saxon
West Germanic languages
North Sea Germanic and
Phylogenetic tree showing the historical relations between the languages of the West Germanic branch of the Germanic languages

English is an Indo-European language and belongs to the West Germanic group of the Germanic languages.[15] Old Englishoriginated from a Germanic tribal and linguistic continuum along the coast of the North Sea, whose languages are now known as the Anglo-Frisian subgroup within West Germanic. As such, the modern Frisian languages are the closest living relatives of Modern English. Low German/Low Saxon is also closely related, and sometimes English, the Frisian languages, and Low German are grouped together as the Ingvaeonic (North Sea Germanic) languages, though this grouping remains debated.[16] Old English evolved into Middle English, which in turn evolved into Modern English.[17] Particular dialects of Old and Middle English also developed into a number of other Anglic languages, including Scots[18] and the extinct Fingallian and Forth and Bargy (Yola) dialects of Ireland.[19]

Like Icelandic and Faroese, the development of English on the British Isles isolated it from the continental Germanic languages and influences, and has since undergone substantial evolution. English is thus not mutually intelligible with any continental Germanic language, differing in vocabulary, syntax, and phonology, although some, such as Dutch or Frisian, do show strong affinities with English, especially with its earlier stages.[20]

Unlike Icelandic or Faroese, the long history of invasions of the British Isles by other peoples and languages, particularly Old Norse and Norman French, left a profound mark of their own on the language, such that English shares substantial vocabulary and grammar similarities with many languages outside its linguistic clades, while also being unintelligible with any of those languages. Some scholars have even argued that English can be considered a mixed language or a creole—a theory called the Middle English creole hypothesis. Although the high degree of influence from these languages on the vocabulary and grammar of Modern English is widely acknowledged, most specialists in language contact do not consider English to be a true mixed language.[21][22]

English is classified as a Germanic language because it shares innovations with other Germanic languages such as Dutch, German, and Swedish.[23] These shared innovations show that the languages have descended from a single common ancestor called Proto-Germanic. Some shared features of Germanic languages include the use of modal verbs, the division of verbs into strong and weak classes, and the sound changes affecting Proto-Indo-European consonants, known as Grimm's and Verner's laws. English is classified as an Anglo-Frisian language because Frisian and English share other features, such as the palatalisation of consonants that were velar consonants in Proto-Germanic (see Phonological history of Old English § Palatalization).[24]

  • English singsangsung; Dutch zingenzonggezongen; German singensanggesungen (strong verb)
  • English laughlaughed; Dutch and German lachenlachte (weak verb)
  • English foot, Dutch voet, German Fuß, Norwegian and Swedish fot (initial /f/ derived from Proto-Indo-European *p through Grimm's law)
(Compare Latin pes, stem ped-; Modern Greek πόδι pódi; Russian под pod; Sanskrit पद् pád)
  • English cheese, Frisian tsiis (ch and ts from palatalisation); German Käse and Dutch kaas (k without palatalisation)


Proto-Germanic to Old English

The opening to the Old English epic poem Beowulf, handwritten in half-uncial script:
Hƿæt ƿē Gārde/na ingēar dagum þēod cyninga / þrym ge frunon...
"Listen! We of the Spear-Danes from days of yore have heard of the glory of the folk-kings..."

The earliest form of English is called Old English or Anglo-Saxon (c. 550–1066 CE). Old English developed from a set of North Sea Germanic dialects originally spoken along the coasts of Frisia, Lower Saxony, Jutland, and Southern Sweden by Germanic tribes known as the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. In the fifth century, the Anglo-Saxons settled Britainas the Roman economy and administration collapsed. By the seventh century, the Germanic language of the Anglo-Saxons became dominant in Britain, replacing the languages of Roman Britain (43–409 CE): Common Brittonic, a Celtic language, and Latin, brought to Britain by the Roman occupation.[25][26][27] England and English (originally Ænglaland and Ænglisc) are named after the Angles.[28]

Old English was divided into four dialects: the Anglian dialects, Mercian and Northumbrian, and the Saxon dialects, Kentish and West Saxon.[29] Through the educational reforms of King Alfred in the ninth century and the influence of the kingdom of Wessex, the West Saxon dialect became the standard written variety.[30] The epic poem Beowulf is written in West Saxon, and the earliest English poem, Cædmon's Hymn, is written in Northumbrian.[31] Modern English developed mainly from Mercian, but the Scots language developed from Northumbrian. A few short inscriptions from the early period of Old English were written using a runic script.[32] By the sixth century, a Latin alphabet was adopted, written with half-uncial letterforms. It included the runic letters wynn ⟨ƿ⟩ and thorn ⟨þ⟩, and the modified Latin letters eth ⟨ð⟩, and ash ⟨æ⟩.[32][33]

