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1. Standardisation and Variation in English Language(s)

With grammar you “go by feel”



La recherche linguistique accorde une large place à l’étude des normes et des standards en langue, même s’il est généralement admis que la question de ce qui constitue une norme est extrêmement difficile à définir compte tenu des paramètres sociaux dont elle dépend.
Il existe deux manières de considérer la grammaire d’une langue : ce que l’on devrait dire et ce qui se dit effectivement, d’où la nécessité de distinguer la langue du discours. La première est une institution sociale et renvoie aux règles qui régissent le langage, le second est un ensemble de schémas que l’utilisateur réactive mentalement et qui, par conséquent, participe du processus d’acquisition de la langue.
Ainsi, les productions auront tendance à donner des formulations sensiblement déviantes par rapport aux règles imposées par l’anglais standard. Elles seront néanmoins reconnues et interprétées par une grande majorité d’anglophones.

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1The title of this paper suggests that grammar is personal, a personal acquisition of the language. As Benveniste (82) says, speech production is a process of appropriation of the system, which means that the speaker gradually learns the language and signals his position as an utterer by a number of individual and specific marks. But it (the title) also implies that grammar may be an unsystematic form of communication, in that some of its aspects like, for instance, the apparently random use of the third person -s inflection in the present tense (e.g. I says, I sure does, he can gets hurt, they starts bringing peoples in, etc.), or the past tense and participle confusion (e.g. I've knew guys that done screwy things), can be regarded as unsystematic. These variations are generally accounted “errors” or “mistakes” and bring about the notion of norm.

2Language norms and standards represent important issues in linguistics studies, even though it might be widely acknowledged that the question of what constitutes a norm is one that is extremely hard to answer since it often relies on social parameters and values. One definition of the term “norm” arises from Kachru’s observation (48) that “it is used in two senses: in one sense it entails prescriptivism, and in another it entails conformity with the usage of the majority of native speakers, defined statistically”. This definition raises the question of prescription versus usage. Prescriptivism traditionally considers that:

The principal design of a grammar of any language is to teach us to express ourselves with propriety in that language and to be able to judge of every phrase and form of construction, whether it be right or not. (Lowth x-xi)

3The terms “propriety” and “right”, are important here, because Lowth was not describing the language in its many varieties, but prescribing what himself considered to be correct usage, what ought to be said in a standard variety of English. This attitude to language has been highly influential up until today.

4Another way in which we can look at grammar is to regard it as a set of patterns or behavior which the person using the language has somehow built into his or her mental structure. These patterns are, as it were, invented by the child as he or she learns the language; they are largely unconscious, self-constructed and self-imposed. Only if they should happen to study formal grammar much later in life will speakers encounter explicit formulations of these patterns, and even then they may not recognize them, though they may have to comply with them. Nonstandard grammar is in keeping with that type of language behaviour as it usually corresponds to statistical learning of patterns in speech, on the one hand, and, on the other, to marginal trends of the system.

5Thus in the first section of the article, I will deal with the relation between langue (language) and parole (speech), as the former is essentially social and refers to the rules which govern it and allow us to speak “with propriety” and judge whether a construction is grammatical; the latter, being part of a set of patterns which are mentally reactivated, is the individual performance likely to deviate from the norm. In the second section, I will endeavour to show how much deviation from the norm is acceptable linguistically, and with reference to the core system.

6This paper describes nonstandard grammatical patterns as they occur in a corpus of sentences mostly taken from various sources (press articles, literature, sociolinguistic studies, interviews, songs). This specific selection may appear to be heterogeneous, but the excerpts illustrated herein are typical examples of nonstandard syntactic structures. Furthermore, it must be emphasized that this heterogeneity is not only based on the speakers’ social class or attention to speech but can also provide authentic representations of the speakers’ own appropriation of the system. In the latter case, the apparent absence of a well-rounded corpus means very little since the data have been chosen to illustrate grammatical phenomena that spread across dialectal boundaries.

1. The relation between language and speech

1.1. The social dimension

7By one estimate (cf. Richie 2013), 15% of the British population speaks Standard English and may find it difficult to accept anything other than what is referred to as “standard” or “educated” English as a legitimate variety. But while that reference to a model is somewhat linguistically (and pedagogically) necessary, it is arguably a minority use in the English-speaking world (Trudgill 1979, Mc Arthur 1998). In effect, such discussions never focus on the question about whether something is intrinsically wrong with what is deemed to be nonstandard English. The focal point is on the fact that the system simply deviates from the standard. No doubt that the term “nonstandard”, which is an example of political correctness in linguistics, implies that there is a standard which tends to pose as a norm, a reference, a model imposed from the outside and consciously learned. They are, therefore, closely related as one represents the center, the core of the system, and the other the centrifugal force that, through speech, pulls toward the margins.

