Past BE

  • Laura RuppEmail author
  • David Britain


In this chapter we explore non-standard uses of two past BE forms: was and were(n’t) (e.g. the boys was walking/the boy weren’t walking). From the research literature we identify various deployments of past BE: a historical use with the 2nd person pronoun you (Smith in Synchrony and diachrony in the evolution of English: Evidence from Scotland (Doctoral dissertation). University of York, York, 2000), analogical levelling, the Northern Subject Rule (NSR) and the East Anglian Subject Rule (EASR), reallocation to a polarity function (was/weren’t) (e.g. Wolfram and Schilling-Estes in Language Variation and Change 6: 273–302, 1994), and specialization in tag-questions (weren’t) (e.g. Tagliamonte in Language Variation and Change 10: 153–192, 1998). Among our main contributions are, firstly, the proposal that in East Anglia, –s has been attached to [wə] by analogy with lexical verbs; and secondly, the observation that the EASR extends to varieties from across southern England more generally; and, finally, a formal linguistic account of the form weren’t. We explore our ‘Iconicity Hypothesis’ and show that as a function of their structural distinctiveness, non-standard was and weren’t lend themselves to contrast positive and negative propositions or to draw attention to pragmatically salient tag-questions.


Past BE Was Were(n’t) Analogical levelling The Northern Subject Rule (NSR) The East Anglian Subject Rule (EASR) Polarity Tag-questions The ‘Iconicity Hypothesis’ 


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© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

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

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