This morning I had a discussion with my five-year-old granddaughter about believing in things. She believes in Jack Frost, the Tooth Fairy, Santa Claus, and Rapunzel. I explained why no human could have 14-foot-long hair like Rapunzel, not even the Sikhs who never cut their hair. As for Santa Claus, I told her I had never believed in him, except for fun. She was comfortable believing differently from me: “Some people believe in things, and some don’t,” she said.
She mentioned that she was afraid of “monsters,” and I asked her what she meant by that word. She brought up bats and walking mummies. As for the mummies, we agreed that they exist, but they don’t walk, so they are not worth worrying about. Regarding bats, her fear was based on the fact that “We can’t see them,” although I could inform her that if she were in the right place at the right time, she could indeed see bats. It is important for all of us, not only children, to clarify what we believe in and to investigate what we are afraid of. We made some progress through semantics this morning.
The Supreme Court will shortly rule on the constitutionality of gay marriage, which requires a definition of the word “marriage,” including whether the addition of the word “gay” to a standard definition redefines or simply clarifies the institution itself.
Dennis Baron has reviewed the Supreme Court’s use of dictionaries on his blog The Web of Language, including an instance when a liberal and a conservative Justice used the same dictionary definition to support opposing points of view. He also references the definition of “militia,” which drove decisions having to do with the right to bear arms.
I wish we would all agree on the definition of the term “Founding Fathers,” because this term leads directly into the word “Constitution” which is the bedrock of conservative judicial thinking these days. There were Unitarians and agnostics among the Founding Fathers who would not recognize opinions imposed upon them today when conservatives want to win a point by referencing them.
No matter what they do on the Supreme Court, we can keep a close eye on definitions in our daily lives.
I am copying into this blogpost an email which appeared on the Language Policy List firstname.lastname@example.org about the ancient languages of the Caucasus Mountains. I have edited out some parts of it which were technical, in order to make it a tidy size for a blog post, and to make it accessible to non-specialists. The title of the original posting is “New Book: A Proposal for Pan-Caucasian Alphabet,” posted on March 24th.
[Several of the languages of Northern Caucasian languages were not traditionally written down.] Standardized writing systems for the North Caucasian languages have been implemented only in the 20th century. Initially based upon the Latin script, the adapted alphabets have been shifted to Cyrillic-shaped graphics during the mid 30s. … These writing systems are incapable to represent [sic], in an unambiguous way, the phonetics of the North Caucasian languages, which in their turn possess an outstanding feature of having one of the richest consonant inventories among all the languages of the world….
For instance, the language of the Ubykhs (extinct since 1992) has 86 consonants and two vowels; the Archi language, presently reduced to 1200 speakers, distinguishes 81 consonants and 26 vowels (many of the former do not have exact correspondences in other languages); the consonant inventory of the Bzyp dialect of Abkhaz includes 68 phonemes, etc.
All Caucasian languages have a regular three-level phonation for stops and affricates (voiced, ejective and aspirated voiceless), whereas the Cyrillic script distinguishes only two levels of phonation (voiced and unaspirated voiceless) in case of stops and one (aspirated voiceless) in case of affricates. The Latin alphabet does not represent affricates at all. … [T]he Cyrillic script until the 20th century has chiefly been confined to a limited range of a few Slavic languages sharing similar phonetic traits. … [D]issimilar sets of symbols often with illogical combinations were introduced into the alphabets of particular North Caucasian languages during the adaptation of the Russian script.
For instance, the series of Ubykh postalveolar affricates and fricatives numbers 22 distinct phonemes, for which there is only one (!) correspondence in the Cyrillic script – the letter ч (tɕ). Obviously, this one sign alone is quite insufficient to express the overall phonemic diversity of this extensive series by means of Cyrillic graphics. Set aside the letter х, there is no other direct or indirect graphical correspondence for uvular, pharyngeal, epiglottal and glottal stops, affricates, fricatives and sonorants, which in Caucasian languages abound.
As one can see, the quantity of phonemes of these languages by far exceeds the graphical capabilities of all alphabetic systems that have previously been proposed for them or are currently in use. Such a vast phoneme inventory significantly hinders the possibilities of adaptation of any actual script and constitutes the prime reason for the current project.
