British English (or UK English) is a collective term for the forms of English spoken in the British Isles. When used by British speakers, it often refers to the written Standard English and the sociolect known as Received Pronunciation (RP).
The people who live in the British Isles do not use this term often. According to Tom McArthur in the Oxford Guide to World English (p. 45), the phrase British English shares "all the ambiguities and tensions in the word British, and as a result can be used and interpreted in two ways, more broadly or more narrowly, within a range of blurring and ambiguity."
Broad use of the term
The broader use refers to the language of the entirety of the United Kingdom.
Here, the term (unless qualified) covers all varieties of the language—standard and non-standard, formal and informal, at all times, in all regions, at all social levels. It is unlikely, however, to cover Lowland and Ulster Scots, which in this context is usually taken, explicitly or implicitly, to be distinct ...
The narrower use refers to:
The form of Standard English used in Britain, or in England, or in south-east England: traditionally the medium of the upper and (especially professional) middle class. The term may be expanded into the more or less synonymous forms British Standard English and Standard British English. Although not limited to one accent (most notably in recent decades), it has been associated since at least the late 19th century with the accent that, since the 1920, has been called Received Pronunciation (RP), and with the phrases the Queen's English, the King's English, Oxford English, and BBC English.
Peter Trudgill in Language in the British Isles used British English only for the wider sense of the phrase and introduced the term English English (EngEng) for the narrower sense. The term English English is now generally recognized in academic writing in competition with Anglo-English and English in England, though it is still not greatly used.
History and distinctions
The written language is normally Standard English, which dates back to the early 16th century. It is primarily based on dialects from the south-east of England and is used by newspapers and official publications. Although standard written English is similar in every English-speaking country, there are differences in spelling - such as colo(u)r, travel(l)er - punctuation and vocabulary. For examples, see American English, Canadian English, Australian English, South African English and New Zealand English for comparison.
Pam Peters (2004, British English) notes: "The characteristic written features of British English owe much to C18 and C19 linguistic movements, which were not felt so strongly elsewhere."
Use of -ise and -ize
Words of the sort organize/organise and their derivatives can be spelt with either s or z. The -ize forms are promoted by the Oxford English Dictionary and are the forms used by most publications issued by the Oxford University Press and in much other academic publishing. This is sometimes known as OED spelling and may be marked by the registered IANA language tag en-GB-oed. It is the spelling used by the Encyclopędia Britannica, by the United Nations (mostly), and by the majority of international standards groups. The -ize forms are also given priority in all dictionaries issued by Oxford, Cassell , Collins, Longman, and Penguin, and also in dictionaries issued by Chambers for international use. These forms were used by The Times until the mid-1980s. The -ise forms are now generally used by the British government, within the European Union, by Cambridge University publications, by the media and is taught in the British school system. The -ise forms are preferred in dictionaries from Reader's Digest (UK) and by Chambers in their native-speaker dictionaries and are used by most British publishers and in most British newspapers. Pam Peters (2004, -ize/-ise) relates that British National Corpus data indicates the ratio of popularity for -ise forms to -ize forms in Britain is 3:2.
The -ize forms were introduced by Noah Webster in the USA in his American Spelling Book and subsequent dictionary, on the grounds that they more correctly reflected the original Greek etymology of the -ize suffix.
The British Isles is one of the most linguistically diverse areas in the English-speaking world. Significant changes in dialect (pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary) may occur within one region. The four major divisions are normally classified as Southern English dialects, Midlands English dialects and Northern English dialects, and Scottish English and the closely related dialects of Scots and Ulster Scots (varieties of Scots spoken in Ulster). There is also Hiberno-English (English as spoken in Ireland) and the form of English used in Wales. The various English dialects differ in the words they have borrowed from other languages. The Scottish and Northern dialects include many words originally borrowed from Old Norse; the Scottish dialects include words borrowed from Scots and Scottish Gaelic. Hiberno-English includes words derived from Irish.
There are thus many differences between the various English dialects. These can be a major impediment to understanding between people from different areas. However, modern communications and mass media have reduced these differences significantly. In addition, speakers of very different dialects may modify their pronunciation and vocabulary, towards Standard English.
See: List of dialects of the English language
The accent best known to many people outside the United Kingdom as British English is that of Received Pronunciation. This sociolect is defined as the educated, spoken English of southeastern England. Until recently, it was widely believed that it was more educated than other accents and was referred to as the King's (or Queen's) English, or even "BBC English". However, for several decades, regional accents have been accepted and are frequently heard, their use in broadcasting now encouraged by the BBC. English spoken with a Scottish accent has a reputation for being especially easy to understand.
Accents throughout Britain are influenced by the phoneme inventory of the dialects mentioned above. Through this, native English speakers can often tell from what area a person comes. Cockney and Caribbean speech influence the London accent. The relatively recent spread of Estuary English is influencing accents throughout the south east.
See Regional accents of English speakers
English outside the British Isles
American English, Canadian English, Australian English, New Zealand English, Caribbean English, Indian English, and Pidgin English are among the many dialects that have emerged since the period of emigration from the British Isles during the expansion of the British Empire. Dialect differences are not, in general, an impediment to understanding, as the dialects are, for the most part, linguistically close to one other since, apart from Pidgin, they are mainly based on Standard English. A literate, educated English speaker will generally know many forms. Due to the wide reach of the US media and the Internet, knowledge of American English in Britain is more common than the reverse.
Ironically, a growing number of British English phrases have entered American English in recent years. The expression "went missing" or "gone missing" provides a case in point. In 1994, "went missing" or "gone missing" were used just eight times in articles in the Washington Post and New York Times in the whole of 1994. By contrast, in 2004 the expressions were used 91 times in the same newspapers. Similarly, neither National Public Radio nor NBC used "went missing" or "gone missing" in 1994 but by 2004, however, NPR used one or the other 31 times; NBC, 38 times.
According to former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans, the reason for this lies in the greater vividness and precision of some British expressions: "Gone missing," he says, is "more active" than "disappeared". Professor Geoffrey Nunberg of Stanford University's Center for the Study of Language and Information suggests that using British expressions "makes you sound pragmatic, a little cynical." The increasing reach of British media in the United States, such as the BBC America television channel, has also been cited as a reason for the growing fashion for British English in the United States. 
- Peters, Pam (2004). The Cambridge Guide to English Usage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 052162181X.
- McArthur, Tom (2002). Oxford Guide to World English. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0198662483 hardback, ISBN 0198607717 paperback.
- Trudgill, Peter (1984). Language in the British Isles. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521284090.
- Wells, J. C. (1982). Accents of English 2: The British Isles. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521285402.