Old English is very different from Modern English and difficult for 21st-century English speakers to understand. Its grammar was similar to that of modern German, and its closest relative is Old Frisian. Nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and verbs had many more inflectional endings and forms, and word order was much freer than in Modern English. Modern English has case forms in pronouns (hehimhis) and a few verb endings (I havehe has), but Old English had case endings in nouns as well, and verbs had more person and number endings.[34][35][36]

The translation of Matthew 8:20 from 1000 CE shows examples of case endings (nominative plural, accusative plural, genitive singular) and a verb ending (present plural):

Foxas habbað holu and heofonan fuglas nest
Fox-as habb-að hol-u and heofon-an fugl-as nest-∅ and
"Foxes have holes and the birds of heaven nests"[37]

Middle English

Englischmen þeyz hy hadde fram þe bygynnyng þre manner speche, Souþeron, Northeron, and Myddel speche in þe myddel of þe lond, … Noþeles by comyxstion and mellyng, furst wiþ Danes, and afterward wiþ Normans, in menye þe contray longage ys asperyed, and som vseþ strange wlaffyng, chyteryng, harryng, and garryng grisbytting.

Although, from the beginning, Englishmen had three manners of speaking, southern, northern and midlands speech in the middle of the country, … Nevertheless, through intermingling and mixing, first with Danes and then with Normans, amongst many the country language has arisen, and some use strange stammering, chattering, snarling, and grating gnashing.

John of Trevisa, ca. 1385[38]

In the period from the 8th to the 12th century, Old English gradually transformed through language contact into Middle English. Middle English is often arbitrarily defined as beginning with the conquest of England by William the Conqueror in 1066, but it developed further in the period from 1200–1450.

First, the waves of Norse colonisation of northern parts of the British Isles in the 8th and 9th centuries put Old English into intense contact with Old Norse, a North Germanic language. Norse influence was strongest in the Northeastern varieties of Old English spoken in the Danelaw area around York, which was the centre of Norse colonisation; today these features are still particularly present in Scots and Northern English. However the centre of norsified English seems to have been in the Midlands around Lindsey, and after 920 CE when Lindsey was reincorporated into the Anglo-Saxon polity, Norse features spread from there into English varieties that had not been in intense contact with Norse speakers. Some elements of Norse influence that persist in all English varieties today are the pronouns beginning with th-(they, them, their) which replaced the Anglo-Saxon pronouns with h- (hie, him, hera).[39]

With the Norman conquest of England in 1066, the now norsified Old English language was subject to contact with the Old Norman language, a Romance languageclosely related to Modern French. The Norman language in England eventually developed into Anglo-Norman. Because Norman was spoken primarily by the elites and nobles, while the lower classes continued speaking Anglo-Saxon, the influence of Norman consisted of introducing a wide range of loanwords related to politics, legislation and prestigious social domains.[40] Middle English also greatly simplified the inflectional system, probably in order to reconcile Old Norse and Old English, which were inflectionally different but morphologically similar. The distinction between nominative and accusative case was lost except in personal pronouns, the instrumental case was dropped, and the use of the genitive case was limited to describing possession. The inflectional system regularised many irregular inflectional forms,[41] and gradually simplified the system of agreement, making word order less flexible.[42] By the Wycliffe Bible of the 1380s, the passage Matthew 8:20 was written

Foxis han dennes, and briddis of heuene han nestis[43]

Here the plural suffix -n on the verb have is still retained, but none of the case endings on the nouns are present.

By the 12th century Middle English was fully developed, integrating both Norse and Norman features; it continued to be spoken until the transition to early Modern English around 1500. Middle English literature includes Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales, and Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur. In the Middle English period, the use of regional dialects in writing proliferated, and dialect traits were even used for effect by authors such as Chaucer.

Early Modern English

Graphic representation of the Great Vowel Shift, showing how the pronunciation of the long vowels gradually shifted, with the high vowels i: and u: breaking into diphthongs and the lower vowels each shifting their pronunciation up one level

The next period in the history of English was Early Modern English (1500–1700). Early Modern English was characterised by the Great Vowel Shift (1350–1700), inflectional simplification, and linguistic standardisation.

The Great Vowel Shift affected the stressed long vowels of Middle English. It was a chain shift, meaning that each shift triggered a subsequent shift in the vowel system. Mid and open vowels were raised, and close vowels were broken into diphthongs. For example, the word bite was originally pronounced as the word beet is today, and the second vowel in the word about was pronounced as the word boot is today. The Great Vowel Shift explains many irregularities in spelling since English retains many spellings from Middle English, and it also explains why English vowel letters have very different pronunciations from the same letters in other languages.[44][45]

