“It’s not always like this!” - Examining the UK’s Negative/Auxiliary-Contraction strategies.

Martin Bridge

The University of York, United Kingdom


This paper is a study of internal constraints on Negative/Auxiliary-Contraction in the English of Derby, a city in the Northern Midlands of England. Variable Negative/Auxiliary-Contraction is found in most varieties of British English, exhibited in the cliticisation of finite auxiliary forms of be, have and are in negative declaratives. Several of these forms – with some cross-dialectal exceptions - variably contract with a preceding subject (AUX-contraction), or a following negative morpheme (NEG-contraction), as in (1) and (2), respectively:

(1) He’s not going today. (AUX-contraction)

(2) He isn’t going today. (NEG-contraction)

The traditional view of this variable is summed up by Trudgill’s claim that AUX-contraction increased “the further North one goes” (1978:13). Nevertheless, in their quantitative study of Negative/Auxiliary-Contraction in eight speech communities around the UK, Tagliamonte and Smith (2003) find little support for a North-South divide in AUX-Contraction. They do not discuss UK Midlands dialects in detail, but based on data from a smaller speech sample from two Midlands dialects tentatively posit the Midlands as a possible “focal area for NEG-Contraction;” suggesting that the dialectal patterning of AUX/NEG-Contraction is perhaps closer to “centre-periphery.”

This paper adds a crucial piece to the dialectal jigsaw of AUX/NEG contraction in the UK. The data used in this study were collated from transcriptions of conversations gathered for the project Phonological Variation and Change in Contemporary Spoken British English (Milroy, Milroy and Docherty 1997) and supplemented with data from the British National Corpus. Following Tagliamonte and Smith’s procedure, only older, native speakers of the dialect were included in the sample. These data produced a total of 291 tokens (from 18 speakers) and were analysed using Goldvarb X.

The results are notable in two main ways regarding Tagliamonte and Smith’s (2003) findings. Firstly, the Derby data show a higher rate of AUX-Contraction (57%) than any of Tagliamonte and Smith’s communities, which appears contrary to the latters’ suggestion that Midland varieties would favour NEG-contraction, but suggesting instead that Derby may be a focal point for AUX-contraction. Secondly, the internal constraints’ effects appears unlike those from Tagliamonte and Smith’s data, as preceding subject type -Pro vs. DP vs. Existential There- is shown to have a stronger effect on contraction than preceding phonological environment. Only the former is selected as significant in this study with preceding pro-forms favouring AUX-contraction (.66) and preceding DPs strongly disfavouring it (.11). Furthermore, the significance of voicing of the preceding consonant strongly favouring AUX-Contraction suggests a complex cross-dialectal difference regarding internal constraints, particularly those preceding the variable site, affecting the variable realisation of Negative/Auxiliary-Contraction in the UK.


British National Corpus. (http://www.natcorp.ox.ac.uk/)

Milroy, L., Milroy, J. & Docherty G. 1997. Phonological Variation and Change in Contemporary Spoken British English. (Final Report to the ESRC, R000 234892)

Tagliamonte, S. and J. Smith, 2003. “Either it isn’t or it’s not: NEG/AUX contraction in British dialects.” English World-Wide: 23:2, 251-281

Trudgill, P., ed. 1978. Sociolinguistic Patterns in British English. London: Edward Arnold.

Session: POSTERS: Focus on variation, migration, minority languages
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 12:45-15:45
room: foyer