Northern Subject Rule

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The Northern Subject Rule is a grammatical pattern that occurs in Northern English and Scots dialects. Present-tense verbs may take the verbal ‑s suffix, except when they are directly adjacent to one of the personal pronouns I, you, we, or they as their subject. As a result, they sing contrasts with the birds sings; they sing and dances; it's you that sings; I only sings.

In the modern Northern English dialects, this pattern varies and now competes with standard forms.

Furthermore, other non-standard dialectal patterns are found that developed separately from the Northern Subject Rule. These include, for example:

  • The free use of ‑s in the historic present (especially when introducing quoted speech, I says).
  • The free use of ‑s as a marker of habitual semantics (I goes to work) may also occur.
  • A widespread tendency to level the contrast between was and were (sometimes to I were, he were, more often to we was, you was).
  • Almost universal levelling of the contrast between There was a raven and There were two ravens.

Some controversy surrounds its origin. Some scholars (e.g., Graham Isaac) argue that it developed out of the Old English verbal endings by way of Northern Middle English, but others (e.g., H. Tristram) argue that it could be a language-contact transfer feature from the Brythonic language historically spoken in that area. Graham Shorrocks notes that a similar use of the historic present occurs in some dialects of north Germany, citing Gordon (1966) and Wakernagel-Jolles (1971).[1]

This is part of the greater debate whether the Celtic languages have had any influence on the structure of English due to the Celtic-speaking population learning the English language rapidly but imperfectly after the Anglo-Saxon settlement of Britain. Some linguists have expressed a very strong opinion in favour of the language contact theory. John McWhorter for instance called the Northern Subject Rule a "bizarre trait", and claims that similar phenomena are otherwise only known in VSO languages (like Brythonic), and rare even in that case.

Cardiff English, Newfoundland English, and at least some Hiberno-English dialects, the dialect of Wexford for example, follow a similar pattern.


  1. ^ Shorrocks, Graham (1999). A Grammar of the Dialect of the Bolton Area, Part 2. Berlin: Peter Lang. p. 118. ISBN 9783631346617.


  • Isaac, Graham R. (2003), "Diagnosing the Symptoms of Contact: Some Celtic-English Case Histories", in Tristram, Hildegard L. C. (ed.), The Celtic Englishes III, Heidelberg: Winter, pp. 46–64