3. Verbs

3.1 Tense and Aspect

3.1.1 Present time reference The simple present

As in present-day Standard English, in the speech of all informants, present time is expressed by the simple present. This is used to describe an action taking place or a state existing at the moment of speaking, as illustrated by examples 3.1 (a-c):

3.1 (a) I say she speak English we- (Bartlow CP) (The speaker was interrupted by another speaker.)

(b) There’s two red houses stand just on the left on the corner. He live in one o' them. He’s a poor old fellow now. (Burwell GW)
  (c) Our water, what we git here now, that come all the way from Linton. (West Wickham CC)

As can be seen, the third-person singular is not marked by the suffix -s/-es; instead, the verb has the same uninflected form in all persons. This suffix is practically never used in the speech of two informants, and is rare in the speech of the others, although the youngest informant tends to use the suffix more frequently. This corroborates the findings of Wright (EDG 1923: 81) for ‘eastern’ dialects and those of Forby (1970 [1830]: 142), Wakelin (1972a: 119 -120) and Hughes & Trudgill (1979: 16 -17) for East Anglia. No examples from Cambridgeshire are given by Wright or Forby. However, Wright’s ‘eastern’ examples include: What’s the matter with your son? - Wall, Sir, I suppose 'tis the complaint what go about from Norfolk and He open his mouth very wide about it from Suffolk (East Anglian Daily Times 1892). Describing ‘the popular East Anglian Dialect’ as it existed in 1780-1820 (1970: xl), Forby notes that “Now, we so stubbornly maintain that the first and third persons are of the very same form, ‘I love, he love’ (1970: 142).” Cambridgeshire is included within East Anglia by Forby, although he was born and lived most of his life in Norfolk, and thus may have been more familiar with the speech of this county. Wakelin, basing his observations on the Survey of English Dialects (henceforth SED) material from the 1950s (particularly on replies to Question VI.14.14 she WEARS the breeches), regards uninflected forms as a characteristic of East Anglian dialects. Wakelin further specifies that the uninflected forms of the verb wear are attested in Norfolk, Suffolk, and northern Essex. In Elsworth, the one locality in the Survey that falls within the area of the present study, the verb wear occurs with the suffix -s. Thus, this finding from Cambridgeshire in the Survey contrasts with the non-use of the suffix evidenced in the present study. Hughes & Trudgill note that in East Anglia, the present tense verb paradigm is regular as a result of the absence of the third-person singular -s. The usage is illustrated by examples such as She like him and It go very fast. It is not specified whether the area of East Anglia includes or excludes Cambridgeshire. The simple present with generic or habitual time reference

The simple present is also used for actions which occur regularly, habitually, or frequently in the present, have occurred at some time in the past, and will probably occur at some time in the future. Thus, one can say that the temporal reference of these actions is somewhat unlimited, although one often speaks in this case of the ‘habitual present’. This usage can be illustrated by the following:

3.2 (a) (He's a poor old fellow.) He never go to bed. He always sit in the chair. He walk with his head nearly on the ground. (Burwell GW)

He come to dinner every day. (There's only him and me left here about = now. (Bartlow CP)

(For the meaning of transcription conventions such as = [the equals sign], see Transcribing Cambridgeshire dialect speech: problems and solutions.) The simple present is also used in statements which are not limited in time, i.e. to denote something that is true at all times (often referred to as ‘general truths’), at least in the speaker's opinion, in instances like:

3.3 (a) But rain do good (Lt. Eversden SC)
  (b) Snowing make more water than what rain do. A lot of rain run off quick. (Bartlow CP)

To provide evidence of the non-expression of the suffix, the examples above were deliberately chosen to include third-person singular forms. For a more detailed discussion of the uninflected present-tense forms, see Vasko 2010c Zero suffix with the third-person singular of the simple present. For the forms of the verb to be, see 4.1 and 4.2. For the negative forms of verbs used in the present tense see 5.1, 5.3, 5.4. The type HAVE GOT and variants

With the verb to get (in the sense of ‘have’, ‘possess’), present time is expressed using the present perfect form, as in:

3.4 (a) He’s got two sisters ’live (i.e. alive) at Over now (Willingham ES)

They have got an old set (i.e. shearing blades) but they are too heavy (Willingham SS)


And that bike I’m got out here he- I had now off on him (Waterbeach BB) (his not pronounced)

The auxiliary, be or have (see 3.2.1), is often not expressed, although it is seen as belonging to got, as is shown by the tag question in example 3.6 (a). There may be variation even in the speech of one informant, as shown in example 3.6 (b):

3.5 (a) I got a milking stool up the garden now. (Bartlow CP)
  (b) He got a daughter live at Cottenham now. (Rampton HP)

3.6 (a) Now you got taps, een't you? (Burwell GW)

but I’ve got some now = I’ve got a- w- we got about five hundred pigs and er fif- bout fif- over fifty cattle = and we got four ponies for children = for riding about on (Harston AS)

Generally speaking, the non-use of the auxiliary with the verb to get is not uncommon in less formal speech.

