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I am trying to find a logical way to explain how/when to use "done" vs "did" and "seen" vs "saw". The person I'm coaching uses the terms in the following manner and I just don't want to correct him, but would also like to give him the rationale so that he understands how to use these terms in the future.

"I done the letter and sent it on Monday". "I seen a boy running down the street" or "I seen that movie".

My pupil is a mature person who is generally bright, but poor usage habits are hard to break and even harder to explain!

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Please see this excellent answer to a related question. –  Robusto Mar 26 '11 at 14:15
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4 Answers

It sounds to me like the person you are coaching is a native speaker of English but just uses slightly different patterns. At that point it is really not a matter of -correcting- grammar, just getting the speaker to join you in your dialect. What I am saying is that some kinds of bad grammar are actually good consistent grammar of a slightly different dialect.

If that is the case, then there are more complicated social/personality issues. In the usual second-language-learning situation, it is mostly obvious to the student the pragmatics of what is 'right' and 'wrong'. In the dialect situation (at least in English) everybody thinks they are right and then it's a matter of power (actually that may be the case for anything!). So if you want to sidestep those issues it may be useful to present it to the person you're coaching as "think of it as a separate language and you just have to use the arbitrary rule to sound like 'my' kind of speakers". That is, make the language difference obvious as an arbitrary choice (it is), and emphasize that you're teaching rules of your own different language.

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Great points. He is a native English speaker and it would be too easy to say that this is African American English Vernacular because he is such, but that is the case. I've heard all types/ethnic groups misuse these terms, so I am finally just trying to figure out a way to open the conversation and coach him in a manner in which he does not feel insulted or insecure. I want to build his confidence, you know? Thank you again! –  user6547 Mar 26 '11 at 14:24
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So, is this something -you- want to help him with? Or is it something he has come to you saying something like "I want to sound more 'white'. Can you help me?" If it starts from you, then you -will- sound patronizing. If it's from him, then try the 'this-mainstream-English-is-a-foreign-language-like-French-you-just-have-to-lear‌​n-some-new-rules'. That strategy might work however it starts (it's an attempt at making things less stigmatized, less 'right' and 'wrong' just different). This is really a social question now, rather than a linguistic one. –  Mitch Mar 26 '11 at 14:52
    
@Ascension, I think Mitch may have hit on the first big problem here. Is his usage just something that grates on you as it comes up as you coach him in other areas? (I can imagine it might grate on me.) If so, you may want to first try desensitizing yourself to the way verbs are used in his dialect. Getting him to change his usage depends on him wanting to learn the standard dialect. Approach is important in getting him to want that. Maybe a way would be to bring it up casually late in a session, pointing out benefits of knowing it, offering to include some help on it later. –  mgkrebbs Mar 26 '11 at 19:18
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I am so glad you were able to read between the lines here and see what's really going on. My experience with teachers who teach in schools with large black populations is to explain the concept of "Standard American English" and focus on how AAVE and SAE differ, that even though it's important to know SAE, you don't have to use it at all times, and why you would want to use SAE in some contexts and AAVE in other contexts. If you instead just assert that SAE is "correct" and AAVE is "wrong" you're not going to teach anything and the only result you'll get is resentment. –  nohat Mar 26 '11 at 21:40
    
I encounter this all the time in rural Canadian speech. I would not correct it in speech unless I was specifically asked something like "how can I sound more cultured?". I do correct it in writing when it appears in documents I've asked for. –  Kate Gregory Aug 8 '11 at 20:19
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Oh, boy. I suggest some good old-fashioned tree diagrams! Depending on how excited this fellow is to learn, there are some excellent user-friendly English linguistics texts around. That'll help with the function of modals.

Irregular verbs are irregular. Compiling a list of irregular verbs and explaining that verbs that are used more often tend to break the standard rules more will help with a basic understanding of why the rules don't apply across the board.

Does he do this in 3rd person as well? "He seen it" "He gone there" "He done it." One of my uncles speaks in this dialect and he only seems to do it in first person. If your acquaintance is the same way, perhaps relating 3rd person to 1st person will help.

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Thanks for your reply. To date I've only heard him use it in first person, but I suspect he may also use it in third. He is ambitious, but I think he may shut down or get even more confused if I delve into the art and science of the language. The tree diagram is very intriguing and I think could be helpful, now I just have to find one that applies... –  user6547 Mar 26 '11 at 12:07
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Hi Done is the present perfect tense for the verb to do. Thus, 'I have done the essay', when 'have' is the auxiliary verb. 'Did' is the past tense. Thus, 'I did the essay'. Same with 'seen' and 'saw'. In brief, the present perfect tense is used to describe an action accomplished in the past that continues to the present. It can be used in a very nuanced way. The use of the past tense firmly establishes the action in the past, whereas the present perfect relates it to the present in some way. I hope this helps.

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To see/to do are irregular verbs, so their past participle form and simple past form are not the same (unlike regular verbs)

A regular verb ...

They playED basket ball /or/ They have playED basketball

An irregular verb ...

They ate lunch /or/ They have eaten lunch

They saw a movie /or/ They have seen a movie

They did that /or/ They have done that

The past participle of ALL verbs (regular or irregular) begins with the auxiliary verb had/has.

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The last sentence is wrong. You are confusing Past/Present Perfect with the participle. Seen is a participle. Has/had seen is not a participle. Has/had is called an auxilliary verb for a reason. –  RegDwigнt Sep 17 '12 at 18:35
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protected by RegDwigнt Sep 17 '12 at 18:35

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