In what contexts can the zero copula occur in African-American Vernacular English? What rules govern its use—for example, what makes she runnin' more likely to be acceptable than ?she a runner? Some of what I know:

  • Some (I think Labov, notably) have proposed that copula absence in AAVE occurs where SAE would allow contraction, but there are counterexamples (*"How old you think his baby ’s", How old you think his baby is, how old you think his baby), so this does not fully explain the context
  • As with copula absence in other languages like Russian, AAVE zero copula depends on tense (copula absence usually occurs in present tense: *she home yesterday, she home today)
  • I've read that copula absence is much more common if a VP follows than a NP (perhaps Labov, again); a paper on AAVE origins mentions this, that zero copula is:

    most frequent with a gon(na) future or a progressive (she Ø gon tell him; she Ø walking), least frequent before a noun phrase (he Ø a man)...
    The general pattern for AAVE is given in (1), with predicate types listed according to increasing rates of copula absence:
    (1) NP < Loc < Adj < V-ing < gonna

  • Copula absence may not occur for habitual actions because habitual be, replacement of is with be, may occur. Habitual be is used for things that are ongoing or usual as opposed to a moment in the present (Cookie Monster be eating cookies, even if he isn't at this moment).

Are there other predictions we can make about when copula absence can occur in AAVE? Does any cross-linguistic approach to copula constructions provide clues?

  • Are you sure there is a zero-copula in she runnin' rather than a zero-auxiliary? I know nothing about AAVE, but then you consider runnin' an adjective, not a participle?
    – Cerberus
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 21:27
  • I'm not sure how much of this is actual AAVE or peoples' mockeries of AAVE, but I seem to recall the bare infinitive be to be acceptable in place of SAE copulas. For example, he be trippin' or I be high. Perhaps there is a relationship between that and the phenomenon in question. Of particular interest is she be walking versus *she be gon tell him.
    – Steven
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 21:30
  • I would add an additional category here: present-tense copulas (and the auxiliary "have/has") at the beginning of question-sentences tend to be dropped, as in He in there?, You gonna come?, Y'all lived here long? etc. Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 22:49
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    @Steven I added a mention of habitual be that might address your point. I didn't want to get too far into the weeds but I think in the examples you give, they would make sense in as much as they are some ongoing state of being, happen over a period of time or are repeated, that kind of thing. Perhaps every time we argue, she be walking away but not * she be walking home today. Or consider: He workin? Yeah, till 5. He be workin? Yeah, started last week.
    – aedia λ
    Commented Sep 14, 2011 at 23:22
  • Right. And similarly, he be trippin is a way of describing someone who's always overreacting to things. If you're talking about someone who's normally very calm, but who happens to be overreacting on one specific point right now, you lose the habitual be and you have the option of just saying he trippin. Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 15:18

1 Answer 1


Apart from the "present tense" rule you mentioned, I found this page where you can see a rather good explanation about AAVE and its rules. I'll paste the part regarding the copula (as usual the * indicates something ungrammatical):

The AAVE copula follows complex rules:

  1. (Rule 1) Unstressed copula is never omitted:

    • "There already IS one!" | *"There already one!" | *"There already BE one!"
  2. (Rule 2) Copula (like other auxiliary verbs) is never omitted at the end of a phrase:

    • "Couldn't nobody say what color he is." *"Couldn't nobody say what color he."
  3. (Rule 3) The copula in the special AAVE remote present perfect (not found in Standard English) is never omitted:

    • "I BEEN know that guy" (this means `I've known that guy for a long time')
  4. (Rule 4) The copula is never omitted when negated:

    • "I ain't no fool" | *"I no fool" | *"I be no fool"
  5. (Rule 5) The copula is never omitted in its infinitival form "be":

    • "You got to be strong" | *"You got to strong"
    • "Be nice to him!" | "*Nice to him!" 1
  6. (Rule 6) The copula in the special AAVE habitual aspect (not found in Standard English) is never omitted:

    • "He be singing" (this means `he habitually sings but he is not necessarily singing right now' )
  7. (Rule 7) The copula is never omitted in the past tense:

    • "I was cool"
  8. (Rule 8) The first singular form of the copula ("am" or "`m" as in Standard English) is never omitted:

    • "I'm all right" | *"I all right" | *"I be all right"
  9. (Rule 9) The copula is never omitted in a confirmatory tag question:

    • "I don't think you ready, are you?" | *"I don't think you ready, you?" | *"I don't think you ready, be you?"

You can also check the Grammar section in this page, or these documents: "Copula Variation in African American Vernacular English" and "African American vernacular English: features, evolution, educational implications".

1: As noted in the comments, this is not an infinitive, but an imperative. However, I guess the author was referring to the form and word "be" in general and not to the particular tense.

  • @aedia λ let me know if this answers your question. :)
    – Alenanno
    Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 14:13
  • Rule 7 is a non-rule: "I cool" can distinguish between present and past tense. And "I cool yesterday" is OK. Commented Sep 19, 2011 at 14:26
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    Misprint: "I cool" can NOT distinguish between present and past tense, tenses are neutralized, "I cool yesterday, I cool today" are both OK. Not surprised if you heard an occurrence of was in the past, given the variation in AAVE. Sorry for my lapsus. Commented Sep 23, 2011 at 20:52
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    "Be" in rule 5 "Be nice to him!" is imperative, not infinitive.
    – dainichi
    Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 14:31
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    @BillSullivan I wonder if the real rule is more like "Clauses without a copula are interpreted as present by default." That would be consistent with the data you're describing, and a lot of languages work that way. Commented Feb 27, 2012 at 15:25

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