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zero copula
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n.
The absence of an overt copula, especially when meaning "is" or "are."

Our Living Language A widely known feature of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) and some varieties of Southern American English spoken by working-class white people is the absence of a form of be in situations where Standard English would normally require one. In these varieties of English, one can say He working, where Standard English has He is working, meaning "He is working right now." Linguists frequently describe this zero usage as zero copula, although strictly speaking the term zero copula should be used for missing inflected forms of be before nouns, adjectives, and constructions indicating place or time (as in She the leader, John nice, and He at home), and we should use the term zero auxiliary for progressive verb forms that have no form of be (as in He working) and when a form of be is missing before going to or gon(na) (as in He gon do it). The use of zero copula and zero auxiliary is perhaps even more characteristic of AAVE than is invariant habitual be. For some AAVE speakers, zero copula occurs 80 to 90 percent of the time where Standard English requires is or are. No other varieties of American English use zero copula as often. · As with all dialectal features, zero copula use is more systematic than it might at first appear. As the examples above indicate, only present tense inflected forms of be can be deleted (was and were cannot be deleted), and even among present forms, only is and are are deleted; am is frequently contracted but never deleted. Invariant or non-finite forms, such as be in You have to be good can't be deleted, nor can forms that come at the end of a clause (That's what he is). In the late 1960s, linguist William Labov summarized most of these generalizations by stating that wherever Standard English can contract is or are, AAVE can delete it. (Note that Standard English does not tolerate contractions in sentences such as That's what he's.) Equally systematic are the quantitative regularities of the zero copula. Throughout the United States, zero copula is less frequent when followed by a noun (He a man) than when followed by an adjective (He happy). It is most frequent when followed by progressives and gon(na), as exemplified above. · This pattern of be-deletion is also found in Gullah and Caribbean Creole varieties of English. Since zero copula is not a feature of the British dialects of English that colonial settlers brought to the United States, it is one of the strongest indicators that the development of AAVE may have been influenced by Caribbean English creoles or that AAVE itself may have evolved from an American Creole-like ancestor. See Note at be.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
 

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