Recently someone said to me:

Them's the rules

I thought he had the sentence wrong, but as it turns out it is slang. I am learning English as a second language and I would really appreciate if someone could explain what it means and in which context I am allowed to use it.


4 Answers 4


It's an idiom used by particular groups of English speakers (Southern Americans, Brooklynites, for example) in colloquial speech. It means, those are the rules. If you see it in printed form, it will likely be in dialogue spoken by a person who uses a distinct dialect. Here are some examples of its use over the years. You'll see that each example contains a heavy dose of other dialectical pronunciations and informal ungrammatical constructions.

From a magazine called Old Guard, published in the 1860s in New York City:

"If the tin's here empty when I comes back, I takes it away. If the wittals is here, why I takes them away. Them's the rules."

From a literary magazine called The Writer published in 1927:

Wot you a-doin' of? Writin' up yer diry? Eat an' walk--them's the rules 'ere. They's others writin'."

From a book called From the Brooklyn Side published in 2000:

"Them's the rules, Dominick. We either live by 'em or we die by 'em. But we ain't gonna break 'em for nobody."

Occasionally, the expression will be used in a jokey manner, as @Barrie England points out, by someone who speaks proper English to express the irony of the rules. As if those rules have been created by an uneducated person who would say "them's the rules" and not "those are the rules."

For example, in this passage from a book called Resurrection Day published in 2000:

"Not my problem. Them's the rules, and that's why I'm about to pull the pin and get out of this rotten city on full pension."

Because it is an ungrammatical idiom, it is best used either humorously or ironically unless it is in the written dialogue of a character who speaks in that dialect, and then it can be used literally (meaning those are the rules) and to your heart's content.

  • 2
    Slight nitpick on a good answer: it is grammatical in some varieties of English, though not in any standard English that I am aware of.
    – Colin Fine
    Dec 13, 2012 at 18:37

It isn't slang. Slang is mostly to do with vocabulary rather than grammar. In some nonstandard dialects of English, is (or 's) is used in persons other than the third person singular, and this is an example. Actually, it is probably being used in this case in a jokey sort of way, just as ain't often is. As a foreign learner, you would be wise to avoid it in your own speech.

EDIT: I omitted to say that them is used in some nonstandard dialects for standard those, both as a demonstrative pronoun and as a demonstrative determiner.


In my village dialect, not far from Newcastle, UK "them's" is used as a short form of "they are" or "those are". Not grammatically correct but understood but all locals. Foreign language students would do well to avoid using it.

  • is it? how interesting I am from near York, and it would only ever be used in jest round here.
    – WendyG
    May 15, 2018 at 16:36

“It seems so unreal and yet it’s real, sorry kiddo.” this reads as very detached, like she's telling tullia to get over. "Sorry, them's the breaks."

Above, a line of a critique I got for my short story. I wouldn't know how to use it.

And why are English natives so nasty to non-natives? It's frustrating!


  • 1
    Hello, Gwendolin. There is a list of regulations at the Help Center, which include not asking questions in 'answers', flagging questions asking 'Why are X so lousy?', and suggesting that ELL is often a better site for non-natives to ask many questions on. I don't wish to break the rules, so I have to downvote. May 15, 2018 at 16:26
  • No problem. Was a question posted in answers. I will post questions in the appropriate section, and answers as well. Thank you May 15, 2018 at 16:34

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