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!”
My friend Lillian is a Chinese-American chef who has been living in China for the past few years. She has seen more of the country than most native Chinese as she has traveled from restaurant to restaurant, market to market, farm to farm, tea plantation to tea plantation. She is planning to write a book about China’s various farms (which I can’t wait to read.)
Last week she came to lunch on one of her whirlwind visits to New York, and she brought along a 15-year-old Chinese young woman, Yen, who is on her way to Pittsburgh to begin high school. She will live with 15 other young Chinese women, at least during her first year. We batted around this decision — was it best to live with other Chinese students, or should she jump head first into English? Her English was pretty good, but she had only been here for three days and was struggling to understand English spoken at our natural pace.
She picked at her lunch. There was no rice (I have since learned that I should ALWAYS serve rice to Chinese guests), but she soldiered her way through a popover, a roast beef sandwich which Lillian had picked up at a delicatessen, and a salad. I know enough about Chinese visitors to know that American food tastes bland almost to the point of being inedible sometimes, so I offered her some of the fruit salad, which she hadn’t touched yet. It consisted of small pieces of cantaloupe, raspberries, and blueberries.
I offered her a small piece of canteloupe which she regarded in the same way that I would look at the Chinese delicacy, fish eyes. But she ate it. ”It’s sweet,” she said, surprised. Then she tried the raspberry. “It’s — how do I say this — it’s, um, sour,” she said.
If a Chinese person doesn’t know what canteloupe is, you can assume similar distance between our ways and every other aspect of Chinese culture, including our language. You’ll have to go easy on your assumption that your Chinese guest will know how to greet a host and how to thank a host, how to shake hands, how to cross a street (the Chinese are astounded that cars stop for pedestrians, but might misjudge driver behavior and get in some trouble). Most young Chinese have never cleaned their room, washed their clothes, or cooked a meal for themselves. Their parents take care of all that so the children can study hard. My daughter teaches pre-school, and a two-and-a-half-year-old Chinese boy came to the school for the first time the other day who didn’t know how to use a fork or a spoon. His grandmother had always fed him.
Yen has had her first piece of canteloupe and her first raspberry. So far so good. She’ll have countless other sweet and sour experiences here in America. I wish her well. Now I would like to hear about the experiences of at least 15 young Americans who are studying in China.
Geneticists, Drs. David Reich of Harvard and Andres Ruiz-Linares of University College London announced today, as was reported in The New York Times (“Earliest Americans Arrived in Waves, DNA Study Finds”), that there were three waves, not one wave, of migration from Siberia which first populated the Americas. DNA has provided enough clues to confirm this, though researchers need more DNA samples to flesh out the picture. The full report was published on July 11 in Nature.
In 1987, a linguist, Joseph Greenberg, “asserted that most languages spoken in North and South America were derived from the single mother tongue…Amerind…Two later waves…brought speakers of Eskimo-Aleut and of Na-Dene, the language family spoken by the Apache and Navajo.” Dr. Greenberg’s conclusions were roundly rejected at the time, and have only now been resuscitated. Yes, there were three waves.
Genetic research is less squishy than linguistics research, but perhaps this confirmation that language research is also a way to uncover the past will earn it more respect. Unfortunately, Dr. Greenberg did not live long enough to see his theory vindicated. He died in 2001.
I take a lesson from this — one that we learn again and again. Do your job well and then call things as you see them, no matter what the fallout. Ask Charles Darwin. Do what you love doing. That’s a good life. The rest is history.
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.
School is out in most places, so I will spend the summer posting about background subjects, with or without exercises to go with them.
I’ll write for a while about where language comes from, and more specifically, where English comes from.
On a recent trip to the Dordogne region of France, a group of us rented a house directly opposite the Roque St. Christophe, a hulking cliff with deep caves where humans lived 50,000 years ago (all years are approximations, of course).
Near the Roque St. Christophe are the Caves of Lascaux, where remarkably modern looking, abstract paintings of animals can be found on the walls, drawn with coloring and sophisticated perspective which take advantage of the natural contours and colors of the caves. The most recent estimates are that modern humans have been developing for as many as 250,000 years, and perhaps forms of art have existed for much of that time. The oldest examples of this kind of art date back 32,500 or so years.
The Earth’s Children series of books written by Jean M. Auel, beginning with The Clan of the Cave Bear, depict how people lived in these older-than-ancient times in the area now called Western Asia and Europe. Auel’s botanical, anthropological, and historical research has been commended by scholars. According to her, Neanderthals grunted and gestured, and communicated very well, but the main character in her books is not a Neanderthal, she is a homo sapiens, and has a voicebox which is able to produce far more sounds. The development of specialized speaking organs was necessary in order for language to develop.
The orally transmitted stories and myths of these ancient people are lost to us, and the meanings of their symbolic cave paintings are opaque. They may also have used sign language. Some of the earliest known cave paintings are the outlines of the human hand, and the hands could have been transmitting meaning through certain signs.