English began to rise in prestige, relative to Norman French, during the reign of Henry V. Around 1430, the Court of Chancery in Westminster began using English in its official documents, and a new standard form of Middle English, known as Chancery Standard, developed from the dialects of London and the East Midlands. In 1476, William Caxton introduced the printing press to England and began publishing the first printed books in London, expanding the influence of this form of English.[46] Literature from the Early Modern period includes the works of William Shakespeare and the translation of the Bible commissioned by King James I. Even after the vowel shift the language still sounded different from Modern English: for example, the consonant clusters /kn ɡn sw/ in knightgnat, and sword were still pronounced. Many of the grammatical features that a modern reader of Shakespeare might find quaint or archaic represent the distinct characteristics of Early Modern English.[47]

In the 1611 King James Version of the Bible, written in Early Modern English, Matthew 8:20 says:

The Foxes haue holes and the birds of the ayre haue nests[37]

This exemplifies the loss of case and its effects on sentence structure (replacement with Subject-Verb-Object word order, and the use of of instead of the non-possessive genitive), and the introduction of loanwords from French (ayre) and word replacements (bird originally meaning "nestling" had replaced OE fugol).

Spread of Modern English

By the late 18th century, the British Empire had facilitated the spread of English through its colonies and geopolitical dominance. Commerce, science and technology, diplomacy, art, and formal education all contributed to English becoming the first truly global language. English also facilitated worldwide international communication.[48][9] As England continued to form new colonies, these, in turn, became independent and developed their own norms for how to speak and write the language. English was adopted in North America, India, parts of Africa, Australasia, and many other regions. In the post-colonial period, some of the newly created nations that had multiple indigenous languages opted to continue using English as the official language to avoid the political difficulties inherent in promoting any one indigenous language above the others.[49][50][51] In the 20th century the growing economic and cultural influence of the United States and its status as a superpower following the Second World War has, along with worldwide broadcasting in English by the BBC[52] and other broadcasters, significantly accelerated the spread of the language across the planet.[53][54] By the 21st century, English was more widely spoken and written than any language has ever been.[55]

A major feature in the early development of Modern English was the codification of explicit norms for standard usage, and their dissemination through official media such as public education and state-sponsored publications. In 1755 Samuel Johnson published his A Dictionary of the English Language which introduced a standard set of spelling conventions and usage norms. In 1828, Noah Webster published the American Dictionary of the English language in an effort to establish a norm for speaking and writing American English that was independent from the British standard. Within Britain, non-standard or lower class dialect features were increasingly stigmatised, leading to the quick spread of the prestige varieties among the middle classes.[56]

In terms of grammatical evolution, Modern English has now reached a stage where the loss of case is almost complete (case is now only found in pronouns, such as he and himshe and herwho and whom), and where SVO word-order is mostly fixed.[56] Some changes, such as the use of do-support have become universalised. (Earlier English did not use the word "do" as a general auxiliary as Modern English does; at first it was only used in question constructions where it was not obligatory.[57] Now, do-support with the verb have is becoming increasingly standardised.) The use of progressive forms in -ing, appears to be spreading to new constructions, and forms such as had been being built are becoming more common. Regularisation of irregular forms also slowly continues (e.g. dreamed instead of dreamt), and analytical alternatives to inflectional forms are becoming more common (e.g. more polite instead of politer). British English is also undergoing change under the influence of American English, fuelled by the strong presence of American English in the media and the prestige associated with the US as a world power. [58][59][60]

Geographical distribution


Percentage of English native speakers.
Percentage of English speakers by country.
  Not available

As of 2016, 400 million people spoke English as their first language, and 1.1 billion spoke it as a secondary language.[61] English is probably the third largest language by number of native speakers, after Mandarin and Spanish.[10] However, when combining native and non-native speakers it may, depending on the estimate used, be the most commonly spoken language in the world.[55][62][63][64] English is spoken by communities on every continent and on oceanic islands in all the major oceans.[65]

The countries in which English is spoken can be grouped into different categories by how English is used in each country. The "inner circle"[66] countries with many native speakers of English share an international standard of written English and jointly influence speech norms of English around the world. English does not belong to just one country, and it does not belong solely to descendants of English settlers. English is an official language of countries populated by few descendants of native speakers of English. It has also become by far the most important language of international communication when people who share no native language meet anywhere in the world.

Three circles of English-speaking countries

Braj Kachru distinguishes countries where English is spoken with a three circles model.[66] In his model, the "inner circle" countries are countries with large communities of native speakers of English, "outer circle" countries have small communities of native speakers of English but widespread use of English as a second language in education or broadcasting or for local official purposes, and "expanding circle" countries are countries where many learners learn English as a foreign language. Kachru bases his model on the history of how English spread in different countries, how users acquire English, and the range of uses English has in each country. The three circles change membership over time.[67]

Braj Kachru's Three Circles of English
Braj Kachru's Three Circles of English.

