I teach freshmen English in inner-city Baltimore, and I often get the following:

Teacher : Did you complete the homework?

Student : I had been done that!

I have not been able to give a straight answer as to why this student response is odd for formal English. My students are very interested in the breakdown of English, formal or colloquial.

What is the breakdown of "I had been done that"? Is this grammatically correct?

Most of my students are African American (mostly low-income) and speak in their community dialect, and we emphasize balancing that with Standard English (SE). The question is coming from a grammatical standpoint. To clarify, we are also diagramming sentences, which helps to see the underlying structure of sentences. My students are curious as to how you structure "had been done that" and why it's not standard English.

  • When a student says this to you, what does he mean by it? Is it just a long winded way of saying "yes", as in "yes, I did my homework"?
    – Dan Bron
    Feb 27, 2016 at 12:28
  • I think a better response would be "I have done that", or simply "yes". Or is the student trying to say been there, done that?
    – NVZ
    Feb 27, 2016 at 12:29
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    I am a bit confused by the fact that an English teacher has to ask about the correctness of a phrase like this. Several fora found via Google suggest that this phrase is not grammatically correct, with this one giving examples on the idea behind 'had done'.
    – Terah
    Feb 27, 2016 at 12:32
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    @Terah Someone posted an answer that this phrase is grammatical in AAVE (African American Vernacular English). This explains why the OP, an English teacher, is asking about the seemingly ungrammatical phrase. Unfortunately, that answer has now been removed.
    – Lawrence
    Feb 27, 2016 at 15:04
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    @Lawrence - Correct, but I feel that the entire 'it must be AAVE' has been an assumption. Without further details, the students who use the phrase might simply be under the impression that it is correct Standard English. A change in root cause usually results in a different solution (or answer, in this case).
    – Terah
    Feb 27, 2016 at 16:59

2 Answers 2


Google search results for 'I had been done that'

An Internet-wide Google search finds four instances of "I had been done that" that aren't references to this EL&U question. One is from Vicky Laurentina, "I Quit" (February 7, 2015), on her A La Laurentina blog:

I used to be addicted on sugar.

I had habit having a cup of milk each morning. I served myself a mealspoon of milk powder in a cup of water, added with a mealspoon of sugar. I had been done that ever since when my mom taught me to serve my own milk. When I was grown up, I could not enjoy my milk without sugar.

Laurentina seems to live in Indonesia—but I didn't find a post saying whether she is originally from there or from somewhere else. Her English is idiomatically unusual, so I'm not sure what to make of her having used the precise phrase that the OP asks about.

From a response by Aris Batam to "Can I get a KITAS without going out of Indonesia?" (January 14, 2015) on the Living in Indonesia Forum:

For the 1st KITAS need to collect the VISA from Indonesian Embassy. I had been done that 3 times in past 15+ years working in Indonesia. If can, my ex-company will have let agent to do that too.

So that's two of the four posts with a strong connection to Indonesia.

From "Things That You "Shouldn't" Speak Out Loud" (January 24, 2016), on the author's thislittlebirddecidedtofly blog:

Those years when I was supposed to grow as a woman and me, were the worst because I was broken to pieces and didn’t even realize that I had been done that. I thought that it was something that I did, or at least was made to feel like that. When I was already feeling super insecure with myself, and didn’t believe that I deserve only the best, like anyone else.

This author appears to be Danish. She doesn't generally use African American Vernacular English.

And finally in a comment dated November 30, 2013) by Pyuuni regarding a drawing (by Pyuuni) titled "Ouh Souda" on Deviant Art:

kldksjhkafjukl tis true, tis true, we all forget a lil somethin somethin- BUT I COULDVE SWORN I HAD BEEN DONE THAT GOSH. my mem sucks just arghh

and yeeeey there's so much rabu right there hgnhhh i rabu u just like i rabu my..food and cats and that's some serious love man eheeheh u b u

That's not much of a database to go on.

