The Morpho-Syntax of Aspectual ‘Stay’ in AAVE

I originally wrote this paper for my graduate syntax course in 2015. Over the course of the next year I conducted further research on the morpho-syntactic properties of the ‘stay’ aspect marker in African-American Vernacular English (AAVE; also known as African-American English). This paper was presented the 2016 Language and Cultures Conference at Purdue University.


Tense and aspect is a prominent topic in the literature on African-American Vernacular English (AAVE). Current research pays particular attention to several aspectual markers, namely habitual be, remote past BIN, and dən (Green 2002). But there is another aspectual marker, stay, that has not been analyzed to the same extent and it is our goal to remedy this need by providing a detailed morpho-syntactic characterization of aspectual stay and comparing it to AAVE’s other aspectual markers.

Aspect differs from tense in that it refers to duration, completion, or habitual occurrence (Green 2002). An aspectual marker like habitual be implies that an event usually or always happens. A sentence like, “She be knowing” can be taken to imply that the subject always knows the answer, or is very knowledgeable. BIN, a stressed form of been, implies that a
condition was true in the past, and it is still true (Labov 1998). Aspectual stay, as in “She stay paid” also has this property, implying that she is always paid, as opposed to being paid one time. Aspectual stay was initially observed in the speech of New York City residents (Spears 2000), and is very likely to exist in other parts of the country. Currently, adolescent AAVE speakers are increasing their usage of this marker, which denotes frequentative-iterative, habitual aspect (Spears 2000).

I argue that aspectual stay follows similar syntactic patterns as aspectual be. It precedes predicate nominals and adjectives (as in “He stay hungry” or “She stay a clown”) and a variety of other syntactic environments, including verb phrases (“She stay winning”). Although research
has provided ample support for the assertion that aspectual markers are supported by auxiliaries in negative constructions, “stay” is unique in that it resists “do-support” in negative declaratives, like “She don’t stay paid.” When presented with negative declaratives containing auxiliaries like
“do” and “have”, AAVE speakers judged the sentence as unacceptable. This raises the interesting issue of grammaticality vs. social acceptability in AAVE; while sentences like, “She don’t stay paid” and “She don’t stay making all that noise” were considered unacceptable, they do not necessarily violate its morpho-syntactic rules. Further study into the use of this aspectual marker may help us to gain a better understanding of the complex and ever-evolving aspect system in AAVE.


Green, L. (2002). African American English: A Linguistic Introduction. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press.
Green, Lisa. (1998). Aspect and Predicate Phrases in AAVE. In S. Mufwene, J. Rickford, G. Bailey, & J. Baugh (Eds.), African-American English: Structure, History and Use. London: Routledge.
Labov, W. (1998). Co-Existent Systems in AAVE. In S. Mufwene, J. Rickford, G. Bailey, & J. Baugh (Eds.), African-American English: Structure, History, and Use (pp. 110-153). London, UK: Routledge.
Spears, A. (2000). Stressed stay: a new African-American English aspect marker. Talk presented at the Linguistic Society of America Annual Meeting, Chicago, IL, January 2000.

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