3.1.2 Past time reference The simple past

As in present-day StE, past time is commonly expressed using the simple past. This is used to describe an action which is completed or a state which ends in the past and has no connection with the time of speaking, as illustrated in:

3.7 (a) When I waked up yesterday morning I were dressed. (Rampton TR)

I can show you my first = envelope I ever drawed off th’Ouse Catchment Board (Willingham AA)

For the use of the form th’ of the definite article, as in example 3.7 (b), see Forms and uses of the definite and indefinite articles (forthcoming, Additional information). The simple past is also used to describe an action recurring habitually or repeatedly in the past (the ‘habitual past’), as in I went every week (Rampton HP). However, the occurrence of the simple past in descriptions of habitual or repeated actions is infrequent in the interviews used for the present study. Instead, used to + infinitive is used.

An investigation of the simple past (and past participle) forms in dialectal English reveals several distinct patterns. Examining the SED replies (to questions VI.5.9, VI.14.14 and VIII.2.5) and taking the present-day StE irregular verbs see, wear and bear as examples, Wakelin (1972a: 121-122) observes the following patterns: “(1) the simple addition of the weak -d ending to the present stem (e.g. seed), (2) to the past stem (e.g. wored), (3) to the strong past participle (e.g. borned), and (4) to a weak formation of the past tense (woreded).” There is thus a wide range of possibilities.

In Cambridgeshire dialect speech, two main patterns are to be noted. (1) First, a number of verbs which in StE are irregular form their past tenses (and past participles) by the addition of the suffix -ed, like regular verbs. (2) Another typical pattern is the use of a form identical with the present tense for the past tense and/or past participle. The three forms of the verbs come, give, and run are identical, as are the present- and past-tense forms of the verb see.

The adoption of the regular suffix is a process which has been ongoing since late Old English (OE) and early Middle English (ME), i.e. many verbs which were originally irregular are now regular (e.g. walk and laugh), and the Cambridgeshire dialect has simply taken this process further. The past tenses of the verbs blow, draw, grow, throw (examples 3.8 a-d) and wake (example 3.7 (a) above) are usually formed with the suffix -ed, whereas the verb know has two competing past tense forms, knowed and knew, both occurring even in the speech of the same speaker (example 3.8 e).

3.8 (a) That snowed and blowed and rained (Rampton HP)
Q: But how did you know that the plough went straight?
MP: If you- when you drawed a mark. You had a mark up th’other end. (Harlton)

That (i.e. mangel wurzel) growed all out the ground, not like, not on the soil like a cabbage. (Harston AS)


Yeah well I'm thrown we throwed gallons of them away (Willingham AA)


I hardly knew him no further than weekends…. I knowed where I were going (Waterbeach BB)

Regular past-tense (and past participle) forms of the present-day StE irregular verbs are attested in various regions. For instance, the past-tense (and past participle) forms drawed, growed, knowed and throwed are reported by Wright (EDD 1896-1905), which covers a time span of two hundred years, namely from 1700 to 1900. [1] From East Anglia at the turn of the 20th century, Wright illustrates the forms by examples such as Them ditches was drawed last year [they had the weeds pulled out of them with a crome] (e.An.1) and ‘My chummy he knowed what was o’clock.So he kept old Kidman yarning (Emerson Son of Fens 1892: 216; Nrf.).

Similarly, discussing East Anglia, particularly the Suffolk dialect of the 20th century, Claxton (1968: 12) lists the verbs blow, draw, grow and throw as regular verbs.

The SED material from Camridgeshire, collected in the 1950s, include the form growed (IX.3.9). The Survey past-tense form catched/cetched (SED IX.3.8) does not occur in the interviews used for the present study. (However, the form cetch is used as an infinitive.) Neither do the past-tense (and past participle) forms seeked, selled, telled and teached, which, according to Forby (1970 [1830]: 147), were “well established” in East Anglian usage at the turn of the 19th century. Nevertheless, these may have been used at earlier stages of the speech of the area. It may also be the case that they were used in the 1970s, when the present data were collected, but, due to their relatively infrequent occurrence in spontaneous conversation, did not occur in the interviews recorded for the present study. However, the forms catched and selled were used in the Isle of Ely (northern Cambridgeshire) in the 1970s. [2]

In addition to the past tenses blowed, growed, knowed, throwed and waked, the past tense (and past participle) of the verb burst is formed by the addition of the suffix -ed, as illustrated in:


Do you remember where that were = bursted once you can't see it now ‘cause since the flood they altered it … Well that bursted there (Willingham SS)

Thus, in Cambridgeshire dialect speech, the -ed suffix may also be added to verbs which in present-day StE have the one-form pattern (e.g. put - put - put, sit - sit - sit, etc.).

As mentioned above, in Cambridgeshire dialect speech, another typical pattern is the use of a form identical with that of the present for the past tense and/or past participle. The three forms of the verbs come, give, and run are identical, as are the present- and past-tense forms of the verb see. Examples:

3.10 (a) He come up and bought it (Willingham AA)
  (b) The first bike I had I give thirty shillings for it. (Waterbeach BB)

When I was at school ... I run round that thirteen times (Waterbeach BB)


His father run it (i.e. operated a steam engine) = seventy, eighty year ago. (Over EF)

  (e) So he went and see him. (Burwell GW)

The irregular past-tense forms came, gave, ran and saw are also attested. However, they are infrequent in the present data compared to the past tense forms come, give, run and see. [3] The form run, which in the standard language died out as a simple past form at the beginning of the 17th century (Viereck 1972: 192) has been shown to exist in Cambridgeshire since at least the early 1930s. The existence is documented in Viereck’s Map 2 (1972: 191), which is based on the evidence collected by Lowman (Guy S. Lowman, Jr. 1909-1941) in the early 1930s.