Google search results for 'I been done that'

Things change considerably when you run a Google search not for "I had been done that," but for "I been done that." In the first place, Google finds upwards of 30 matches for "I been done that"—and the matches show up not in the midst of lengthy complex sentences, but as a standalone expression. One intriguing match comes from Evan Jacobson, "Adverbs: Are They "Gradually" Becoming Extinct?" (April 18, 2010):

Inner City children have a unique language. “Brick” actually means “cold.” “Brolic” is a term suggesting how muscular (Buff) a person is. Their subject verb agreement usage would make you cringe: “I been done that cause we was finished like yesterday…” Make no mistake, I have become very fond of my 7th Grade Angels. I have a love and hate relationship with them, but I never actually get to the point of hating them. Even the terrorists have carved a likeable niche in my dendrites.

Jacobson says that he teaches English in a New York City public school at the secondary level.

And from Zachary Hoskins, "Education, civic empowerment, and race: Commentary on Meira Levinson’s No Citizen Left Behind" (2015) (a PDF file):

Why, then, should we think it fair to ask non-White, low-income students to master the skill of codeswitching? It might be fair to ask this if the dominant group’s patterns of speech, dress, or behavior were somehow inherently superior. But as Levinson contends, this is not the case. In discussing the “cultural and hence civic and political bias toward White middle-class norms” (75), she writes: “There is no inherent superiority in wearing pants that have narrow, straight legs rather than legs that bag and bunch. ... No more information is conveyed by explaining ‘I did that already’ in Standard American English than by explaining ‘I been done that’ in Black English, assuming the listener understands both” (ibid.). I would add that the unfairness of privileging White patterns of dress or cultural referents seems especially unfair given the often egregious history of how White culture became dominant in the United States.

And from bosni_fox, "I'm a 21 year old white girl with black parents. AMA" (April 28, 2014) in a Reddit thread:

[deleted] Would you understand the difference in meaning between "He done been work" and "He been done work", for example?

bosni_fox Yep, the first one means he just got off work and the second means he's been out of work for a length of time. But it's weird, seeing it written it took me a second because I only hear it.


cbryantl120 You've never heard anyone say "I been done that?" Meaning, I completed that a while ago. This is very common but maybe it's just weird seeing it written out.

And then there are the posts that don't talk about what the phrase means, but just use it. For example, from "Homeless Children Living On The Highway To Disney World" (April 19, 2012) in the Huffington Post:

He [Bobby] didn’t care. He figured there’d be plenty of time for studying when he got to college. “All my friends will be like, ‘Bobby, let’s party,’ and I’ll be like, ‘Nah, I been done that. Now I’m all about the books.’ For now, the plan was to have as much fun as possible. He knew his carefree days were numbered. Earlier that week, he found out he’s going to be a father.

From "Vogue approves big butts; black people already did: Jarvis DeBerry" in the New Orleans [Louisiana] Times-Picayune (September 12, 2014) [page no longer appears when linked to]:

Metaphorically speaking, Vogue's article is praising the skill of Paul Mares. And Louis Armstrong is reading it and thinking, "I been done that!"

And from comments associated with music charts posted by Tree Cecil B on SoundCloud (2014):

Yo lil bro i been done that song ima send you that jawn tomar afternoon. Btw this track hot. Ya best jawn. Keep up the good work


It appears that some strains of Black English have a standard phrase rendered as "I been done that," whose meaning is equivalent to "I already did that." There does not, however, appear to be a widely used Black English expression of the form "I had been done that."

It occurs to me that the phrase may have passed through an intermediate phase along the lines of "I have been and done that," analogously to "I went and did that" (or perhaps, more closely, to "I have gone and done that"). But I have no evidence that any such thing happened. Clarence Major, Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang (1994) offers a very different etymological account in this relevant entry for "[been] done":

[Been] Done v. (1920s–1990s) past complete marker; doon (Wolof). The African origin of "done" converging with the English "done" may help to explain the black American particular use of the word. (H[olloway] & V[ass], [The] A[frican] H[eritage of] A[merican] E[nglish] (1993), p. 140.) Example: "I don't know what you talking about, I been done finished the dishes." S[outhern and] N[orthern] U[se]

The idea that Black English use of done in an expression like "I been done that" is a survival of a Wolof (West African) word used to signify completion is certainly intriguing; I'm not qualified to pass judgment on its linguistic merits.


