Interesting verb tense: I was supposed to been take my break

Today I heard a cashier – a native speaker of English, but not standard English – tell his manager, “I was supposed to been take my break!”

What do you think that meant?

He clearly needed his break (or his lunch), poor boy! It sounds as if he wanted to say: “I was supposed to have been taking my break!”, but couldn’t muster the effort. Or maybe he really said: “I was supposed to’ve been takin’ my break!” and it came out as you said.

Unless you know him, how can you be so sure he was a native English speaker, Jamie?

Hi Conchita,
If You hear someone speaking Your own language, I think You know if he’s a native, or a foreigner,don’t You? :slight_smile:

Jamie, this guy again, he didn’t like the movie, now he doesn’t want to work… :slight_smile:
OK I know he’s a different one,but besides all the jokes,
he has no clue how many people reads his words from now on.
He might’ve changed them for the sake of being more correct grammatically, but he would’ve lost his immortality by the act then.
Therefore he did the right thing by saying his words aloud, I only would like to know:
What information exactly he wanted to give the press.
I mean, what (the hell) was he sayig?

(I gave up,no idea)

Translated into standard English, he was saying, “I was supposed to have taken my break a long time ago and been back already.”

  1. Because I can understand and speak his dialect (although I am far from being a native speaker of it). 2. Because his accent, physical mannerisms and facial expressions were obviously American.

Hi Jamie,

How common are constructions like that? What was (is) that person’s age? Also, what about the double negative and other non-standard phrases? I have an audio tape by an American business man who is taking about who to become a millionaire (he is a millionaire) and he constantly uses phrases like

I says
It ain’t gonna mean nothin’
I pushed the tape in my car


I mean, if constructions like the double negative are constantly used by native speakers even in business contexts than why are they considered incorrect or bad English?[YSaerTTEW443543]

TOEIC listening, talks: Radio commercial for insurance products[YSaerTTEW443543]

Yes, more often than not, you will know if the speaker is a native or not. However, there are quite a few exceptions where you can’t tell: with people who started learning the language very young or who have a privileged ear, for example. A Scottish friend of mine speaks perfect Spanish, with no traces of British accent – to the point that I almost miss some kind of characteristic mark. On the other hand, I’m a native Spanish, but people occasionally ask me where I’m from. So there must be something like a neutral way of pronouncing or accents free of regional touch and that you can’t quite pinpoint. This is the story of my life! – the only authentic accent I must have is the “Vaudois” one from my Swiss childhood and teenage years! I’ve often asked myself which English accent I should adopt, but I guess my stay in England has already left an indelible, albeit dear, mark!

I just knew it couldn’t be so easy!

The person who said this was about 20 years old, but that’s not the important thing. He was a speaker of the dialect linguists call “African-American Vernacular English” (AAVE), and which people on the street just call “black English”. That’s the important thing. In that dialect, those constructions are very common. However, most American speakers of standard English (including many blacks who know only standard English) are completely unaware that such constructions exist, and if they do hear them, they misinterpret their meaning. That dialect has more verb tenses than standard English.

Before the 19th century, it was very common for English speakers of all social classes to use double negatives, and it was not stigmatized. It was also common for them to say things like, “You is wrong about that,” if they were talking to only one person.

In the late 18th or early 19th century – around the same time you had all those Sprachgesellschaften that were trying to reengineer the German language – grammarians started to tinker with the English language, and they made up rules that were not natural to native English speech at the time. Their main goal was to make English grammar conform to that of Latin, which they believed was the “perfect” language. Among the rules they cooked up were:

  1. Never end a sentence with a preposition (because Latin doesn’t do it; it’s natural to most Germanic languages, but they decided that Latin should be the norm).

  2. Never use the nominative “who” as an object in a sentence (English did this, but Latin did not).

  3. Never use double negatives. (Latin used double, triple and quadruple negatives, so they rationalized the rule by saying double negatives were mathematically illogical.)

