Student Guide: Grammar Patterns

the silhouettes of two students

Learning about African American grammatical patterns will help you advocate for the right to your own language.

African American English has both unique grammar patterns and grammar patterns shared with other varieties of English, such as Southern English. Many African American English grammatical patterns are used by college student writers, sometimes for specific purposes. These patterns have cultural, social, and linguistic meanings. Yet, instructors often penalize student papers for them in graded writing, sometimes even showing a bias against African American English grammar more than other nonstandard grammar patterns. This grading approach, whether intentional or not, effectively penalizes students for their language variety. Learning how these patterns function can help you advocate for the right to your own language in your graded writing.

Examples of Grammar Patterns

Name of Grammar PatternExplanationExamples from student writing
Double subject (aka appositive pronoun)A pronoun after a noun (a sentence having 2 subjects)People 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

 Implications for Grading your Writing

Keep in mind that sometimes instructors correct African American English grammar patterns because they are unfamiliar with them, especially in writing. You can take this opportunity to teach your instructor about grammar patterns such as preterit had and existential it. For example, in a literacy narrative, a student wrote:

I reached a really dark point in my life. I had hit that breaking point.

This use of preterit had indicates a pivotal moment in the student’s story. If an instructor were to cross out the preterit had here, this meaning would be lost. In office hours, the student could say something like: 

“I’m using the pattern preterit had here, which is a feature of African American English. I’m using it to highlight a turning point in my narrative. It’s like in the phrase What had happened was. If I take out the had, this meaning is lost for my intended audience, who will understand this pattern.”

If your instructor expects intentional use of African American English, you can similarly consider how African American English and other grammar patterns help you convey specific meaning. As described in the organization and word choice sections above, you can also consider how African American English grammar patterns suit your audience, purpose, and voice:

  • How do African American English grammar patterns help you relate to or get the attention of your intended audience? 
  • How do African American English help you achieve your purpose for writing? 
  • How are African American English grammar patterns a part of your own writing voice?

As with organizational styles and word choice, you can also use considerations of purpose, audience, and voice to advocate for African American English grammar in your writing–especially if these considerations are part of the grading criteria.

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