Grammar that’s fine for informal speech, but not for formal writing…

There’s a preponderance of ‘we was’ and ‘they was’ constructions on this year’s GCSE papers, I’ve noticed. I know we might tend to say such things, but they’re in my ‘pet hates’ list. I remember my English teacher drilling verb tables into us when we were 11, although we already accepted that what was said wasn’t often written. It’s a simple case of learning by rote, I’m afraid. No games. No fancy patterns. If I were teaching it (ah, there’s the grammatically accurate ‘I were’, as it’s conditional … IF … ) I’d probably go for the mix-and-match card sort activity, based on ‘pairs’, or some kind of matching activity like that. I should imagine MFL teachers (what the heck… OFL teachers as well!) would have numerous games for this, but they’re all based on the same principle – match the verb form to the noun or pronoun.

I was

you were (either singular or plural!)

she was

he was

it was

And then the plural forms

we were

you were

they were

Oddly, I enjoy learning verb tables. I don’t know why. I think it’s the whole logical system of it.

Another way of tackling it is to look at a transcript of a person speaking using irregular verb patterns and then alter it to become grammatically correct. Dialect is the main offender here, and being a fan of dialectical forms, I’m not going to suggest for a minute that pupils abandon their dialect. I do know, however, that I don’t go with these irregular patterns any more in English. Not with anybody. I guess I am so used to making the correct noun/pronoun + verb agreements here that I just can’t bring myself to say ‘you was’ in the manner of my fellow Northerners.


Discuss why it’s fine for speech and not for writing

Bring it to pupils’ attention


Try and abolish it… dialect is part of language, just as it should be.

Ignore it

Keep all your comments about it in written marking.

Ironically, it seems only to be with forms of ‘to be’… no-one seems to say ‘I has’ once they’ve learned the fundamentals of grammar. Likewise with ‘we has’… so it’s only a 10 minute discussion, at best!

“I were” seems to be a peculiarly regional thing that seems to run mainly up the east coast of England with a few examples in the South West. As a north-westerner, it sounds very ‘Yorkshire’ to me. Similarly “he were” and “she were” with “it were” seem to be limited to the top half of the country, with a diagonal line starting at Chester, cutting across Birmingham to Peterborough and into East Anglia. I wonder if these single noun/pronoun + plural verb is related to Danelaw? Mercia seems to be free of ‘I were’ and so on.

“You was” is fairly widespread, with examples in London dialects and all the way across the country. Likewise, “They was” and “we was” are fairly widespread. It seems Mercia, too, fell under the dialect variations, using a singular verb form for a plural noun/pronoun.

When you compare the map of noun-verb agreement in dialect with the map of the extent of Danelaw it’s very clear to see the parity for ‘I were’ and the expanse of England covered by Danelaw.

If you haven’t used the British Library website, you should. It’s excellent. It has sound clips, transcripts and linguistic artefacts. It’s an English teacher’s treasure chest. I could teach a hundred lessons from here!

So… how would I go about teaching dialect noun-verb agreement of ‘to be’ in English? I’d like to think I’d have a bank of sound clips from across the country, and ask pupils to locate them on a map, coming up with a ‘pin’ map themselves, much like the British Library one. I want them to work out themselves where the border lies. I may even then bring in the Danelaw map and get a little history demo of a helmeted Viking fighting King Arthur with a battle of “I were winning!” against “No… I was winning!” with two prepared pupils at the end of the lesson. I’d finish with the moral that we all use these forms, but we need to know not to use them in English. If we all used dialect phrases with unfamiliar groups, especially in non-transactional (or not immediately transactional!) writing, we’d never understand one another at all.

Ain’t that right, pet?

If I wanted to drive the point home, I think I’d start with a little bit of a Robert Burns poem, just to bewilder them. I’d love to do this teaching within a wider unit on dialect, especially if they are sent out to collect the dialect phrases from the most entrenched regions. Westhoughton, for me, has a lovely group of unaffected dialect-speakers who have not lost the original Lankisheerness of their talk. “I’m clempt” is one of my absolute favourites. Indecipherable to all but the shared Lankysher world in which it’s uttered, and, unfortunately, in which utterances are becoming fewer and further between. Clemped, Klempt, Clempt and clemmed are all variations of this. In Dutch, a klem is a clamp, clip or a pinch, so words from Old English, influenced by Old German might be in effect here. Funny that this little word which has much more in common with Dutch should be found nestled in the heart of Lancashire!

If pupils can find one lovely dialect phrase they adore and source it (using, more often than not, German, Danish or Dutch dictionaries), they just might awaken their love of the wonderful world of etymology.


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