Tuesday, April 23, 2013

English, a Constantly Evolving Language, Part 5

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

Richard Firsten

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

In Part 4 of this series, I presented some quirky things that are happening in English these days, things which I have a hunch may become standard parts of the language or accepted alternative forms in the language as time goes by simply because they’re so commonly spoken, heard, and read by educated native users of English. These quirky things may just be aberrations, but if they’re not, we English teachers may have to accept that they will very likely be taught at some point in the future. Here are some more of these oddities that perhaps won’t be considered so odd down the road.

  • An interesting observation I’ve made is that even though they’re referring to time, many native speakers use where – which signifies a location, of course – instead of using when, which signifies a time. To me it’s a very odd occurrence, and I can’t figure out why it’s so common. Here are a number of examples:
    • There was a moment where I knew that I couldn’t do it on my own.
    • There were instances where she just seemed to drift off into a daydream
    • Did there come a time where you believed he had done it?
    • It happened about ten years ago where I found myself wondering why …
    • One test is called a hand drop. It’s where a neurologist takes the patient’s hand and …
    • I’m lucky to be in a time where more people champion human rights than ever before.

In each and every example above, it’s clear that when is the appropriate word to use since it deals with time as do all the words preceding where in these sentences. I don’t know if this use of where will ever be considered okay, but that doesn’t mean it won’t continue to be commonly heard.

  • What follows is nothing new, but the question is, will reflexive pronouns eventually be acceptable in this usage? It’s important to reiterate here that all of the following examples are direct quotes from educated native speakers.

So what seems to be happening? This use of a reflexive pronoun as the subject or object in place of the personal pronoun seems to apply only to 1st person and 2nd person, both singular and plural:

    • “How are you, Al?” “Fine, thanks. And yourself?”
    • The only two people who know the answer are John and myself.
    • Everybody knows, myself included, that we all need …
    • So, if I get this correctly, Patrick, your father, and yourself were all there, correct?
    • There’s greater intelligence in the universe than ourselves.
    • Myself, Dirk, and his grandfather decided to fly together to Houston.
    • We’re going to the company picnic this Saturday. What about yourselves?
    • The cop gave parking tickets to Ann and myself. We hadn’t noticed the no-parking sign.
    • All the neighbors are being invited, including yourselves.

Perhaps you feel that this use of these reflexive pronouns has a place in conversational English. You may feel that such a use fills a desire on the part of the speakers to give more stature to themselves or to the person(s) being addressed. This may very well have its roots in the colloquial habit in Irish English of using himself and herself to show that a person of high rank is being discussed:

    “Is Himself having dinner at home tonight?” asked the cook.
     “I’ll have to check,” replied the butler.

But the following is an example that just demonstrates plain bad grammar – and this utterance was made by an educated speaker, mind you! Even though you can hear native speakers make this error, I don’t think it will ever become standard in the language:

They’ll just have to look up the property taxes themself.

  • Our house’s heating system needs to be revamped.
    The average income’s decline in the US shows the recession is still a big threat.
    Serious Problem Found in Cars’ Trunks

There was a time when we were taught that we should use the –s genitive for higher life forms (human beings and most animals) and for time expressions like today, last week, next month. We were also taught that there were pat phrases that used the –s genitive like your money’s worth and a stone’s throw from here and nouns that are commonly anthropomorphized like ships and celestial bodies: the Titanic’s hull, the moon’s gravitational pull. For inanimate objects and lower life forms like insects, we were taught to use the of genitive (e.g., the heating system of our house; the decline of the average income in the US). And, in other cases, we were taught to use noun adjuncts rather than any genitive form: car trunks; kitchen cabinets.

Now, it seems, anything goes. People use the –s genitive on just about any noun, as you can see in the examples that started off this section.                                                                    

  • I want them to pay for the damages they caused to my apartment.

I made mention of this change to the use of damage in a previous contribution to Teacher Talk entitled “Explain THIS, Part 4,” but I think it’s worth briefly mentioning it again. It used to be that damages referred to money awarded in court at the end of a law suit to a plaintiff for having suffered some kind of loss or injury caused by a defendant. But when referring to harm done to property, it’s been traditional to say damage, a singular, uncountable noun.

Well, that’s changing rapidly. More and more native speakers now say damages when referring to harm done to various parts of an object or various incidents of harm done to a property. Even judges are using damages instead of damage for harm done to different parts of something such as an apartment.

  • It was so fun!

This is interesting. When fun is used adjectivally, it traditionally comes before the noun it describes (e.g., It was a fun party. / We had a fun time at the beach yesterday).

But this kind of adjective is not used after a copula like be, so when we say It was fun, fun is actually an uncountable noun in this case. That’s why it’s not traditional to use so before it because we use so + an adjective, not a noun: so amusing, so entertaining, so enjoyable – but not so fun. If we want to use an uncountable noun like fun, we need to employ such: It was such fun. This traditional rule seems to be changing rapidly, though, for many native speakers.

  • Here’s another grammatical form that seems to be going through a transformation among native speakers, educated and uneducated alike. The past perfect, which has traditionally been used for the past subjunctive in imaginary sentences (She wishes she hadn’t flunked her midterm exam) and the past subjunctive in imaginary conditional sentences (If she hadn’t flunked the midterm, her parents wouldn’t have restricted her social activities so much), is being replaced with the simple past, which has traditionally been used for the present subjunctive in imaginary contexts (I wish I were rich. / If I were rich, I’d buy a castle in Ireland). So the simple past is being used in the subjunctive clause in both  present and past imaginary sentences. Here are examples:
    • He just wishes he knew more than he did when he made that decision.
    • If Babe Ruth wasn’t a pitcher at the beginning of his baseball career, he would probably have hit over a thousand homeruns.
    • If there wasn’t a firearm on the scene, tensions wouldn’t have escalated so much.
    • Do you feel you wouldn’t be here today if you didn’t have the pepper spray to protect you from that bear?
    • If we didn’t smell the gas leak when we did, the whole house could have blown up.

The currently correct grammatical version of these sentences is:

    • He just wishes he had known more than he did when he made that decision.
    • If Babe Ruth hadn’t been a pitcher at the beginning of his baseball career, he would probably have hit over a thousand homeruns.
    • If there hadn’t been a firearm on the scene, tensions wouldn’t have escalated so much.
    • Do you feel you wouldn’t be here today if you hadn’t had the pepper spray to protect you from that bear?
    • If we hadn’t smelled the gas leak when we did, the whole house could have blown up.


Comment from Melissa
April 23, 2013 at 4:53 pm

Great article! Thanks for the insight!

Comment from Richard Firsten
April 23, 2013 at 6:29 pm

You’re very welcome! I’m glad you liked it.

Comment from Ismael
May 4, 2013 at 1:13 pm

What I noticed after reading all the five articles is that speakers tend to use more simple forms than the complicated ones. I think this is natural.

Comment from Richard Firsten
May 4, 2013 at 2:53 pm

I’m afraid I have to disagree with your assessment.

First, the word ‘natural’ is very subjective and really doesn’t apply to language. What may be ‘natural’ in one language isn’t in another. Furthermore, there’s nothing ‘natural’ about saying ‘yourself’ instead of ‘you’ in the kinds of examples I’ve cited above.

Second, saying ‘yourself’ is not a simpler form than ‘you,’ just like saying ‘where’ is no more complicated than saying ‘when.’

You might want to rethink these ideas.

Comment from Eray
June 4, 2013 at 6:50 am

Dear Firsten, I need your email address.

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