• Laura RuppEmail author
  • David Britain


In the introduction we describe the phenomenon of verbal –s and we list the four different forms in which it occurs: verbal –s, verbal zero, past BE and there’s in existential sentences. We point out that while –s is used as a 3rd sg. morpheme in Standard English, in non-standard varieties verbal –s is deployed in a number of other ways. We sketch the account of verbal –s that we develop in this volume, suggesting that verbal –s has undergone functional shift and that the uses that it has assumed seem motivated by iconicity—a tendency for speakers to draw associations between particular forms and functions (isomorphism) that reflect a relationship in extra-linguistic reality (so-called ‘diagrammatic iconicity’; Haiman in Language, 56, 515–540, 1980). We propose that speakers creatively exploit this relationship to convey particular (e.g. social) meaning (cf. De Cuypere in Limiting the iconic: From the metatheoretical foundations to the creative possibilities of iconicity in language. John Benjamins, Amsterdam, 2008).


Verbal –s Verbal zero Past BE Existential there sentences Functional shift Isomorphism Diagrammatic iconicity 


  1. Adger, D. (2006). Combinatorial variability. Journal of Linguistics, 42, 503–530.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Ariel, M. (1999). The development of person agreement markers: From pronouns to higher accessibility markers. In M. Barlow & S. Kemmer (Eds.), Usage-based models of language (pp. 197–260). Stanford: CSLI Publications.Google Scholar
  3. Ariel, M. (2001). Accessibility theory: An overview. In T. J. M. Sanders, J. Schilperoord, & W. Spooren (Eds.), Text representation: Linguistic and psycholinguistic aspects (pp. 29–87). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  4. Bailey, G., Maynor, N., & Cukor-Avila, P. (1989). Variation in subject-verb concord in Early Modern English. Language Variation and Change, 1, 285–300.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Barlow, M. (1992). A situated theory of agreement. New York: Garland.Google Scholar
  6. Barlow, M. (1999). Agreement as a discourse phenomenon. Folia Linguistica, 33, 187–201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Börjars, K., & Chapman, C. (1998). Agreement and pro-drop in some dialects of English. Linguistics, 36, 71–98.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Breivik, L. E., & Swan, T. (2000). The desemanticisation of existential there in a synchronic-diachronic perspective. In C. Dalton-Puffer & N. Ritt (Eds.), Words: Structure, meaning, function: A Festschrift for Dieter Kastovsky (pp. 19–34). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  9. Brinton, L., & Stein, D. (1995). Functional renewal. In H. Andersen (Ed.), Historical linguistics 1993: Selected Papers from the 11th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Los Angeles, 16–20 August 1993 (pp. 33–47). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Britain, D. (2002). Diffusion, levelling, simplification and reallocation in past tense BE in the English Fens. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 6, 16–43.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Britain, D., & Rupp, L. (2005). Subject-verb agreement in English dialects: The East Anglian Subject Rule. Paper presented at The International Conference on Language Variation in Europe 3, Amsterdam, The Netherlands.Google Scholar
  12. Britain, D., & Sudbury, A. (2002). There’s sheep and there’s penguins: ‘Drift’, ‘slant’ and singular verb forms following existentials in New Zealand and Falkland Island English. In M. Jones & E. Esch (Eds.), Language change: The interplay of internal, external and extra-linguistic factors (pp. 209–242). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  13. Campbell, A. (1959). Old English grammar. Oxford: Clarendon Press.Google Scholar
  14. Cheshire, J. (1982). Variation in an English dialect: A sociolinguistic study. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Cheshire, J. (2005a). Syntactic variation and beyond: Gender and social class variation in the use of discourse-new markers. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 9, 479–508.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Cheshire, J. (2005b). Syntactic variation and spoken language. In L. Cornips & K. Corrigan (Eds.), Syntax and variation: Reconciling the biological and social (pp. 81–106). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Cheshire, J., & Ouhalla, J. (1997). Grammatical constraints on variation. Paper presented at UK Language Variation and Change 1, University of Reading, UK.Google Scholar
  18. Childs, B., & Van Herk, G. (2014). Work that -s! Drag queens, gender, identity, and traditional Newfoundland English. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 18, 634–657.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Chomsky, N. (1995). The minimalist program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  20. Clarke, S. (1997). English verbal -s revisited: The evidence from Newfoundland. American Speech, 72, 227–259.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Clarke, S. (2010). Newfoundland and Labrador English. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Clarke, S. (2014). The continuing story of verbal -s: Revisiting the Northern Subject Rule as a diagnostic of historical relationship. In R. T. Cacoullos, N. Dion, & A. Lapierre (Eds.), Linguistic variation: Confronting fact and theory (pp. 75–95). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  23. Cole, M. (2014). Old Northumbrian verbal morphosyntax and the (Northern) Subject Rule. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Corrigan, K. P. (1997). The syntax of South Armagh English in its socio-historical perspective (Doctoral dissertation). University College Dublin, Dublin.Google Scholar
