Tuesday, November 6, 2012

English, a Constantly Evolving Language, Part 2

More Bits and Pieces Already Accepted in the Language

Richard Firsten

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist

  • The following have already made a niche for themselves in the language, and if you go by what descriptivists say, they’re considered acceptable in informal language:

There’s been endless books written about the Titanic.
Where’s the bargains in this flea market?
Here’s the files you asked for.
There was lots of lights we could see coming out of the woods.
There’s been some problems with starting the business.

The problem is that now it seems just about everybody uses these five in every kind of situation, informal or formal. In fact, at this rate, I won’t be surprised if there are, there were, there have been; where are; and here are just about disappear altogether from usage.  

  • We told him to never do that again.
    I’ve told them to always use the back door for deliveries.
    People getting divorced always have motives to not like their spouses.

The traditional rule for the three sentences above, based in large degree on the dictates of Bishop Robert Lowth in 18th century England, has been that you should never split an infinitive, and this rule was upheld for the most part in educated speech a generation ago. You were only supposed to say . . .

-We told them never to do that again.
-I’ve told them always to use the back door for deliveries.
-People getting divorced always have motives not to like their spouses.

But Robert Lowth, who had a great deal of influence at the British court for some reason and therefore with the upper crust of British society at the time, was actually basing his ideas on what he thought “good grammar” was by looking to classical Latin for inspiration. That’s not realistic since it really doesn’t work to impose the grammar of a Latinate language onto that of a Germanic language, of which English is one. Sorry, Bishop Lowth, but it’s actually fine – and quite an efficient way of phrasing something – to split infinitives, just as it’s now considered fine to end a sentence with a preposition. So these are things that we don’t need to worry about. J

  • Let’s review the results real quick.
    I just love fresh baked bread, don’t you?

In my time, the form of these three words as they appear in these sentences would have been considered no-no’s, and teachers would have corrected them with really quickly and freshly. There was a time in English, however, when the grammar of these words in such sentences was considered perfectly fine. In the 18th century, for instance, it was not uncommon to hear lots of what we call flat adverbs, adverbs that don’t have the typical –ly ending. Of course you know some that are commonly used, such as hard (They work hard) and fast (He can run fast). Fresh in the third example above is fine, too, since it’s another flat adverb. (Are you getting a bit frustrated or exasperated at this point? I can sympathize!)

In American English, real is now accepted in informal speech and even in informal writing as a synonym for very (e.g., She’s a real good worker). But, from what I gather, it’s still not accepted in formal speech or formal writing. I’ve observed, however, that the boundary between formal and informal language seems to be getting more obscure. On many occasions I’ve heard the use of real, meaning “very,” even in quite formal situations.

At any rate, the list of what most consider to be acceptable flat adverbs has shrunk a great deal since the 18th century, but you’ll still hear flat adverbs pop up here and there. If a speaker chooses to use the regular adverb form with the –ly ending (really, quickly, freshly), that’s fine, of course, but there’s nothing wrong with flat adverbs – just as long as they’re accepted as flat adverbs.

  • I think this place is very unique.
    These are among the most unique animals in this part of the world.

The adjective unique means “one of a kind,” “the only one.” It’s not a gradable adjective with such meanings, so some people feel that the intensifier very, the comparative more, and the superlative the most shouldn’t be used with it. They say that either something is unique or it isn’t unique.

Some people argue, however, that in informal English, unique has come to mean “remarkable” or “unusual.” These are indeed gradable ideas, so they claim that it’s okay to use very, more, and the most with unique. What’s happened, however, is that you can hear these combinations (very unique / more unique / the most unique) all the time, even in formal language. Once again it seems that the boundary between formal and informal has become quite blurred, socially as well as linguistically.

  • It’s become very common to hear native speakers say person X and I when person X and the speaker are not only the compound subject of a sentence, but the compound object as well:

-A couple of weeks ago, my producer and I received a letter from him.
-Just three weeks ago, he sent a letter to my producer and I.

-Helen and I would love to have you over for dinner.
-You should come visit Helen and I when you get a chance.

It’s thought that this is due to hypercorrection or the misconception that it “sounds more educated” when, in fact, it’s just the opposite. In fact, Betty Azar has dealt with this phenomenon in one of her grammar texts.

This misused form of the personal pronoun I isn’t put in the object form (me) when it’s part of this compound object, but it always becomes me as the object when it stands alone: I would love to have you over for dinner. / You should come visit me when you get a chance. Nobody would ever say You should come visit I when you get a chance!

But there’s something else going on that’s related to this phenomenon which we’ll take a look at when we get to Part 6, entitled  “More Trends in the Language.”


Comment from Ismael Tohari
December 13, 2012 at 8:53 pm


1. I would like to know why the flat adverbs like fast, hard, etc, resist ly-ending. On other words, what supported them to be ly-free at the end of the day? Why wasn’t the same happen to the rest of adverbs like carefully?

2. Do “Plain adverbs” and “Flat adverbs” mean exactly the same?

I hope I made my point clear.

Thanks a lot.

Comment from Richard Firsten
December 13, 2012 at 10:31 pm

I recommend that you go to the following Website for an in-depth explanation that would be too much to post here:

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November 1, 2013 at 11:55 am

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