Time-travelling verb tenses must will have existed

January 20, 2014

Brian Clegg’s entertaining pop-physics book Build Your Own Time Machine: The Real Science of Time Travel (2011) has a couple of amusing examples of how grammar gets wonky when you’re talking about time travel. The first example comes in a discussion of what’s called the block universe model, which encompasses “all of space and all time that will ever be”:

If the block universe is the correct picture, even if we managed to travel backward in time, we could never do anything that would change the future, at least within a particular quantum version of the universe. Because the future and the past already exist in the block, any action we take must already exist. (We have trouble with tenses emerging from time travel here. It might be more accurate to say that any action must will have existed.)

Later, Clegg talks about “Destination Day” in Perth, when a time and place were announced to welcome possible visitors from the future. (Similar events have taken place in MIT and Baltimore.) Note that the DD website is no longer directly accessible and can be reached only in cached form via tools like the Wayback Machine – the internet equivalent of time travel. Clegg:

I can’t find any official description of what happened that day in Perth, but I suspect there was some form of welcoming committee, eagerly anticipating visitors from the future to pop into existence. Of course now March 31, 2005, is in the past, and we aren’t so much awaiting them as we have been were awaiting them.

Have been were awaiting: lovely. I recently noted that English has no future tense, but whether the grammar of time travel would be easier if it did is a question for another day. As things stand English verb tenses, Clegg concludes, “definitely aren’t designed to cope with time travel”. This is good to already will have known.


I’m on [verb]

January 14, 2014

The English language has no future tense. To refer to the future, we use various strategies with verbs in present tense (some of them auxiliaries):

I will run
I will be running
I shall run
I’m going to run
I am to run next
I’m running tomorrow
I run next Friday

Because we can conceptualise the future and it plays a big role in our lives, we talk about it often. Naturally, then, the ways we talk about it are subject to pressures of economy, resulting in contraction, e.g.:

I will run → I’ll run
I am going to run → I’m gonna/gon’ run
I’m gonna run → I’mna run → I’ma/Imma run

I’ll is acceptable in Standard English; gonna/gon’ and I’mna/I’ma/Imma are not, though you may see them in dialogue or informal writing or use some of them yourself in everyday speech – gonna is especially widespread.

Recently I came across another form: I’m on [verb]. It seems similar to I’ma and I’m gon’, but I don’t know exactly how or when it developed. Here’s the example I saw, in Elmore Leonard’s novel Mr. Paradise:

“You know who put the stuff on you?”

“Somebody close to me, his girlfriend’s punk-ass brother. Is how it goes. But listen, I’m on tell you something, I was scared.”

“I would be too,” Delsa said.

I’m on [verb] doesn’t appear to be common, at least in written English, though Google led me to this line from Kathryn Stockett’s The Help: “Today I’m on tell you bout a man from outer space.” And in GloWbE I found: “Law have mercy. I reckon I’m on do it.” (from ‘Entrepreneurs are a first world Phenomenon’ by John Egan).

Based on the few examples I’ve seen, my guess is that I’m on [verb], like I’ma, is originally and still chiefly AAVE. But I’m open to correction, and to other thoughts you might have on it. I’m on wait and see now.

Edit:

I forgot that Mark Liberman looked at this on Language Log a couple of years ago: ‘Gonna, gone, onna, a — on?‘. He begins with a different example from Elmore Leonard (“I’m on get you to the hospital”, from Raylan), and links to an older post, ‘”on” time’, that deals with the same passage I quote above.

Both posts offer helpful analysis of the construction and its various pronunciations and spellings. Thanks to @f_moncomble for the reminder.

 


Ghostly fetches and dialect features

November 7, 2013

This should have gone out at Halloween, but anyway. Based on my regard for Daniel Woodrell I was given a copy of The Cove by Ron Rash, and the recommendation was fully justified: the story is engrossing and poetic, lingering in memory. Set in rural North Carolina, it’s also rich in local dialect, and contains an unusual sense of the word fetch:

There were stories of hunters who’d come into the cove and never been seen again, a place where ghosts and fetches wandered.

I had to look it up to remember it. The American Heritage Dictionary says it’s a ghost, apparition, or doppelgänger, calling it chiefly British, while the OED defines it more narrowly as “the apparition, double, or wraith of a living person”. Its etymology is uncertain, though it may derive from the older compound fetch-life, which referred to a messenger that came to fetch a dying person’s soul.

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Book review: Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch: Let Verbs Power Your Writing

February 10, 2013

Vex, Hex, Smash, Smooch is the memorable name of a new book by Constance Hale; its subtitle, Let Verbs Power Your Writing, reveals it to be a handbook for the craft. In its introduction Hale sets out her primary aim – to teach “the art of making sentences that are as enticing, graceful, sexy, and smooth as the tango” by shining a light on what “pulses . . . at the heart of English”: verbs.

The smoochworthy title, we soon learn, is not just a list of fetching verbs but a structural device. Each chapter has a Vex section that lays out a problem, dipping into history, linguistics and grammar; a Hex section that addresses and dismantles myths; a Smash section that analyses bad writing habits; and a Smooch section that showcases writing “so good you’ll want to kiss its creator”.