  25. De Cuypere, L. (2006). Iconiciteit in taal: Evolutionarisme en creativiteit. Studies van de BLK, 1, 1–12. Retrieved May 2019 from
  26. De Cuypere, L. (2008). Limiting the iconic: From the metatheoretical foundations to the creative possibilities of iconicity in language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. De Haas, N. K. (2011). Morphosyntactic variation in Northern English: The Northern Subject Rule, its origins and early history (Doctoral dissertation). Radboud University, Nijmegen.Google Scholar
  28. De Saussure, F. (1915). Course in general linguistics. C. Bally & A. Sechehaye (Eds.) in collaboration with A. Riedlinger (W. Baskin, Trans.). New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company.Google Scholar
  29. Durham, M. (2013). Was/were alternation in Shetland English. World Englishes, 32, 108–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Eckert, P. (2017). The most perfect of signs: Iconicity in variation. Linguistics, 55, 1197–1207.Google Scholar
  31. Epstein, R. (1995). The later stages in the development of the definite article: Evidence from French. In H. Andersen (Ed.), Historical linguistics 1993: Selected papers from the 11th International Conference on Historical Linguistics, Los Angeles, 16–20 August 1993 (pp. 159–175). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  32. Fernández Cuesta, J. (2011). The Northern Subject Rule in first-person-singular contexts in Early Modern English. Folia Linguistica Historica, 32, 89–114.Google Scholar
  33. Fischer, O. (1997). Iconicity in language and literature: Language innovation and language change. Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, 98, 63–87.Google Scholar
  34. Fischer, O. (2001). The position of the adjective in (Old) English from an iconic perspective. In O. Fischer & M. Nänny (Eds.), The motivated sign (pp. 249–276). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Fisiak, J. (1968). A short grammar of Middle English. Warsaw: Państwowe Wydawnictwo Naukowe.Google Scholar
  36. Givón, T. (1976). Topic, pronoun and grammatical agreement. In C. N. Li (Ed.), Subject and topic (pp. 149–188). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  37. Givón, T. (1985). Iconicity, isomorphism and non-arbitrary coding in syntax. In J. Haiman (Ed.), Iconicity in syntax (pp. 187–220). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Givón, T. (1991). The evolution of dependent clause morpho-syntax in Biblical Hebrew. In E. C. Traugott & B. Heine (Eds.), Approaches to grammaticalization (Vol. 2): Focus on types of grammatical markers (pp. 257–310). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  39. Godfrey, E., & Tagliamonte, S. (1999). Another piece for the verbal -s story: Evidence from Devon in the Southwest of England. Language Variation and Change, 11, 87–121.Google Scholar
  40. Greenberg, J. H. (1966). Some universals of grammar with particular reference to the order of meaningful elements. In J. H. Greenberg (Ed.), Universals of language, (pp. 73–113). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  41. Greenberg, J. H. (1991). The last stages of grammatical elements: Contractive and expansive desemanticization. In E. C. Traugott & B. Heine (Eds.), Approaches to grammaticalization (Vol. 1): Theoretical and methodological issues (pp. 301–314). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  42. Haiman, J. (1980). The iconicity of grammar: Isomorphism and motivation. Language, 56, 515–540.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Haiman, J. (1983). Iconic and economic motivation. Language, 59, 781–819.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Hannay, M. (1985). English existentials in functional grammar. Dordrecht: Foris.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Henry, A. (1995). Belfast English and Standard English: Dialect variation and parameter setting. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  46. Holmqvist, E. (1922). On the history of the English present inflections particularly -t and -s. Heidelberg: Carl Winter.Google Scholar
  47. Hopper, P. J. (1991). On some principles of grammaticization. In E. C. Traugott & B. Heine (Eds.), Approaches to grammaticalization (Vol. I): Theoretical and methodological issues (pp. 17–36). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  48. Ihalainen, O. (1994). The dialects of England since 1776. In R. Burchfield (Ed.), The Cambridge history of the English language (Vol. V): English language in Britain and overseas: Origins and development (pp. 197–274). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  49. Irvine, J. T. (2001). “Style” as distinctiveness: The culture and ideology of linguistic differentiation. In P. Eckert & J. R. Rickford (Eds.), Style and sociolinguistic variation (pp. 21–43). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  50. Irvine, J., & Gal, S. (2000). Language ideology and linguistic differentiation. In P. V. Kroskrity (Ed.), Regimes of language: Ideologies, polities, and identities (pp. 35–84). Santa Fe: School of American Research Press.Google Scholar
