Grammatical variation

happen1 she were2 wearing3 a mask4

Grammar is the structure of a language or dialect. It describes the way individual words change their form, such as when play becomes played, to indicate an event in past time. It also refers to the way words are combined to form phrases or sentences. The construction she were wearing a mask might sound unusual to some ears, but in some dialects in northern England and the Midlands, many speakers indicate the past tense of ‘to be’ by saying I were, you were, he, she and it were, we were and they were. This means the verb is unmarked for person, while speakers of Standard English differentiate by using I was and he, she and it was. Some dialects, perhaps particularly those in the South East of England, favour a similarly unmarked version using the singular form of the verb I was, you was, he, she and it was, we was and they was.

There is no wrong and right

We should avoid the temptation to draw misguided conclusions about what is ‘correct’ and ‘incorrect’ grammar. The northern and southern dialect patterns are more regular than Standard English, and indeed mirror the model for every other verb — consider I played, you played, I went, you went and so on. Linguists therefore make a distinction between standard and non-standard grammar, where Standard English refers to what many people consider a prestigious form, mainly because people in positions of authority use it and because of its universal acceptance as the written norm. Just as speakers with a broad accent do not reflect their pronunciation in writing, most people whose speech is characterised by non-standard grammar, switch to more standard forms in writing. However, there is a great deal of difference between written and spoken language, both in terms of purpose and audience, and this is reflected in their different grammars.

The was~were Map

Observing Grammatical Variation

All languages change over time and vary according to place and social setting. We can observe grammatical variation - differences in the structure of words, phrases or sentences - by comparing the way English is spoken in different places and among different social groups. One of the most common differences between dialects is the way in which past tenses are formed. Most English verbs have a simple past tense that is unmarked for person, such as played, went, saw, did. In other words we simply say I played, you played, he/she/it played, we played and they played and make no adjustment to the ending of the verb. This contrasts quite markedly with the way past tenses are expressed in many other European languages. The verb 'to be' on the other hand has two simple past forms in Standard English - I/he/she/it was and you/we/they were. Apart from the special case of you, the distinction is, therefore, between singular was and plural were. In some regional dialects, however, this pattern is not observed. In some parts of the country, speakers use was throughout, while speakers elsewhere use were exclusively. There are also dialects where the two different forms are used for the opposite function - singular were and plural was.

Click on a location on the map to hear how our formation of the past tense of 'to be' varies across England.

See also

Listen to these extracts of speakers using regionally specific grammatical constructions:

emphatic tag:

I was a back-seat passenger in a car accident, so I was

Listen To emphatic tag audio

This speaker uses a verb phrase with so as an emphatic tag — reinforcing the information already provided in the main body of the statement. Tags used to convert statements into questions, such as isn’t it and can’t you are common features of all dialects of English including Standard English, but emphatic tags are less widespread. The use of tags with so is typical of Northern Ireland, while in northern England you frequently hear constructions with an inverted verb phrase, such as she’s a good dancer, is Katy, or simply an emphatic pronoun tagged onto the end of a statement, such as I play football, me

OED entry:

Listen to the recordings featured on this site in Ballymoney and Lissummon for other examples of emphatic tags.

Visit the Collect Britain site for further examples in the following recordings: Brigham, Gosforth, Soulby, Staveley-in-Kendal, Eccleston, Stokesley, Egton, Askrigg, Gargrave, Wibsey, Leeds, Thornhill, Carleton, Golcar, Sheffield, Warslow, Hurst Green, Barnoldswick, Barrowford, Colne, Nelson, Burnley, Preston, Blackburn, Waterfoot, Blackrod, Boosbeck, Ripon, Scarborough, Ampleforth, Appleton Roebuck, Bradford, Leeds, Hull, Osset, Crich and Wirksworth.

subject her

and mother used to take me to school and then go up to the Co-Op up in the village and when her come back with her groceries her’d go back down the Tenbury Road to find me looking over the gate a mile-and-a-half away — I used to run away from school; couldn’t bear it

