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While many of the grammatical rules (here, grammar refers to what makes a sentence intelligible between speakers, rather than what is textbook-style correct) of AAE are the same as those of SAE, it also has a large set of unique rules.  Here we describe some basic rules of AAE that differ from AAE.  For a more extensive list, see African American Vernacular English, by John Rickford (From which some of these examples, and all of these rules are graciously taken).  As a reminder, these “rules” are not obligations, meaning that none of these things will occur in every instance of speech.  (For example, AAE speakers can omit “is,” but they can just as easily not omit it.)

  • Absence of the auxiliary (often referred to as “copula”) verbs forms is and are in the present tense.
  • Use of “habitual be,” wherein be is used for all subject forms (I be, you be, he be, etc.) to imply a habitual state or action.
  • No -s ending on third-person singular present tense verb forms.  Example: He run (for he runs).
  • Verb forms is and was replace are and were.
  • Possessives are not marked with -s (Mary house for Mary’s house).
  • Use of y’all and they for second-person and third-person possessives, respectively. Examples:  “It’s y’all ball,” and “It’s they house.”
  • Use of multiple negations in sentences (called “negative concord”).  For example: “Ain’t no cat can’t get in no coop,” would mean “No cat can get into any coop.”
  • Use of ain'(t) for negation in place of “am not” or “isn’t.”

Also, look at our page on Sound, for ways that AAE varies phonologically from SAE.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Tariq permalink
    February 25, 2013 10:37 pm

    One word. Creole.
    I’m sure that was unacceptable tothe French as well. we aa’s can be bilingual also, we have a language for the house and so among friends, andthen we know how to talk when we’reat work so that they understand better.

  2. Ellen Zimmerman permalink
    April 26, 2016 5:49 pm

    I teach linguistic anthropology, and we were talking about grammatical features of AAE in class today. Some of my students, who said they grew up in the ‘hood (their words) in Boston, had never heard invariant be used by anyone in their community. They assumed it must be a southern usage. I know there are regional variants of AAE, so am wondering if invariant be exists in only some regional varieties (though I had thought it was one of the more universal features). Does anyone know?

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