Would of, could of, might of, must of

October 23, 2012

When we say would have, could have, should have, must have, might have, may have and ought to have, we often put some stress on the modal auxiliary and none on the have. We may show this in writing by abbreviating to could’ve, must’ve, etc. (Would can contract further by merging with the subject: We would have → We’d’ve.)

Unstressed ’ve is phonetically identical (/əv/) to unstressed of: hence the widespread misspellings would of, could of, should of, must of, might of, may of, and ought to of. Negative forms also appear: shouldn’t of, mightn’t of, etc. This explanation – that misanalysis of the notorious schwa lies behind the error – has general support among linguists.

The mistake dates to at least 1837, according to the OED, so it has probably been infuriating pedants for almost 200 years. Common words spelt incorrectly provoke particular ire, sometimes accompanied by aspersions cast on the writer’s intelligence, fitness for society, degree of evolution, and so on. But there’s no need for any of that.

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John Searle on language, literacy, and the mind

January 17, 2012

Written language is where language acquires not just a much greater creative power but an enduring power…

Below is a short, lively interview with philosopher John Searle on language and the mind, in particular the impact of spoken and written language on human cognition, culture, and civilisation.

Total running time is approx. 23 minutes, in three parts; transcript link is below:

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Language correctness, corruption, and doom

March 17, 2011

Robert Lane Greene, of The Economist’s language blog Johnson, wrote a guest post recently for the New York Times on a subject that crops up regularly in popular discussions about grammar and education: that the language itself is in terminal decline, and may be on the very brink of doom.

Greene sensibly argues against assuming the worst. That language is degenerating calamitously is a perennial lament from a subset of prescriptivists. These laments usually bypass historical evidence. Minimal investigation shows that for centuries critics have conflated languages’ mutability with decay and sometimes imminent destruction. As Greene puts it: “Change must be bad, they reckon, because the language they once learned in school was good.”

It just doesn’t add up. When I mentioned on Twitter that I was writing this post, Merriam-Webster’s Kory Stamper told me: “When correspondents write in to bewail the death of English, I like to tell them the Anglo-Saxons of 1100AD felt the same way.”

Declarations of doom are often an excuse to vent about what’s (mis)construed as good or bad usage, and sometimes to have a go at younger generations from whom the disparager feels alienated. Henry Hitchings wrote that purists are “heavily invested . . . in a fantasy of the status quo”. They want to see the rules they were taught upheld and enforced in perpetuity, whether or not these rules have grammatical validity, and they reject alternative styles because it’s simpler to have One Right Way – the way they’re most familiar with. But what’s correct varies with dialect and context: it depends on the correctness conditions.

“Who wants to listen to someone with fictional authority making up rules?” asks Gabe Doyle, quite reasonably. It’s more interesting and worthwhile to learn what constitutes a grammatical error, and to consider how we decide. But alarmist dogma makes better copy than complicated truth, just as an emotive rant is typically more entertaining than a balanced assessment. Jonathan Swift’s tirade is among the most famous of the former, with its memorable fixation on “decay”, “ruinous corruption”, “the maiming of our language”, and the “barbarous” abuse of not pronouncing past tense -ed as a separate syllable. Honestly.

Fear not: grammar rules are not divinely ordained.

It’s an understandable conceit of each generation to claim special status for its own era: never more chaotic, never more exceptional, never more imperilled. The Austrian writer Hans Weigel exemplified this paradoxical position in his book Die Leiden der jungen Wörter (The Sorrows of Young Words):

Every age claims that its language is more endangered and threatened by decay than ever before. In our time, however, language really is endangered and threatened by decay as never before.

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