Perception of non-standard grammar 

The study in a sentence

People in England may speak differently if they come from further to the north or south of the country; this difference is sometimes called the 'North-South divide'. 

Most of what we know about this linguistic division is based on pronunciation differences. In this study, researchers looked at grammar, or morpho-syntax, to find out whether people from four cities in England – Newcastle, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton – made different judgements about a variety of grammatical features. 

A key question was whether non-standard grammatical features were judged the same when presented either in isolation or in combination. 

The results don't show a clear North-Midlands-South divide, but there are some patterns. Listeners also preferred sentences containing more than one non-standard feature, such as "I ain't seen nobody", than those with one. 

This is co-occurrence of language features is known as co-variation

woman speaking through a megaphone and two men covering their ears
Image by Sasin Tipchai from Pixabay 

The question

The researchers looked at different kinds of morpho-syntactic variation to find out:

The features tested in the study included:

What's the difference between "negative concord" and a "double negative"?

Both involve the use of more than one negative form within the sentence, but there is an important difference:

Key concept

Is the North-South divide relevant to grammatical variation?

Do certain grammatical features tend to co-occur? If so, how is this co-variation perceived across dialects?

Image by mcmurryjulie from Pixabay 


We can use acceptability judgements to understand participants' views on aspects of grammar that they may not be consciously aware of. 

By asking participants to rate a sentence according to how acceptable they think it is – e.g. from "not at all acceptable" to "highly acceptable" – we can gather information about people's awareness of language use that is otherwise difficult to access. 

Acceptability judgement tasks are easy to run in an online survey, which is a useful way of gathering data from a large number of participants.

Plots showing results from an acceptability judgement experiment, with participants from Newcastle, Leeds, Nottingham and Southampton.
Fig. 1: Acceptability judgements from four English cities of sentences containing negative contraction (left), auxiliary contraction (middle) or ain't (right), with or without negative concord in the same sentence. Blue indicates sentences containing co-variation and yellow without. 1 (on the left) = low acceptability; 5 (on the right) = high acceptability.

The answer

The more non-standard a sentence was, the more familiar/acceptable it was thought to be; this goes against prescriptive norms (overt prestige) but it seems to show covert prestige, where non-standard forms are highly valued locally. 

Classroom activities

Screenshot of lead in task

Lead in task

Perceptions of non-standard features in the media

Screenshot of extension task

Extension task

Sociolinguistic study of non-standard language features

In more detail

A longer explanation of the research study

Talk Recording [27 mins]


Slides from the Workshop Talk

Meet the author

Claire Childs

Claire is a Senior Lecturer in English Language and Linguistics at the University of York and teaches modules in sociolinguistics.

Read about the research

Childs, C. (2021-2023). Interactions in Grammatical Systems: North-South Dialect Variation in England. AHRC: grant number AH/V011073/1.project description