The forms come, give, and see are used for the past tense in other dialects as well. [4] Forby (1970 [1830]: 150) notes this generalisation of the base forms of bid, come, see and run in East Anglia, illustrating the usage with the examples She come this morning; I was bid to do so; I see her yesterday and He run for a wager last week. Forby, whose evidence is based on speech from the turn of the 19th century, further discusses the verb give: “We make a confusion in its imperfect and participle, using indiscriminantly for the one or the other giv, gav, gov, given, gaven, or goven.” About a hundred years later, Wright (EDD 1898-1905) observes the past-tense (and past participle) forms come, give and run in various regions. He gives such East Anglian examples as I give him as good as he sent (E.M.; 17; Nrf.). Claxton (1968: 12) notes the forms come, see and run in the Suffolk dialect of the 20th century, illustrating the usage by the examples He come yesterday; Oi see him last week and Tommy run home from school. Drawing evidence from the SED replies (to questions VII.2.5 and IX.3.4) from the 1950s, Wakelin (1972a: 124) observes the past-tense forms come and see in various regions.

The past-tense forms are thus constructed according to the two main patterns: (1) regularisation of the StE irregular verbs by adding the suffix -ed to the base form and (2) the three-identical-form usage (e.g. come - come - come) and the two-identical-form usage (e.g. see - see - seen). However, there are also various other past-tense forms which differ from those of present-day StE.

The past-tense form rid, reported in East Anglia by Forby (1970 [1830]: 149) and in Cambridgeshire in the SED (IX.3.10), is also recorded in the interviews for the present study in instances such as 3.11 (a). The past-tense form set is sometimes used in cases where one would expect the StE past tense sat of the verb sit, as in example 3.11 (b).

3.11 (a)

I remember when I went to bicycle r- where when I rid a bicycle at nights. (Waterbeach BB)

Q: Most of your pals are gone now, aren’t they?
TR: Yes, I went and set on that seat agin the hut, night afore last. (Rampton)

One reason for the use of the form set is the fact that, in dialect speech, the verb set is commonly used (in all tenses) for sit. In the SED (replies to question VIII.3.3 Q: and what do you say when you offer him (viz. a caller) a chair?), the Cambridgeshire replies are presented as se down (with and without a glottal stop between se and down). In the interviews in the present study, the infinitive form set is attested, e.g. in Now let me come and set agin you (Willingham ES). This confusion between sit and set was apparent even in Old English (cf. OED, set); at later stages of the language, the use of set was not uncommon either, as shown in the following example in literary dialect: I'm thinkin’ if I set here until I’m paid my wages, I shall set a precious long time, Mrs. Raggles: and set I will, too (OED. 1848 Thackeray Van. Fair lv).

The past tense forms sot of the verb sit, hot of the verb hit, and spore of the verb spare, which were cited (from the list by C. Warren and J.J. Smith) as Cambridgeshire “irregular preterits” by Halliwell (1847: xi), in his Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs and Ancient Customs from the Fourteenth Century, are not recorded in the interviews for the present study.

For the past-tense forms of the verb to be see 4.1 and 4.2. The simple present to describe past activities

The simple present form is sometimes used for descriptions of past activities, as illustrated by examples 3.12 (a-c):

3.12 (a) Q:

You ploughed, you drilled. What else?

    CM: You plough the field, you roll it, then you harrow it = with harrows = and then you drill it, then you harrow it behind, cover the corner, use (i.e. StE used to) leave that then. That was finished. (Fulbourn)
  (b) SS: I’m had days digging fires out.
    MH: Have you?
    SS: Yah.
    MH: What? Down the fen?
    SS: Well you don’t- you don’t actually dig the fire out, ’cause you can’t. What you do is you start a yard from the fire, ’cause you can’t always see it, I mean ’cause i- it goes down. You start a yard away from it and dig the soil around it = and go down to the = coal. And when you dig it out you have a trench like that, so it’s easy to work, een’t it? Well it can’t go through coal, can it? So therefore it goes out. Days I’m had doing that. (Willingham)
  (c) Q: How did you keep your meat?

Er, uset keep ’em = your meat and that what you used to have off a pig = in a pot = like that you salt it. See, then you can have some ’stead o’ going to a shop every week = salt it. You can salt it and then pull the bit out and when you come home to tea = er i- you want a bit o’ fried = pork, yeah, fetch it out, cut it up and = eat it. (Bassingbourn)

The simple present is used in vivid descriptions of past events like the ones above. It is especially typical of narratives, jokes, and indeed any occasion when immediacy and dramatic effect are required in the relation of past events. Note that the questions are asked in the past tense. Note also that constructions used for past time expressions alternate in a single discourse. It is by no means exceptional for a speaker to begin a discourse with used to + infinitive or the simple past, or less frequently with would/’d + infinitive or the present perfect, and then change to the simple present, often changing the time constructions again at the end of the discourse.