Listen To Subject her audio clip

This speaker uses an interesting non-standard pronoun: the personal pronoun, her, in subject position. There is considerable variation in the use of pronouns in regional dialects, although Standard English has a strict distinction between the subject and object pairs I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us and they/them. In Standard English, for instance, we would say I saw her, but she saw me. In the traditional dialect of the West Midlands and the West Country, however, the contrast is not always as clear-cut, and one might hear constructions such as I gave it to he or we went out last night, didn’t us? In East Anglia dialect speakers traditionally use that for the neuter pronoun in subject position, as in that’s going to rain tomorrow and it in object position, as in I heard it on the radio.

Listen to the following recordings featured on this site for other examples of non-standard pronouns: Welwick, Read, Kniveton, North Elmham, Weare Giffard, Portesham, East Harting, Byker, Burnley, Birkenhead, Banbury, Norwich, Melksham, Stonehaven, New Cumnock and Dalmellington. Visit the Collect Britain site for further examples in the recordings from across England.

simple past come

and, uh, I had to rush off to meetings when I come home from work and everything

Listen to simple past come audio clip

In saying I had to rush off to meetings when I come home from work, this speaker uses a form of the verb to come that is unmarked for tense. This form is much older than modern Standard English came and is extremely common across the whole of the UK. It illustrates how older forms continue to survive in popular speech long after they have been replaced in the prestige standard language.

Listen to the following recordings featured on this site for other examples of non-standard preterite come: Wearhead, Kniveton, Hilton, North Elmham, Weare Giffard, Stannington, Birkenhead, Danesford and Bleanish Island. Visit the Collect Britain site for further examples in the recordings from across England.

unreduced negative particle

there’s not that sort of employment in Penrith for them

Listen To unreduced negative particle audio clip

An extremely subtle difference between various dialects across the UK is the way in which the negative particle, not, is attached to words. This speaker contracts the verbal construction there is to there’s and retains a fully articulated not. Speakers of other dialects might favour a construction where the verb is pronounced in its entirety, while the negative particle is contracted, giving there isn’t. Although you hear the latter construction throughout the UK — forms such as I haven’t, it won’t and they aren’t —the alternative with an unreduced negative particle, such as I've not, it'll not and they're not are extremely widespread in Scotland and northern England.

In addition, you hear forms with an alternative negative particle, such as nae or no in Scotland (I cannae believe it and it’s no possible) or older dialect forms such as divvent in North East England or ain’t in many parts of the UK. In some parts of the Midlands the <t> sound in not might be omitted completely so, for instance, can’t sounds like <car> and don’t sounds like <doe>, or the <t> might be replaced by a weak vowel, so didn’t sounds like <didna> and couldn’t like <cudna>. In many parts of the country the <z> sound in isn’t, wasn’t and doesn’t and the <d> sound in couldn’t, shouldn’t and wouldn’t might be omitted.

Listen to the recordings featured on this site for other examples of non-standard negative constructions. Visit the Collect Britain site for further examples in the recordings from across England

