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  The syntax of Irish English

General features
Regional features

General features

There are many non-standard features in the syntax of Irish English. Some of these are island-wide, i.e. they occur in more or less all varieties of English in both the north and south of Ireland. Others are limited to a particular dialect region and ultimately derive from a specific settlement group in Irish history. Furthermore, some categories exists in several vernacular varieties but their realisations differ, see habitual aspect below. To begin with general features are listed here, in the following section those features which are geographically confined are listed.

There has been, and still is, much discussion in Irish English studies about the sources of these non-standard features. Because these discussions are linguistically significant, a special section of the current site is devoted to these see branch on the left).

Aspectual distinctions

1) Perfective aspect with two sub-types:

Immediate perfective with the structure after + V-ing (+ O). This structure is used to convey information supposedly unknown to the hearer, hence the label ‘hot news’ perfective which is sometime used.

     She is after spilling the milk.
     They're after leaving off more than 20 workers.

Resultative perfective with the word Object + Past Participle. This structure implies that an action was carried out intentionally. It can contrast with the word order Past Participle + Object, as in the third and fourth sentences below.

     She has the housework done.
     I've the room hoovered.
     Have you ‘Ulysses’ read?
     i.e. ‘Are you finished reading the novel?’
     Have you read ‘Ulysses’      i.e. ‘Did you ever read the novel?’

2) Habitual aspect (present). This can be expressed in one of three ways: (i) by does + be (often reduced on the east coast to [dəˡbi]) or (ii) by bees (exclusively northern) or (iii) by inflectional -s, above all in the first and third persons (common on the east coast).

Habitual aspect in Irish English can be further subdivided into (a) a durative habitual and (b) an interative habitual. The durative habitual indicates a repeated action which last for some time, e.g. I do be worrying about the children. The iterative habitual, on the other hand, refers to points in time, that is the action is seen punctual and repeated.

For southern Irish English, there are different morphosyntactic means for expressing the two types of habitual. The durative is expressed via do(es) be and the iterative via the inflectional -s on lexical verb forms, i.e. with the latter do does not occur. A recorded instance where the distinction between these two types of habitual was quite clear is the following: I cleans the front windows first and then I does the back ones, but I do be a long time cleaning the dining room window, you know the big one that faces out on the garden. (female speaker from Waterford, c 55 years old).

(i) The kids bees up late at night. (northern)
(ii) She does be reading books. (southern, durative habitual)
(iii) They calls that part down there ’High Street‘. (southern, iterative habitual)

More verbal features

3) Reduced number of verb forms. Seen and done as preterite, went as past participle, also found with some other verbs like come and use.

     I wonder why he done that.
     I haven’t went there for a long time now.
     She come up to see her aunt when she was dyin’.

4) Greater range of the present tense

     I know him for more than six years now.

5) Be as auxiliary

     They’re finished the work now.
     They´re not even started yet, boy.

Other sentence structures

6) Negative concord

     He’s not interested in no cars.
     The corporation don´t give no loans.

7) Clefting for topicalisation purposes

     It’s to Glasgow he’s going.
     It’s awful hard the work is.

8) For to infinitives of purpose

     He went to Dublin for to buy a car.

9) Inversion in embedded questions

     She asked him would he paint the house for her.

Conjunctions, adverbs, pronouns, articles

10) Till in the sense of ‘in order that’

     Come here till I tell you.

11) Subordinating and (frequently concessive)

     We went for a walk and it raining.

12) Singular time reference for never

     She never rang yesterday evening.

13) Preference for that as relative pronoun

     This is the book that I read.
     The man that she met yesterday.

14) Overuse of definite article

     He likes the life in Dublin.
     You have to be the eighteen to get the licence.

15) ‘Now’ as intensifier

     She had three children in five year now.
     It was very important to her now.

Regional features

1) Lack of verbal inflection (east coast dialects mostly)

     He have a new job in the glass (factory).

2) Deletion of verb forms is different types of sentence (east coast)

(i) Existential sentences

     There Ø no hurry on you.
     There Ø no trouble with her.

(ii) Copula deletion

     She Ø a teacher in the tech.
     Mi eldest daughter Ø not married yet.

(iii) Deletion of auxiliary be

     I Ø not saying they´re doing great, but they´re okay.
     I Ø not able to swim at all.

(iv) Deletion of lexical and auxiliary have

     You Ø time enough.
     They Ø not even started the building yet.


The following is a list of studies on the syntax of Irish English. For further references and annotations of those contained here, please consult Raymond Hickey. 2002. A Source Book for Irish English. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Corrigan, Karen P. 2003. ‘For-to infinitives and beyond: Interdisciplinary approaches to non-finite complementation in a rural Celtic English’, in Tristram (ed.), pp. 318-38.

Corrigan, Karen P. 2010. The syntax of South Armagh English in its socio-historical perspective. Transactions of the Philological Society. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

Feiß, Astrid 2003. ‘Do be or not do be — generic/habitual forms in East Galway English’, in Tristram (ed.), pp. 169-182.

Filppula, Markku 2004. ‘Irish English: morphology and syntax’, in Kortmann et al. (eds), Vol. 2, pp. 73-101.

Geisler, Christer 2002. ‘Relativization in Ulster English’, in Patricia Poussa (ed.) Relativisation on the North Sea litoral. München Lincom Europa. LINCOM Studies in Language Typology 07.

Kallen, Jeffrey L. 1989. ‘Tense and aspect categories in Irish English’, English World-Wide 10, 1-39.

Kallen, Jeffrey L. 1990. ‘The Hiberno-English perfect: Grammaticalisation revisited’, in Dolan (ed.), 120-36.

Kortmann, Bernd (ed.) 2004. Dialectology meets typology. Dialect grammar from a cross-linguistic perspective. Berlin: New York.

McCafferty, Kevin 2003. ‘Innovation in language contact. Be after V-ing as a future gram in Irish English, 1670 to the Present’, Diachronica 21:1, 113-60.

McCafferty, Kevin 2003. ‘The Northern Subject Rule in Ulster: how Scots, how English?’, in Language Variation and Change 15: 105–39.

McCafferty, Kevin 2003. ‘“I’ll Bee After Telling Dee de Raison ...”. Be after V-ing as a future gram in Irish English, 1601-1750’, in Tristram (ed.), pp. 298-317.

McCafferty, Kevin 2004. ‘“[T]hunder storms is verry dangese in this countrey they come in less than a minnits notice...”: The Northern Subject Rule in Southern Irish English’, in English World-Wide 25: 51–79.

Sand, Andrea 2003. ‘The definite article in Irish English and other contact varieties of English’, in Tristam (ed.), pp. 413–30.

Siemund, Peter 2004. ‘Substrate, superstrate and universals. Perfect constructions in Irish English’, in Kortmann (ed.), pp. 401-34.

Studies of Irish relevant to Irish English grammar

Greene, David 1979. ‘Perfects and perfectives in modern Irish’, Ériu 30, 122-41.

Ó Sé, Diarmuid 1992. ‘The perfect in Modern Irish’, Ériu 43, 39-67.

Ó Sé, Diarmuid 2004. ‘The “after” perfect and related constructions in Gaelic dialects’, Ériu 54: 179-248.