Countries with large communities of native speakers of English (the inner circle) include Britain, the United States, Australia, Canada, Ireland, and New Zealand, where the majority speaks English, and South Africa, where a significant minority speaks English. The countries with the most native English speakers are, in descending order, the United States (at least 231 million),[68] the United Kingdom (60 million),[69][70][71] Canada (19 million),[72] Australia (at least 17 million),[73] South Africa (4.8 million),[74]Ireland (4.2 million), and New Zealand (3.7 million).[75] In these countries, children of native speakers learn English from their parents, and local people who speak other languages or new immigrants learn English to communicate in their neighbourhoods and workplaces.[76] The inner-circle countries provide the base from which English spreads to other countries in the world.[67]

Estimates of the number of English speakers who are second language and foreign-language speakers vary greatly from 470 million to more than 1,000 million depending on how proficiency is defined.[11] Linguist David Crystal estimates that non-native speakers now outnumber native speakers by a ratio of 3 to 1.[62] In Kachru's three-circles model, the "outer circle" countries are countries such as the Philippines,[77] Jamaica,[78] India, Pakistan, Singapore,[79] and Nigeria[80][81] with a much smaller proportion of native speakers of English but much use of English as a second language for education, government, or domestic business, and where English is routinely used for school instruction and official interactions with the government.[82]

Those countries have millions of native speakers of dialect continua ranging from an English-based creole to a more standard version of English. They have many more speakers of English who acquire English in the process of growing up through day by day use and listening to broadcasting, especially if they attend schools where English is the medium of instruction. Varieties of English learned by speakers who are not native speakers born to English-speaking parents may be influenced, especially in their grammar, by the other languages spoken by those learners.[76] Most of those varieties of English include words little used by native speakers of English in the inner-circle countries,[76] and they may have grammatical and phonological differences from inner-circle varieties as well. The standard English of the inner-circle countries is often taken as a norm for use of English in the outer-circle countries.[76]

In the three-circles model, countries such as Poland, China, Brazil, Germany, Japan, Indonesia, Egypt, and other countries where English is taught as a foreign language make up the "expanding circle".[83] The distinctions between English as a first language, as a second language, and as a foreign language are often debatable and may change in particular countries over time.[82] For example, in the Netherlands and some other countries of Europe, knowledge of English as a second language is nearly universal, with over 80 percent of the population able to use it,[84] and thus English is routinely used to communicate with foreigners and often in higher education. In these countries, although English is not used for government business, its widespread use puts them at the boundary between the "outer circle" and "expanding circle". English is unusual among world languages in how many of its users are not native speakers but speakers of English as a second or foreign language.[85]

Many users of English in the expanding circle use it to communicate with other people from the expanding circle, so that interaction with native speakers of English plays no part in their decision to use English.[86] Non-native varieties of English are widely used for international communication, and speakers of one such variety often encounter features of other varieties.[87] Very often today a conversation in English anywhere in the world may include no native speakers of English at all, even while including speakers from several different countries.[88]


Pie chart showing the percentage of native English speakers living in "inner circle" English-speaking countries. Native speakers are now substantially outnumbered worldwide by second-language speakers of English (not counted in this chart).

  US (64.3%)
  UK (16.7%)
  Canada (5.3%)
  Australia (4.7%)
  South Africa (1.3%)
  Ireland (1.1%)
  New Zealand (1%)
  Other (5.6%)

Pluricentric English

English is a pluricentric language, which means that no one national authority sets the standard for use of the language.[89][90][91][92] But English is not a divided language,[93] despite a long-standing joke originally attributed to George Bernard Shaw that the United Kingdom and the United States are "two countries separated by a common language".[94] Spoken English, for example English used in broadcasting, generally follows national pronunciation standards that are also established by custom rather than by regulation. International broadcasters are usually identifiable as coming from one country rather than another through their accents,[95] but newsreader scripts are also composed largely in international standard written English. The norms of standard written English are maintained purely by the consensus of educated English-speakers around the world, without any oversight by any government or international organisation.[96]

American listeners generally readily understand most British broadcasting, and British listeners readily understand most American broadcasting. Most English speakers around the world can understand radio programmes, television programmes, and films from many parts of the English-speaking world.[97] Both standard and non-standard varieties of English can include both formal or informal styles, distinguished by word choice and syntax and use both technical and non-technical registers.[98]

The settlement history of the English-speaking inner circle countries outside Britain helped level dialect distinctions and produce koineised forms of English in South Africa, Australia, and New Zealand.[99] The majority of immigrants to the United States without British ancestry rapidly adopted English after arrival. Now the majority of the United States population are monolingual English speakers,[100][68] although English has been given official status by only 30 of the 50 state governments of the US.[101][102]

English as a global language

English has ceased to be an "English language" in the sense of belonging only to people who are ethnically English.[103][104] Use of English is growing country-by-country internally and for international communication. Most people learn English for practical rather than ideological reasons.[105] Many speakers of English in Africa have become part of an "Afro-Saxon" language community that unites Africans from different countries.[106]