[Twenty-four[ out of 69 characters of Adyghe alphabet are double, and 11 – triple, making in sum 35 compounds, which is more than half of the total listing with 69:35 ratio. The similar statistics of the other Caucasian Cyrillic alphabets is as follows: Abaza (74:40), Kabardian (55:25), Abkhaz (64:24), Akhvakh (56:30), Aghul (69:32), Avar (53:37), Lak (59:25), Tabasaran (59:25), Tsez (40:14), Chechen (45:16) etc. The Chechen alphabet alone having merely 45 characters in the presence of 44 authentic vowels and diphthongs in the language itself, clearly convinces one in the fact that even at the cost of universal violation of the alphabetic principle and inappropriate complication of orthography, the given alphabets are unable to express the phonemic structure of the Caucasian languages even in the least satisfactory manner.
All above-mentioned complications essentially limited the means of graphical expression of these languages and led to a point, where, set aside rare dialectal phonemes, a series of sounds of literary languages were omitted in a number of alphabets. In many cases, these very same circumstances also defined the selection of dialects upon which the literary versions of some Caucasian languages were subsequently based: neither the extent of geographical distribution, nor the greater number of speakers was the decision criterion, but the minimal consonant inventory.
In summary, we may conclude that presently for the languages of both North Caucasian families there are practically no alphabets with a satisfactory level of phonematicity. Moreover, in Cyrillic script we deal with a quite inconsistent system of symbols, the potential of which in respect of grapheme morphology and structural correspondences is extremely low and insufficient not only for a simple, practical and phonemically complete rendition of the North Caucasian languages, but also for their aesthetic graphical representation.
The latter is of paramount importance for psychology of writing and determines the representativeness and competitiveness of an authentic language under the dominance of another – an official language with an identical writing system.
Besides the imperfection of the writing system or even its absence, the official status and the cultural dominance of Russian has a no less considerable impact on the marginalization of the spheres of usage of the native Caucasian languages, promoting their gradual extinction. A large number of languages, among which were examples unique by their grammatical and phonetic properties, either completely died out or are on the brink of extinction being reduced to a few hundred or thousand of speakers, such as Archi, Akhvakh, Khinalug, Khwarshi, Tsez, Hinukh, Hunzib, Bezhta, Ghodoberi, Kryts, Budukh, Udi and many others.
Granting these languages a new impetus and means for development may be a possible break through the mentioned difficulties. To achieve this goal we suggest a scientifically valid development of completely new and well-adapted Caucasian alphabets that are adjusted by the morphology of symbols and the logic of their modification. At the same time, they must correspond to the complex intrinsic phonetic features of these languages, render them with full phonemic representativeness and alphabetical unambiguity, and at the same time be free from any irrelevant political or cultural context and enforcing influence.
The best illustrations to the aforesaid are the 1600-year time-tested alphabets of once dominant languages of the South Caucasus and the Armenian Highlands – Armenian, Georgian and the extinct and only recently deciphered Caucasian Albanian. Among the writing systems of the world, these three alphabets are distinguished by their highest level of grapheme-to-phoneme correspondence and are listed among the phonetically most perfect. Caucasian Albanian, inter alia, was the only language of the South Caucasus possessing phonetic features similar to the North Caucasian languages and an ancient alphabet adapted to it.
Throughout the centuries, the viability of the Armenian and Georgian alphabets, alongside with the power of tradition and some peculiarities of the identity of these two nations, was supported by the fundamental fact: they reflect the phonetics of these languages with the highest level of perfection. These alphabets were never superseded by the Greek, Aramaic, Arabic, Russian or Latin scripts, as they weren't adopted or modified, but from the beginning developed on the basis of a meticulous scientific analysis of the phonetics of Armenian and Georgian (as well as Caucasian Albanian).
Hence, we set forth the idea to introduce completely original, easily legible, and most importantly – phonetically perfect and grammatologically thorough writing systems for the North Caucasian linguistic area, based on the character forms and graphical principles of construction of the alphabets of geographically adjacent and historically akin South Caucasus.
To achieve maximum efficiency, two similar, but mutually independent generalized sets of characters for [the] language families are introduced, wherefrom the specific alphabets for the particular languages are subsequently deduced.
Additionally, for the Ossetic language alike, which is an integral part of the Caucasian heritage, an independent alphabet sharing the features of both the newly developed North Caucasian and the ancient Transcaucasian alphabets has been created.
