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.