In discussions of AAVE, people frequently bring up the "habitual be", as in

(1) He be working.

Usually, they use this as an example of something that Standard English doesn't have. This Wikipedia article, for example, notes that this is a "habitual grammatical aspect not explicitly distinguished in Standard English".

However, I believe the sentence

(2) He works.

is habitual. To me, this sentence unambiguously implies a habitual aspect.

So while I of course agree that AAVE and Standard English represent the habitual aspect differently, I don't understand what other difference there is between AAVE and Standard English. Am I misunderstanding what habitual aspect is, or am I misunderstanding how sentence (2) functions?

2 Answers 2


Saying that a language or language variety marks a grammatical category of "habitual aspect" implies that there is some construction that is dedicated to expressing habitual actions.

"He works" uses the English "simple present tense" construction, which has perfective as well as habitual interpretations. Even if in practice "he works" would typically be understood as referring to a habitual action, this isn't because the verb is marked for habitual aspect specifically: this interpretation is based on a combination of the inherent meaning of the verb work (I think "Aktionsart" is a relevant concept) and the meaning of the progressive aspect, which could have been used but wasn't (that is, "works" is an explicitly "non-progressive" form, contrasting with the progressive form "is working").

Look at the following passage:

First of all, he exhibits a "wonder" by dividing Jordan; then he works a miracle of mercy, by healing the bitter waters; thirdly, by his curse, he brings about a miracle of destruction...

(The Complete Pulpit Commentary, by Henry D.M. Spence)

"He works" in this context does not refer to a habitual action, but to an action that took place at one particular point in time.

The "simple present" often has a habitual sense in Standard English, but it has several other uses that make it inappropriate to call the "simple present" a dedicated "habitual aspect" construction.

For certain categories of verbs that are not widely used in the progressive (e.g. verbs of perception), non-habitual uses of the "simple present" form are fairly common: "I see a spider", "I feel the wind on my face", "I hear a bird calling over there" don't refer to habitual situations.


If "he works" is interpreted to have the same sort of aspectual meaning that "oil floats on water" has (i.e., it always did so in the past, does now, and always will)--then this is gnomic rather than habitual aspect. I have always understood this to be the aspectual meaning of sentences such as "He be working" as well, along with the possibility of interpreting a sentence such as "He be nice" as meaning roughly "He's always nice," in the sense that "He's a nice guy" (in contrast to a sentence like "Oil floats on water," which I wouldn't usually interpret to mean that oil is inherently a floating-on-water type of thing).

In any event, the only thing that Standard English appears to particularly lack with respect to expressing these sorts of meanings is that it doesn't have a verb form which has only this one possible interpretation, rather than others as well.

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