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My girlfriend, someone from southern New Jersey, constantly says phrases like "I'm done my homework" or "I'm done my dinner." I try to correct her and say, "I'm done with my homework" or "I'm done with my dinner," but she insists this is what she has always said.

Is her grammar just plain incorrect, or is this allowed if she actually has a different dialect where everyone in the region says the same thing?

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A New Englander here, and I've heard this quite a bit. I think it's just another example of a distinction that survives amongst a few verbs in English, namely that between auxiliary to have versus to be with past participles. I have done expresses having done something in the past at one point, while I am done expresses a state of being recently finished with a particular instance of doing. I see nothing at all wrong with I'm done my work, and the only reason to avoid it in formal writing is that it's not totally dialect-neutral. Of course, I probably wouldn't say I'm done it... – Jon Purdy Feb 20 '11 at 9:35

7 Answers 7

up vote 4 down vote accepted

I'd put this in the same category as "ain't".

While regularly used in conversation, I'd never use it in any written paper.

Ask her if that's how she would write it should she be writing a formal document.

Spoken language is generally more flexible, and I'm wondering if she doesn't mean "I've done my homework" and due to accent it sounds like "I'm", because "I've done my homework" would be proper English.

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Sometimes I'll say "I'm done my homework?" to which she says, "Yes. I am done my homework." – eternalmatt Feb 20 '11 at 6:18
Ok yeah, ask her if she'd actually write that on a formal document. If she says no, then you have her opinion on if it's proper English. Then it's just a matter of spoken language having a habit, like "Ain't". Spoken language is very flexible, and different regions have different "improper" standards, but writing standards are generally the same in most places (minus the whole color vs colour controversy :p) – Brett Allen Feb 20 '11 at 6:21
I wouldn't put it in the same category as ain't — most people are familiar with "ain't"; few with "I'm done my…". – ShreevatsaR Feb 20 '11 at 7:01
@ShreevatsaR It's regional. Most people aren't familiar with Singlish either, because only the few million people in Singapore and those who've encountered it know about it. Singlish has lots of improper English. When talking to their friends online they use it, but when writing formal papers they use proper English. When listening to them speak, I could understand it half the time, but the other times I'd have to say "Did you mean X or Y"? – Brett Allen Feb 20 '11 at 7:11
I wouldn't necessarily say spoken language is "more flexible", although I think I know what you actually mean by that. I would say that spoken language is a living, evolving thing, and standard/written language conservatively changes based on some of those things, and resists other changes. The only reason I am making this point is because the spoken systems, while different from Standard English, are rule-based and systematic themselves; so I just wanted to emphasize that. – Kosmonaut Feb 20 '11 at 17:30

It is not really a matter of being "allowed" to use non-standard grammar: there is no law, as far as I know. It may very well be so that this is part of some dialect. However, non-standard grammar is often advised against by those who use standard grammar. That is why she might want to learn the standard construction too—at least well enough to be able to use it in job interviews etc.

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Good plan Cerberus, I'll start drafting the English Usage Act... – Orbling Feb 20 '11 at 6:58
@Orbling: Yay, that is a prescriptivist's ehh... special dream! – Cerberus Feb 20 '11 at 14:45
@Cerberus: Only stumbling block is the question of remedies. Lifetime incarceration for saying a'ight out loud? – Orbling Feb 20 '11 at 15:18
@Orbling: I like your "remedies". Though the benefits of incarceration are beyond doubt, we might also consider putting them away in special dialectical reservations. – Cerberus Feb 20 '11 at 16:47
@Cerberus: Aye, penal colonies for the dialectically challenged. Trouble is England's traditional facilities are somewhat overrun these days. – Orbling Feb 20 '11 at 16:58

This is an example of a very interesting question.

When does incorrect English usage become a dialect?

The answer to which I would guess, is when a whole lot of people use it "incorrectly" for a sustained period.

If it is acceptable within a group, but not the whole - it is dialectical.

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I'm from Philadelphia (South Jersey's population is all Philadelphia run-off), and I say "I'm done my work" and similar phrases all the time, and so does everyone around me. It means "I have finished my work," not that you are fed up with your work, etc., and it is a completely acceptable phrase in the Mid-Atlantic region of America. I only recently discovered that people in other parts of the country don't say it, which is a real shock to me. I would not write this phrase in a formal paper, since I am an English major (although I would put it in an email). People in Canada and Scotland even say "I'm finished my work," but I wouldn't. It's just a matter of where you grew up. So don't be so hard on your girlfriend.