Describing the dialect of Chatteris (a small town about 25 miles north of Cambridge), Beauchamp (1977: 8) observes that it is “quite common to hear a tense switch from the past to the present”. Beauchamp illustrates the tense switch with the examples I’ve been boxing these potatoes as I tell you (and gives the corresponding StE constructions “as I told you or as I was telling you”), We was driving along and we see this budgie (“StE saw”) and They closed it down when he come here (“StE came”). Beauchamp further explains that in the first example there is “possibly regularised telled with consonant cluster reduction.”

Beauchamp (1977: 8) further comments that “the present tense is also used instead of the past” and illustrates this usage with the examples They always post me here and I never want to come back and We give it to him Saturday. Beauchamp, whose Chatteris material was collected in the 1970s, explains that in the first example the speaker was referring to “WRAP postings in the last war” and gives the corresponding StE past forms posted and wanted. As I mentioned above, the form give, as in Beauchamp’s second example, is commonly considered a past-tense form in dialectal speech (see and [4]). Thus, the assertion that this is a present-tense form being used instead of the past is debatable. The present perfect

The present perfect discussed here is formed by combining the auxiliary (have or be) and the StE past participle form/the StE simple past form. Thus, the construction corresponds to that in StE in the sense that it is formed from two elements (cf. the discussion in

As in present-day StE, the function of the present perfect is to bring a past activity or state into connection with the moment of speaking by showing that the activity or state, which began in the past, is still continuing. Examples:

3.13 (a)

I’m been a Council tenant = ever since nineteen twenty-nine. (Willingham ES)


He’s been dead two year now. (West Wickham CC)


And we’ve been here ever since. (Swaffham Prior EW)

(For expressions like two year see 6.1.) The present perfect is also commonly used in narratives to describe events or states which are totally in the past. In this case, the present perfect is often used to give emphasis and additional vividness to events or situations, as illustrated in:


Many hot day I’m been to my father's bottle. When I’m drunk ... when I’m picked that up, I’m shuddered. (Willingham AA)

In instances such as the above, the speaker refers to past events, stressing, however, what kind of experiences he has had in his life.

The present perfect has also been recorded in a few instances in which the speaker is talking about an event that is totally in the past but connected, through its result, with the present moment. Examples:

3.15 (a)

He give me [the book] then, but where it’s got to now, I’m lost it somewhere. (Waterbeach BB)

Q: They’ve spoilt Lordship Terrace.
ET: Eh?
Q: Spoilt Lordship Terrace.
ET: Yes, they are [ɑ:] (Willingham)

For forms like are [ɑ:] in 3.15 (b), see 3.2.1.

In narratives, the tenses usually alternate, as in:

3.16     Q:

They tell me they used to have straw on the floor in the Rose and Crown, in the taproom. They had some straw r on the floor. Is that right?

    ES: Yeah, yeah. I’m seen in the Rose and Crown tap-room. That were a brick floor, and when they walked around the table ... that were tread down like that there. And when there’s been same as Willingham feast or Christmas time, share-up time, I’m seen that nearly full of beer ... and if you had a pair o’ tea drinkers (i.e. low shoes) on, you got wetfooted. (Willingham)

For a more detailed discussion of the auxiliaries of the present perfect, see 3.2.1. For forms such as tread, ate, went etc. used for the past participle, see 3.3.2. The past perfect

In the interviews carried out for the present study, the past perfect is rare compared to the simple past and present perfect. In the few cases in which it is found, its use corresponds to that in present day StE, that is, it is used to mark a past action or state as completed at or before a certain past time, as in:

3.17 (a) He were here this morning. I think they had been over to his mother. She’s in Chesterton. (Rampton TR)
  (b) I’d had mine ’way fr’ there for years and years and years. The last time I went there, they said they dint keep ’em (i.e. shoes) = they are army left-over. (Over EF)

The form used for the past participle in the past perfect (and present perfect) construction may differ from that used in present-day StE, as illustrated in:

3.18      SS: That's the truth. They were pinched one dark night
    MH: Oh yeah
    SS: E*’s father told me
    MH: Yeah
    SS: ’cause then you could see where they’d went.

The combination have went is observed in non-standard speech in other studies, such as Hughes & Trudgill (1979: 15). Beauchamp (1977: 7) illustrates the form went in Chatteris (a small town in northern Cambridgeshire) dialect with the sentence They should have went yesterday. The use of past participle forms identical with the simple past is also attested for other verbs in Cambridgeshire dialect speech. For these forms (ate, broke, froze, took, etc.), see the discussion of past participles in 3.3.2. Used to and would/’d

Used to (and used t(o), the spelling representing reduction to a monosyllable and implying that the vowel of to has been absorbed) + infinitive is commonly employed to denote a habitual or repeated action in the past, as illustrated by examples 3.19 (a-b). This construction also indicates a permanent state in the past, as illustrated by example 3.19 (c).