  51. Joseph, B. D. (2004). Rescuing traditional (historical) linguistics from grammaticalization ‘theory’. In O. Fischer, M. Norde, & H. Peridon (Eds.), Up and down the cline (pp. 44–71). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  52. Joseph, B. D. (2016). Being exacting about exapting: An exaptation omnibus. In F. Van de Velde & M. Norde (Eds.), Exaptation and language change (pp. 27–55). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  53. Kingston, M. (2000). Dialects in danger: Rural dialect attrition in the East Anglian county of Suffolk (MA dissertation). University of Essex, Colchester.Google Scholar
  54. Klemola, J. (2000). The origins of the Northern Subject Rule: A case of early contact? In T. Hildegard (Ed.), Celtic Englishes II (pp. 329–346). Heidelberg: Winter.Google Scholar
  55. Kortmann, B. (1999). Iconicity, typology and cognition. In M. Nänny & O. Fischer (Eds.), Form miming meaning (pp. 375–392). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Kortmann, B., & Wagner, S. (2005). The Freiburg Dialect Project and Corpus. In B. Kortmann, T. Herrman, L. Pietsch, & S. Wagner (Eds.), A comparative grammar of British English dialects: Agreement, gender, relative clauses (pp. 1–20). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Lass, R. (1990). How to do things with junk: Exaptation in language evolution. Journal of Linguistics, 26, 79–102.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  58. Lass, R. (1997). Historical linguistics and language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Levon, E., Maegaard, M., & Pharao, N. (2017). Introduction: Tracing the origin of /s/ variation. Linguistics, 55, 979–992.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Mallinson, C., & Wolfram, W. (2002). Dialect accommodation in a bi-ethnic mountain enclave community: More evidence on the development of African American English. Language in Society, 31, 743–775.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  61. McMahon, A. M. S. (1994). Understanding language change. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  62. Meillet, A. (1912). L’évolution des formes grammaticales. Scientia (Rivista di Scienza) 12, No. 26, 6. In Linguistique historique et linguistique générale (pp. 130–148). Paris: Librairie Ancienne Honoré Champion.Google Scholar
  63. Middle English Dictionary. (2011–2014). University of Michigan. Retrieved May 2019 from
  64. Mittelstaedt, J., & Parrot, J. (2002). A distributed morphology account of weren’t levelling. Paper presented at New Ways of Analyzing Variation 31, Stanford University, U.S.Google Scholar
  65. Montgomery, M., & Fuller, J. (1996). What was verbal -s in 19th-century African American English? In E. W. Schneider (Ed.), Focus on the USA (pp. 211–230). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  66. Montgomery, M., Fuller, J., & De Marse, S. (1993). ‘The Black Men has wives and Sweet harts [and third person plural -s] Jest like the white men’: Evidence for verbal -s from written documents on 19th-century African American Speech. Language Variation and Change, 5, 335–337.Google Scholar
  67. Mossé, F. (1952). A handbook of Middle English. Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins University Press.Google Scholar
  68. Orton, H., & Dieth, E. (1962–1971). Survey of English Dialects. Leeds: E. J. Arnold.Google Scholar
  69. Ouhalla, J. (1991). Functional categories and parametric variation. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  70. Peirce, C. S. (1931–1958). Collected papers of Charles Sanders Peirce (Vols. 1–8). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. [Hartshorne, C., & Weiss, P. (Eds.) 1931–1935 (Vols. 1–6); Burks, A. W. (Ed.) 1958 (Vols. 7–8)].Google Scholar
  71. Pietsch, L. (2005). “Some do and some doesn’t”: Verbal concord variation in the north of the British Isles. In B. Kortmann, T. Herrman, L. Pietsch, & S. Wagner (Eds.), A comparative grammar of British English dialects: Agreement, gender, relative clauses (pp. 125–210). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.Google Scholar
  72. Poplack, S., & Tagliamonte, S. (1991). African American English in the diaspora: Evidence from old-line Nova Scotians. Language Variation and Change, 3, 301–339.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Poplack, S., & Tagliamonte, S. (2004). Back to the present: Verbal -s in the African American English diaspora. In R. Hickey (Ed.), Legacies of colonial English: The study of transported dialects (pp. 203–223). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  74. Ramat, A. G. (1995). Iconicity in grammaticalization processes. In R. Simone (Ed.), Iconicity in language (pp. 119–139). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.Google Scholar
  75. Rodríguez Louro, C., & Ritz, M.-E. (2014). Stories down under: Tense variation at the heart of Australian English narratives. Australian Journal of Linguistics, 34, 549–565.Google Scholar
