Null copula

"He fast in everything he do."

(Labov 1969)


Null copula (also known as zero copula) is the omission of a form of the verb be. Examples of null copula are given in (1) and (2):

1) Some of them __ big and some of them __ small.
    'Some of them are big and some of them are small.’
    (Green 2002:52)

2) He __ a expert.
'He is an expert.’
(Bender 2000:84)

In the above examples, the underscore ( __ ) is used to represent the omission of are, a form of be.

This page will be focused primarily on null copulas in contexts like (1) and (2). However, it is worth noting that many other varieties of English, both standard and nonstandard, can omit the copula in a few very specific contexts. One such context is questions like the one in (3), where the first element has been deleted:

3) __ You coming to the party?

Copula absence may also occur in newspaper headlines, such as the one in (4):

4) Tribe officials __ acquitted in North Dakota pipeline protests
     (The Washington Times, June 1st, 2017)

Who says this?

Null copula is a highly common feature of African American English (AAE). It is also a common feature in English-based creoles, pidgins, and other high-contact varieties. (See related phenomena below.)

Syntactic properties

Forms that may be deleted

Not all forms of the copula may be omitted in African American English; in fact, most forms of be must always appear. In general, is and are are the only forms that may be absent. Forms that can never be omitted include past tense was and were, the form be itself, and first person present tense am (’m). For example, (5b), (6b) and (7b) are impossible. (5b) is a possible form, but it cannot have the past tense meaning of (5a). It can only mean 'She is likin' me ... she is likin' George too'.

5) a. She was likin' me ... she was likin' George too.

b. *She __ likin’ me … she __ likin’ George too.
(Labov 1969:719)

6) a. Don’t be messin’ with my old lady!

b. *Don’t __ messin’ with my old lady!
(Labov 1969:720)

7) a. I’m driving to Amherst.

b. *I __ driving to Amherst.
(Green 2002:40)

Allowed positions

Interestingly, there are many contexts in which no form of the copula, not even is or are, may be omitted. For instance, null copula does not occur in clause-final positions such as those in (8).

8) a. I don’t care what you are.

b. *I don’t care what you __.
(Labov 1969:721)

See discussion below for a discussion of how this relates to rules of contraction.

Furthermore, most speakers cannot omit is after it, what, or that in sentences like the following (note that the combination of one of these words with the contraction ’s often causes the deletion of the consonant /t/, resulting in the pronunciations i’s, tha’s, and wha’s):

9) I[t]’s a real light yellow color.

10) Tha[t]’s my daily routine: women.

11) Wha[t]’s a virgin?
(Labov 1969:719)

Another context that disallows the omission of the copula is a sentence type called a tag question, which occurs at the end of a statement in order to request confirmation. An example of a tag question is given in (12a). In AAE, the copula cannot be omitted in a tag question, as illustrated in (12b):

12)  a. It ain’t a flower show, is it?

b. *It ain’t a flower show, __ it?
(Bender 2000:84)

The restriction against tag questions may be related to a more general restriction against null copulas in certain question environments.

The copula also cannot be omitted in emphatic sentences such as the one in (13):

13) Allah IS God.
      (Labov 1969:720)

Copula absence is not required in any context in AAE; any sentence that contains a null copula may also contain a pronounced form of be, whether contracted or full. In the following AAE examples (14)-(15) the copula may be either null or pronounced.

14)  a. Your mama’s a weight-lifter.

b. Your mama __ a weight-lifter.

15)  a. His wife is supposa be gettin money for this child.

b. His wife __ supposa be gettin money for this child.
(Labov 1969:720)

Relationship with contraction

Labov (1969) notes a relationship between null copula in AAE and contraction of the copula, specifically the ’s and ’re forms, in Standard English. This connection is expressed in the principle given in (16).

16) Wherever [Standard English] can contract, [African American English] can delete is and are,
      and vice versa; wherever [Standard English] cannot contract, [African American English]
      cannot delete is and are, and vice versa.
      (Labov 1969:722)

This principle generally appears to hold true. As demonstrated in (17), contraction in Standard English cannot occur when the copula occurs clause-finally, just as null copula cannot (compare with example in (8) above).

17) *I don’t care what you’re.

Analysis

Partly owing to the relationship between contraction and null copula, Labov (1969, 1995) argues that the latter phenomenon is the result of phonological processes. That would mean that the ability to omit a copula is not so much a result of the rules of AAE syntax, but have to do with the rules of the AAE sound system. Other authors, such as Mufwene (1992) and Bender (2000), argue that this is insufficient, and that the analysis of the null copula really does involve the syntax, and not just the sound system.

Related Phenomena

Many of the world's languages have null copulas (Stassen 2013), and like in AAE, it is common for such null copulas to be restricted to present tense. It is also a feature commonly found in English-based creoles and pidgins and high contact varieties. For discussion of such varieties of English across the world, see Kortmann and Lunkenheimer's (2013) results for copulas before noun phrases, locatives, adjective phrases, and progressive verbs.

In addition, there are many other phenomena connected to copulas: see our pages on Double IS, Needs Washed, and Stressed BIN, for just a few examples.

Page contributed by Kyle Parsard on August 24, 2016.

Updated by Jim Wood on June 13, 2017.

References

Bender, Emily. 2000. Syntactic variation and linguistic competence: The case of AAVE Copula Absence. Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University.

Green, Lisa. 2002. African American English: A linguistic introduction. Cambridge University Press.

Kortmann, Bernd & Lunkenheimer, Kerstin (eds.) 2013. The Electronic World Atlas of Varieties of English. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at http://ewave-atlas.org, Accessed on 2017-06-05.)

Labov, William. 1969. Contraction, deletion, and inherent variability of the English copula. Language 45(4). Linguistic Society of America. 715-762.

Labov, William. 1995. The case of the missing copula: The interpretation of zeroes in African-American English. In Lila R. Gleitman and Mark Liberman (eds.), An invitation to cognitive science. 25-54.

Mufwene, Salikoko. 1992. Why grammars are not monolithic. In Diane Brentari, Gary N. Larson, and Lynn A. MacLeod (eds.), The joy of grammar: A festschrift in honor of James D. McCawley.

Stassen, Leon. 2013. Zero Copula for Predicate Nominals. In: Dryer, Matthew S. & Haspelmath, Martin (eds.) The World Atlas of Language Structures Online. Leipzig: Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology. (Available online at http://wals.info/chapter/120, Accessed on 2017-06-05.)

Further Reading

Thomas, Erik and Guy Bailey. 2015. Segmental phonology of African American English. In Jennifer Bloomquist, Lisa Green, and Sonja Lanehart (eds.), The Oxford handbook of African American language. 403-19.

Wyatt, Toya Annette. 1991. Linguistic constraints on copula production in Black English child speech. Ph.D. dissertation, University of Massachusetts Amherst.