Exploring language change

collins cobuild grammarThis article has been written by Penny Hands, who is one of the contributors to the Collins COBUILD English Grammar

When a new edition of a grammar is launched, teachers and students may well wonder what can be new about a grammar. We all know about new words, which grab the headlines at every new edition of a big dictionary, but what does an editor do when she is asked to update a pedagogical grammar, taking account of developments that have occurred in the language over the past 20-or-so years?

First, let’s look at why grammar changes and where, in the case of English at least, changes might come from.

Swan (2016) identifies eight reasons why the grammar of a language can change:

  1. Communicative need: despite modern English having only one form of the pronoun you for both singular and plural use, people still feel the need to distinguish between singular and plural. More about this later.
  2. Influence from other varieties: modern British English is constantly being influenced by American English, as well as the dialects of immigrants who settle in the UK, as can be seen in the rise of all-purpose question tags such as right? and innit.
  3. Languages simplify themselves: an example of this is the move away from the use of the past perfect, e.g. When I read over my essay again, I realized I made a mistake.
  4. Small distinctions are confused or disappear, as in those between less and fewer (e.g. There were less people there than last year) and who and whom (e.g. Who do you work for?).
  5. New forms and uses spread, as in what has become known as ‘quotative like’ (I was like, ‘What?’).
  6. ‘Outlawed’ forms become respectable again: people seem to be becoming more tolerant of uses that were, until recently, considered grammatically wrong. Examples of this type of thing are splitting infinitives, starting a sentence with a conjunction, and ending one with a preposition.
  7. ‘Mistakes’ become part of the language: in an earlier blogpost, we examined the grey area between mistakes and nonstandard English. Utterances such as Me and Amy went to the park, which might have been considered as mistakes until only recently, are now being gradually (and often grudgingly) accepted into the spoken language as they are used by increasing numbers of younger people.
  8. Phonetically weak forms disappear: particularly in spoken English, unstressed words and syllables gradually disappear over time, giving utterances like You gonna be long in there? or Gotta go now.

A ninth reason that I would add to Swan’s list is sociocultural change. This can be demonstrated by the fact that for many years, it was perfectly acceptable to refer back to an indefinite pronoun such as someone with a masculine pronoun (he, him) or a possessive determiner (his), as in Everyone should do his best. However, many people are no longer comfortable using a masculine form to refer to people in general – they feel that language should be less male-biased – and this has led to a sharp increase in the use of generic they/their.

As a first step then, when we were planning the latest edition of Collins COBUILD English Grammar, we identified several areas of the language where we had observed that things seemed to have changed. A team of researchers then used the Collins Corpus to trace their development over the past 20 years, with some interesting results.

We wanted to choose areas where we felt there had been a recent change, or where traditional explanations didn’t seem to tell the whole story. Here are the topics we selected:

1.   generic pronouns and determiners
2.   stative verbs used with progressive aspect
3.   unmodified much in affirmative statements
4.   be like as a reporting structure
5.   plural forms of you
6.   all-purpose question tags

For each area of grammar that we selected, we searched for examples of that grammar point in the Collins Corpus. We compared UK and US English and spoken and written English, and we also looked at how English has changed over the period in question. Paragraphs in bold below denote extracts from the latest edition of Collins COBUILD English Grammar.

The results were fascinating:

1. Generic pronouns and determiners: we found that generic they (or them, their, themselves) is much more frequent than either the masculine form he (or him, his, himself), or a gender-neutral alternative such as he or she. Generic they is becoming more frequent, and is found in both spoken and written English.

Generic they is also used in formal language, and it is even sometimes used when the gender is known (‘Ask the young mothers and no one will say they regret having their baby.’)

2. Stative verbs used with progressive aspect: despite the accepted ‘rule’ that stative verbs do not appear in progressive forms, we found lots of examples in the Collins Corpus where they occurred quite frequently and naturally in the progressive, and we’re not just talking about the famous I’m lovin’ it slogan. For example, we found verbs like want (as in I’ve been wanting to talk to you about this for a while) and forgetting (as in Oops, I’m forgetting my manners!), rolling naturally off people’s tongues.

          You can use the present perfect progressive or past perfect progressive with                         some stative verbs in both formal and informal contexts.

          I’ve been wanting to speak to you about this for some time.
          John has been keeping birds for about three years now.
          Then she heard it. The sound she had been hearing in her head for weeks.

3. Unmodified much in affirmative statements: the usual rule given in pedagogical grammars is that you use much with uncountable nouns and many with countable nouns. Some grammars also point out that they are not usually used in positive sentences (*We have many biscuits. *We have much time.)