  • 1 Normal language corresponds to the linguistic behavior of ordinary people. An abnormal use of langu (...)

8There is of course a limit beyond which mutual intelligibility can be questioned. But it cannot be commensurate with an inadequate competence as regards Standard English. Save, perhaps, the basically unnatural or abnormal utterances,1 the marginal changes which can be recorded do not sensibly affect the system. The normality or grammaticality of a sentence, then, stands in the relationship between the production and the recognition of it, because the notion of grammaticality not only depends on linguistic knowledge, but also resembles a sometimes unconscious codification of the language by users. Their grammar corresponds to internalized patterns which may relate to a fluctuating norm. As a consequence, the violation of some of the rules that govern the language can be interpreted socially: idioms like negative concord, double modal constructions or the use of ain't for am not, isn't, aren't, hasn't, haven't, for example, are considered as bad grammar by people who judge them against the current norm.

9In addition, norms make us feel guilty. For some people, reference to a nonstandard variety of language is a source of embarrassment, as it carries with it a sense of inferiority. The word “substandard”, for instance, which often designates forms that are associated with uneducated use, suggests that there is a hierarchy between speech varieties. For example, most English speakers think that African American Vernacular English (AAVE) is just English rife with slang words and grammar mistakes. As such, it is stigmatized as “the incorrect use of mainstream English” (Green 221) and users are judged to be incapable of speaking the language properly, and “not using the standard correctly suggests that speakers are ignorant, lazy or both” (Green 221). And so, opposition to the use and acceptance of the variety arguably comes from the African Americans themselves, especially from members of the black middle-class (Morgan 1994). Specific groups, however, see their speech variety as an integral part of their identity and lifestyle, nonstandard features may thus be a source of covert class-consciousness and a form of resistance, both social and linguistic, to the standard.

10I have said that there is a close relationship between standard and nonstandard speech varieties. On the whole, they are not markedly different, and they do not constitute a significant barrier to communication between speakers. There is indeed no objective boundary separating the two domains since most varieties are regularly in contact and influencing one another (Trudgill 1975: 22). Besides, mainstream English speakers may at times use nonstandard constructions according to circumstances (carelessness, irritation, anger, expressiveness, etc.), as in the examples below:

(1) He don't want no trial. (pronounced by Senator Lott who opposed President Clinton's impeachment procedure, Time, 21 Dec. 1998)

(2) I think decisions to go to war have to be looked at in terms of the circumstances of the time and the justifications, I believe it was valid at the time and I still do now and I suspect if I'm around in 20 years I'll believe so then. It's so easy with the benefit of hindsight and now, subsequently obtained information, well why, would you have done things differently if you had've known that? But of course, if you had've known that it would have been a different decision making process. (taken from the transcript of the press conference announcement of Senator Hill’s resignation, Australian Parliament House, Canberra, 20 Jan. 2006)

11Sentences like these can be found in everyday speech and are not to be considered simply as exhibiting grammatical mistakes or redundancies. They can be recognised and interpreted linguistically with reference to the system and the speaker's attitude to the verbal happening, and certainly not only socially. From a linguistic point of view, this way of looking at things is of course inappropriate.

1.2. The linguistic interpretation

  • 2 Culioli’s uttering act theory aims at sorting out the mental operations underlying the phenomena at (...)
  • 3 Markers are linguistic indicators of mental operations, for example the suffix –ing may add an anap (...)

12My intention, then, is to develop linguistic processes that will include all linguistic facts, standard as well as nonstandard. I am well aware that the distinction is supported by an ideology and even descriptive linguists and grammarians choose to deal with standard productions rather than nonstandard ones which may appear to be ungrammatical, and with which they may feel insecure. Yet, the mere fact that nonstandard productions can be recognized and interpreted by native speakers presupposes that they belong to the system. Indeed, most English varieties are strongly related to the English language and marginal trends, I argue, ought to be taken into account when it comes to describing the syntactic and morphological properties of the system, which is only accessible through speech events (texts, or oral productions), in whatever form they may occur. Grammaticality, therefore, is to be taken in a broader sense. This viewpoint, moreover, is highly compatible with an utterer-centred theory2 since it consists in observing surface features which are themselves traces of underlying operations. Now whatever the form of the patterns of markers3, if the addressee can re-construct the basic operations or rules which generate the meaningful configuration of a sentence, then it can be declared grammatical. Consider examples (3), (4) and (5) taken from different sources:

(3) Me and you, we brothers, and we got to be there for our children. For me it's too late, not for you. (from O. Stone’s film South Central)

(4) What you saying that for, Jed, how long you been saying that for? (Nottingham Constabulary: meeting, rec. 1 Feb. 1994, BNC)

(5) If you been a good guy you go to heaven, if you been a bad guy you go to hell. (“What happens when you're dead?”

