Zero Copula (Grammar)

Glossary of Grammatical and Rhetorical Terms

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In grammar, zero copula refers to the absence of an explicit auxiliary verb (usually a form of the verb be) in certain constructions where it is customarily found in standard English. Also called copula deletion or understood copula.

In their book Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English (Wiley, 2000), John R. Rickford and Russell J. Rickford note that the zero copula is one of the most "distinctive and identity-affirming" characteristics of ​African-American Vernacular English (AAVE).

Examples and Observations

  • "I don't say stuff to people most of the time. Mostly I just look at them like they stupid."
    (Katherine S. Newman, No Shame in My Game: The Working Poor in the Inner City. Random House, 2000)
  • "'Why she can't come to me?' Fanny asked as she passed Mercy off to a neighbor so she could walk faster. 'Where she been? Where she at now?' Fanny asked, wringing her hands. She knew something was wrong."
    (Bernice L. McFadden, This Bitter Earth. Plume, 2002)
  • The Zero Copula in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE)
    "One of the most interesting characteristics of AAE is the . . . use of the zero copula. As [William] Labov (1969) has explained, the rule for its use is really quite simple. If you can contract be in SE [Standard English], you can delete it in AAE. That is, since 'He is nice' can be contracted to 'He's nice' in SE, it can become 'He nice' in AAE. Likewise, 'But everybody's not black' can become 'But everybody not black.' . . .
    "We should note that the zero copula is very rarely found in the speech of whites, even poor southern whites. Not all blacks use it either."
    (Ronald Wardhaugh, An Introduction to Sociolinguistics, 6th ed. Wiley-Blackwell, 2010) ​\

Factors Governing the Use of the Zero Copula

"[Toya A.] Wyatt (1991) found that AAE preschoolers were more likely to use zero copula: after pronoun subjects (56%) rather than noun subjects (21%); before locative predicates (35%) and adjective predicates (27%) rather than noun predicates (18%); and in second person singular and plural predicates (45%) rather than third person singular predicates (19%). In addition, the zero copula occurred less than 1% of the time in past tense, first person singular, and final clause contexts. This suggests that as early as three years of age, AAE child speakers not only acquire the basic grammatical features of AAE but also the language-specific variable rules that govern their use (Wyatt 1996)."
(Toya A. Wyatt, "Children's Acquisition and Maintenance of AAE." Sociocultural and Historical Contexts of African American English, ed. by Sonja L. Lanehart. John Benjamins, 2001)

  • "I hold Jinggaya. 'Jinggaya, you all right?' I ask. I got bad fear she hurt.
    "'Yes, yes,' she say. 'I all right. You all right?'"
    (Andrew Parkin, A Thing Apart. Troubador, 2002)

Zero Copula and Pidgins

"Zero copula is probably the single feature most readily associated with pidgins. . . . However, it is not an exclusively pidgin feature by any means. . . . Thus, while zero copula may exist, or have existed at some time, in all pidgins, it is not a feature which distinguishes pidgins from other languages."
(Philip Baker, "Some Developmental Inferences From Historical Studies of Pidgins and Creoles." The Early Stages of Creolization, ed. by Jacques Arends. John Benjamins, 1995)

  • "Suddenly the manager's boy put his insolent black head in the doorway, and said in a tone of scathing contempt--
    "'Mistah Kurtz--he dead.'"
    (Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness, 1903)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Zero Copula (Grammar)." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). Zero Copula (Grammar). Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Zero Copula (Grammar)." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 30, 2023).