1. Education
Richard Nordquist

Six Special Little Words

By February 13, 2013

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To be accurate, it's not the words themselves that are special; it's how they're sometimes used. Linguists have assigned names to these distinctive (and sometimes controversial) ways of using six very common words: it, there, should, be, they, and eh.

For additional examples and more detailed discussions of the terms, follow the links in bold.

  • Dummy "It"
    Unlike an ordinary pronoun, dummy "it" refers to nothing at all. In sentences about time and weather (e.g., It's six o'clock, It's snowing) and in certain idioms (It's obvious you're having a hard time), it serves as an anticipatory or dummy subject.

  • Existential "There"
    Another familiar type of dummy subject is the existential "there." In contrast to the deictic "there," which refers to a place (e.g., Let's sit over there), the nonreferential "there" simply points out the existence of something (There is a problem with the network).

  • Putative "Should"
    Unlike the mandative "should," which expresses a command or recommendation (e.g., You should stop complaining), the putative "should" emphasizes an emotional response to a presumed fact (It's sad you should feel that way). Putative "should" is heard more often in British English than in American English.

  • Invariant "Be"
    A feature of African American Vernacular English (AAVE), invariant "be" is often misinterpreted as an all-purpose substitute for "am," "is" and "are." In fact, because invariant "be" (as in She be busy all the time) has the special function of marking habitual or repeated activities, AAVE makes a distinction that Standard English can't make by verb tense alone. (See No Time Like the Present Tense.)

  • Singular "They"
    Most handbooks still decry the use of they, them, or their to refer to a singular noun or an indefinite pronoun (e.g., Somebody lost their keys). But this is probably a losing battle: singular "they" has been in widespread use since the fourteenth century.

  • Narrative "Eh"
    Though strongly associated with speakers of Canadian English, narrative "eh" isn't exclusively Canadian. This little discourse marker or tag (described by one linguist as "virtually meaningless") most often shows up at the end of a sentence--like this, eh?

Quizzes on Words and Names:


February 18, 2013 at 12:28 pm
(1) Steve Brown says:

I’m rather old-fashioned about language but always I use “their” in place of “his or hers” which is an awful cumbersome phrase (similarly “he or she”). Well, it’s two people isn’t it? So that’s ok!

February 18, 2013 at 12:49 pm
(2) HillRunner says:

The narrative “eh” is no different from ending a question with the query “correct?” or “right?,” covered elsewhere in these columns as an acceptable shorthand.

February 18, 2013 at 5:43 pm
(3) elbee says:

Eh at the end of a sentence is very common in New Zealand as well. It has a downward inflection here, rather than the upward inflection in Canada, so it is more of a reinforcement of the statement, or implied agreement, rather than questioning.

February 18, 2013 at 11:20 pm
(4) Helen Chaplin says:

In Sydney Australia even well educated people end some sentences with but as in :You’d never guess who I bumped into today,but

Makes little sense to this Canadian Australian

February 19, 2013 at 1:49 pm
(5) Margaret says:

I’ve heard speakers from India use an invariant “isn’t it?” at the end of a sentence. For example: “the boss is really grouchy today, isn’t it?”
And in Spanish, “verdad?” fills the bill.

February 22, 2013 at 2:23 pm
(6) Robert Ormsbee says:

A compliant (lax) and bad attitude of indifference concerning slothful, abusive language (I feel) invites ● misunderstanding, ● confusion ● discord–● and social disunity–a divided people.

Today, our country suffers greatly from misunderstanding, confusion, disagreement, discord, division and overt “angst.” Can poor language and disrespect for correct and proper language be a major problem in these matters?

February 23, 2013 at 2:25 pm
(7) Jim Alton says:

In the section on “Invariant Be”, I can’t see where the sentence that was used “She be busy all the time” conveys any more information than “She is busy all the time”. So, for me, the claim in the article that “AAVE makes a distinction that Standard English can’t make by verb tense alone” is not only hyperbole but smacks of political motivated promotion of a use which does not deserve (veiled) approbation. I’ve had a brief look at the linked article on “Invariant Be” and think that the examples given of its use don’t support the claims of its supposed meaning.
I’m English and this is the first time I’ve heard of AAVE – I guess we’ve moved on from the obvious political connotations in the word Ebonics and replaced it with the more acceptable AAVE.
Is there dishonesty in this article or am I missing something – are the distinctions I can make not subtle enough?

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