Instructor Guide: Grammar Patterns

African American English has both unique grammar patterns and grammar patterns shared with other varieties of English, such as Southern English. College student writers use many African American English grammatical patterns, sometimes for specific rhetorical purposes. Yet, such features can negatively impact grades on college student writing assignments, sometimes even more so than other nonstandardized grammar patterns. This grading approach, whether intentional or not, effectively penalizes students for their language variety.

The section below gives an overview of African American English grammar patterns, especially relevant to college student writing.

Examples of Grammar Patterns

Name of Grammar PatternExplanationExamples from student writing
Double subject (aka appositive pronoun)A pronoun after a nounPeople that live for the beach scene, they can visit…
Existential itIt is or it’s as a variation of there is or there areit’s way more than one thing going on at a time
Multiple negation (aka negative concord)More than one negative term within a sentence or phrase (also used in Southern English varieties)not really never a dull moment
Preterit had (aka innovative had)The use of had with a verb to indicate the simple past. Can indicate a pivotal point in a narrativeWhat happened to you?”…Edward had told her the whole story
RegularizationMaking irregular verbs or pronouns into more regular patterns (also used in Southern English varieties)I’ve began yet another story
programs that is open
Variation in -s suffixesVariation in whether an –s suffix is included on plural nouns (also used in Southern English varieties), possessive nouns, and third-person singular verbsThe advertisement show young women looking at archery target
someone else house
Variation in to be (aka zero copula or zero auxiliary)Variation in whether the words is or are are included, contracted, or excludedIt feels like when you done

How to Respond to Grammar Patterns

While student writers may be able to fully express themselves in other language varieties, they preserve meaning and cultural value through their use of African American English grammatical patterns.

Explicit description of the grammar patterns in student papers can grant students more linguistic agency than corrections or prescriptions, and they can help preserve specific meaning to the writer. For example, you can use some of the descriptions found on this page or go over the relevant patterns in class or office hours. This description can take a non-evaluative approach:

This African American English grammar pattern is known as preterit “had” or sometimes innovative “had.” It can be useful for indicating a pivotal point in a narrative, such as your hitting a breaking point here.

The above response helps students understand both the patterns they are using and alternative patterns without correcting or devaluing students’ language or requiring linguistic assimilation.

If you are grading grammar, avoid grading students on their language variety or prior background with written grammar. One way to do this is only to grade grammar patterns that students have had the chance to learn and practice in class. If other grammar patterns you would like to address come up in student papers, you can make note of them to teach in a future class session.

You may not always be able to distinguish language variation from typos. Therefore, you can have students read their papers aloud so that they catch their own typos. The goal here is for the student writer, and not the instructor,  to identify what they want to say and how they want to sound. This activity can be useful in peer review sessions; students can read their drafts to partners in class and ask each other questions about language variation and language choice. Students can also read their papers to a family member or friend outside of class and, as evidence, attach a brief note to their paper explaining who they read to and what they figured out by reading their paper out loud.

How Not to Respond to Grammar Patterns

How Not to Respond: Correcting

When African American English grammar patterns are corrected as if they are random errors, both student learning and students’ right to their own language are undermined. Moreover, the correction of African American English grammar patterns can change the meaning of student-written sentences. For example, deleting an instance of preterit had can remove the emphasis on the sentence as a pivotal part in the student’s narrative. Therefore, it’s essential to understand these patterns as they appear in student writing, as in the examples in the above table. Correction also discourages students’ strategic thinking about linguistic features, in contrast to the recommended responses above.

The following examples of what not to do show corrections that respond to grammar patterns as if they were random errors:

  • The guys they helped me (Pattern: Double subject) (Source: Hankerson, 2017)
  • I know that it there might be different fun places (Pattern: Existential it)
  • the inventor had then died (Pattern: Preterit had)
  • The woods is are a place for my artistic side to flourish (Pattern: Regularization)
  • I feel like you are not free at all (Pattern: Variation in to be)
  • gives me way more space than outside do does (Pattern: Variation in -s suffixes)
How Not to Respond: Labeling

As with corrections, marking an African American English grammar pattern in terms of error or clarity, such as subject-verb agreement error or not readable, can invalidate students’ own language. Such labels do not teach students the patterns of either African American English or Standard English:

The interactions between the kids and the parents, it is relatable… confusing sentence structure

The label “confusing sentence structure” does not indicate what is confusing about the sentence structure, which was likely clear to the student writer. The instructor might have been less confused if they were familiar with the double subject pattern.

Labels that emphasize academic, disciplinary, or genre appropriateness, such as academic, appropriate, college-level, or formal/informal, may seem like a better approach. After all, these terms do not necessarily suggest that African American English is wrong. Yet, these terms still place African American English on a hierarchy below Standardized English and state or imply that there is not a place for African American English in academic writing:

  • “Written in informal tone”
  • “Your readers will expect a more academic voice”
  • “Use a word that is more appropriate for college-level writing”
How Not to Respond: Prescribing

While corrections and labels are not helpful in teaching grammar patterns, contrasting African American English patterns with Standardized English patterns might seem like a more useful alternative:

I’ve highlighted some examples of –s suffix variation in your paper. To revise for an academic audience, make sure you have an –s at the end of plural and possessive nouns and third person singular verbs.

However, by prescribing Standardized English patterns, this approach values assimilation over students’ right to their own language. As with the example above, this contrastive approach also often coincides with labels such as academic or appropriate that ultimately devalue African American English.

How Not to Grade

When responding to African American English grammar patterns, consider how such patterns are impacting the student’s grade. When student papers are penalized for African American English grammar patterns, graders discriminate against African American students.

See Sample Papers with Feedback for more examples of how to respond and how not to respond.

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