Perfective done

“My mama done tol' me
When I was in pigtails"

—Johnny Mercer, "Blues in the Night", as sung by Ella Fitzgerald


Perfective done, sometimes referred to as preverbal done or dǝn, is a verbal marker used in sentences such as the following:

1)  a. I done lost my wallet!
          (Green 2002:61)

b. I told him you done changed.
(Green 2002:60)

The use of done expresses that the action or state being described by the clause has come to an end (Green 2002). It may also convey an attitude of surprise or shock on the part of the speaker (Harris, in progress).



Who says this?

Perfective done is a characteristic feature of African American (Vernacular) English (AAE), as has been documented since at least the 1970s (Labov 1972, Schneider 1983, Green 2002, among others).

This construction is also used by Southern speakers who are not African American, in at least Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina (Feagin 1979). However, perfective done in the speech of white Southerners may have slightly different properties than in AAE—for more on this, see Syntactic Properties.

Syntactic properties

Eventive or stative verbs

Perfective done usually precedes an eventive verb with a past tense form, such as the -ed suffix (Green 2002), as in (2a). However, it may also precede some present tense verbs, as in (2b), from the August Wilson play "Fences."

2)  a. I done pushed it.
         (Green 2002:60)

b. Now I done give you everything I got to give you!
(Wilson 1985)

Due to its completive meaning, perfective done often appears with eventive verbs, which have a natural endpoint. However, in certain contexts, perfective done can occur with stative verbs, which do not have natural endpoints. For example, the following sentence includes perfective done with the stative verb know:

3) Long as I done known you (you’ve been chasing after women)
     (Wilson 1985)

Time adverbs

As expected from its meaning, perfective done can appear with time adverbs that describe completed events. The following examples from Green (2002:62) show perfective done with time adverbs (already, before) that are compatible with an event being over:

4)  a. I done finished that already.

b. I done drove that car before.

In special contexts, however, perfective done can also appear with time adverbs that refer to an incomplete event, such as for five years. An example of perfective done with for five years in an acceptable context appears in the following sentence from Green (2002:61):

5) I can’t believe that dance class is cancelled after I done wanted to take dance for five years!

Perfective done also appears with adverbs that refer to a time in the past, such as yesterday in (6a) below. This is in contrast to the standard English perfect, which cannot appear with such adverbs, as illustrated in (6b).

6)  a. John done baked a cake yesterday. (AAE)

b. *John has baked a cake yesterday. (standard English)

This may be surprising given that the standard English perfect is otherwise quite similar in meaning to perfective done (see Semantic Properties for more details).

Negation

For many speakers, negative markers don’t combine naturally with perfective done (Harris in progress). Some speakers negate sentences with perfective done by replacing done with the auxiliary ain’t, as in the following examples. Speakers who use this negation strategy can use either the present or past form of the verb:

7)  a. John ain't called me.
          (Harris in progress)

b. John ain't call me.
(Harris in progress)

However, other speakers can negate sentences with perfective done by using the auxiliary ain’t or didn’t with done, as in (8):

8)  a. My daughter ain't done went to sleep.
          (Harris in progress)

b. My daughter didn't done went to sleep.
(Harris in progress)

In Southern English: Auxiliary be and adjectives

In the speech of white Southerners, perfective done has a wider distribution than it does in AAE. It can occur following the auxiliary be, which has not been reported in AAE (Green 2002):

9) Lord, I'm done died!
    (Feagin 1979:127)

It can also precede adjectives, such as dead in (10):

10) Some of 'em's done dead an' gone.
    (Feagin 1979:131)

Semantic properties

Perfective done has traditionally been analyzed as a perfect aspect marker, which indicates that the event or state is completed (Edwards 1991, Déchaine 1993, Dayton 1996, Green 2002).

This analysis is supported by the observation that AAE speakers can use perfective done and the perfect marker have to describe the same event, as in the following example:

11) My mother done realized I’m a senior before I have [realized I’m a senior].
       (Harris in progress)

Furthermore, the perfect in standard English has four uses (Comrie 1976, Portner 2003, among others): the perfect of result (the conclusion of the event causes a particular outcome), the existential perfect (the event has occurred at some point), the recent past (the event took place and concluded recently) and the universal perfect (the event has always occurred/been occurring). These four uses are illustrated by the following examples from Harris (in progress):

12)  a. Perfect of Result: John has eaten the steak (so there’s nothing left at home).

b. Existential Perfect: John has eaten steak (at some point in his life).

c. Recent Past: John has (finally) eaten a steak today (after fasting all week).

d. Universal Perfect: John has eaten steak (all his life).

Perfective done in AAE can also be used in all four of these situations (Harris in progress):

13)  a. Perfect of Result: [My] face done broke out.

b. Existential Perfect: Every female done thought about being a stripper (at least once).

c. Recent Past: My ex done reached out talmbout he sorry for hurting me.

d. Universal Perfect: She done been an invalid all her life.

The standard English perfect also requires that the event or state the verb refers to must have some “current relevance” (McCawley 1971, Dowty 1979, Portner 2003, among others). This distinguishes the perfect from other ways of referring to the past. Edwards (1991) argues that AAE perfective done shares this attribute.

However, as we've already seen, AAE perfective done is not identical to the standard English perfect. Edwards (1991), Dayton (1996), Labov (1998) and Terry (2010) have all observed that sentences with perfective done are “stronger or more emphatic” than their standard English perfect equivalents (Harris in progress). Edwards (1991) and Terry (2010) note, respectively, that perfective done appears in negative and excessively positive contexts. These two uses are shown in the following examples from Harris (in progress):

14)  a. It done started raining. (disappointment/surprise)

b. My baby done won the race! (excitement/surprise)

Harris (in progress) proposes that AAE perfective done contributes an attitude of surprise or shock on the part of the speaker. In other words, the event, action or state being described in a sentence with perfective done must violate the speaker’s expectations.

Similar constructions

Guyanese Creole also has a preverbal done (don) construction, as noted by Edwards (1991). It appears in sentences like the following, and functions similarly to AAE perfective done in that it indicates that an action/event is completed:

15) Dem don gat di koolii-man rom.
    'They already have the Indian man’s rum'
    (Edwards 1991: 240)

15) Horbi don sii wa hi waan sii.
'Herby has finished seeing what he wants to see'
(Edwards 1991: 240)

However, unlike AAE perfective done, preverbal done in Guyanese Creole is pronounced with stress (Edwards 1991:248, Green 2002:63). Guyanese Creole done also does not contribute shock or negative opinion on the part of the speaker, while Edwards (1991) and Harris (in progress), among others, suggest that AAE done does.

Origin

Dillard (1972:47) argues that AAE perfective done originated from similar preverbal done constructions in West African languages such as Weskos Pidgin. Edwards (1991:251) also supports this hypothesis on the grounds that the presence of preverbal done constructions in the speech of black Americans and Caribbeans can be attributed to their shared African cultural heritage. He also notes that the development and distribution of AAE perfective done mirrors other constructions adapted from creole languages.

In contrast, Wolfram and Christian (1976) and Feagin (1979), among others, argue that AAE perfective done is derived from the perfective done construction in Southern white English.

Page contributed by Katie Martin on June 22, 2018.

Please cite this page as: Martin, Katie. 2018. Perfective done. Yale Grammatical Diversity Project: English in North America. (Available online at http://ygdp.yale.edu/phenomena/perfective-done. Accessed on YYYY-MM-DD).

References

Phenomenon Category: 
Tense, Aspect, Mood
Phenomenon Dialect: 
African American (Vernacular) English
Southern American English