As decolonisation proceeded throughout the British Empire in the 1950s and 1960s, former colonies often did not reject English but rather continued to use it as independent countries setting their own language policies.[50][51][107] For example, the view of the English language among many Indians has gone from associating it with colonialism to associating it with economic progress, and English continues to be an official language of India.[108] English is also widely used in media and literature, and the number of English language books published annually in India is the third largest in the world after the US and UK.[109] However English is rarely spoken as a first language, numbering only around a couple hundred-thousand people, and less than 5% of the population speak fluent English in India.[110][111] David Crystal claimed in 2004 that, combining native and non-native speakers, India now has more people who speak or understand English than any other country in the world,[112] but the number of English speakers in India is very uncertain, with most scholars concluding that the United States still has more speakers of English than India.[113]

Modern English, sometimes described as the first global lingua franca,[53][114] is also regarded as the first world language.[115][116] English is the world's most widely used language in newspaper publishing, book publishing, international telecommunications, scientific publishing, international trade, mass entertainment, and diplomacy.[116] English is, by international treaty, the basis for the required controlled natural languages[117]Seaspeak and Airspeak, used as international languages of seafaring[118] and aviation.[119] English used to have parity with French and German in scientific research, but now it dominates that field.[120] It achieved parity with French as a language of diplomacy at the Treaty of Versailles negotiations in 1919.[121] By the time of the foundation of the United Nations at the end of World War II, English had become pre-eminent [122] and is now the main worldwide language of diplomacy and international relations.[123] It is one of six official languages of the United Nations.[124] Many other worldwide international organisations, including the International Olympic Committee, specify English as a working language or official language of the organisation.

Many regional international organisations such as the European Free Trade Association, Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN),[54] and Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) set English as their organisation's sole working language even though most members are not countries with a majority of native English speakers. While the European Union (EU) allows member states to designate any of the national languages as an official language of the Union, in practice English is the main working language of EU organisations.[125]

Although in most countries English is not an official language, it is currently the language most often taught as a foreign language.[53][54] In the countries of the EU, English is the most widely spoken foreign language in nineteen of the twenty-five member states where it is not an official language (that is, the countries other than the UK, Ireland and Malta). In a 2012 official Eurobarometer poll, 38 percent of the EU respondents outside the countries where English is an official language said they could speak English well enough to have a conversation in that language. The next most commonly mentioned foreign language, French (which is the most widely known foreign language in the UK and Ireland), could be used in conversation by 12 percent of respondents.[126]

A working knowledge of English has become a requirement in a number of occupations and professions such as medicine[127] and computing. English has become so important in scientific publishing that more than 80 percent of all scientific journal articles indexed by Chemical Abstracts in 1998 were written in English, as were 90 percent of all articles in natural science publications by 1996 and 82 percent of articles in humanities publications by 1995.[128]

Specialised subsets of English arise spontaneously in international communities, for example, among international business people, as an auxiliary language. This has led some scholars to develop the study of English as an auxiliary language. Globish uses a relatively small subset of English vocabulary (about 1500 words with highest use in international business English) in combination with the standard English grammar. Other examples include Simple English.

The increased use of the English language globally has had an effect on other languages, leading to some English words being assimilated into the vocabularies of other languages. This influence of English has led to concerns about language death,[129] and to claims of linguistic imperialism,[130] and has provoked resistance to the spread of English; however the number of speakers continues to increase because many people around the world think that English provides them with opportunities for better employment and improved lives.[131]

Although some scholars mention a possibility of future divergence of English dialects into mutually unintelligible languages, most think a more likely outcome is that English will continue to function as a koineisedlanguage in which the standard form unifies speakers from around the world.[132] English is used as the language for wider communication in countries around the world.[133] Thus English has grown in worldwide use much more than any constructed language proposed as an international auxiliary language, including Esperanto.[134][135]


The phonetics and phonology of the English language differ from one dialect to another, usually without interfering with mutual communication. Phonological variation affects the inventory of phonemes (i.e. speech sounds that distinguish meaning), and phonetic variation consists in differences in pronunciation of the phonemes. [136] This overview mainly describes the standard pronunciations of the United Kingdom and the United States: Received Pronunciation (RP) and General American (GA). (See § Dialects, accents, and varieties, below.)

The phonetic symbols used below are from the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA).[137][138][139]


Most English dialects share the same 24 consonant phonemes. The consonant inventory shown below is valid for Californian American English,[140] and for RP.[141]

Consonant phonemes
  Labial Dental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Glottal
Nasal   m     n       ŋ  
Stop p b   t d   k ɡ  
Fricative f v θ ð s z ʃ ʒ     h  
Approximant       l   ɹ*   j   w  

* Conventionally transcribed /r/.