3.19 (a) He used to rike (i.e. a dialectal variant for rack) up fore seven. (Rampton HP)
  (b) But every time I used t(o) shift them cow = there wa- = there was a little cow I always used to milk her. (Willingham ES)

And potatoering = that’s a dirty job for a woman but she used t(o) like it. (West Wickham CC)

The negative form takes do-periphrasis, as in:

3.20   That didn’t used t(o) cost a lot (Bartlow CP)

Would/’d + infinitive is also used to indicate a habitual or repeated action in the past, as in:

3.21 (a) They sometimes they’d take the fry (i.e. various internals of pigs). They used to do a lot [of pig killing]. (Harlton MP)
GW: and I’d be up there and up Waterbeach station that were five mile from Upware up there at seven in the morning
Q: Oh oh
GW: I have more than once (Burwell)

However, in expressions of habitual actions, the informants prefer used to to would/’d, as shown by instances where would-questions are answered by used to:

3.22 (a) Q:

Would you go to Cambridge very often?

    HP: Used to go with a carrier’s cart = once a year. (Rampton)
  (b) Q:

Your mother would go in fairly early in the morning, would she?

    ET: Well, they used t(o) go round about nine = nine o’clock time. (Willingham) Past participle as predicate verb in finite clauses

Past participle forms have two functions: they stand for (1) the present perfect and (2) the simple past. When a past participle form stands for the present perfect, it indicates a period of time stretching backwards into some earlier time. The activity or state, which began in the past, is still ongoing. Illustrations of this usage include:

3.23 (a)

And I never been a fisher like, I een’t never = never liked it. That’s been too slow a job for me. (Waterbeach BB)

  (b) The Hardings been in the- in the country = for several years (Castle Camps JH)
  (c) Oh, I known all sorts of things, dear, oh, dear. (Waterbeach BB)

The use of past participle forms in cases such as the above might be due to the non-expression of the auxiliary preceding past participle forms of irregular verbs. [5] The auxiliary in this case might be called ‘potential’, i.e. the speakers are obviously aware of its presence but do not pronounce it. The fact that the auxiliary is felt to be a part of the present perfect form is seen from its use in informants’ tag-questions, as in 3.24 (a-b), and in comments by other speakers, as in 3.24 (c):

3.24 (a) You heard talk of ghosts, een’t you? (Waterbeach BB)

Well we had a pump = at the back, you know, go one handle. You seen them, een’t ya? (Burwell GW)

EF: I don’t know whether you heard talk of M.N.?
MH: Yes, I have. (Over)

As I mentioned above, the second function of a past participle form is to stand for the simple past. Hughes & Trudgill (1979: 15) observe that “in some cases we find the original past participle used also as the past tense form.” Their examples are the forms seen and come: I seen and I come. In the interviews for the present study, the three forms (the present, past and past participle) of the verb come are identical, as discussed in Therefore, interpreting the form come as a true past participle form, and not the present form, is problematic, especially as the present forms of certain verbs (e.g. see, give and run) may also be used instead of the past forms, as in So he went and see him (Burwell GW). What we can say is that the form come (corresponding to the StE simple present and the StE past participle) is used for the simple past, as shown by examples such as He come up and bought it (Willingham AA).

The use of the form seen as a past tense marker is illustrated in the following:


The postman come down that little place Chittering and when I went to school … he come on a = horseback. He’s the first postman I seen over there. That’s how you got the post. (Waterbeach BB)

The forms seen and see, attested in the interviews for the present study, are also the forms which appear as Cambridgeshire simple past forms in the SED material some twenty years earlier (replies to VIII.2.5 Q: Our cousin Jim from Canada actually came to see us three times, but unfortunately I never once see/seen him.). [6]

The form rung (corresponding to the StE past participle form) of the verb ring is used in cases such as:

3.26      Q:

What time did you used to go? When the bell went?

    ES: When grandmother ** used to ring the bell = eight o’clock. … That’s- that’s when you went. When she rung that five o’clock and they sure all had to come home.

Thus, the verb ring has a two-form paradigm (ring - rung - rung) in Cambridgeshire dialect speech. [7]

The use of the past participle form done in cases where one would expect the simple past form is very frequent in the Cambridgeshire material. This usage may be very widespread in non-standard varieties (see e.g. Hughes & Trudgill 1979: 15-16). [8] Wright (1905: 82) comments on forms like I done it as follows:

But in those dialects of Eng. which have preserved the old strong past participles, the aux. have been generally omitted in affirmative sentences when the subject is a personal pronoun immediately followed by the verb, as we done it, I seen him, They been and taken it. In the midland, eastern, and southern dialects, this construction is sometimes used to express the preterite.

In Cambridgeshire dialect speech, the form done is commonly used in cases like:

3.27 (a)
SS: Well when they drained the fen they couldn’t let that happen, could they?
MH: No, no, no.
SS: So what they done they turned it you see and = course she straight flows into the river (Willingham)

Th’electric (i.e. electricity) done it. … That’s what’s done it. (Lt. Eversden SC)

The form done is thought to be used only for the lexical verb do (see e.g. Hughes & Trudgill 1979: 16), which means that a formal distinction is made in the past tense between the full verb do and the auxiliary verb (which has the past tense form did). [9] This distinction is clearly shown in such Cambridgeshire cases as:

3.28      He done a bit of farming at Earith, didn’t he? (Rampton TR)

The form done seems to be so much the rule as a past tense form of the main verb that speakers do not repeat a standard form even if one is suggested by the interviewer, as in:

3.29      Q:

Did you do any thatching?

