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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

Futurity

collins cobuild grammar

 

This article has been written by Damian Williams, who is an ELT author and teacher trainer.

 

Very early on in my teaching career, I remember addressing a class of Russian teenagers with the statement, ‘Will is the future tense in English.’ It was only later as I started developing as a teacher and gaining greater insight into the grammatical system of English that I started to see that there’s much more to will than meets the eye. Consider the following examples:

               A: Where’s Ben?
               B: Oh, it’s 4 p.m., he’ll be in the pub.

Or:

               I sent her the documents two weeks ago, so she’ll have received them by last Friday.

In the examples above we can see that will refers to the present (first example), and the past (second example). So what’s going on here? Collins COBUILD English Grammar (2017) has this to say on futurity in English:

                It is not possible to talk with as much certainty about the future as it is about the                           present or past. Any reference you make to future events is therefore usually an                             expression of what you think might happen or what you intend to happen.

In fact there is no future tense in English, per se. What we have instead is a myriad of different ways of describing the future, depending on how we view the events. In our earlier post on modality and conditionals, we described all modals as allowing us to add our attitude to what we’re saying. Will is a modal, and when we add it to a sentence, what we’re saying is that from everything we know about the situation, we see the event as inevitable. In this sense, it’s a way of making predictions about inevitable outcomes, and that’s exactly what’s happening in the two examples above. But this doesn’t make it a future tense.

This perception of will as a future tense often gets carried over into what are described as the future progressive and the future perfect ‘tenses’. But as we saw in an earlier post, what we’re really describing here is aspect rather than tense. Consider this example:

               This time next year I’ll be studying for my finals.

Here, we’re using will as a modal to show what we think of as the inevitable outcome of being in our penultimate year of university, coupled with the progressive aspect to show this will be in progress at a particular point in the future.

Now consider this example:

               By the time she’s 40 she’ll have been a teacher for 15 years.

Here, we’re again using the modal will, but this time along with the perfect aspect to show an action that’s true now and will continue up to that point.

There are various other ways of talking about the future in English, such as using the present simple to describe events we have no control over (e.g. I’m 27 next year). We also use be going to to describe plans/intentions (e.g. I’m going to start a band this summer), the present progressive to describe arrangements (e.g. I’m having dinner with an old friend tomorrow), be to for formal arrangements and instructions (e.g. The President is to announce a new tax on property), and be due to and be about to for events we expect to happen soon (e.g. The train’s about to leave).

And those are just the grammatical ways of expressing future time. We can also express future events lexically; certain verbs, for example, have a future meaning (e.g. promise, expect, hope, etc.). These verbs are usually followed by an infinitive. Collins COBUILD English Grammar also gives us ways of making our references to the future more vague (e.g. by adding an adverbial phrase such as one of these days, sometime, sooner or later).

The way in which we talk about the future does not depend only on how we perceive the event, but also on how we want it to be perceived. For example, if I’m at my in-laws and I want to watch the football, I could say, ‘I’m going to watch the football’. However, I don’t want it to be seen as a plan or intention, so I might instead go for something like, ‘I’ll just see what’s on TV … Oh look, it’s the football!’

Consider the following exchanges, too:

1
A:          Hi Damian, would you like to come to my English grammar party on Saturday night?
B:          Oh, I’m sorry, I’m going to watch a movie that night.

2
A:          Hi Damian, would you like to come to my English grammar party on Saturday night?
B:          Oh, I’m sorry, I’m watching a movie that night.

Consider which is likely to get a response of Don’t do that. Come to the party instead! and which is likely to elicit Oh, OK then. Have fun!. Most likely, conversation 1 will get the first response and conversation 2 will get the second, as the response in conversation 2 sounds like a firmer arrangement.

Learners looking for a quick and easy-to-learn ‘future tense’ in English may initially be disappointed. But once they have an understanding of the ways the language can be manipulated, they will have at their disposal a wealth of ways to express themselves. Being in possession of all the available options also gives them access to a much more expressive and malleable area of language than they would get with a hard-and-fast tense with strict rules. After all, why have water when you can have fresh juice?

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

Grammar and register


This article has been written by Julie Moore, who is an ELT materials developer and lexicographer.

Our last post focused on the difference between a prescriptive and a descriptive approach to grammar. A descriptive grammar, such as the Collins COBUILD English Grammar, describes the language which people actually use, and draws from that a set of norms for usage. These norms, in turn, are used to help learners use English in a way that will, hopefully, come across as normal and natural.

While it doesn’t make judgments about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ grammar, a descriptive grammar does, however, still need to draw distinctions about what is typical in different contexts and what is therefore generally considered appropriate. Language which is perfectly normal in everyday conversation or in social media chat, for example, may be inappropriate or even unacceptable in an academic essay or a business report.  The idea that different types of language are typically used in different contexts is known as register.