  • 4 Be is an identity marker used to identify a subject with a particular quality or feature (copula), (...)

13The copula, in sentence (3), does not occur in the surface structure, nor do the auxiliaries in (4) and (5). Yet, in the specific environments of (3-5), there is evidence that points to an underlying copula and auxiliary be, and auxiliary have, denoting respectively an identifying operation and a locating mental operation4, otherwise the sentences would not be understood. In Standard English, these operations are overtly marked. In other words, the links between the subject and the predicate in the above examples can be inferred from the patterns of markers which are slightly different from Standard English usage. But, as mentioned, they correlate with the same functional rapport, the same type of meaning as in Standard English, and contribute to the construction of the referential value of the sentence in the same way. Note that the deleted elements are generally in unstressed position, and correspond to contracted forms in Standard English (Labov 722) which accords them little semantic importance.

14The semantic dimension of an utterance is not only linked to the nominal meaning of the words used to inform the addressee, but it also depends upon the expressive function of language which corresponds to the trace left by a speaker in his/her utterances. It is no doubt natural that all utterances, when produced by a speaker, carry with them his or her own mark, thus revealing something about him/her, an attitude toward the action or state. Everyone knows the importance of the phenomenon, and even a neutral expression can have a meaning. For instance, Standard English may be regarded as a neutral speech variety because of its status as a reference, a linguistic model with which almost everyone (native English speakers, teachers, learners, etc.) tries to conform. From that point of view, Standard English can be called “unmarked”, as opposed to nonstandard varieties which are “marked” socially, if not linguistically, because they deviate from the norm. As a matter of fact, nonstandard varieties generally tend to convey more information than the neutral standard owing to the speaker’s involvement and expression. Let us take the now famous example of double negatives which, according to prescriptivists, defy logic. They claim that two negatives in the same sentence cancel each other out and yield a positive. But most English speakers have no difficulty interpreting these sentences negatively, because the basic principle that there is a direct and simple relationship between the surface syntactic structure and the logical form is false. The two negatives do not apply to the same stages of the predication, that is the attitudinal and the predicative levels. The former concerns the speaker’s involvement in his/her speech, the latter the informational content. Needless to say, moreover, that the duplication of markers in a sentence has an intensifying meaning. Other double constructions such as double modal patterns or double comparatives or superlatives may produce the same effect.

15In some varieties, however, multiple negation constructions have become a systematic way to negate a sentence. In AAVE, for instance, multiple negators such as don't, ain't, no, nothing, nobody are regularly used in single negative sentences, making the multiple negation patterns, as in example (6), less expressive. As Meillet (140) suggests, frequently used forms lose their expressive force and gradually evolve into more emphatic ones. In order to reinforce the construction, the phrase there ain't is drafted in for emphasis in sentence (7), to which an extra negative marker is added. Further reinforcement of the multiple negation construction can also be negative inversion. In such a construction the initial negated auxiliary is followed by a negative indefinite noun phrase as in paraphrases (8) and (9).

(6) ─ Who do you think is gonna be the next president?
Nobody can't figure that out. (cited in Labov 1982)

(7) There ain't nobody can't figure that out.

(8) Can't nobody figure it out.

(9) Ain't nobody can('t) figure it out.

16These paraphrases compare with the following sentences in (10) and (11), in which the negative inversion construction is believed to have emphatic interpretation (Labov et al. 1968, Green 2002):

(10) Can’t nobody figure U out. (song by Fred and the Genius, AHAYA Records)

(11) Ain’t nobody can figure out why that is, but ain’t nobody ‘bout to ask neither. (Kennedy and Enright 2016)

17Note, moreover, that negative inversion constructions are syntactically similar to yes-no questions, in that the auxiliary precedes the subject. But the fronting of the negated auxiliary is added to intensify the expression, it is assertive, and it is to be analyzed as an attitudinal element, while in yes-no questions the inversion, alongside a rising intonation, implies considering both values. Again, there is no direct and simple relationship between the surface structure and the speaker’s intention.

