( Brandon Phillips, professional baseball player)
“Demonstrative them” refers to the usage of them where you might expect to see these or those. In (1a), them is used where Standard English speakers would use those, as in (1b):
1) a. I’m afeared of them copperheads. (Montgomery & Hall 2004)
b. I’m afraid of those copperheads.
For some speakers, it can be used in place of these, as in (2a), which is expressed in Standard English as in (2b):
2) a. Them are the kind I like. (Dictionary of American Regional English Online)
b. These are the kind I like.
Who says this?
In the United States, usage of them as a demonstrative is widely attested in Appalachian English (AppE), African American English (AAE), and in certain varieties in the Midland and Southern U.S. (Hazen 2011).
Examples from Appalachian English can be found in Bernstein 2017, Montgomery & Hall 2004, and Hazen 2011:
3) And them clerks all has, has learned me, and they talk about them cats, “Are you gonna kick them cats right on?” (Bernstein 2017)
4)Them’s not perch, them’s bass. (Montgomery & Hall 2004)
5)We would build them cabins back on the hill. (Hazen 2011)
Lisa Green’s book on African American English details examples in AAE such as:
6)Them boys call theyselves playing basketball. (Green 2002)
In many dialects, them can also be spelled as dem to reflect a sound change from to .
Beyond the attestations detailed above, the online Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) documents miscellaneous uses of demonstrative them in states such as Florida, Arkansas, and Virginia, with examples even coming from Pittsburgh, PA.
Demonstrative them in popular culture
Demonstrative them in popular culture is used not only by AAE speakers (e.g. Wiz Khalifa in “We Dem Boyz”), but is also found fossilized in idioms such as the saying made iconic by Matt Damon’s portrayal of a working class Bostonian in the film Good Will Hunting, “How do you like them apples?” and the classic sports cheer “How ‘bout them Cowboys.” It may also be uttered by characters who are caricatures of the speakers of this construction (such as the phrase “Them’s fightin’ words” uttered by Looney Tunes’ Yosemite Sam). Although the usage of them as a demonstrative is fairly widespread, it does not seem to have reached the point where a speaker of standard English, especially one who is unfamiliar with AppE or AAE, would use this construction productively.
On the idiomatic use of “How ‘bout them apples?” or “How d’ya like them apples?”, see Arnold Zwicky’s blog post at https://arnoldzwicky.org/2019/08/06/gloating-over-them-apples/
The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) records attestations of demonstrative them in the U.S. as early as the mid-1800s, as in “I would give a quarter to paddle them boys” (Georgia) and “S’pose I didn’t see them fish?” (Iowa). Though the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) Online labels this usage in the U.S. as ‘regional’ and ‘nonstandard,’ it lists attestations starting from 1382 in Middle English, Scottish English and Irish English. According to Hazel 2011, demonstrative them was widespread in England throughout the 20th century in colloquial speech.
Outside of the United States, demonstrative them can be found in varieties of English in countries across the world, such as Newfoundland, England, and the Caribbean. In most communities both in the U.S. and abroad, it is currently a stigmatized form; among young AppE speakers, stigma is in fact causing demonstrative them to die out (Hazen 2011). The presence of demonstrative them in both Scottish and Irish English suggests that the construction’s presence in Appalachian English could be the result of influence from the Scotch-Irish English spoken by settlers from the north of Ireland who had originally come from Scotland, as suggested by Montgomery (1991).
Usage with emphatic here/there
Many demonstrative them users allow here or there to occur between a demonstrative like this, that or these and the noun, as in (7a-c). Such speakers may also allow there between them and the noun, as in (7d):
7) a. This here book
b. These here books
c. That there book
d. Them there books
This is one notable case in which them appears to function differently from those. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) does not indicate that there may follow demonstrative those – phrases like ‘those there books’ seem to either be unattested or extremely rare. There are no recorded attestations in the DARE, and Montgomery & Hall (2004) do not list those there as an acceptable construction in AppE. Meanwhile, them there is both attested in the DARE and listed on the OED’s “Them” page. Thus, it is possible that some speakers consider the plural equivalent of that to be them, more so than those.
Them preceding verbs: subject-verb agreement
Demonstrative them behaves differently from the pronoun they when it comes to subject-verb agreement. For example, when preceding a copula, demonstrative them may take a singular form, as can these and those within both AppE and AAE. The following sentences are both acceptable:
8) a. Them’s the by Goddest horses that ever be damned! (Idaho, 1939)
b. Them are nice pigs. (Indiana, 1942)(Dictionary of American Regional English Online)
However, in AppE, the demonstrative those can co-occur with is, while the pronoun they cannot:
9) a. Those boys is plumb foolish.
b. *They is old friends. (Tortora &den Dikken 2010)
Thus, them in sentences such as (8a) cannot be classified as a pronoun like they. Rather, it appears to have a structure like that of the standard English demonstratives.
Them as these or those?
Though demonstrative them behaves very similarly to the standard English demonstrative pronouns these and those, not all speakers who use demonstrative them allow them in the exact same contexts: while Hazen 2011 and the DARE list demonstrative them as an acceptable replacement for both standard English these and those, Bernstein (2017) and Montgomery & Hall (2004) make no mention of them as a possible replacement for these. It is quite likely that speakers vary in terms of whether they allow them as a replacement for these.
Them and copulas
When them occurs in the subject position without a noun, the verb is almost always a form of the copula (be). There is only one attestation of them preceding a non-copula in DARE, and it is glossed as ‘they’:
10) a. Dem drap t’rue intuh de element; dem scace is mek de sho’. (Gullah, 1908)
b. They dropped through into the water; they scarecely made it to the shore. (Dictionary of American Regional English Online)
Thus, there may be some restriction in terms of which types of verbs can immediately follow the demonstrative them, though whether this is true requires further research.
Page contributed by Georgia Smits, August 4, 2020.
Please cite this page as:Smits, Georgia. 2020. 'Demonstrative them'. Yale Grammatical Diversity Project: English in North America. (Available online at http://ygdp.yale.edu/phenomena/you-do-you. Accessed on YYYY-MM-DD).