  76. Schilling-Estes, N. (2013 [2008]). Investigating stylistic variation. In J. Chambers, P. Trudgill, & N. Schilling-Estes (Eds.), Handbook of language variation and change (2nd ed., pp. 327–349). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  77. Schilling-Estes, N., & Wolfram, W. (1994). Convergent explanation and alternative regularization patterns: Were/weren’t levelling in a vernacular English variety. Language Variation and Change, 6, 273–302.Google Scholar
  78. Schneider, E. W. (1983). The origin of the verbal -s in Black English. American Speech, 58, 99–113.Google Scholar
  79. Schreier, D. (2002). Terra incognita in the Anglophone world: Tristan da Cunha, South Atlantic Ocean. English Word-Wide, 23, 1–29.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Siewierska, A. (1999). From anaphoric pronoun to grammatical agreement marker: Why objects don’t make it. Folia Linguistica, 33, 225–251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  81. Singler, J. V. (1997). The configuration of Liberia’s Englishes. World Englishes, 16, 205–231.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Smith, J. (2000). Synchrony and diachrony in the evolution of English: Evidence from Scotland (Doctoral dissertation). University of York, York.Google Scholar
  83. Smith, J., & Tagliamonte, S. (1998). ‘We were all thegither, I think we was all thegither’: Was regularization in Buckie English. World Englishes, 17, 105–126.Google Scholar
  84. Spurling, J. (2004). Traditional feature loss in Ipswich: Dialect attrition in the East Anglian county of Suffolk (BA dissertation). University of Essex, Colchester.Google Scholar
  85. Tagliamonte, S. (1998). Was/were variation across the generations: View from the city of York. Language Variation and Change, 10, 153–192.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Tagliamonte, S. A. (2013). Comparative sociolinguistics. In J. K. Chambers & N. Schilling (Eds.), Handbook of language variation and change (2nd ed., pp. 128–156). Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  87. Tagliamonte, S., & Poplack, S. (1993). The zero-marked verb: Testing the creole hypothesis. Journal of Pidgin and Creole Languages, 8, 171–206.Google Scholar
  88. Tagliamonte, S., & Smith, J. (1999). Analogical levelling in Samaná English: The case of was and were. Journal of English Linguistics, 27, 8–26.Google Scholar
  89. Tagliamonte, S., & Smith, J. (2000). Old was, new ecology: Viewing English through the sociolinguistic filter. In S. Poplack (Ed.), The English history of African American English (pp. 141–171). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  90. Tortora, C., & Den Dikken, M. (2010). Subject agreement variation: Support for the configurational approach. Lingua, 120, 1089–1108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Traugott, E. C. (2002). From etymology to historical pragmatics. In D. Minkova & R. Stockwell (Eds.), Studies in the history of the English language (pp. 19–49). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  92. Traugott, E. C. (2004). Exaptation and grammaticalization. In M. Akimoto (Ed.), Linguistic studies based on corpora (pp. 133–156). Tokyo: Hituzi Syobo Publishing.Google Scholar
  93. Trudgill, P. (1974). The social differentiation of English in Norwich. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  94. Van Herk, G., & Walker, J. A. (2005). S marks the spot? Regional variation and early African American correspondence. Language Variation and Change, 17, 113–131.Google Scholar
  95. Vermandere, D., & Meul, C. (2016). How functionless is junk and how useful is exaptation? Probing the -I/ESC- morpheme. In F. Van de Velde & M. Norde (Eds.), Exaptation and language change (pp. 261–285). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Walker, J. (2007). “There’s bears back there”: Plural existentials and vernacular universals in (Quebec) English. English World-Wide, 28, 147–166.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  97. Walker, J. (2014). Contrasting patterns of agreement in three communities. In N. Dion, A. Lapierre, & R. Torres Cacoullos (Eds.), Linguistic variation: Confronting fact and theory (pp. 7–21). London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  98. Wescott, R. (1971). Linguistic iconism. Language, 47, 416–428.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  99. Willis, D. (2016). Exaptation and degrammaticalization within an acquisition-based model of abductive reanalysis. In F. Van de Velde & M. Norde (Eds.), Exaptation and language change (pp. 197–225). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  100. Wolfram, W., & Sellers, J. (1999). Ethnolinguistic marking of past be in Lumbee Vernacular English. Journal of English Linguistics, 27, 94–114.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  101. Woolard, K. (2008). Why dat now? Linguistic-anthropological solutions to the explanation of sociolinguistic icons and change. Journal of Sociolinguistics, 12, 432–452.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  102. Wright, L. (2001). Third-person singular present-tense -s, -th, and zero, 1575–1648. American Speech, 76, 236–258.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2019

Authors and Affiliations

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

Personalised recommendations