18The surface structure only reflects part of the system in presenting a set of referents in the form of speech objects. Making use of a language necessarily implies a diversity of productions. Language acquisition creates differences even between Standard English users. With reference to the system, nonstandard productions favour markers which point to other operations, or other stages of the linguistic realization of the speakers’ own representation of the extralinguistic world. This is apt to help the linguist to complete certain analyses and basic rules, guide him/her as to the interpretations of unclear or obsolete constructions (some nonstandard productions date back to Early Modern English), and correct the false impression that people have of nonstandard grammatical patterns. Emphasis, then, must be laid on the fact that both domains, standard and nonstandard, mutually clarify each other and may contribute to a better understanding of the grammar of the language.

19Then, the question of the status of observed irregularities in language behaviour acquires immense linguistic importance, mainly for two reasons. First, as I have said, these irregularities may reflect inadequate competence relative to Standard English, but they generally do not question the grammaticality of the performance which is, I argue, intuitive. Secondly, the issue relating to the notion of acceptability is raised with reference to mutual intelligibility.

2. Irregularities in language behavior

2.1. Grammatical irregularity

20Language is a human activity, and as such it is imperfect and presents irregularities. An irregularity in language behaviour refers to a performance in which the rules or usual ways of speaking have not been followed. The meaning of the term is twofold. On the one hand, it relates to a situation or a fact that does not happen at regular times and, on the other, a shape or an appearance that is not even. In effect, there is considerable variation between individual productions and situations, with reference to the actual system. For example, an irregular utterance may relate to a performance in which all the parts that form it do not match the usual intelligible morphosyntactic surface structure, as in the sentence in Jamaican English I am dun work for de day. This sentence has an irregular shape, in that its constituents are English, but its morphosyntactic, and probably phonological, aspect does not follow the usual grammatical or phonic rules. Irregularities also exist in Standard English. For example, verbs, plurals and comparatives/superlatives exhibit irregular forms: sing is an irregular verb, because its past tense is sang and its past participle is sung, not *singed; plurals like children (not *childs) or oxen (not *oxes) are irregular, and so are comparatives/superlatives such as worse/the worst (for bad) or better/the best (for good). In nonstandard English, we may find badder/the baddest which carry the regular -er/-est inflections for comparatives and superlatives. Therefore, grammatical regularity is not so clear-cut in language: variation is not only nonstandard, it also depends upon the speaker’s acquisition of the system which manifests itself through his or her performance.

2.2. An intuitive performance

21An intuitive performance is based on the speaker’s feelings rather than on consciously learned rules. But although the acquired patterns are variable constructions, they are systemic, in that they form a fixed configuration in which markers mutually determine their own position (Labov 451). Besides, to say that some of the rules vary, as is the case with nonstandard productions, would not mean anything if the aim were not to find invariants which found the permanence and coherence of the system.

22In an interview (Time, 13 Aug. 2013), the blues guitarist Buddy Guy uses a few usual nonstandard constructions in his answers, typically negative concord (12), the deletion of the third person -s inflection in the present tense (13), and the use of done + V-en (14):

(12) I imagine some of those people don't know nothing about music, but they're singing, because what they said, I've been through.

(13) …, even if the club don't hold but 10 people who don't know who I am.

(14) … 'cause everybody'd be saying, hey man, you done made some kind of remark at the Commander in Chief.

23The linguistic description of these irregularities may show that these examples are grammatical. Multiple negation constructions occur in many English varieties, and, as I have previously said, constitute a regular grammatical feature in AAVE, don't is invariable as boundary morpheme, and the use of preverbal done can be analyzed as a mark of attitudinal completion and intensity (Larroque “Grammaticalization”) These forms are certainly marked socially, but not linguistically since they are likely to be recognized and interpreted by most English-speaking people. Now the surface markers being the result of underlying mental operations, I will endeavour to re-construct these operations by establishing a relationship between them and the language markers in question.

24For instance, don't indicates involvement expressed on the part of the speaker who negates the positivity (do-n't). In don't, the main function of do is to mark the speaker’s viewpoint in the sentence as is the case with emphatic do or modal auxiliaries which reflect attitude (Larroque Faits de Langue). Thus in sentence (12), don't applies to the attitudinal level of the sentence and has an expressive function. As mentioned previously, it is invariable (cf. example 13: …and even if the club don't hold but ten people who don't know who I am); nothing applies to the predicative or referential level, that is the actual information. This may explain why a double negation construction does not yield a positive. A similar analysis can be conducted for ain't in (15):

(15) ...but I ain't drink no coffee. (Tagliamonte and Poplack 517)

  • 5 For further analysis of multiple negation constructions, see Larroque Faits de Langue.