In the table, when obstruents (stops, affricates, and fricatives) appear in pairs, such as /p b//tʃ dʒ/, and /s z/, the first is fortis (strong) and the second is lenis (weak). Fortis obstruents, such as /p tʃ s/ are pronounced with more muscular tension and breath force than lenis consonants, such as /b dʒ z/, and are always voiceless. Lenis consonants are partly voiced at the beginning and end of utterances, and fully voiced between vowels. Fortis stops such as /p/ have additional articulatory or acoustic features in most dialects: they are aspirated [pʰ] when they occur alone at the beginning of a stressed syllable, often unaspirated in other cases, and often unreleased [p̚] or pre-glottalised [ʔp] at the end of a syllable. In a single-syllable word, a vowel before a fortis stop is shortened: thus nip has a noticeably shorter vowel (phonetically, but not phonemically) than nib [nɪˑb̥](see below).[142]

  • lenis stops: bin [b̥ɪˑn]about [əˈbaʊt]nib [nɪˑb̥]
  • fortis stops: pin [pʰɪn]spin [spɪn]happy [ˈhæpi]nip [nɪp̚] or [nɪʔp]

In RP, the lateral approximant /l/, has two main allophones (pronunciation variants): the clear or plain [l], as in light, and the dark or velarised [ɫ], as in full.[143] GA has dark l in most cases.[144]

  • clear l: RP light [laɪt]
  • dark l: RP and GA full [fʊɫ], GA light [ɫaɪt]

All sonorants (liquids /l, r/ and nasals /m, n, ŋ/) devoice when following a voiceless obstruent, and they are syllabic when following a consonant at the end of a word.[145]

  • voiceless sonorants: clay [kl̥eɪ̯]snow RP [sn̥əʊ̯], GA [sn̥oʊ̯]
  • syllabic sonorants: paddle [ˈpad.l̩]button [ˈbʌt.n̩]


The pronunciation of vowels varies a great deal between dialects and is one of the most detectable aspects of a speaker's accent. The table below lists the vowel phonemes in Received Pronunciation (RP) and General American (GA), with examples of words in which they occur from lexical sets compiled by linguists. The vowels are represented with symbols from the International Phonetic Alphabet; those given for RP are standard in British dictionaries and other publications.[146]

RP GA Word
i need
ɪ bid
e ɛ bed
æ back
ɑː ɑ bra
ɒ box
ɔɑ cloth
ɔː paw
u food
ʊ good
ʌ but
ɜː ɜr bird
ə comma
Closing diphthongs
RP GA Word
əʊ road
ɔɪ boy
Centering diphthongs
RP GA word
ɪə ɪɹ peer
ɛɹ pair
ʊə ʊɹ poor

In RP, vowel length is phonemic; long vowels are marked with a triangular colon ⟨ː⟩ in the table above, such as the vowel of need [niːd] as opposed to bid [bɪd]. In GA, vowel length is non-distinctive.

In both RP and GA, vowels are phonetically shortened before fortis consonants in the same syllable, like /t tʃ f/, but not before lenis consonants like /d dʒ v/ or in open syllables: thus, the vowels of rich [rɪtʃ]neat [nit], and safe [seɪ̯f] are noticeably shorter than the vowels of ridge [rɪˑdʒ]need [niˑd], and save [seˑɪ̯v], and the vowel of light [laɪ̯t] is shorter than that of lie [laˑɪ̯]. Because lenis consonants are frequently voiceless at the end of a syllable, vowel length is an important cue as to whether the following consonant is lenis or fortis.[147]

The vowel /ə/ only occurs in unstressed syllables and is closer in quality when followed by a morpheme-internal consonant and opener when morpheme-final or prevocalic.[148][149] Some dialects do not contrast /ɪ/ and /ə/in unstressed positions, so that rabbit and abbot rhyme and Lenin and Lennon are homophonous, a dialect feature called weak vowel merger.[150] GA /ɜr/ and /ər/ are realised as an r-coloured vowel [ɚ], as in further[ˈfɚðɚ] (phonemically /ˈfɜrðər/, which in RP is realised as [ˈfəːðə] (phonemically /ˈfɜːðə/).[151]


An English syllable includes a syllable nucleus consisting of a vowel sound. Syllable onset and coda (start and end) are optional. A syllable can start with up to three consonant sounds, as in sprint /sprɪnt/, and end with up to four, as in texts /teksts/. This gives an English syllable the following structure, (CCC)V(CCCC) where C represents a consonant and V a vowel; the word strengths /strɛŋkθs/ is thus an example of the most complex syllable possible in English. The consonants that may appear together in onsets or codas are restricted, as is the order in which they may appear. Onsets can only have four types of consonant clusters: a stop and approximant, as in play; a voiceless fricative and approximant, as in fly or slys and a voiceless stop, as in stay; and s, a voiceless stop, and an approximant, as in string.[152] Clusters of nasal and stop are only allowed in codas. Clusters of obstruents always agree invoicing, and clusters of sibilants and of plosives with the same point of articulation are prohibited. Furthermore, several consonants have limited distributions: /h/ can only occur in syllable-initial position, and /ŋ/ only in syllable-final position.[153]

Stress, rhythm and intonation

Stress plays an important role in English. Certain syllables are stressed, while others are unstressed. Stress is a combination of duration, intensity, vowel quality, and sometimes changes in pitch. Stressed syllables are pronounced longer and louder than unstressed syllables, and vowels in unstressed syllables are frequently reduced while vowels in stressed syllables are not.[154] Some words, primarily short function words but also some modal verbs such as can, have weak and strong forms depending on whether they occur in stressed or non-stressed position within a sentence.