he/she/it were

Keswick, Cumbria
that were just one incident
Reeth, NorthYorkshire
uh, he were telling us he thinks that, uh, the police've put in a special award for them, but
there was one that weren't really like a pond, just like a massive puddle
they was near a radiator and it were that hot and, uh, one of these blackshirts fell with the flag and the lot and
my grandma's been mugged and she were heartbroken, huh, she were crying for ages - it were awful
she were, I think she were eighteen, nineteen, like, somewhat like that, my dad, my old man were twenty-one or somewhat
Ossett, West Yorkshire
and my dad were walking in the rain, with a great big raincoat on and his cap
Featherstone, West Yorkshire
what happened, uh, I had a friend, uh, who were working on the power stations
we were at the back of the, of the rows in assembly and all we were doing were 'footsie' like this and she saw us and had us out and we each got a stroke of the cane on us hand
Fulstone, West Yorkshire
if it was a wet wash day, well, of course, everything were hung around
South Elmsall, West Yorkshire
it were a right important match: it were a cup-tie actually
Cudworth, South Yorkshire
and, and, like, he were sentenced to eight years about two month ago; he's still here
and that were our tea for Sunday
it's a total, uh, contrast to my, to my other job, as it were a very mundane job as you can imagine a lot of factory work is
Chapeltown, Sheffield
my sister found a pound note in the gutter, thought it were a sweet paper
Maltby, South Yorkshire
the colliery were just handy
my mum and dad thought he were wonderful
Harthill, South Yorkshire
next thing we knew he'd opened the door to his cabin and he were pulling the telephone wires and he were pulling it all the way down
Barnoldswick, Lancashire
it were that big a thing, were the padding
Colne, Lancashire
but if you were lucky enough to have a, uh, a tin bath, it were hung up in a, on a nail out in the yard
Nelson, Lancashire
my mother were terrified of these cows
Barrowford, Lancashire
Chew, Jackie Chew, they called him 'Cowboy' cause he were bow-legged and he were a plumber at Rishton
we thought it were absolutely brilliant
Worsthorne, Lancashire
'knock-and-run' were a real good game
it were half-a-crown a slab
Bacup, Lancashire
it were the best, you know, it was that - her bread were terrific
Rawtenstall, Lancashire
it were good, plain, substantial food
it's a big, it were a big step for, for me as far as travelling's concerned, because I'd all just walk to the end of the street to my local school
Blackrod, Greater Manchester
well, you know, my mam were in hospital - she were in Christie's in 1951
when my hair gr, grew it were beautiful - it were full of curls
it were very strict
St Helens
that were the only training you'd ever got
West Stockwith, Nottinghamshire
they'd a brilliant cobbler, one cobbler were brilliant; the blacksmith were a brilliant fellow
Coplow Dale, Derbyshire
he was two years older than the year, so you can imagine they didn't really want him; he were an old man for the war
New Houghton, Derbyshire
and it were all done on fire; there were no electric
Crich, Derbyshire
mind you, in, in Crich quarry it were a little bit different to other quarries
Meden Vale, Nottinghamshire
so, uh, the, one of the housemaids were just going past
Arnold, Nottinghamshire
and he emptied my basket of blackberries - chucked them all over the grass - anyway the grass were fairly long; well, I couldn't've picked them up again
Kimberley, Nottinghamshire
another woman used to always come in on Monday morning with a trumpet, cause her husband were in The Salvation Army
Cheadle, Staffordshire
two railway wagons come to nineteen hundredweight; that were seven pound a ton; that were thirty-odd years ago
the pudding dropped to bits and it were blackberry and apple pie
Swadlincote, Derbyshire
now then, boiled ham was sixpence a quarter, corned beef were fourpence a quarter
Leicester Tom,
he were a good lad - mind, he's dead now, poor devil!
he really weren't my type: I loved dancing and he couldn't dance very well
Weybread, Suffolk
that'd be clean; white and nice, that weren't no detergent, I mean no, uh, pesticides, nothing there, you know; that's pure rain water what come off the fields, isn't it?
Woodhurst, Cambridge
and I shall always remember my granny: I looked through the window and she were chasing this schoolmaster down the yard as hard as he could run and she were behind him and she were beating him in the middle of the back as hard as she could hit him with this brush
Easton, Suffolk
how I used to sleep I don't know, cause that weren't very comfortable
Melksham, Wiltshire
and I used to run into quite a lot of trouble, uh, through absenteeing myself from school: if there were a new colt being broken in or anything like that, Georgie were missing