    CP: No, never done no thatching. I’ve seen a good lot of it done but never done none. (Bartlow)

In instances such as


I got to walk them horses = from Downham Market to Burwell. I did and done it. (Burwell GW)

the two different forms are probably being used for emphasis.

There are some restrictions on the use of past participle forms for simple past forms. In addition to the use of done as a main verb (but not as an auxiliary verb), the past participle gone, with few exceptions, is not used as a true past tense form. The simple past tense form went is used instead. Thus, Cambridgeshire dialect speakers accept expressions of the type I done that on Sunday and I seen him once, but reject expressions of the type I gone there once. [10] Instead, I went there once is used.

3.1.3 Future time reference Shall or will/’ll + infinitive

Shall and will have the double function of future auxiliaries and modal auxiliaries. The two functions are closely intertwined. This section focuses on the ‘pure’ future function of these auxiliaries.

The full forms shall and will are rare in the interviews for the present study. Instead, the contracted form ’ll is used, as in colloquial speech in general. In the negative, the contracted forms won’t and shan’t are consistently used.

In the ‘pure’ future function, shall is used only in the first person, often in situations where the speaker is paying more attention than usual to his speech and trying to speak more carefully, as in example 3.31 (a). Will is used in other persons, and, like shall, often in more formal situations, as in example 3.31 (a). The contracted form ’ll is attested in all persons. Illustrations of these uses include:

3.31 (a)
TR: Ah, I shall go out tomorrow morning, I should think.
Mrs H: You will?
TR: Granddaughter o’ me (for StE My granddaughter) she will come and = take me over there, bring me home in the evening. (Rampton TR)
  (b) She’ll be seventy this August (Bartlow CP)

The instances above are expressions of future time as seen from the time of speaking. The same constructions are frequently used in vivid narratives of past actions when these actions are reported as direct speech, as in:


Nurse * come to me one evening = said, “You’re going down tomorrow morning, *. Don’t let that worry”, said. “You’ll be all right. I shan’t be here tomorrow.” (Rampton TR) (cf. example 3.31 (a) above) To be going to + infinitive

The expression to be goin(g) to + infinitive is used to indicate an action taking place in the near future, often as planned by the person in question, as in example 3.33 (a). Like shall or ’ll/will + infinitive, this construction is also used in vivid narratives of past events in direct speech, as in example 3.33 (b).

3.33 (a)

I'm going to tell you who I can remember living in there. (Willingham AA)

  (b) I said, "Old *’s going to pull them today." (Willingham ES) The present progressive

The present progressive is used to refer to a future event which is anticipated in the present. Like shall/’ll/will and to be going to + infinitive, it also occurs in vivid narratives in direct speech. Since the present progressive is used to denote present as well as future time, an adverbial of time is often added to clarify the future meaning, as in example 3.34. In the interviews recorded for the present study, the present progressive with future meaning is rare compared to the constructions to be going to + infinitive and shall/’ll/will + infinitive.


I’m going a (corresponding to StE to) Histon Saturday. (West Wickham CC) The simple present

The simple present is used to describe scheduled events, as in example 3.35 (a). It is also used in subordinate clauses that are conditional (usually introduced by if) or temporal (usually introduced by when, till, or fore), as in examples 3.35 (b-c).

3.35 (a)

(He can’t save the money over his pension. What’s he want to save that for?) He gits some more next week. (Rampton TR)

  (b) You’ll find him, if you go up there. (Burwell GW)
  (c) I’ll show you my medal fore you go. (Bartlow CP) Future time in the past

Two of the future constructions discussed above are used in the past tense to express time which is in the future when seen from a viewpoint in the past. (1) To be going to + infinitive is attested in instances like 3.36 (a) and (2) the progressive in instances like 3.36 (b).

3.36 (a) (And he brought a couple of police one day.) He were going to turn this man out on the road. (Rampton HP)

I said a Friday, ’cause we were going on a Saturday = and I took these sausages with us. (Swaffham Prior EW)

3.1.4 Progressive forms

The construction BE + present participle, i.e. the progressive form, is comparatively infrequent, although it occurs in the speech of all informants. The progressive past is the most common, followed by the progressive present perfect. The progressive past perfect is rare compared to the other two constructions. The relatively infrequent occurrence of the progressive forms is in accordance with the findings of Wakelin, who mentions that the dialects seem to prefer the use of a simple verb as opposed to an “expanded construction”. [11] One reason for the infrequency of these constructions in the interviews for this study may be found in the history of “expanded constructions”. Wakelin (1972a: 121-122) notes that constructions such as he is waiting, they were running, etc., rarely occurred in ME, and were still rare in Shakespeare. For example, in Hamlet (II.ii.190), Shakespeare wrote What do you read, my lord?, whereas modern Standard English would prefer What are you reading…? According to Jespersen (1961, Part IV, Chapter 12), it was not until Bunyan and, still later, Addison that the modern rules began to be fully followed; “In the modern period the use of the expanded tenses has been constantly gaining ground.” [12]

As in present-day StE, the progressive forms are used to represent an action in progress at a certain time; the time period may be of any length. In addition to process and continuation, there are a number of other concomitant meanings that go together with the progressive aspect, the most important of these being characteristic or habitual activity, emphasis, vividness of description, and emotional colouring.