25Thus, don't and ain't are to be considered not only as negative markers, but also as the intuitive manifestation of the speaker’s attitude to a propositional content.5

26Preverbal done (+V-en), in example (12), reproduced below, can be described as a “surface marker of perfect aspect” (Feagin 179) which commutes with have + V-en, expressing the completion of the event or state denoted by the verb.

(14) … 'cause everybody'd be saying, hey man, you done made some kind of remark at the Commander in Chief.

27In this type of construction, done also translates the endorsement and reassertion of the statement by the speaker: in example (14), auxiliary done represents, as it were, the image of the perfective predication (done is a grammaticalized past participle and presupposes have), and as such it is apt to acquire a metalinguistic value, for you done made some kind of remark.... is definitely more emphatic than you have made some kind of remark... and is more clearly contrastive (cf. emphatic do). Again, the duplication of markers (the past participles done and made) in the surface structure is to be construed as an expression of intensity, a linguistic mark which relates to the speaker’s involvement in his or her statement.

28What has been discussed in this section only represents a small part of what is possible to do to integrate nonstandard productions in the sphere of acceptability. According to Chomsky (1965), the concept of acceptability belongs to the study of performance as opposed to grammaticality which is in the periphery of competence. This distinction is somewhat arbitrary, since a large proportion of nonstandard irregularities, which are deemed ungrammatical, are judged to be grammatical, that is can be processed, by however many native anglophones. Besides, an utterance can be judged to be acceptable even though its grammaticality is dubious. Thus, grammaticality in this sense appertains to normativity. But who decides where to draw the line when one is faced with language behaviours that challenge the very notion of norm? In fact, something notional only exists as an idea, not as a reality. And so, instead of regarding the undetermined norm, I seek to bolster interest in usage, which cannot be resisted and concerns both standard and nonstandard productions, including marginal and problematic ones. The point, therefore, is not to limit grammar and language analysis to an arbitrarily restricted hub, but to treat every linguistic fact which belongs to the system and which can be connected to an intuitive feel, that is to a native ability to construct complex grammatical patterns. Thus, the work on the activity of speech production and recognition by speakers is likely to be enlarged to account for the rich diversity of surface features.


29Discussing Standard and nonstandard English boils down to considering two manifestations of the same linguistic system. These may differ by a number of specific aspects but are nevertheless a representation of the flexibility of English. As there is no real consensus about the definition of Standard English, the notion of “correction” is neither useful nor adequate to describe the language. This idea is not relevant if one thinks that the grammatical forms are not devalued relative to the system.

30In brief, nonstandard patterns cannot be ignored. They must be brought to light and studied as integral parts of English and its grammar, although some of their aspects may appear to be strange or illogical. The people who use nonstandard constructions do not feel that they are intrinsically wrong since they speak their own language, and therefore do not make categorical mistakes, errors which no English-speaking people would ever make. Their expression simply deviates from the core system, but it is likely to be recognized by mainstream English speakers.

31The recognition process consists in relating the surface features of an utterance to the underlying mental operations which have produced it. From the traces left in the utterance by the speaker, the addressee is capable of re-constructing these operations, in conjunction with a speech situation. That is what grammatical description endeavours to bring about. When analysing nonstandard patterns of markers, one usually finds normal linguistic principles behind the forms investigated.

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1 Normal language corresponds to the linguistic behavior of ordinary people. An abnormal use of language means that the utterance does not belong to an actual variety of the language (Andersson and Trudgill 28). See also Labov’s (1972) categorical rules which no English speaker would ever violate.

2 Culioli’s uttering act theory aims at sorting out the mental operations underlying the phenomena at the linear chain level, as core elements for the description of utterances.

3 Markers are linguistic indicators of mental operations, for example the suffix –ing may add an anaphoric value to the predicate as in I like cooking (one considers that the subject-predicate relation I – cook has already taken place and is present in the speaker’s mind).

4 Be is an identity marker used to identify a subject with a particular quality or feature (copula), or with a context (auxiliary); have can be defined as a locative operator, it is used to locate an object (I have a book) or a predicate (I have read the book) relative to a subject.

5 For further analysis of multiple negation constructions, see Larroque Faits de Langue.

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Patrice LARROQUE, « With grammar you “go by feel” », E-rea [En ligne], 15.2 | 2018, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2018, consulté le 20 juin 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.6222

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Université Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, France
Patrice Larroque is Professor of English linguistics at the University of Toulouse-Jean Jaurès, France. His most recent publications include English Rhythm and Blues (L’Harmattan, 2015) and Introduction à l’anglais non standard (Presses Universtaires de Rennes, 2015).

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