I were

Appleton Roebuck
North Yorkshire went to Appleton Roebuck School till I were fourteen
I were on a, uhm, holiday with my brother and hi, his girlfriend and my nephew
but, when I, when I were, when I were truanting, I were going into an arcade and they always knew where to find me, cause I were always there; I were daft enough to go there all the time
Ossett, West Yorkshire
but I'd to start looking after mysen when I were about sixteen, you know, I'd to start looking after mysen, you know
Featherstone, West Yorkshire
no originally I were a, uh, fitter for The Coal Board; I've, I worked for British Coal for fourteen years
Chapeltown, Sheffield
and, uh, I were good at it
started when I were about eleven I think
Maltby, South Yorkshire
when I first went down I were sixteen
I were away for six months
Barrowford, Lancashire
it was the only time all the time I were going that he played at, I've seen him at Blackpool
I mean I were upset on the phone to them and I'm saying, "I've got two children here, I can't manage off twenty-five pound"
Worsthorne, Lancashire
and then when I were about thirteen or fourteen we had a cousin, Jean, that came and lived with us, so there were seven girls
Rawtenstall, Lancashire
oh I were tired to death
but I were told that they didn't really have apprentices, electricians in the Merchant Navy so they, I was advised to go and work for the Coal Board
I were twenty-two year old when the war broke out
Blackrod, Greater Manchester
there were only a few houses when I were born here
I got typhoid fever when I were eleven
Meden Vale, Nottinghamshire
and I were only in flip-flops - it was a beautiful day
Crich, Derbyshire
and of course I went there to, to work in the quarry then; I were only fourteen really
Arnold, Nottinghamshire
and I were on my own
Kimberley, Nottinghamshire
I were left in charge one, when I were four, uh, eighteen, cause while he went for a week's holiday
Cheadle, Staffordshire
it'll be thirty-odd years ago; I were fit then, like
before I went in the army I were on the samples at the Co-Op
Methwold, Norfolk
but I still weren't too sure
Weybread, Suffolk
I mean, I was happy and contented; that's no good saying I weren't, I was ha, and I met a lot of people, you see
Woodhurst, Cambridgeshire
what did I do; yeah, I were there but not, not on, not on the, in the a, in the afternoon; I'd gone before it happened, you see
Melksham, Wiltshire
I were going to get put in a naughty boys’ home, but, uh, mind, I were silly, because I realised years later that I missed out a lot through not getting a proper schooling and that and I have regretted it since