Stress in English is phonemic, and some pairs of words are distinguished by stress. For instance, the word contract is stressed on the first syllable (/ˈkɒntrækt/ KON-trakt) when used as a noun, but on the last syllable (/kənˈtrækt/ kən-TRAKT) for most meanings (for example, "reduce in size") when used as a verb.[155][156][157] Here stress is connected to vowel reduction: in the noun "contract" the first syllable is stressed and has the unreduced vowel /ɒ/, but in the verb "contract" the first syllable is unstressed and its vowel is reduced to /ə/. Stress is also used to distinguish between words and phrases, so that a compound word receives a single stress unit, but the corresponding phrase has two: e.g. a burnout (/ˈbɜːrnt/) versus to burn out (/ˈbɜːrn ˈt/), and a hotdog (/ˈhɒtdɒɡ/) versus a hot dog (/ˈhɒt ˈdɒɡ/).[158]

In terms of rhythm, English is generally described as a stress-timed language, meaning that the amount of time between stressed syllables tends to be equal. Stressed syllables are pronounced longer, but unstressed syllables (syllables between stresses) are shortened. Vowels in unstressed syllables are shortened as well, and vowel shortening causes changes in vowel quality: vowel reduction.

Regional variation

Dialects and low vowels
Lexical set RP GA Can Sound change
THOUGHT /ɔː/ /ɔ/ or /ɑ/ /ɑ/ cotcaught merger
CLOTH /ɒ/ lotcloth split
LOT /ɑ/ fatherbother merger
PALM /ɑː/
BATH /æ/ /æ/ trapbath split
TRAP /æ/

Varieties of English vary the most in pronunciation of vowels. The best known national varieties used as standards for education in non English-speaking countries are British (BrE) and American (AmE). Countries such as Canada, Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and South Africa have their own standard varieties which are less often used as standards for education internationally. Some differences between the various dialects are shown in the table "Varieties of Standard English and their features".[159]

English has undergone many historical sound changes, some of them affecting all varieties, and others affecting only a few. Most standard varieties are affected by the Great Vowel Shift, which changed the pronunciation of long vowels, but a few dialects have slightly different results. In North America, a number of chain shifts such as the Northern Cities Vowel Shift and Canadian Shift have produced very different vowel landscapes in some regional accents.

Some dialects have fewer or more consonant phonemes and phones than the standard varieties. Some conservative varieties like Scottish English have a voiceless [ʍ] sound in whine that contrasts with the voiced [w] in wine, but most other dialects pronounce both words with voiced [w], a dialect feature called winewhine merger. The unvoiced velar fricative sound /x/ is found in Scottish English, which distinguishes loch /lɔx/ from lock /lɔk/. Accents like Cockney with "h-dropping" lack the glottal fricative /h/, and dialects with th-stopping and th-fronting like African American Vernacular and Estuary English do not have the dental fricatives /θ, ð/, but replace them with dental or alveolar stops /t, d/ or labiodental fricatives /f, v/.[160][161] Other changes affecting the phonology of local varieties are processes such as yod-dropping, yod-coalescence, and reduction of consonant clusters.

General American and Received Pronunciation vary in their pronunciation of historical /r/ after a vowel at the end of a syllable (in the syllable coda). GA is a rhotic dialect, meaning that it pronounces /r/ at the end of a syllable, but RP is non-rhotic, meaning that it loses /r/ in that position. English dialects are classified as rhotic or non-rhotic depending on whether they elide /r/ like RP or keep it like GA.[162]

There is complex dialectal variation in words with the open front and open back vowels /æ ɑː ɒ ɔː/. These four vowels are only distinguished in RP, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. In GA, these vowels merge to three /æ ɑ ɔ/,[163] and in Canadian English, they merge to two /æ ɑ/.[164] In addition, the words that have each vowel vary by dialect. The table "Dialects and open vowels" shows this variation with lexical sets in which these sounds occur.


As is typical of an Indo-European language, English follows accusative morphosyntactic alignment. Unlike other Indo-European languages though, English has largely abandoned the inflectional case system in favor of analytic constructions. Only the personal pronouns retain morphological case more strongly than any other word class. English distinguishes at least seven major word classes: verbs, nouns, adjectives, adverbs, determiners (including articles), prepositions, and conjunctions. Some analyses add pronouns as a class separate from nouns, and subdivide conjunctions into subordinators and coordinators, and add the class of interjections.[165] English also has a rich set of auxiliary verbs, such as have and do, expressing the categories of mood and aspect. Questions are marked by do-support, wh-movement (fronting of question words beginning with wh-) and word order inversion with some verbs.