Example 3.37 (a) illustrates the progressive function, (b) the habitual or characteristic, and (c) the emphatic or emotional aspect:

3.37 (a)

(Well, he’s older than I am.) The one I’m working for now. (West Wickham CC)

Q: This means that you mowed the grass out.
SS: Yah, and reeds and lugs and what not, you know, which we’re – we’re doin’g every day. (Willingham)
  (c) I’m only thinking this ’cause that’s hard. (I think that’s twenty-two stones.) (Willingham SS)

For the progressive present with future meaning, see The following examples illustrate the past progressive:

3.38 (a) Smelt terrible, when that (i.e. horse’s hoof) was a-burning. (Bartlow CP)
  (b) When * come (i.e. StE came) ... we were pulling gages. (Rampton HP)
  (c) That’s where I was going when you come (i.e. StE came). (Burwell GW)

The construction to be a-doin(g) seems to occur especially in vivid descriptions of actions going on in the past, as in 3.38 (a-b), while the form to be doin(g) is used also in simple statements, as in (c), in addition to vivid narratives, as in (b). For the progressive past with future meaning, see

Habitual or repeated activity taking place in the past is expressed by used to, or more rarely would, + be (a)-doing, as in:

3.39 (a) The old people = ’ey used to be a-landditching. (Castle Camps JH)
TR: Poor old one-arm [man] would be a-raking them in = stones, you know.
MH: Yeah
TR: Then there’d be a heavy load come and sweep ’em all out again = poor old fellow uses to let a ryde (Rampton TR)

The progressive present and past perfect are used chiefly in vivid descriptions of past actions in progress, as in examples 3.40 (a-b), but the present perfect is also occasionally used for emphasis in simple statements, as in example 3.40(c):

3.40 (a)
HP: I been mowing grass good many times.
MH: How about mowing corn, *?
HP: So am corn (i.e. StE So I have been mowing corn). (Rampton)

They’d been birding = him and ** = and they were cross the fen =and they thought there were a fire up the village ... . (Willingham SS)

  (c) I’m been a-trying to think the day ... . (Willingham AA)

Constructions such as was sat and were stood, used instead of was sitting and were standing, respectively, do not occur in the interviews for this study. Hughes & Trudgill (1979: 59), whose sample from Bradford, Yorkshire, shows the instance You were sat on that chair, note that I was sat and I was stood are widely used in parts of the north and west of England rather than I was sitting and I was standing. [13]


[1] The electronic version of Wright's EDD, digitized at the University of Innsbruck (Markus 2007, forthcoming; Markus & Heuberger 2007), is now available. Thus, a huge mass of data and philological information are accessible for the study of the regional varieties of English from the Late Modern English period.

[2] The forms catched, selled and telled are recorded in the Helsinki Corpus of British English Dialects data collected by Finnish fieldworkers in the 1970s and 1980s. The first form is attested in the Isle of Ely (northern Cambridgeshire) and Somerset data, the second in the Isle of Ely and Suffolk data, and the third in the Suffolk data. For Suffolk, see also Peitsara (1996: 296).

[3] The forms of the verb see show great variation in non-standard speech. Nelson Francis (1983: 23-39) observes that, in addition to the standard past-tense form saw, variant forms are common, the principal ones being “the analogical form seed, the form with zero suffix, see, and the past participle form seen”. These forms have regional distribution in both England and America. Data from the Survey of English Dialects, collected in the 1950s, show the complex situation in England. 314 localities were surveyed, and many reported more than one form: there were 136 reports of saw, 180 of seen, 129 of seed, and 86 of see, a total of 530 (Francis 1983: 38).

[4] Ihalainen (1987: 83) observes that there are “real” past-tense forms that are identical with the present-tense form, meaning that they occur in contexts where there could not be an underlying auxiliary present. One such verb is come, as in when he come where I was to (Somerset JM). Another verb whose past tense looks like the StE present tense form is give, as in I went to Elworthy school and schoolteacher give me a bang under the ear one day (Somerset JM). Ihalainen further notes that the form give as a past-tense form seems to have a wide distribution in dialect, including dialectal American English (Atwood 1953: 15, 44).

The past tense form come is also frequent in the interviews carried out by Finnish fieldworkers in the Isle of Ely (northern Cambridgeshire), Suffolk and Devon in the 1970s and 1980s. The orthographic transcriptions of these interviews form part of the Helsinki Corpus of British English Dialects data.