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To pinpoint the geographical distribution further, this is not seen in NYC dialect or North Jersey. – Peter Shor Aug 3 '11 at 23:11

To answer your more general question, I think you should respect her dialect. Adults should not have their spoken grammar corrected unless they somehow asked for it.

"English" is made up of a whole bunch of more-or-less mutually intelligible dialects. Things that are perfectly proper in one dialect may sound wrong to to people who weren't raised in that dialect. However, if you "correct" someone's speech to match your dialect, what you are effectively saying is "My dialect is better than yours."

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Was going to add an answer, but it's really only comment worthy (if that). I think she's flat-out wrong, regardless of dialect - but if you want to keep your girlfriend, quit saying so. Or, more generally (with other people), most of the time you should just let it go, as a matter of social graces. – hunter2 Apr 5 '13 at 12:06
@hunter2 That's a good policy. In my life I've frankly lost count of the number of times I did just this, only to find out I was the one who would have been wrong. IMHO this would be one of those cases for you. Otherwise, have fun going to New Orleans and telling all 1.2 million residents are "wrong" when they say they are "making groceries". And don't even get me started on "pop" vs. "soda"... – T.E.D. Apr 5 '13 at 12:13
"Pop"? Blasphemy! As long as I can eat some gumbo first ... – hunter2 Apr 5 '13 at 12:24

If she insists on using, "I'm done my homework," and she wants to be understood then it's better to restrict its usage to those people fully conversant with the lingo. Otherwise, some will hear, "I've done my homework," meaning it's finished and complete, while others will hear, "I'm done with my homework," meaning that I'm fed up with it and have no intention to work on it further.

The important point is that these two meanings are almost complete opposites.

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"I'm done with my homework" could certainly mean (and usually so) "I've finished my homework". It does not necessarily convey a sense of frustration, except the tone indicates such. – Jimi Oke Feb 21 '11 at 23:50

On the bigger question: Language is a funny thing: "right" is largely determined by what is commonly used. Every now and then some pedantic person says, "99% of speakers of the language think that this word means X, but really it means Y." But such a statement is meaningless. If almost everyone agrees that a word means X, then by definition, that's what it means. This is very different from, say, science: No matter how many people believe that the world is flat or that there are only 4 elements, that doesn't make it so.

That said, I think there are two kinds of language rules. Some are purely convention, like definitions of words. On these there is no "right" beyond common usage. Others have logic behind them, like when to use nominative versus objective case, subject-verb agreement, etc. These cannot be so easily changed without creating logical inconsistences.

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how are those second kinds of rules not convention? They're just a different kind of rule established by convention. – Mitch Jan 3 '12 at 18:48
@Mitch: What I had in mind was this: Ask "Who's there?" and people often say "It's me". They should say "It's I", because the pronoun is a predicate nominative. If you accept "It's me" as correct, but you still use "I" for nominatives and "me" for objectives elsewhere, then you have created a logical inconsistency. The rules no longer hang together. But on the other hand, if people started, say, using the word "puppy" to refer to the young of any domesticated animal, there is no "other case" that this is tied to, so it doesn't create an inconsistency. (continued) – Jay Jan 4 '12 at 16:05
(continued) You could, of course, change the "related" rules wholesale. If we abolished the word "I" and used "me" whenever you referred to yourself, whether in the nominative or the objective, then the rules would again be consistent. – Jay Jan 4 '12 at 16:06
I still can't come up with a convincing argument for how any rule is not by some convention. You logically apply the rule for nominative; you logically apply the rule for 'puppy' (young dog). What the rule is is made up by convention (you use 'I' in nominative positions, or the rule 1st positions (allowing 'It's me')). 'puppy' could by convention mean young dogs (as it currently is). Not following the convention consistently could be a mistake or it could be evidence of a different convention. Whether it is what case something should be or what lexical choice, still convention. – Mitch Jan 4 '12 at 17:12
@Mitch: Sure, both kinds of rules are only true by convention. What I'm trying to say is that some rules have logic to them: e.g. it makes sense to say that a plural noun goes with a plural verb. In a very real sense, it would be illogical to say that plural nouns should go with singular verbs. Other rules are more arbitrary, like the definition of a word. Or the rule that a sentence must normally have a subject and a predicate. A sentence with no predicate doesn't convey a complete thought. The rule makes logical sense. (continued) – Jay Jan 5 '12 at 5:19

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