I have undeleted this post, the original part of which begins in what is now the fourth paragraph. I was very taken aback by the sharp rebuke I received, but upon further consideration (and the fact that Rathony asked for the question to be answered and that no one else has), I have decided that the answer should stand for itself.

I also got the very strong feeling that the questioner did not realize that African-American Vernacular English was a legitimately accepted variety of English within linguistic circles. I felt that perhaps he was dealing with a phenomenon that he (I'm assuming "he" for John) didn't thoroughly recognize for what it was: a variation treated as an equal by linguists, but as substandard by most everyone else.

If the original poster works in inner-city Baltimore, he unquestionable teaches minority students. This is not an assumption. Just in case the particular student who asked the question was the one white student in the class, you'll see that the answer below states that others who come in contact with African-American Vernacular English and are not Black themselves do absorb the grammar of AAVE (which draws in part on the African languages of the speakers' ancestors, even though those languages have long been lost to them) into their own speech.

African-American Vernacular English, or Black English, is a distinct variety of English commonly spoken by Black Americans, generally of lower socioeconomic status, and those who grow up in close contact with those Blacks, in the United States. Linguists overwhelmingly consider it to be a legitimate variety of American English, but detractors often call it Ebonics and deny it legitimacy.

Many of those who grew up speaking AAVE are bi-dialectical with Standard American English; in other words, they can move back and forth from one to the other with ease, depending on the situation.

Although linguists consider Black English to be as legitimate a form of English as Standard English, many people of influence, including teachers and employers, do not. Fair or unfair, those who speak AAVE as their dominant dialect often benefit by learning to be equally conversant in Standard English. Some AAVE speakers chafe at this perceived inequity, but others accept it as part of being a minority in today's America.

Your best response to your student who uses Black English to the exclusion of Standard English is to recognize the legitimacy of his dialect within the contexts in which it is commonly favored. At the same time, you should insist that Standard English, which is the most commonly accepted form of the language, be the default language of the classroom. Point out that speaking Standard English may benefit him or her economically. If your student counters that Standard English is "talking white," remind him that many prominent and successful Blacks, including President Obama, Oprah Winfrey and the Williams sisters, are fine with Standard English. However, I would not make a major issue over conversational use of AAVE; Standard English should be the dialect used in your students' written work, including the homework that they "had been done."


  • 3
    This is a generic answer about the difference between AAVE and General American. As such, it's a bit misplaced on a question asking for an analysis and explanation of a specific construction.
    – Dan Bron
    Feb 27, 2016 at 14:16
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    @StevenLittman That's still a generic, and therefore unhelpful, comment. The students want to know specifically which rules [or expectations] of Standard American grammar are being violated by this construction, and what accounts for -- in the systematic sense -- its presence in AAVE. In other words, this question is seeking a grammatical analysis and answer, not political or social one (which accords better with the charter of our little site here, as well).
    – Dan Bron
    Feb 27, 2016 at 14:27
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    @StevenLittman You're not either listening to me, or not hearing me. No one is talking about mistakes or correcting students. It is the students themselves who take an interest in English grammar and want to know the details of what you describe as the "wholly different sentence structure". We should not stifle that curiosity by merely waving our hands and saying "there's more than one way to say it", we should encourage the in interest in grammatical analysis by showing them how to do it. I expect that if you were equipped to do here, you would, rather than falling back on generalities.
    – Dan Bron
    Feb 27, 2016 at 14:36
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    @everyone Thank you for the timely answers! Yes, most of my students are African American (mostly low-income) and speak in their community dialect, and we emphasize balancing that with Standard English (SE). The question was coming from a grammatical standpoint. To clarify, we are also diagramming sentences, which helps to see the underlying structure of sentences. My students are curious as to how you structure "had been done that" and why it's not standard English. Feb 27, 2016 at 22:19
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    I want my students to be hyper aware of the distinction between their community dialect and Standard English. I am not sure how to clarify the structure of "had been done that," which is why I posted it here. Is it just the fact that "had been done that" is using two past participles in "been" and "done"? Too many verbs? Feb 27, 2016 at 22:23

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