Thus, we attempt to give a new and historically sound unity and continuity to the millennial writing culture of the Caucasian region, a new impulse to the development of greater speech communities, as well as viability for preservation and future revival to smalle
Most of the argument is about the singular “they,” but the singular “you” also has an interesting genesis, and this article in The Economist tells the story, or at least part of the story.
The article concludes that social change has brought about this language change, though it does not draw any conclusions about why social change, meaning egalitarianism, did not also destroy the familiar “tu” in French, Spanish, and Italian, and the familiar “du” in German. What was it about English social change that was tied so tightly to language? That’s just something to think about.
We should watch our gun language. The New York Times has an article today, “In Gun Debate, Even Language Is Loaded,” documenting the pervasive gun references in our language. I speak six languages, and in thinking about each, I believe the article is correct — we have far more expressions, verbs, and nouns which come from gun culture than other languages do. It would be interesting to compare American English to British English and other World Englishes in this regard, too.
The parents from Newtown made the statement yesterday that they were in the gun debate for the long haul. Legislation can help, but the bigger changes have to come from the bottom up. There has to be a cultural change before this violence begins to subside. Just as we changed our language regarding race and gender, we might begin to change the national obsession with guns by changing our language. The first step to doing that is to increase our awareness of how often we use military and gun terms in our everyday speech.
A consistent mistake made by my students is using “everyday” instead of “every day.” “everyday” is an adjective, as in “That is an everyday concern of mine.” The other is a noun with a modifier, as in “Every day I brush my teeth.”
While on an unrelated Internet quest (looking for the website which best lays out the rules for use of prepositions), I landed on www.grammar.net which provided the following advice: “Although ending a sentence with a preposition is considered incorrect, these constructions are used everyday.” This is a GRAMMAR website, and they used “everyday” when they should have used “every day.” How can I object when my students make the same mistake? I can, but it is an uphill fight.
The www.grammar.net posting about prepositions was written by “Victoria,” a mysterious creature about whom no information was available other than her purported first name. (Is the author really a “she?” or could this be Victor or Viktor in female guise?) Being at the top of an Internet search for grammatical guidance, my students might land on this site, and could they not raise the “everyday” usage to contradict my assertion that this is a grammatical error? No. In order to use a website as a source, it must be from a trusted organization, not creatures like “Victoria,” and should have an academic sponsor or some expert backing. Digging a little deeper into the “About Us” section of www.grammar.net reveals that the website is linked to “SpellChecker.net” which sells two products named SCAYT and WSC. www.grammar.net is thus a commercial organization, and not a reliable source. Their minds are on their products, and the related grammar websites are no more than a come-on.
Another consistent mistake concerns using apostrophes to make plurals. In the popular textbook A Writer’s Reference, by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers, the section on apostrophes states, “Do not use an apostrophe to pluralize an abbreviation.” According to this textbook, the plural of G.M.O., an abbreviation, should be G.M.O.s. But a recent New York Times (9/16/2012) article by Mark Bittman is entitled G.M.O.’s: Let’s Label ‘Em, defying the rules in my textbook. Shot down again.
So what’s a teacher to do? Neither The New York Times nor grammar.net support her. She is beginning to doubt the reliability of popular textbooks such as A Writer’s Reference, and has long ago despaired of using The Elements of Style because “style” has changed. Article one, page one, of that venerable tome declares that we should write “Burns’s poems” and “Charles’s friend.” The universal book at Montclair State this year was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and the university posted announcements about the appearance of “Lacks’ son” at a symposium there. I can’t even get past page one of The Elements of Style before losing support from academic and scholarly sources..
I come back to a point I have made many times before – our language is changing quickly, unreliably, unpredictably, constantly. There. I broke the first rule of Stephen King, stated over and over again in his masterful book On Writing, “Avoid adverbs!”
A common mistake made by my students is using “everyday” instead of “every day.” One (everyday) is an adjective, as in “That is an everyday concern of mine.” The other is a noun modified by an adjective, as in “Every day I brush my teeth.”
I thought my analysis was undeniably correct until I landed on the website www.grammar.net and found the following sentence: “Although ending a sentence with a preposition is considered incorrect, these constructions are used everyday.” This is a GRAMMAR website, and they used “everyday” incorrectly. How can I object when my students make the same mistake? I can, but it is an uphill fight.
