‘I’m done my homework’, part II

In February I discussed a usage item that popped up in a crime novel by Michael Connelly (‘Harry Bosch, trainee prescriptivist’). In fact there were a couple of related items: the use of done for finished (‘I’m done eating’), and the use of done in phrases like I’m done my work, as opposed to I’ve done my work or I’m done with my work.

The first of these is really a non-issue, peeved about only by peevers who love peeving peevily. The second one is more interesting, as it’s a dialectal usage apparently little known beyond those areas where it’s perfectly normal. I’m done my homework may grate on ears unused to it, but it’s in no way wrong: it’s just nonstandard.

The next month, by complete coincidence, I encountered the construction again, this time in non-fiction. Even better, it came with lexicographic expertise and sociolinguistic commentary, because the source was Word By Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, a writer and editor of dictionaries at Merriam-Webster.

In a chapter titled ‘Irregardless’, on dialects and ‘wrong’ words, Stamper introduces the item by noting that her younger daughter spent her formative years in the mid-Atlantic part of the US, which means she and her daughter speak different dialects:

One day, she came home from school, and I wandered out of my office to chat with her. “Do you have any homework?” I asked.

“No,” she said, “I’m done my homework.”

This particular construction is a marker of the local dialect (and also happens to be a marker of Canadian English). It’s usually used with the participles “done” (as above) and “finished” (I’m finished my burger”), though I also hear it with the participle “going” (“I’m going Emily’s house!”). These are all completely normal sentences around here, and in my town this construction is used by people of all socioeconomic levels, from doctors to panhandlers. It is wholly unremarkable.

Except it was wholly remarkable to me.

“No,” I corrected her. “You’re done with your homework.”

“Right,” she answered. “I’m done my homework.”

All my years of training, all those hours spent carefully crafting responses to people who complained about the dialectal “ain’t” or “irregardless,” were thoroughly defenestrated. What motivated me was fear of judgment. “I’m done my homework” is not a part of Standard English, and my beautiful little girl was going to be judged on the basis of her abilities with Standard English, and I didn’t want anyone to think she wasn’t smart because she says “I’m done my homework.” Never mind that just about everyone who spent their formative linguistic years here says that. Never mind that she will eventually learn that “I’m done my homework” is not Standard English, and she will, like the rest of us, learn to switch between her native dialect and the prestige dialect. Never mind that my own dialect is “wrong” here. Maternal worry surfaced in dialect shaming.

If only such linguistic awareness (not to mention self-awareness) were available to authority figures who systematically shame students for using their native dialects in everyday speech. We have a ways to go.

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26 Responses to ‘I’m done my homework’, part II

  1. Theophylact says:

    A matter of auxiliaries. “I’ve done my homework” is unexceptional.

  2. Heide says:

    I had a long discussion with a lawyer a couple of weeks ago about the contraction “we’ll,” which she thought was too informal for business correspondence and insisted changing it to “we will.” People will always have biases and there will always be regional differences — but if two or more people can communicate, language has served its purpose. Thanks for a great, thought-provoking post!

    • Stan Carey says:

      You’re welcome! That’s true as far as it goes, but language serves other purposes than just communicating information; in this case, conveying a certain tone may be important. Obviously it depends on the business relationship in question: some are more formal than others. Reducing contractions is a good general guideline, but it wouldn’t be wise to impose it automatically without due consideration of other factors.

  3. Jan Freeman says:

    “We have a ways to go.” I see (and endorse) what you did there.

  4. Gary Simoni says:

    Hopefully a lesson learned. Children in my classroom heard me argue (maybe???) that if language was organic, evolving, ‘correct’ and ‘standard’ go by the board. Ain’t math-o-matics. So while 2 + 2 = 4, when thru and through take the floor homophones start ringing. Excellent word: defenestrate. Chapeau.

  5. Allie says:

    I believe this is also part of Philadelphia’s dialect. My family/friends from southeastern PA and I say it without thinking of it as slang or improper. However, I have gotten grief from my NY/FL friends when they’ve heard me say “I’m not done it yet”. With that said, “I’m not done with it yet” or “I’m not finished (with) it” don’t sound funny to me either — they’re just not the phrases I’d unconsciously generate first.