they was

Uswayford, Northumberland
the groceries was delivered and the bread and the butcher came once a week
Stannington, Northumberland
the horses was a grand affair for the snow; far better than the tractor
Seghill, Northumberland
so the ashes was more or less mixed with the excrement, you see
Byker, Tyne and Wear
but the cables was the best, cause that lasted years
Gilsland, Cumbria
but, uh, the young sheep was the best
Whickham, Tyne and Wear
and them was days what we really looked forward to
they was having this meeting and we only went there to see if there was trouble like there was down the East End and
Cherry Burton, East Riding of Yorkshire
and the prunes was put in the pie dry
and, uh, so it, it was the, all the mess-room boys and, and some of the deck-boys from Hull was going there
Walsden, West Yorkshire
and in the summertime they was out in the fields and we'd to go out and drive them in
the luxuries, I think, was, uhm, not having any, uhm, horrible, little, poky corners
Fleetwood, Lancashire
especially when the winters was on
the rents was very cheap
the engineers was for, uhm, unexploded bombs
Sandbach, Cheshire
on the commons was all these tanks and wagons and jeeps and stuff from the Americans, you know
schooldays was good
Lusby, Lincolnshire
and you knew if the labourers was going to flit, because they never started digging the garden while after the sixth of April; if they were staying, they dug it
and until I was fifteen I always thought a chicken'd got four legs, cause they was called rabbits
Crich, Derbyshire
it was better wages than Lee Mills: I know when I started at Lee Mills the wages was ten shilling a week
Wirksworth, Derbyshire
they was charging a shilling a time to go on to the Lovers' Walk
Cheadle, Staffordshire
I mean, you look at these old bridges: they was built for steamrollers and horse-and-carts; they carry artics and they've never shifted
Nottingham and walls
was done in this here red ochre stuff, or yellow, or whitewashed; whichever
Boston, Lincolnshire
oh, the old days was marvellous; I, I mean, they say they was the hard days, bad old days, but oh, I would love to live them again
Rippingale, Lincolnshire
but that was chiefly the programmes that was on then
Barlestone, Leicestershire
the rest of the staff enjoyed working for me when they was away
Tamworth, Staffordshire
they wasn't divorced
so these blokes was getting these shiny instruments out, like
Claston, Herefordshire
but now only small bits of bines was cut off
Ross-on-Wye I mean
the head and ears was all done up into brawn
Sheringham, Norfolk
you know, when they was rowing the boat
Woodhurst, Cambridgeshire
in the afternoon some more boys was playing in the playground again and they kicked a football through the window
Great Bradley, Suffolk
those what was lucky enough to get a council house, they, sort of, moved a little bit quicker
Haverhill, Suffolk
they was in every, uh, you know, local building, you might say, yes
Harwich, Essex
you always knew who the car owners was, cause they'd be the only ones who would stay behind for breakfast
we had no bathroom; uhm, washing facilities was a bowl in the little kitchen out the back, which was extremely tiny
Winstone, Gloucestershire
they was filling the trench for the water in with the tarmac in 1948
Framilode, Gloucestershire
they used to ram the grass up inside of him, you know, so that the eels couldn't get back out once they was in there
maybe I, well, felt as though I, my sisters was going and I should go with them, like
Whitchurch, Gloucestershire
well, they was building it up when I was a youngster
Selworthy, Somerset
we used to love to have rabbit stews: rabbit stews was beautiful
the flour mills was on a bit more - by Mill Bay Docks
Penberth, Cornwall
they're living away; they wouldn't know the boats was washed away
Langford, Bedfordshire
and a lot of the jobs was hoeing, you see
Houghton Regis, Bedfordshire
they was a bit harder in, in, in them days, if they caught you
Eynsham, Oxfordshire
and he had glasses - the bottoms was like jam jars; they was that thick then at school
they came and built it up again; they wasn't going to let it stay down
Oxfordshire my dad used to breed pigs, you see, and we, when they was killed one was always brought indoors
so they was just plain timber
until they was pirates I suppose, or something like that
Deptford, Lewisham
all my nerves was all trapped and they moved them from the front to the back
Murston, Kent
his brothers become officers, cause they was all put there at different times
Eynsford, Kent
and then another thing we used to have in the village was, uh, two groups of, uh, concert people and they, they was good
Milland, West Sussex
he and the old farmer was arguing about the price
as kiddies we used to be there and try and find out which one of us could find the biggest barnacles that was scraped off of the boat