Some traits typical of Germanic languages persist in English, such as the distinction between irregularly inflected strong stems inflected through ablaut (i.e. changing the vowel of the stem, as in the pairs speak/spoke and foot/feet) and weak stems inflected through affixation (such as love/lovedhand/hands). Vestiges of the case and gender system are found in the pronoun system (he/him, who/whom) and in the inflection of the copula verb to be.

The seven word classes are exemplified in this sample sentence:[166]

The chairman of the committee and the loquacious politician clashed violently when the meeting started.
Det. Noun Prep. Det. Noun Conj. Det. Adj. Noun Verb Advb. Conj. Det. Noun Verb

Nouns and noun phrases

English nouns are only inflected for number and possession. New nouns can be formed through derivation or compounding. They are semantically divided into proper nouns (names) and common nouns. Common nouns are in turn divided into concrete and abstract nouns, and grammatically into count nouns and mass nouns.[167]

Most count nouns are inflected for plural number through the use of the plural suffix -s, but a few nouns have irregular plural forms. Mass nouns can only be pluralised through the use of a count noun classifier, e.g. one loaf of breadtwo loaves of bread.[168]

Regular plural formation:

Singular: cat, dog
Plural: cats, dogs

Irregular plural formation:

Singular: man, woman, foot, fish, ox, knife, mouse
Plural: men, women, feet, fish, oxen, knives, mice

Possession can be expressed either by the possessive enclitic -s (also traditionally called a genitive suffix), or by the preposition of. Historically the -s possessive has been used for animate nouns, whereas the ofpossessive has been reserved for inanimate nouns. Today this distinction is less clear, and many speakers use -s also with inanimates. Orthographically the possessive -s is separated from the noun root with an apostrophe.

Possessive constructions:

With -s: The woman's husband's child
With of: The child of the husband of the woman

Nouns can form noun phrases (NPs) where they are the syntactic head of the words that depend on them such as determiners, quantifiers, conjunctions or adjectives.[169] Noun phrases can be short, such as the man, composed only of a determiner and a noun. They can also include modifiers such as adjectives (e.g. redtallall) and specifiers such as determiners (e.g. thethat). But they can also tie together several nouns into a single long NP, using conjunctions such as and, or prepositions such as with, e.g. the tall man with the long red trousers and his skinny wife with the spectacles (this NP uses conjunctions, prepositions, specifiers, and modifiers). Regardless of length, an NP functions as a syntactic unit. For example, the possessive enclitic can, in cases which do not lead to ambiguity, follow the entire noun phrase, as in The President of India's wife, where the enclitic follows India and not President.

The class of determiners is used to specify the noun they precede in terms of definiteness, where the marks a definite noun and a or an an indefinite one. A definite noun is assumed by the speaker to be already known by the interlocutor, whereas an indefinite noun is not specified as being previously known. Quantifiers, which include onemanysome and all, are used to specify the noun in terms of quantity or number. The noun must agree with the number of the determiner, e.g. one man (sg.) but all men (pl.). Determiners are the first constituents in a noun phrase.[170]


Adjectives modify a noun by providing additional information about their referents. In English, adjectives come before the nouns they modify and after determiners.[171] In Modern English, adjectives are not inflected, and they do not agree in form with the noun they modify, as adjectives in most other Indo-European languages do. For example, in the phrases the slender boy, and many slender girls, the adjective slender does not change form to agree with either the number or gender of the noun.

Some adjectives are inflected for degree of comparison, with the positive degree unmarked, the suffix -er marking the comparative, and -est marking the superlative: a small boythe boy is smaller than the girlthat boy is the smallest. Some adjectives have irregular comparative and superlative forms, such as goodbetter, and best. Other adjectives have comparatives formed by periphrastic constructions, with the adverb more marking the comparative, and most marking the superlative: happier or more happythe happiest or most happy.[172] There is some variation among speakers regarding which adjectives use inflected or periphrastic comparison, and some studies have shown a tendency for the periphrastic forms to become more common at the expense of the inflected form.[173]

Pronouns, case, and person

English pronouns conserve many traits of case and gender inflection. The personal pronouns retain a difference between subjective and objective case in most persons (I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them) as well as a gender and animateness distinction in the third person singular (distinguishing he/she/it). The subjective case corresponds to the Old English nominative case, and the objective case is used both in the sense of the previous accusative case (in the role of patient, or direct object of a transitive verb), and in the sense of the Old English dative case (in the role of a recipient or indirect object of a transitive verb).[174][175] Subjective case is used when the pronoun is the subject of a finite clause, and otherwise, the objective case is us