Thursday, January 24, 2013

English, a Constantly Evolving Language, Part 4 of 6

Items in English that May Stick. Only Time will Tell.

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

There are lots of really quirky things going on in English these days, and I have a hunch that some of them will become standard parts of the language as time goes by simply because they’re so commonly heard and read. So when will we be teaching them? That’s an interesting question. I wonder what your take on this is.

At any rate, here are just a few examples I’ve noted over quite some time. And remember that all of these examples come from educated native speakers:

  • Change in Stative Verbs

Many stative verbs, which are traditionally used only in the simple forms of the tenses and aspects, are now being used in the progressive form more and more often, perhaps signaling a significant change in this area of grammar:

    • It’s close to the end of the game, so for sure they’re not wanting their opponents to get any more points.
    • We weren’t believing any of what he was claiming.
    • The kids are loving their new board game. Look how into it they are.
    • She’s having to look for a second job now to make ends meet.
    • What they’re needing is more money for a down payment.
    • I guess I just wasn’t understanding where you were going with that story.
    • Where did he go? I’m not seeing him.
  • The had in the phrase had better is just about disappearing:
    • You better read the fine print before signing.
    • He better not try to do that by himself.
  • Please reference the below article for more information.

The word below is not an adjective; it’s either a preposition or an adverb, and in this sentence, it’s an adverb. That means it should follow the article: Please reference the article below for more information.

By the way, the same holds true for above: Please read the instructions above to see how this is done. I’ve come across the mistaken positioning of the adverbs below and above quite often: Please read the above instructions to see how this is done.

  • It’s becoming more and more common to hear the object form of personal pronouns used as the subject of a sentence. Here are some examples:
    • Him and my brother did it.
    • She claimed Kathleen told her the truth when her and Kathleen were talking the other day.
    • Me and her were the only ones at home at the time.
    • Her and I left the party early.
    • Them and their parents were told to make appointments to see the principal.

You’d think the sentences above were all uttered by uneducated native speakers, right? Well, surprise, surprise! Some were spoken by highly educated people – one even by a teacher!

Notice the two variations of the same subject? Look again at the third and fourth examples: Me and her / Her and I. Of course the traditional form should be She and I in both sentences. I find things like this fascinating!

  • It was just awful! We drug all those heavy potting soil bags to the car, and not one employee helped us.
  • After the successful attack, the wolf spider drug its prey into its burrow to feed on it.

Just as I’ve cited the strange use of object personal pronouns used as the subjects of sentences, you might also think that the two examples here showing the use of drug as the past tense of drag were uttered by uneducated speakers. Well, once again I have to say surprise, surprise! Both were said by quite educated native speakers, and I have found that more and more people, especially in the American Midwest and South, seem to use drug as the past of drag instead of dragged.

What I find quite remarkable about this is that it goes against the natural tendency of English to regularize verbs and nouns. For example, dive  > dove/dived; leap > leapt/leaped; plead > pled/pleaded. In this case, oddly enough, just the opposite has happened. A regular verb has been made into an irregular verb: drag > drug/dragged.

At the moment, I don’t believe this alternate past tense form is accepted – at least not in any dictionaries I’ve looked at – but perhaps drug will one day be an acceptable alternative for dragged just as dived is an acceptable alternative for dove.

  • In each of the following sentences and news headlines, you’ll note how the names of countries have been used where their corresponding adjectives should have been employed:
    • Life is dangerous in many Mexico towns because of battles between drug cartels.
    • Thousands of refugees have been streaming over the Lebanon/Syria border into Lebanon.
    • There will be two Great Britain divers in the semifinals in platform diving.
    • China Wedding Party’s Cars Plunge into River
    • Egypt Pyramids Discovered On Google Earth, Researcher Says

In each example above, there was absolutely no reason to use the name of the country when the adjectival form should have been used, but this seems to be a growing trend among journalists even in spoken English. We do have adjectives for all the countries listed above. For example: Life is dangerous in many Mexican towns because … / Thousands of refugees have been streaming over the Lebanese/Syrian border into Lebanon / There will be two British divers in the semifinals …

What strikes me as so odd about this strange usage is that none of the people who wrote these headlines or sentences would ever write something like Drought Suffocating America Midwest. If they think that America sounds odd here, why do they think all these other misuses are acceptable? Very strange indeed! In short, since an adjective exists to identify each of these countries, it should be used, but we’ll have to see if this trend takes hold.

  • What? Are these somebody’s teeth marks on this apple? Yuck!
  • For teeth whitening, dentists recommend a limited number of over-the-counter products.

I’m sure you’ve heard phrases like these. Do they bother you? If they don’t, to be consistent, shouldn’t you say teethpaste instead of toothpaste and an ants hill instead of an ant hill? Whether we have a compound noun (two nouns written together as one word to create a new word) or a noun adjunct (the same as a compound noun, but with the words written separately), the first element always functions as an adjective to describe the head noun (the second element), and because it functions as an adjective, it’s usually singular, even though it may represent something plural. That’s why we say tooth marks and not teeth marks; footprints and not feetprints. And keeping with this, you’d expect to hear tooth whitening.

I said that the first element is usually singular, but that’s not always the case. We do have exceptions for words that aren’t commonly used in the singular. For example, when it comes to arms meaning “weapons,” we say the arms race because we don’t normally put arms in the singular.

Before I leave you this time, I’d like to suggest that you read this very interesting article at the National Public Radio (NPR) website on the very topic under discussion in this series of mine on how English seems to be evolving:

In my next installment, we’ll look at more quirky items in English that ESOL teachers may be teaching one of these days as standard elements of the language.


Comment from Esther rivera
January 24, 2013 at 3:54 pm

Incredible hoe the people can change the language, and I think it happens in many other languages.

Comment from Ismael Tohari
January 25, 2013 at 8:06 pm

How does a change in language begin?

Comment from Jim McLarty
February 17, 2013 at 4:12 pm

How true! In British English many people now refer to the ‘amount’ of people rather than ‘number’. Another trend is use of ‘There is’ to talk about plural nouns as opposed to uncountable.

Comment from Richard Firsten
February 17, 2013 at 6:58 pm

Thanks for your comments, Jim.

I’ve also heard “multiple” Americans (instead of the more traditional “many,” which seems to be catching on more and more) use “amount” in place of “number” in that context. As for “there is,” please have a look at Part 2 of this series, which includes that phenomenon — or should I say “phenomena,” which is now accepted as the singular as well as “phenomenon.

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