[5] In speech, the auxiliary usually occurs in its contracted form, and this contracted form (e.g. [v] for ’ve, [s]/[z] for ’s, [m] for ’m, and [ɑ]/[æ]/[ə] for ’re) is ultimately reduced to nothing. Thus, it is possible that these particular slots were once filled, but that these former fillers have suffered from phonological wear, and been elided. Phonological wear and finally elision is possible, since in continuous rapid speech the pronunciation of a word differs considerably from the way a speaker is likely to say it when asked to produce the word in isolation. In rapid speech, particularly if an utterance is produced in a context where the listener(s) can be expected to be able to predict the information conveyed, a word is spoken in a phonetically much less explicit way. In continuous rapid speech, the speaker is concentrating on what he/she is saying, and not on how he/she is saying it. The speaker makes articulatory gestures that are sufficient to allow the units of his/her message to be identified, but reduces any articulatory gesture whose explicit movement is not necessary to the comprehension of the message. Common changes in this type of speech include the loss of consonants or vowels, the lenition of consonants, and the assimilation of adjacent sounds. According to Brown (1977: 67–68), elision, the ‘missing out’ of phonetic elements (a consonant or vowel, or both) that would be present in the slow colloquial pronunciation of a word in isolation, is a common process.

In his study on the Somerset dialect, Ihalainen (1987: 80) observes, “Where Standard English auxiliaries are contracted (’ve, ’d, etc.), they are often totally omitted in dialectal English.” This omission in conjunction with the verb get is illustrated with the examples:

The one I got now, I bought un off of J.A.
If you got a good dog, you was all right.

Ihalainen further notes that ’ve is deleted almost without exception, whereas ’d is occasionally found.

In fact, auxiliary omission is one of the features singled out by Elworthy as a particularly striking aspect of dialect syntax (1965 [1886]: xxxxiii). Omission in other contexts, such as Oh, that go the factory. Go to (the) factory, that would (Somerset JM) is not exceptional either (Ihalainen 1987: 80).

[6] Francis (1983: 36-37) comments on the form seen: “The past participle form ‘seen’ is the most widespread, occurring everywhere in the central and southern part of the country except for an area in the Southwest comprising the Counties of Somerset and Dorset and parts of Devon, Gloucestershire, and Wiltshire.” However, when discussing the interview data he collected in the 1970s and 1980s, Ihalainen (1990b: 96) notes that “the tape-recordings show that seen is a frequent form alongside seed in Somerset.”

[7] Using begin - begun - begun as an example, Edwards & Weltens (1985: 110) note that the generalisation of the past participle is a common tendency in dialects.

[8] In the Helsinki Corpus of British English Dialects data, collected by Finnish fieldworkers in the 1970s and 1980s, the form done is frequent in all sub-corpora, i.e. besides Cambridgeshire, it appears in data from the Isle of Ely (northern Cambridgeshire), Suffolk, Devon and Somerset. For the participle-like past tense forms seen and done in Somerset, see Ihalainen (1990b: 95-98).

[9] According to Cheshire et al. (1989: 207-208), “The fact that the formal distinction is more widespread in the past-tense forms of DO than in the present tense is, we suggest, because the past-tense form done is a ‘preferred’ past-tense form.” They refer to the evidence presented by Bybee and Moder (1983) that “the / ^ / plus nasal or velar consonant phonetic shape is a preferred schema for past-tense forms in English”, and further state that the relatively widespread use of done as a past-tense form throughout the country “may well be supported, at least in part, by the fact that done conforms to a preferred psycholinguistic schema, and this has resulted in the formal distinction between the past tense auxiliary and full verb forms of DO being maintained”.

[10] This observation is also valid for northern Cambridgeshire (the Isle of Ely) speech, as illustrated by the example We went and done a six weeks’ practical course (Haddenham WM), which is included in the Helsinki Corpus of British English Dialects data. When discussing the Somerset data he collected in the 1970s and 1980s, Ihalainen (1990b: 97-98) observes the same restriction for the past participle gone. Ihalainen explains that “the reason probably is that gone is perfective in meaning so that sentences like He gone to Taunton implies ‘He is in Taunton now’, which of course is not compatible with the time reference of a true past-tense form.” Ihalainen further points out that, theoretically, speakers could maintain a difference between the perfective sentence (He’ve gone to Taunton) and the past time reference sentence (He gone to Taunton). However, the auxiliary is almost always deleted, so that for many speakers these two structures merge, and the use of went is a good way of making the meaning clear.

[11] Shorrocks (1980: 572) has not noted any tendency on the part of the dialect he studied (i.e. the dialect of Farnworth and district) towards non-expanded forms.

[12] The slow increase of progressive forms throughout Middle English is also noted by Fennell (2001: 145), who further points out that the use of progressive forms has generally expanded mainly since the 16th century.

[13] Discussing the dialect of Farnworth and district, Shorrocks (1980: 557) also describes this dialect feature. According to Shorrocks, a past participle is used after be where speakers of other varieties of English might prefer a progressive or continuous form. He illustrates the usage with the examples thou wasn’t stood up and he was sit in the sink (the form sit is the past participle form in his data). Ihalainen (1990a: 89) observes the verbs sit, stand and lie (which, according to Ihalainen, is a weak verb in Somerset English) in his Somerset sample, collected in the 1970s. Ihalainen illustrates the usage as follows: She was sat in that chair what you are sat now (JS).