Just one example? Oh no. What about the use of apostrophes to make plurals? In the popular textbook A Writer’s Reference, by Diana Hacker and Nancy Sommers, the section on apostrophes states, “Do not use an apostrophe to pluralize an abbreviation.” According to this textbook, used in college classrooms across the country, G.M.O., an abbreviation, should be written G.M.O.s. But a recent New York Times (9/16/2012) article by Mark Bittman is entitled G.M.O.’s: Let’s Label ‘Em, defying the rules in my textbook.
Back to Grammar.net, a graphically enhanced website which comes up near the top of list on an Internet search for “grammar.” The blogpost on that site with the “everyday” error was written by “Victoria,” a mysterious creature about whom no information was available other than her purported name (is it really a “she?” or could this be Victor or Viktor in female guise?). It would (being at the top of the Internet search) be a place my students might land, and could they not raise this usage as an objection to my correction of their “everydays?” No. It does not meet the criteria for academic sourcing which I enforce in my class. In order to use a website as a source, it must be from a trusted organization, not creatures like “Victoria,” and should have an academic sponsor or some expert backing. Digging a little deeper into the “About Us” section reveals that the website is linked to “SpellChecker.net” which sells two products named SCAYT and WSC. This is, in other words, a commercial organization, and not a reliable source.
So what’s a teacher to do? Neither the solid The New York Times nor the shaky grammar.net support her. She is beginning to doubt the reliability of popular textbooks such as A Writer’s Reference, and has long ago despaired of using The Elements of Style because “style” has changed over the years. Article one, page one, on the possessive apostrophe, declares that we should write “Burns’s poems” and “Charles’s friend,” but it wouldn’t take long to find a New York Times or New Yorker article which blew that one out of the water. The universal book at Montclair State this year was The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Flyers about appearance of Lacks’s (according to The Elements of Style) son announced that “Lacks’ son” would appear at a symposium there.
I don’t despair. I come back to a point I have made many times before – our language is changing quickly, unreliably, unpredictably, constantly. There. I broke first rule of Stephen King, stated over and over again in his masterful book On Writing, “Avoid adverbs!”
At the end of the 19th century, a Xam/San man (we call them “Bushmen”) in South Africa looked at a figure in a prehistoric rock painting and said “That’s a shaman!” (This account taken from The Mind in the Cave, by David Lewis-Williams, published by Thames & Hudson in 2002.) Nobody knows for certain what happened 70,000 years ago in the mountains where the modern Bushmen still live, but scholars had been studying the prehistoric rock paintings they found there, and puzzling over what they meant. The Xam/San have been continuously living in this area since before history began, and until the 20th century took full hold, their lives had not changed much. They have always lived off of the meager takings in the Kalahari Desert. The Xam/San man’s reaction to the painting is a clue to what happened 70,000 years ago, when the painting was created.
The period in which the rock paintings were made is identified as the beginning of human abstraction. A symbolic figure like the shaman represented something that one could not touch, an abstract, godlike figure. There is also evidence from around the same period that ritual burials were conducted, and this suggests also that syntax had developed sufficiently to create verbal rituals which were shared by a large group and used to bury their dead, along with various artifacts. Archaeologists have uncovered many of the artifacts, but the language, of course, is lost, except for its traces among the Xam/San.
There are cave paintings showing women sitting in a circle clapping and singing, with a larger circle of men dancing behind them. What were they saying? There would have been text as well as rhythm. (The modern Xam/San man also recognized the dual circle type of ritual because they still performed it at the end of the 19th century.)
Humans 70,000 (or so) years ago were also experimenting with the mind, performing ritual dances like the dance above, which altered their state of consciousness resulting in trances. This suggests a level of self-awareness not experienced by any other animal, and also a control of language which could trigger, enhance, and then explain these experiences. Trances which alter consciousness are still part of religious experience today. Sometimes they have a linguistic result, Speaking in Tongues.
Without phonographs and television, there is no way to analyze the experiences of prehistoric man, man at the beginning of language. We have only tiny glimpses of the truth through the lives of modern men and women like the Bushmen, paired with rock paintings which portray human behavior, and artifacts which suggest the patterns of prehistoric life. All evidence is circumstantial. There will never be proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Archaeology and anthropology have developed as rapidly as astronomy over the last century, and circumstantial patterns are emerging more and more clearly. The assumption at this point in their research is that humans emerged in southern Africa, where the Bushmen still live, and dispersed to Asia and then to Europe. Language probably began as part of burial and religious rituals in those early days, and later became the glue which held communities together and made possible their cooperative efforts as they took the long journeys to Asia and Europe.