We were interested in much because, to an even greater extent than many, it seems to be restricted mainly to questions and negatives, and to cases where it is modified by an adverb, e.g. too much, so much. Unmodified statements such as *We have much time and *I have much work to do seem incorrect, and we wanted to find out how frequent they are. We found that this usage had indeed fallen out of use over the last 20 years, but we also found that assertive, unmodified much does occur, naturally and abundantly, with certain nouns in a restricted set of semantic fields:

  • discussion (much talk/discussion/debate/argument)
  • thought (much speculation/deliberation/doubt)
  • study (much research/study)
  • attention (much attention/interest)
  • excitement (much excitement/laughter/fun/fanfare).

          In more formal English, much can be used in affirmative statements without
          an adverb. This usage is most common with abstract nouns, particularly those 
          relating to discussion, debate and research.

          The subject of company and annual accounts is generating much debate among
          accountants and analysts.
          The team’s findings have caused much excitement among medical experts.
          After much speculation, intelligence agencies now believe that he survived.

4. be like as a reporting verb: we were interested in this fairly new use, as in At first, I was like,no, what are you talking about? Our corpus research showed us that be like has become a lot more frequent over the past 20 years, especially in American English. The most common usage is in the first person (I was like … or We were like …), but we also found that the second most frequent usage is with it. It was like … or It’s like … is often used to sum up a general feeling or situation, for example, When I was a teenager, that song came on the radio and it was like, Oh, my God!

          Another reporting structure that is used in informal spoken English is be like. Be
          
like can represent either speech or thought. In writing, be like is usually followed
          by a comma. The quote is sometimes in quotation marks, and sometimes not.

          He got a call from Oprah, and he was like, ‘Of course I’ll go on your show.’
          He‘s like, ‘It’s boring! I hate chess!’ And I‘m like, ‘Please teach me!’
          The minute I met him, I was like, he’s perfect. 

          As with other reporting verbs, you can use be like with a noun or a person pronoun:
          for example, you can say She was like, …, The doctor was like, … or Jane was like, …,
          followed by the thing that she/the doctor/Jane said or thought.

          Unlike other reporting verbs, you can also use be like after the pronoun it. This
          structure is often used to present a mixture of speech and thought, or a general
          situation. For example, if you say It was like, Oh wow! it is possible that nobody
          actually said or thought Oh wow! Rather, the sentence gives us an idea of the
          situation and means something like It was amazing/surprising.

          So I get back in the bus, quarter of an hour passes and it’s like, Where’s Graham?
          When that happened it was like, Oh, no, not again.
          Be like always comes before the reported clause.

5. Plural forms of you: as mentioned earlier, you doubles up as both singular and plural second person pronoun in modern English, and mostly, it does quite a good job. However, people do sometimes need to make the distinction, and we were keen to find out more about how they do this. We looked at both lexicalized forms: you guys, you two, you both and you all, and more synthesized forms: yous, youse, youz, ye, yinz, y’all, and found that all types were alive and kicking, particularly on social media sites. The only form that had taken a downturn in UK English was you all, counterbalanced by a steep rise in the use of you guys.

          Some varieties and dialects of English have developed particular forms of
          plural you. In American English, particularly Southern American English, y’all is                     sometimes used, especially in speech.

          What did y’all eat for breakfast?
          I want to thank y’all.

          In some dialects of British and American English, yous and youse are used as plural               forms: I know what some of yous might be thinking. 

6. All-purpose question tags: this is one of the developments we’ve looked at for the latest edition, in particular question tags associated with other varieties of English (US, and increasingly UK, English, … right? and multicultural British English innit). We found a huge rise in the use of innit in British English, and these findings, alongside other emerging forms, have been translated into the new edition of Collins COBUILD English Grammar.

          In informal spoken English, you can use a one-word all-purpose question tag such               as right? or eh?

          You’re American, right?
          He’s a lawyer, right?
          Let’s talk about something else, eh?
          Not good, eh?

          In some varieties of English, particularly those spoken in India, Singapore and                       Malaysia, isn’t it? is used as an all-purpose question tag.

          We’ve seen that film already, isn’t it? 
          They’re arriving tomorrow, isn’t it?

          Informal multicultural British English uses the common all-purpose question tag                 innit (a shortened form of isn’t it), both with and without a rising question mark.

          It makes you think though, innit?
          It’s all just a bit of fun, innit?
          So eventually he gave me the sack, innit.

Have you noticed any developments in the grammar of English since you started learning or teaching it? To what extent do you think these new forms should be taught?

 

Explore this topic in greater detail with our free guided worksheet.

 

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References:

Swan, M. (2016) Practical English Usage Oxford University Press