we was

we used to give leaflets out for him through the doors - you're only a young kid, you know, we wasn't fourteen then
so we was open three days a week then: Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays
Walsden, West Yorkshire
I went home from school for lunch; I heard a baby crying; I'd no idea that we was having another baby
was we willing to pay three pence a week extra on our rent
when we was kids, uh, if we was, uhm, out of favour or got sent to bed, uh, and it was summertime, uh, we used to, uh, just open the bedroom window and climb out and drop down and, and run off, like, you know
Lusby, Lincolnshire
and when we was coming back, my foot went into the bicycle wheel
Wirksworth, Derbyshire
and we were having us lunch and we was talking about this
we was doing these, uhm, pants for abroad
Rippingale, Lincolnshire
they thought we was round the bend
Harpole, Northamptonshire
we wasn't actually farming in the last two or three years
Castle Bromwich, Birmingham
we was looking around for a house for a long time
we was well-known; never lost a ma, first and second team never lost a match for five years
Cleehill, Shropshire
we was contented; contented with our lot
Kimbolton, Herefordshire
and then, uh, course, the hay bailing would come on and then it wasn’t long till we was on the combining
Weybread, Suffolk
and then we was at a place at Fressingfield
Soham, Cambridgeshire
so, I was allowed to drive the tractor on the farm, you see; as long as we didn't go on the road we was OK
Haverhill, Suffolk
us older ones, we thought we was going to get the sack
Whiteash Green, Essex
we kind of waylaid this a bit, cause we wasn't really chefs, we was only kidding ourselves that we was chefs, we ain't got a bloody clue really
Bishop's Stortford
we would have bouncers and it was run by kids, I mean we was only nineteen
Framilode, Gloucestershire
well, we had, we was laughing in hysterics; we wasn't taking the piddle out of the old girl or nothing, but twenty pound?
but we was evacuated with my mother
Whitchurch, Gloucestershire
or if he didn't do that, he'd ring up the policeman and he'd come; then we was for it
well, you know, when we was k, uh, nippers, we used to wander out at break of dawn in the morning and come back just before it was dark
so down there we goes and, uhm, wasn't down there very long and a land mine hits us
same as anybody else; we didn't have a lot of money, but we wasn't poor
Garsington, Oxfordshire
I should say we was middle class
Amersham, Buckinghamshire
everybody always met up on a Sunday dinner and we was always there
I could add up and sub, uh, and subtract and divide; that’s what we was taught
my mum and dad used to argue a lot when we was kids, but we, you know, we used to think again that was normal; that's what parents done
Eynsford, Kent
cause if there was two or three lads got there, we was told to go
if the sun was shining we was on the beach every single day
Ashford, Kent
it was a little, uhm, 'semi-close' thing and not many cars come in or out, so we was quite safe out there playing and it was, uh, all right, yeah

you was

Cherry Burton
East Riding of Yorkshire just had to do what you was told to do
Marshside, Lancashire
you was up at half past one and if you got to bed before ten that night you'd done well
in some of these factories, if you was a big fellah, they’d keep you there while you was - big youth - they’d keep you there while you was eighteen
you couldn’t open your mouth and say what you was, cause people didn't like it and there was fights left, right and centre
well, when I came out of the army you, you was only a boy engine cleaner until you was twenty
and of course you got a uniform, course you thought you was, uhm, the cat's whisker with your, uh, uniform
all the family had to sit there and you wasn't allowed to leave until everybody'd finished
you'd notice the change that people had with you than when they thought that you wasn't
Wing, Rutland
you was locked in your village where we lived - I didn't know anything other way than the village I lived
well, you, you was only a labourer
oh yes, yes, you was on a percentage of the weaver’s money
only the currant bread, the currant loaf, that came in was you allowed to cut fresh
Bishop's Stortford
and, uh, you was either a mod promoter or mod girl or a mod boy or you were a rocker
well they were council houses, so that was where you was put, basically
not that I ever tried doing that, but you was stared at; but down here it's, like, people just don't care
I mean as I said the other day that if you was to compare it with today’s slums, the today’s slum would seem almost like Buckingham Palace
Winstone, Gloucestershire
you didn't get the dew on the wheat like you did if you was cutting oats or barley
well, years ago they’d say you was backward or simple or dumb or something like that, you know
Princetown, Devon
but to us, I suppose, it was the way we were brought up, but if you was to see it today, you'd think it was so funny, wouldn't you, but
Penberth, Cornwall
we, I mean, we knew everybody in the parish; everybody knew us; so, I mean, you was, you was community together, really
Eynsham, Oxfordshire
you was riding that motorbike last night with no L-plates on
Garsington, Oxfordshire
and then you could have a piece when you was hungry
Deptford, Lewisham
when you was unloading you had to know how to unload, but the skill, obviously, when you was loading a ship, because it had to be balanced
anyhow, you, you progressed through the school till you was fourteen and then you left
mum would walk up with you first day and then she'd leave you and you was literally crying as she walked out
Murston, Kent
to get in there if you went out, you had to tell somebody who you was with

See Also