Verbal –s

  • Laura RuppEmail author
  • David Britain


In this chapter we probe the historical development of verbal –s: the use of –s in contexts other than 3rd sing. (e.g. the boys walks). We conclude that verbal –s has grammaticalised from the agreement morpheme –s and demonstrates the particular functional shifts of regrammaticalisation (Greenberg in Approaches to grammaticalization. John Benjamins, Amsterdam, Vol. 1, pp. 301–314, 1991) and exaptation (Lass in Journal of Linguistics 26: 79–102, 1990). Drawing on the research literature (e.g. Cole in Old Northumbrian verbal morphosyntax and the (Northern) Subject Rule. John Benjamins, Amsterdam, 2014), we show that verbal –s has come to be deployed in a range of different uses in varieties of English in the world, which may show apparent ‘layering’ (Hopper in Approaches to grammaticalization, Vol. I, pp. 17–36, John Benjamins, Amsterdam, 1991) as a new use replaces an older one. Attested uses range from the Northern Subject Rule (NSR) to marking narrative turns, habitual aspect and social identity. We postulate that the NSR is discourse-pragmatic in nature to the extent that speakers use –s to mark relatively inaccessible (discourse-heavy) noun phrases as opposed to pronouns (Ariel in Usage-based models of language. CSLI Publications, Stanford, pp. 197–260, 1999; Text representation: Linguistic and psycholinguistic aspects. John Benjamins, Amsterdam, pp. 29–87, 2001). We explore our ‘Iconicity Hypothesis’, showing, amongst other things, that in some English varieties, verbal –s is used to express ‘non-standard’ behaviour as part of identity construction.


verbal –s subject-verb agreement regrammaticalisation exaptation the Northern Subject Rule (NSR) narrative turns habitual aspect social identity layering discourse-pragmatics the ‘Iconicity Hypothesis’ 


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Faculty of HumanitiesVrije Universiteit AmsterdamAmsterdamThe Netherlands
  2. 2.Department of EnglishUniversity of BernBernSwitzerland

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