Photograph of people next to Tower Bridge

Grammatical variation across the UK

Do you say ‘I haven’t’, ‘I’ve not’, ‘I havnae’, or ‘I ain’t’? Discover how grammar varies between speakers and from place to place and explore attitudes to grammatical variation.

If you overheard the following statement, the use of the verb form were might help you to guess where the speaker comes from:

happen she were wearing a mask

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

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

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

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.

Simple past come

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

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, Stannington, Birkenhead, Danesford and Bleanish Island.

Auxiliary contraction

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

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 – a process known as auxiliary contraction. 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 following recordings featured on this site for other examples of auxiliary contraction: Stannington, Read and Kilmarnock.

  • Jonnie Robinson
  • Jonnie Robinson is Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library. He has worked on two nationwide surveys of regional speech, the Survey of English Dialects and BBC Voices, and is on the editorial team for the journal English Today. In 2010/11 he co-curated the British Library exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. His latest publication Evolving English WordBank: a glossary of present-day English dialect and slang (2015) draws on sound recordings made by visitors to the exhibition.

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