In their new book, Linguistics (published by Wiley-Blackwell in 2012), Anne E. Baker and Kees Hengeveld catalogue the differences between human and animal language. Neanderthals and the predecessors of homo sapiens communicated, of course, but language rose to a more complex intellectual endeavor at some point. Bees, for example, will perform their “wiggle dance” pointing to the source of the materials to make honey whether or not any other bees are watching, and will perform the same dance every time. They never “just do a little dance.” The bees cannot say what the weather was like, or that they encountered other bees en route. Human language requires cooperation – the interaction between one speaker and another; creativity – the ability to create unique sentences upon demand; spontaneity – the use of language whether or not there is a prompt; and arbitrariness – the use of vocabulary and syntax which is created without any natural reason. We call a bee bee, Greeks call it melissa, and the French call it abeille, for no particular reason. The important factor is mutual comprehensibility – cooperation — and we could agree on any word we chose to accomplish that.
This reflection on the beginnings of human language is not meant to be comprehensive, and certainly not meant to be right. Not even the greatest archaeologist would claim to be “right.” It’s food for thought as we speak our way through our lives.
In my opinion, language smothers our familiarity with the biological patterns which direct our lives just as powerfully as our minds do, but that blog belongs to somebody else.
Around the year 449, England was invaded by Germanic tribes who introduced their language to the Celts whom they conquered. Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English People, completed in 731, recorded the first account of this catastrophe. Bede claims that the conqueror tribes were the Jutes, Angles, and Saxons, from the Danish peninsula and Germany.
Before 449, the central and southeastern parts of England were a Roman province (the Romans never penetrated Scotland and Wales), and the Romans spoke Latin. Given the advanced technology and comforts introduced by the Romans, like central heating, baths, and advanced plumbing, it is no surprise that at least the mercantile and ruling classes in Britain adopted Latin as their language, while the rest of the populace spoke Celtic languages. Gaelic, Welsh, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish, Irish, and Manx are among the original Celtic languages, and some are making a comeback today.
As Rome weakened, its legions left Britain, leaving it unprotected against the invasions of the Germanic tribes who brought along the original forms of English.
Under different circumstances, our language might be called Jutish, or Saxonish, but the Angles became ascendant among the invading tribes. Over the succeeding centuries, the place came to be called “Englalande” (Land of the Angles), and the coalescing languages of the invading tribes were called Englisc.
Olde English, with its Germanic declensions of nouns and adjectives and complicated verb conjugations, lasted from about 450 to 1150. Olde English is dead in that nobody but specialists could either speak or comprehend it today. It differs from modern English more than, say, old French from modern French, or old German from modern German. Consider this example (taken from The Unfolding of Language, by Guy Deutscher):
Me ofthingth sothlice thæt ic hi worhte (I regret having made them).
This is incomprehensible, right?
Language turned topsy turvy again in 1066, when the French-speaking Normans invaded. The Norman king and his Court spoke French, and as reward for their victory, Norman lords took over British land and businesses. The servants and townspeople continued speaking English. Gradually, the Latin-based French vocabulary and syntax changed the surrounding English dialects, and by 1600 the above quote became:
For it repenteth me that I haue made them
which is fairly comprehensible.
Nouns dropped their gender in this period, though for some reason we still call ships “she.” Over the centuries, the familiar forms thou/thee were replaced by you in both the singular and the plural. The modern pronoun forms he/him/his, she/her/hers, our/ours/ours, and so on, give us a sense of how to decline nouns, but even these forms are fading. My students regularly use me instead of I in sentences such as, “Me and Mary went to the mall,” thus regularizing the pronoun forms. Without the declensions, speakers identify the function of nouns by their place in the sentence. Me is the subject (nominative case) because it comes first in the sentence. English has become a more linear language.
When some English people ended up in America, all hell broke loose. The native tribes contributed succotash, chipmunk, moccasin, powwow, and teepee. African slaves gave us the Blues and boogie, mumbo jumbo and banjo. The Irish added hooligan, galore, and whiskey. The Jews brought us oy vey, blintz, chutzpah, glitch, and putz. We recently added quesadilla, hola, and macho to our vocabulary.
