English studies is an academic discipline that includes the study of literatures written in the English language (including literatures from the United Kingdom, the United States, Ireland, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, the Philippines, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and the Middle East, among other areas), English linguistics (including English phonetics, phonology, syntax, morphology, semantics, pragmatics, corpus linguistics, and stylistics), and English sociolinguistics (including discourse analysis of written and spoken texts in the English language, the history of the English language, English language learning and teaching, and the study of World Englishes).

More broadly, English studies explores the production of and analysis of texts created in English (or in areas of the world in which English is a common mode of communication). It is common for academic departments of “English” or “English Studies” to include scholars of the English language, literature (including literary criticism and literary theory), linguistics, law, journalism, composition studies, the philosophy of language, literacy, publishing/history of the book, communication studies, technical communication, folklore, cultural studies, creative writing, critical theory, disability studies, area studies (especially American studies), theater, gender studies/ethnic studies, digital media/electronic publishing, film studies/media studies, rhetoric and philology/etymology, and various courses in the liberal arts and humanities, among others.

In most English-speaking countries, the literary and cultural dimensions of English studies are typically practiced in university departments of English, while the study of texts produced in non-English languages takes place in other departments, such as departments of foreign language or comparative literature. English linguistics is often studied in separate departments of linguistics. This disciplinary divide between a dominant linguistic or a literary orientation is one motivation for the division of the North American Modern Language Association (MLA) into two subgroups. At universities in non-English-speaking countries, the same department often covers all aspects of English studies including linguistics: this is reflected, for example, in the structure and activities of the European Society for the Study of English (ESSE).

The history of English studies at the modern university in Europe and America begins in the second half of the nineteenth century. Initially, English studies comprised a motley array of content: the practice of oratory, the study of rhetoric and grammar, the composition of poetry, and the appreciation of literature (mostly by authors from England, since American literature and language study was only added in the twentieth century).[1] In Germany and several other European countries, English philology, a strongly positivistic and historically interested practice of reading pre-modern texts, became the preferred scholarly paradigm, but English-speaking countries distanced themselves from philological paradigms soon after World War I.[2] At the end of this process, English departments tended to refocus their work on various forms of writing instruction (creative, professional, critical) and the interpreting of literary texts, and teacher education in English recovered from the neglect it had suffered because of more science-oriented paradigms.[3] Today, English departments in native-speaking countries re-evaluate their roles as sole guardians of the discipline because English is less and less native speakers’ unique ‘property’ and has to be shared with the millions of speakers and writers from other countries for whom English is an essential means of communication and artistic expression.[4]

English literature became an object of study in French universities as part of foreign (comparative) literature in the nineteenth century. A chair of foreign literature was established in Paris in 1830. English was first taught independently from other languages and literature in the University of Lille and in the University of Lyons and only afterwards in the Sorbonne. These three universities were the first major centres of English studies in France. The first lecturer and later professor of English studies would seem to have been Auguste Angellier. After spending several years teaching French in England in the 1860s and 1870s, he became a lecturer in English studies in the University of Lille in 1881 and a professor of English in 1893. In France nowadays, literature, civilisation, linguistics and the spoken and written language are all important in English studies in universities.[5]

The English major rose into prominence in American colleges shortly after the introduction of the electives system[when?]. It provided an opportunity for students to develop skills in analytical reading with the aim of improving their writing, as well as exercises in rhetoric and persuasive expression that had been traditionally only taught in classical studies and available to the very few due to language barriers and a shortage of professors who could actively engage students in the humanities. Outside the United States (originating in Scotland and then rippling out into the English-speaking world) the English major became popular in the latter half of the 19th century during a time when religious beliefs were shaken in the face of scientific discoveries.[6] Literature was thought to act as a replacement for religion in the retention and advancement of culture, and the English Major thus provided students with the chance to draw moral, ethical, and philosophical qualities and meanings of older studies from a richer and broader source of literature than that of the ancient Greek and Latin classics.

Since 2000, there have been more and more questions about the specific function of English departments at the contemporary U.S. college and university. The absence of a clearly defined disciplinary identity and the increasingly utilitarian goals in U.S. society present a challenge to those academic units still mostly focusing on the printed book and the traditional division in historical periods and national literatures, and neglecting allegedly non-theoretical areas such as professional writing, composition, and multimodal communication.