  4. Never use “they” as a generic singular pronoun.

These rules were all adopted into standard English, even though they were highly unnatural to the language. People still think, “Whom do you want to see?” is a very strange sentence, even though they have had at least 150 years to get used to it. “This is the friend with whom he went up north,” sounds very formal and stilted to us, and people would normally say, “This is the friend he went up north with.” In the past 50 years, the rules have been loosening to allow all these natural constructions, except in the most formal speech.

The only one of these rules that people have really taken to heart is the ban on double negatives. When I asked my university students (mostly from blue-collar backgrounds) which habit irritates them most in other people’s English, the overwhelming first choice is “double negatives”. People consider them an obvious mark of low education and culture, even though they just reflect an earlier state of the language.

By the way, in the US some teachers also stigmatize past participles like learnt, spilt, burnt and spelt. These participles are in common use in AAVE, so teachers (usually black) who want to instill standard American English in the children will forbid these participles. When I told a linguistics class that these forms were standard in British English, the black students were stunned and said, “If we say that in school, they gonna call us STUPID!”

Hi Jamie

Thanks for your very interesting and informative post! (And the interesting sentence that was the original topic of this thread. ;))

Hi Torsten

I know you directed your question at Jamie, but I’d also like to give you a couple of my thoughts. My thoughts focus on “bad grammar” + a business context.

First, you mentioned that your examples were from a millionaire. I’d just like to point out that millionaires can afford to do things that the average person can often not afford to do. :lol: Second, the use of double negatives and ‘ain’t’ (two of your examples) are considered to be “bad grammar” (as Jamie mentioned) and informal. But they could be used intentionally in a business context for “style” reasons. For example, for emphasis (because it’s a deviation from ‘standard’) or to make the business situation more personal (because the language is so informal) or possibly to sound “tough”. Third, “intentional bad grammar” would be more likely to occur in spoken form than in written form. Fourth, the use of “bad grammar” is probably somewhat dependent on the type of business. And of course there are some regional differences. Lastly, some “bad grammar” formations are “standard bad grammar” - but they’re still considered to be “bad grammar”. (My thanks again to Jamie for his explanation!)

One more observation, this time from a strictly ‘female’ and personal point of view. It is my gut feeling, that men are much more likely than women to “purposely” use “bad English”. This is strictly a personal observation from a woman’s point of view. It seems to me that men often use bad grammar in order to sound a bit more “macho” or a little “tougher”. After all, you’re intentionally risking doing something that’s ‘against the rules’. Double negatives and using the word “ain’t” are typical. Adding some obscenities makes the language even “rougher” and “tougher”. A woman has to be much more careful in this regard. My feeling is that “intentional bad grammar” is often more readily accepted when it’s done by a man.

I once had a Business English course at IBM in Germany and one of the participants was a German woman who was married to an American soldier. After a few days I took her aside and told her that an English course for native speakers would probably help her more than an ESL course. The mistakes she made were not the “usual” German mistakes but rather mainly “native speaker mistakes”. Her needs were extremely different from the needs of the rest of the participants. She had learned quite a lot from her soldier husband and, as a result, she was quite fluent, but she spoke “just like a man” who was trying to sound “tough”. Or to be more exact, she spoke like a soldier in the trenches.

As to the “word” gonna, it’s my feeling that this is practically the “universal” pronunciation for ‘going to’ in spoken American English. You would be hard pressed to find someone who actually said “going to” instead of “gonna” (as part of the ‘be going to’ future). But “gonna” is NOT standard written English. “Gonna” would normally only be written in informal situations.

There are definitely some regional differences as well. I lived and worked in the New York City area for several years and it took me some time to get used to some of the language differences. One thing I noticed was how much more often the “F-word” was used. It wasn’t that I’d never heard this word used before, it was simply an extremely noticeable increase in the frequency of usage. Another difference: In some sections of NYC people don’t say “th”. Instead you’ll hear a “t”. (“Three and a third” could sound like 'Tree and a turd". :lol:)

To a certain extent, I think the regional language differences in Germany are comparable to the regional differences in the States — even though the regional variations of German can be pretty extreme. I’m in southern Germany and the German spoken here is quite different from what you learn in books or language courses. Is it OK to use “gedenkt” instead of “gedacht” in a spoken business context? Would you be willing to write “gedenkt” instead of “gedacht” in a business context? The point is, “gedenkt” is pretty “standard” in the spoken language in this part of Germany, even though the word doesn’t “officially” exist. And you can also hear it in many business contexts. But I don’t think too many people would ever write it - especially in a business context. Why not? Because it’s not the “correct standard”. :wink:

Just a few humble opinions.


