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Southern English Grammar

Grammar includes the following aspects of language:


(*) indicates that this pattern is also found in African American English grammar


1. *The negative marker ain’t is commonly used by a variety of English speakers, including frequent use by Southern English speakers. Ain’t derives from the older form amn’t (am not). Today, in addition to amn’t/am not, ain’t may mean isn’t, aren’t, hasn’t, haven’t, or didn’t.

2. *Regularization is a common pattern in dialects and languages; it refers to when a word takes on a more regular pattern. For example, the verbs is and was are also made regular, so that is is for all subjects except for I, and was is used for all subjects.

Example Meaning in School English
Do they know what context clues is? Do they know what context clues are?

In some areas of the South, like the Outer Banks, the negative form weren’t is regularized to be used for all subjects. Click here for a lesson plan on weren’t regularization.

Present Tense
I am/ I'm right
You is right
S/he is right
We is right
They is right
Past Tense
Positive Negative (used on the Outer Banks
I was right I weren't right
You was right You weren't right
S/he was right S/he weren't right
We was right We weren't right
They was right They weren't right


3. *In many verbs, other varieties of English distinguish between past tense (e.g drank, took, went, saw) and past participle (e.g. drunk, taken, gone, seen). This distinction is not always made in Southern English, showing another kind of regularization. The past and past participle have the same form.

Example Meaning in School English
Past Participle
We get to talk to people we haven't saw in a long time We get to talk to people we haven't seen in a long time
Past Tense
The biggest hotel I ever seen The biggest hotel I ever saw


4. *The future tense in Southern English may use gon instead of gonna/going to, and fixin’ to instead of about to.

Example Meaning in School English
We're gon be doing word study We're going to be doing word study

5. *The word done used with verbs means “already” or “just”. Done implies that the verb is completed. Linguists call this resultant done.

Example Meaning in School English
You done ran You have already run/ You have just run


6. Modal verbs are words like may, might, can, could, should, would, must, and used to. In many Southern English varieties, speakers may use two modal verbs in a row, or double modals for combinations such as might can, might could, and used to could. Often, double modals serve to make a request or suggestion more polite. In their book, Charity Hudley and Mallinson give the following example.

Double Modal One Modal
I wonder if we might could get a copy of last year’s test? I wonder if we could get a copy of last year’s test?/Could we get a copy of last year’s test?

The double modal might could helps take the edge off the request, and thus is a way of sounding more polite in Southern English.


1. As Charity Hudley and Mallinson (forthcoming) explain it, “perhaps no one word embodies this region quite like y’all does.” Y’all fills a gap in the pattern of pronouns. Standard English does not distinguish between singular and plural you, so the use of Southern English y’all for the plural helps to relieve some of the confusion between these two meanings.


2. Southern English does not always the plural –s with measurement nouns that occur with numbers or with other words that mark the plural such as many or lots.

Example Meaning in School English
It’s about six mile up the road It’s about six miles up the road
There are lots of gallon of water There are lots of gallons of water

Click here for a lesson plan involving this plural pattern.


3. *Regularization is also found in some pronoun patterns. For example, reflexive pronouns are made to follow a more regular pattern, so that each uses the possessive adjective form + self.

Reflexive Pronouns
AAE School English
myself myself
yourself yourself
herself herself
hisself himself
ourself ourselves
theirself themselves


*Similar to many languages other than English (Latin, Spanish, French, Russian) Southern English uses negative agreement. In fact, even older versions of Standard English used negative agreement. Negative agreement means that when a sentence is negative, all its words are negative that can be. This usually means verbs (made negative with don't, didn't, isn't, wasn't, etc.) and pronouns (nobody, no one, nothing).

Example Meaning in School English
Don't know nobody, and don't want to know nobody, and don't care about nobody Don't know anybody, and don't want to know anybody, and don't care about anybody