    • Stan Carey says:

      So I hear – the Yale Grammatical Diversity Project’s page on the construction (linked in paragraph 2, and in my earlier post) says it’s found in Philadelphia, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Canada. There’s also a map that indicates occasional usage elsewhere in the US. I wouldn’t consider it slang or improper, just dialectal; in any case I hope the grief you’ve gotten for it has been good-natured!

  6. Rick says:

    “The next month, by completely coincidence…”

    That’s an interesting construction. I can say either “by complete coincidence” or “completely by coincidence.”

  7. astraya says:

    Is ‘a ways’ your natural idiom, or are you just indulging?

    • Stan Carey says:

      I’ve used it before, but I don’t know if I grew up with it or adopted it in my teens maybe.

      • astraya says:

        I have no problem with ‘I’m done’, ‘I’m not done (yet)’, ‘I’m done with it/this’ and ‘I’m not done with it/this (yet)’ (in informal contexts), but I just can’t accept ‘I’m done my homework’. Thus far and no further. I have to erect a barricade somewhere.

        And I would never use ‘a ways’ myself.

        • Stan Carey says:

          I don’t use the I’m done my work construction, nor do I plan to, but I accept it as a legitimate structure in the grammars of other dialects: to reject it outright is to reject an aspect of the people who use it naturally. It makes sense to me to categorise it this way instead of building barricades.

          • astraya says:

            In talking about building barricades, I was being (deliberately) hyperbolic. You talk about ‘catagorising’. What catagories do we use, where do we use draw the lines, and how do we decide? (Possibly the next question is ‘Is anyone going to care what we decide?) Replying to rcalmy below, you quote M-W’s labels ‘colloquial’ or ‘informal’, and Columbia ‘nonstandard’. ‘I’ve finished my homework’ and ‘I’ve done my homework’ are definitely standard English. ‘I’m done my homework’ and ‘a ways’ are … what?

      • rcalmy says:

        Interesting. “A ways” is so deep within my natural idiom that it never would have occurred to me that it would sound strange to anyone. Informal, definitely, but entirely normal.

        • Stan Carey says:

          A ways has been used since at least 1568, according to the OED, by such writers as Lord Byron and Henry Fielding, but its status isn’t exactly clear-cut. M-W’s Dictionary of English Usage says its usual label is something like ‘colloquial’ or ‘informal’ (the OED adds ‘chiefly N. Amer.’), but that it’s ‘by no means limited to the spoken language’. It considers it standard in AmE, but the Columbia Guide to Standard American English calls it nonstandard (cf. anyways). Garner’s Modern English Usage is somewhere between the two: ‘One might be tempted to call it dialectal, but the singular use in a ways to go actually occurs in AmE print sources about half as often as a way to go.’

  8. Bruce McLin says:

    I read that passage in Ms. Stamper’s book. Being mostly east and west coast raised, that construction sounded odd to my ears. I had not heard it before.
    By the way, I bought the book, following your your introduction in March. An extremely interesting read. This is the second introduction I have enjoyed, the first being the Lingthusiasm blog, and talk about linguistics in Arrival.

    • Stan Carey says:

      This year was the first I heard it. It sounded strange to me too, but in a good way. I’m glad to hear you enjoyed Word By Word and Lingthusiasm – thanks for letting me know, and for reading what I write here.

  9. klyse3 says:

    Interesting. The construction I hear in the South, which grates although I’ve grown up here, is “needs done” (and variations). “I’m here to help with anything that needs done.”

    While I understand that some phrases are common within certain dialects, they are very difficult to accept!

    • Stan Carey says:

      In linguistic circles that idiom is often referred to as needs washed. The YGDP has a helpful page on it, and the ever-informative Language Log has looked at it a few times. It’s not in my dialect, but it doesn’t grate on me. It may be the scientist in me, but I tend to find these variations interesting rather than objectionable for any reason.

      • rcalmy says:

        I first became aware of that construction in graduate school, when I had a housemate from Ohio who used it. Then a few years later, I heard my Mother use it. She’s from Michigan, and it shouldn’t be surprising that her dialect shared this with that of a neighboring state. But I never once noticed her use it when I was growing up. I took it as a good sign that she’s relaxing more about “proper speech” and kept my observations to myself.

  10. Tim Martin says:

    Interesting! I’m mid-Atlantic dialect but “I’m going Emily’s house” is totally new to me. I can’t even recall hearing it before.

    As far as “I’m done my homework” goes, I’m fortunate to not really get any grief for this. Maybe a very occasional tease, but that’s it.

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