The invention of recording devices made it possible at last for us to listen to the accents of peoples’ speech. We cannot hear a 10th century British farmer speaking, but we can hear Franklin Delano Roosevelt and many early movie actors, whose speech sounds almost British. Changes in accent occur gradually, as do changes in syntax. We seem to be eliminating the nominative case and saying, “Me and Mary went to the mall” without the blink of an eye.
English is morphing in Jamaica, India, and Singapore. Perhaps some day these offshoots will be so deeply changed by influences of their own that a native English speaker will not understand them. That’s how modern English moved away from its own Germanic roots.
It all started in 449. Thanks goodness that today our changes occur through immigration, not bloody invasion. The language changes faster that way, and change is more or less voluntary, though many grandparents today mumble, “Over my dead body,” when they hear their grandchildren say “Me and Mary went to the mall.” But I like it better this way.
My French textbook, French Reference Grammar (1993), has an index entry for the “conditional,” and in the section devoted to it, calls it “the mood of verbs tied to a condition.” My Greek grammar, Greek: A Comprehensive Grammar of the Modern Language (1997) also has a section on the conditional mood. My English grammar, Discovering Grammar: An Introduction to English Sentence Structure (2000) does not have a listing for the conditional in the index, including the “conditional” forms in the section on “modals” instead. However it is phrased (and perhaps the re-phrasing adds to the confusion), this form is used to express complex thoughts, and my students do not know how to use it.
Modals express possibility, permission, volition, necessity, and other conditions which express far more than a simple action. There is the old chestnut “can/may I do something?” with “can” implying physical ability, and “may” implying that you have permission to do it. The modals bring into play our imaginations and predictions, and often embody opposites. “Should I leave the room?” suggests that there is a reason why you should not leave the room. Perhaps Mary may arrive while you are absent, or maybe there is a gunman standing in the hall, or maybe the room is on fire. In each case, you are questioning your decision to leave the room because there are reasons for and against.
“Will you come to the party with me?” requires the other person to guess what he or she will be doing at some point in the future. He or she is only expressing an intention. Even if the answer is “Yes,” it still might not happen – there might be a hurricane, or one of you might get sick, or the party might be cancelled. It is quite a different animal from the simple past tense, “You came to the party with me.” That happened, and no further analysis is required.
There are usually two parts in a conditional sentence, and in English the present tense is matched to the future (If he wants to, he will come), the past tense (although the action doesn’t occur in the past) is matched to the would form (If he wanted to, he would come), and the past perfect goes with the would have form (If he had wanted to, he would have come.) There are permutations, of course, but my students don’t know how to use even the easiest ones. They struggle to express complex situations, and usually do not succeed in creating graceful sentences. Here are some examples:
The life cycle moves on so that everyone could enjoy what the earth has to give him or her.
It seemed as though I’ll never write my best seller,
This is when I realized I have gotten myself into this mess.
All I could notice was how red his face is getting.
I couldn’t possibly have both of them as my boyfriend. It will mentally and emotionally harm me and the guys.
These sentences should have been expressed this way:
The life cycle moves on so that everyone can enjoy…
It seemed as though I would never write…
This was when I realized I had gotten myself into this mess.
All I could notice was how red his face was getting.
I couldn’t possibly have both of them as my boyfriend. It would …..
Without the conditional, these sentences depend heavily on the reader’s ingenuity to make sense.
Sports announcers have produced another variation on the conditional. Here is a recent gem from Ron Darling, commenting on a Mets game in May, 2012:
He throws a knuckle ball curve on the third strike, that guy was not there.
This convention has become so common in baseball that fans understand it. They have just seen the action on the field on their television screens, so they can scramble together Darling’s meaning. I also remember sentences like, “That ball goes one inch higher, it’s a home run.” It’s almost as if baseball grammar were different from the rest of the world’s, but from my students’ sentences, I conclude that the rules for the conditional are collapsing everywhere.
Darling’s sentence would have been a lot clearer if he had said, “If he had thrown a knuckle curve ball on the third strike, that guy would not be there.” That is a sentence of 18 words, versus the confusing sentence, which only has 15. Perhaps this is a case of the language trying to simplify, economize, be more efficient. Languages do that all the time. Some of the efforts work, and some don’t.
These changes in the conditional are not adding anything to the language – they are confusing us, breaking up timelines and removing the “possibility, permission, volition, necessity,” elements of the sentence. Since there is no replacement for these forms, omitting them causes only confusion.