Spoken vs written language:

Perhaps the most obvious distinction to make is between spoken and written language. As corpus linguists have begun to study the grammar of not just written texts but of spoken, conversational English as well, a number of important differences have become apparent in the way we use language when we speak and when we write. Carter and McCarthy (2015) highlight two broad differences:

  1. They explain that some of the established grammatical features found in writing need to be rethought when it comes to speaking. For example, whereas written language has clear sentences, spoken language tends to be instead structured around turns, where each turn may or may not consist of what we’d conventionally think of as a complete sentence.
  2. They point out the existence of small words or phrases in spoken language which stand on their own and function independently of grammatical structures, for example, well, anyway, fine, and great.

Consider the following dialogue between two students in a university library. What do you notice about the structure of the turns? Could any of them be considered fully-formed sentences?

A: You finished yet?shutterstock_521796607
B: Nearly.
A: Want to go and grab a coffee?
B: When I get to the end of this bit, maybe.
A: Okay, fine.
B: You go. I’ll be there in a bit.

Only the final turn here contains what we’d conventionally recognise as a fully-formed sentence. So why is this ‘looser’ approach to grammar acceptable in speech but not necessarily in writing? A lot comes down to shared understanding and context. When you’re talking to someone face-to-face, you rely a lot on the shared context (i.e. you and your listener are in the same place, at the same time, looking at the same surroundings) and your shared understanding – about each other and why you’re there. This means that there’s a lot that can remain unsaid, and this is what Carter and McCarthy (2015) term ‘situational ellipsis’. In writing, we generally have to be more explicit because we don’t share the same immediate context as our reader. That means we have to fill the ‘information gap’ between us, especially if our potential audience is unknown. We have to spell things out clearly to make sure our reader understands our message; we can’t judge by their expression whether they’ve understood or whether they look a bit puzzled, and they can’t signal understanding or ask for clarification.

Audience and purpose:

The register you choose, whether in speech or writing, also depends very much on your audience and purpose. Imagine, for example, that you witness a minor car accident in the street and you react in the following three ways.

  1. You take a picture and post it on social media with a comment.
  2. You tell your family about what happened when you get home.
  3. One of the drivers takes your contact details and some time later you receive a letter from her insurance company asking you to write a report of what you saw.

shutterstock_20978257

In each of the three situations, how might your language differ in terms of …
– the amount of detail you include?
– vocabulary?
– grammar?

Which of the following examples do you think might be used in each context? Which grammatical features give you a clue?

At 8.30 on the morning of 25 January 2017, I was walking along Clifton Road.
Nasty smash on Clifton Rd … no one hurt, but road blocked & loads of traffic backing up.
The guy was going way too fast, he was never going to stop.
The black vehicle may have been travelling above the speed limit.

The very careful, formalized order of the time adverbials in the first example signals a (semi)legal register. This is how police reports typically describe the time of events and it’s a form that lay people who find themselves in a legal context, such as writing a statement to an insurance company, tend to adopt. As well as it just being ‘the norm’, we use this type of language because we understand the need to be clear and accurate, and to provide as much detail as possible in this particular context; we recognize the purpose of the communication as well as the audience.

In the second and third examples, we see instances of slightly more informal grammatical forms – loads of … and way too + qualitative adjective – which are typical of speech or informal writing, such as on social media. Whereas in the final example, the use of may have to express possibility is a slightly more formal choice than might have or could have. Collins COBUILD English Grammar includes many more examples of grammatical features typically used more in formal or informal registers.

Specialized registers:

As well as the broad register categories of spoken and written or formal and informal, certain features are typical of a more specialized register. We’ve already seen an example of a legal register; some other features most usually found in specialized contexts include:

  • Literary: Her pale face grew paler yet. (yet after a comparative adjective)
  • Old-fashioned or very formal: It is my decision, is it not? (an uncontracted negative tag)
  • Technical: non-ferrous metals such as copper, lead and aluminium (a normally uncountable (mass) noun being used in the plural form to refer to different types of a substance)
  • Academic: a clear demonstration of the brain mechanisms at work (a long noun phrase) 

What happens if you break the rules?

Throughout this post, I’ve been using lots of hedging language – typically, usually, tend to – because I’ve been describing tendencies rather than hard-and-fast rules. Of course, speakers break them all time. But what happens when we get a mismatch in register? The text below is from a television advert (for totaljobs.com). It’s delivered by a primary school teacher addressing a group of five-year-olds:

I put it to you that on the morning of the 17th you did enter the Story Time Corner and with malice aforethought you did inflict grievous injury upon one Mr Boo-Boo Bananas.

The effect here is humorous because the use of typically legal language sticks out as marked in the context. This is fine if you’re aiming for humour, but less good if you’re a learner who inadvertently uses linguistic features that don’t match the communicative context. In the classroom, we tend to mention register in relation to vocabulary (children vs. kids, thank you vs. cheers), but if we’re going to help our students avoid embarrassing faux pas, then it’s something to bring up in relation to grammar too.

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


References:
Carter, R. & McCarthy, M. (2015) ‘Spoken Grammar: Where Are We and Where Are We Going?’ Applied Linguistics