A couple of comments to add to Amy’s:

Amy’s gut feeling about how rich people and men talk are borne out by sociolinguistic research. It’s generally known that upper-class men use many more nonstandard forms than upper-working-class women.

The upper-class men don’t have to worry much about what other people think of them, and they can use nonstandard English as much as they want, but as Amy says, it’s usually for effect. The upper-working-class women are high enough in society that they think they’ve got a good chance at improving their social status and that of their children, so they strive to speak as close to the standard as possible, and fastidiously avoid words, idioms and construction that they think will mark them as “low-class”.

Race can be a factor here, because in the US, for example, many black parents figure their kids already have two strikes against them because of their race, so they pay very strict attention to their children’s manners and speech. It’s not unusual to hear very well-raised black American children speaking extremely courtly English to adults.

Once you get to the lower-working class and the lower classes, you hear more nonstandard speech, because generally these people either don’t want to move up in society or else they think they can’t. Thus, they don’t bother trying to “talk proper”.

Another thing you should consider, Torsten, is that typical self-made millionaires were mediocre in school. You have far fewer A students who become millionaires than you do C students. In fact, at the University of Detroit, the architecture professors say that as graduates’ careers develop, the usual pattern is that the A students teach, and the B students end up working for the C students. You therefore might hear more nonstandard language coming from a self-made millionaire than from a salary man at a company.


I’m fascinated by Jamie’s treatise on class as in:

Are we talking 21st century or 19th century? How is this strange appellation class defined? On what is the classification of class based? Is it money, attire, property, accent, qualifications? I think I’d be terrified of walking about in a society like this being watched by class definers checking my rating on the class Richter scale, frightened of making a faux pas and not using a mot juste - oh dear now I’ve slipped into a French class. To me the best example of a class ridden society is the army. Now many years ago I had the dubious pleasure of being in the army - under compulsion of course - as my time during national service. Of all places I started in the Tower of London. In the army everyone knows their place. Everyone has a badge an insignia saying I am a private, I am a sergeant, I am a general, I am a captain and so on. The other ranks have to salute the officers just to show who’s who. Now that’s what I call class. And that reminds me. I once spent a whole weekend in the Tower as a punishment while my fellow soldiers had a weekend pass. I’d been late arriving back from somewhere - a terrible crime! Anyhow the only other person in the Tower that weekend was the adjutant, a captain. Naturally we kept bumping into each other and on the first three occasions I did my special salute. On the fourth occasion I merely nodded at the chap thinking we were now good chums. The poor chap went puce in the face because he couldn’t do anything about it - it was beneath his dignity to charge me because that would have to be done by a corporal or sergeant and there was no one else around. But I wander from my thoughts on class. The word I really like is classy - meaning good quality, very elegant even sexy. The best use I’ve heard was used by that wonderful musician, Leonard Bernstein who recommended taking melodies from other composers whenever you want to add to your own. He said If you’re going to steal, steal classy!


You can find this information in almost any introductory sociolinguistics book. They have various ways of defining it for the purposes of language study. You can start with “Introduction to Sociolinguistics” by Peter Trudgill or some similar text.


Yes, but I’m talking about the real world.


I wasn’t. I was talking about the world of social sciences, which intersects with the real world at times but is not necessarily the same.

Anyway, just because these guys are classifying people by sociological criteria based on some statistics or other, it doesn’t mean people here are pointing at you every minute and reminding you of your social class, whatever that means in street terms. I hear people from the UK talking about having problems with the established class system, although not as much as people used to. Here people are more worried about social pathology than about class per se. It just so happens that certain social pathologies tend to dump people into lower socio-economic groups. I don’t think people in my neighborhood would mind their daughters marrying a dilligent university student from a hillbilly family, but they would certainly mind them marrying a rich alcoholic.