Dr. Holly Pittman of the U. of Pennsylvania opined in a New York Times article (Who Began Writing? Many Theories, Few Answers, April 6, 1999) how writing came about. Writing “arose out of the need to store information and transmit information outside of human memory and over time and over space.”
The Sumerians seem to have “invented” writing around 5,000 years ago. We don’t know exactly where everyone was or what was going on in the 27,000 years between the creation of the oldest cave pictures and the first discovered writing, but archaeologists suggest that there was increasing trade, and more settled communities as mankind mastered agriculture.
It wasn’t until the first discovery of examples of ancient written language that we were able to examine the syntax, vocabulary, morphology, and constant evolution of human language.
Some scholars argue that writing began first as a way of keeping track of financial and economic information. How many cows were traded? What is in the jar? I recall recently seeing that in some illiterate societies, political candidates choose a symbol which appears on the ballot. People vote for the parrot or the camel. We can learn much about how society functioned from this sort of graphical representation of facts, but it wasn’t until writing began communicating more sophisticated ideas that we could understand how their languages were formed.
One interesting (probably unresolvable) query is whether alphabets, and perhaps language, developed independently, or whether one proto-language branched out into different sforms. The Sumerian, Chinese and Mesoamerican alphabets are so different from one another that many scholars think that they developed independently.
On the dark side of literacy, Dr. Piotr Michalowsky of the U. of Michigan is quoted in the same NYT article as saying, “Perhaps it’s because I grew up in Stalinist Poland, but I say coercion and control were early writing’s first important purpose, a new way to control how people live.” Today, that is still something to think about. Storytelling, recording sales, and identifying candidates are cooperative activities, while writing can become edicts, instructions, and rules issued by an oppressive elite.
From these fragments of information, I found several key ideas.
First, the human brain was capable of artistic thinking long, long before we became literate. Our babies today show a similar evolution. Perhaps we should value these separate talents more equally.
Second, some of the most important human activities do not require writing. Religion, politics, art, and music do not require graphic representation or words (though they sometimes use it). It is worth thinking about what the true value of writing is.
Third, it seems that as the human population multiplied and became more settled, in Asia, the Americas, and Europe, trade became necessary, and trade required keeping and alphabets were developed. In other words, a common human activity, trade, became the mother of invention – we invented writing. Think what we, as the human race, are all engaged in these days which will require a similar invention, and what will that invention be? Will we be required to enhance our intelligence and our bodies in order to, for example, sail into space? Will humans be divided into those who can manipulate the present technologies and those who cannot, with those who cannot being dominated by their tech-competent overlords? Will we develop a new means of communication as we plumb the capabilities of the human brain?
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.
One of the cardinal virtues of good writing is clarity, and proper use of verb tenses is crucial to clarity. Since most students have never been informed of their purpose, or form, they trudge around in a swamp of verb tenses, using them arbitrarily without controlling them.
The past perfect (the “had + past participle” form of the verb), for example, is disappearing. Going extinct. Dying out. This form is used to show a sequence of events, and without it, the events are not clearly lined up. In my view, it is indispensable to clear writing, and should not be an endangered form.
Textbooks such as A Writer’s Reference and The Everyday Writer have one-sentence explanations and single examples of the past perfect. The paltry online exercises they offer are, in my opinion, useless. I presume (and I might be wrong) that they subscribe to the commonly held philosophy that native speakers pick up these forms without formal instruction. Since my students make a terrible mess of verb tenses, this philosophy has not produced clarity in either the students’ minds or in their work.
The Purdue Online Writing Lab (OWL) has online exercises in tense consistency (http://owl.english.purdue.edu/exercises/2/22/) which include a couple of examples of the past perfect.
Without the past perfect, the timeline often dissolves. Here are two sentences which would have been clearer if the student had used the past perfect.
I was shocked and hurt when my uncle died. Would I have responded better if I was told that he was going to die?
I assumed it was all over since a week already passed.
Note how much clearer the sentences are when the past perfect is used:
Would I have responded better if I had been told he was going to die?
I assumed it was all over since a week had already passed.
There is another clue that students have not been properly introduced to the past perfect – they sometimes use it without the context of a previous event. Here are two sentences where the past perfect is inappropriate:
The sweet moment between Helen and her son had put a smile on my face.
I had seen him yesterday.
The simple past should have been used, indicating this this was a one-time event, unconnected to any other event:
The sweet moment between Helen and her son put a smile on my face.
I saw him yesterday.
By the time students are in college, it is very late to establish new verb patterns. The student’s instincts have already become malformed. I find that no matter how many times I mention the function and form of the past perfect, this mistake recurs. They understand the logic of the past perfect, but it takes a while for them to master it.
Exercise: Though verb tense habits are, in my experience, hard to rearrange, you can have the students complete the Purdue exercises, and make up some of your own. They can either be the fill-in-the-blanks or the yes-no type, where the student indicates whether the verb tense is correctly or incorrectly used.
Of particular value are both correct and incorrect sentences culled from your students’ work, which can be presented for evaluation.
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.