There are several ways to approach this, but perhaps the most efficient first attack should be aimed at improving fluency with the basic forms. Choose sentences from student papers which use the conditional correctly, ask all the students to express the sentences in the two other tenses.
If he wants to, he will come
If he wanted to, he would come
If he had wanted to, he would have come.
In previous posts I wrote about Subject-Verb mismatches when a clause intervenes, and when a prepositional phrase intervenes. There is another, perhaps more pernicious, form of mismatching, the There is malformation. This has become widespread not only in my students’ papers, but on television, in political speeches, and in print articles. Here are some examples from my students’ essays:
Before I die, there is a couple of things I would like to do.
Going away to college was always a goal, which I have now accomplished, but there is now plenty of more things I want to do.
In my lifetime, there has been occurrences when I made the wrong choice and my life seemed to be going wrong
This is the things that are going through their head when they are in assisted living.
There is now plenty of more things I want to do in my lifetime that going to college set me up to do.
Let’s review: Sometimes there is a Subject, a Verb, and an Object (Fred loves ice cream – A loves B). When the entities on either side of the Verb are the same (I am a teacher – A equals A), the Verb simply links these two entities, and is referred to sometimes as a Linking Verb. The word to the left of is (I) is the same entity as the word to the right (a teacher). They are both singular, and the verb between them is therefore singular.
In the A = A construction, there or this serve as empty placeholders to the left of the Linking Verb. They absorb all of the qualities of the word to the right, and the verb agrees with the word to the right. In the first sentence above, things is plural, and the verb should be are. There is no singular element in the first sentence at all, so no place for a singular verb.
As with all matters syntactical, this it not always that simple. Consider the caption to a photo on page A6 of The New York Times on May 16, 2012: Valérie Trierweiler and France’s new president, François Hollande, are the first unwed couple to occupy the Élysée Palace. There is a plural, compound subject (Trierweiler and Hollande) to the left of the Linking Verb (are), and a singular noun (couple) to the right. The writer has chosen to make the verb agree with the entity to the left, which is plural. [Trierweiler and Hollande] is the first unwed couple… doesn’t sound right.
When the entity to the left of the Linking Verb is empty, like there, the Verb should agree with the only entity which has number; the noun to the right. That does not happen in the examples above.
The only explanation I can come up with to explain this phenomenon is phonetic. It is much easier to say “there’s” than “there are” or some shortened form like “there’er.”
Since there is no unifying explanation for the various Subject-Verb mismatches discussed in earlier posts, I would choose this possibly phonetic explanation for the dissolution of agreement between Subject and Verb in all cases. If one can slip phonetically into, “There is many reasons,” then one can also say, “The reasons my mother gave me is the best ones.” That is also easier to pronounce than “there are.” If one can use a singular verb with a plural noun in that case, why stick to the rules of agreement in other settings? It is for this reason that I call this form pernicious – it has leaked into the foundations of the grammatical structure and upset all manner of sentences which are built on this structure.
When I told my husband that President Obama frequently says such things as “There’s many reasons for this,” he said that was impossible. Listen for yourself. Listen to news announcers and pundits, to former President Bush. Our language role models are using this grammatical form, and it is being picked up by my students. As if to illustrate this point, in a PBS program about Johnny Carson, one commentator said, “When he went on the air there was tremendous expectations.”
Perhaps this change will be permanent, or it will pass. In the meantime, how do we approach our students’ papers? I am deeming There has been occurrences, and There is many reasons incorrect, but I do so without hysteria. It must have been upsetting when people stopped using the familiar thou form a couple of centuries ago, and when the subjunctive started going out of style (If I were going to the concert in the park, I would buy an umbrella). Before John Lennon, I didn’t know what a yellow submarine was, and found the change from Mrs. or Miss to a ubiquitous Ms. unsettling. Language is the harbinger of the future, and thus of change. It tests our flexibility of mind, and challenges our assumptions.
Exercise: Since the There’s many reasons epidemic is upon us, it would be helpful to do some class exercises in which the students filled in the correct verb form in there or this sentences. Make up sentences using these words, with nouns of varying forms on the right side of varying forms of the verb to be. Even if the language changes, your students will at least be able to control the sentences they write. The standard written form will undoubtedly remain There are many reasons for some time to come. They must master standard forms for their own future good.