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Who (be) takin’ it to the man

December 3, 2012

African American Vernacular English (AAVE) – without getting into its terminological complications – has a versatile and distinctive grammar for conveying aspect.* For one thing, it can omit the copula be in some situations: She is working todayShe working today.

This is known as copula deletion, zero copula, or zero auxiliary. The American Heritage Dictionary says it’s “even more characteristic of AAVE than is invariant habitual be”. The latter, as in She be working, differs from zero copula in that it refers mainly to habitual or prolonged action.

The two constructions – zero copula and habitual/invariant be – are sometimes confused by people unfamiliar with AAVE’s syntactic subtleties, as the dictionary’s fifth edition reports:

In place of the inflected forms of be, such as is and are, used in Standard English, [AAVE] and some varieties of Southern American English may use zero copula, as in He working, or an invariant be, as in He be working, instead of the Standard English He is working. As an identifying feature of the vernacular of many African Americans, invariant be has been frequently seized on by writers and commentators trying to imitate or parody black speech. However, most imitators use it simply as a substitute for is, as in John be sitting in that chair now, without realizing that within AAVE, invariant be is used primarily for habitual or extended actions set in the present.

You can read more about the usages here, and via the previous link, both of which point to an earlier edition of the AHD.

George Pelecanos - King Suckerman book coverThe distinction gets a nice mention in George Pelecanos’s crime novel King Suckerman. Two characters, Rasheed and Cheek, are talking about the eponymous (fictional) blaxploitation film showing in their city:

“What new one?” said Rasheed.

King Suckerman,” said Cheek.

Rasheed looked up. “That the one about the pimp?”

“Not any old pimp. The baddest player ever was. ‘The Man with the Master Plan Who Be Takin’ It to the Man.’”

Who be. That’s what the ad says, huh? I bet some white man wrote that movie; produced it, too. Even wrote that line about ‘the Man’ that’s gonna get you in the theatre.”

King Suckerman hasn’t always been “takin’ it to the man” – at least not in a way worth making a film about – but he is doing so now. Who be takin’ it to the man indicates ongoing rebellion; who takin’ it to the man would imply more immediate (and hence cinematic) events. So we infer that whoever was responsible for the tagline is not a native AAVE speaker.

John Rickford says the invariant habitual be construction “has clear parallels with and possible derivations from creole ‘does be’”. Does be is a feature of Hiberno-English too, but I’ll leave that discussion for another time. Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage summarises:

The ability of a verb form or auxiliary to indicate continuation or duration of an action is called by grammarians and linguists aspect. Since English is somewhat deficient in aspect, compared to some other languages, these dialectal forms [Black English and Hiberno-English] do constitute an enrichment of the language. But they are not yet available to the writer of ordinary standard English, and no one knows if they ever will be.

*

* Grammatical aspect is defined by Huddleston and Pullum as “a verbal category mainly indicating the speaker’s view of the temporal structure of the situation the clause describes, such as whether it is habitual or complete”. For more, see SIL and Glottopedia.


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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Irregular verbs, dialects, and sockpuppets

September 24, 2012

I have a few new posts up at Macmillan Dictionary Blog. First up, Irregular ours considers irregular verbs, whose familiarity obscures their peculiarity – most pronounced in everyday words like be and go:

Irregular verbs can be awkward items for students, requiring to be learned (or learnt) by heart rather than by a simple rule. But they are also historical artefacts that have stubbornly withstood (not withstanded) the pressure to conform, and they shed light on the shapes and structure of English morphology – word formation – as it has unfolded over the centuries.

The post also looks at how new irregulars (snuck, knelt) sometimes appear; how old ones (holp, brung) survive in regional dialects; and how irregular forms, far from being chaotic, tend to follow patterns and sub-rules of their own.

Dialects in dialogue continues the theme, briefly discussing regional variation, how conformity squeezed it out of the emerging standard variety of English, and how authors continued to convey it through the technique of ‘eye dialect’:

Variation in language goes beyond inflection and vocabulary, of course. In everyday encounters it is most noticeable in our accents. As children we learn sounds from the people around us, typically our families, neighbours and peers, and we imbue our accent with qualities all our own. The signature sound of our voice is the result of a unique anatomy, personality, and social environment. . . .

Spelling became largely standardised as Middle English developed gradually into Early Modern English. But authors continued to exploit the features of regional speech, which retained – and still retains – old grammatical and phonetic variants. [read more]

Finally, On the metaphor of sock puppets addresses the term sock puppet in its new online incarnation. Describing it as “the use of a fake identity online for the purposes of talking about oneself, typically in a self-promoting way”, I examine the term’s connotations and appropriateness, especially in light of the etymology of puppet and the other metaphorical uses to which it is put:

The fun and friendly feel of sock puppets, perhaps helped by puppet‘s similarity to poppet and indeed puppy, seems awkwardly at odds with the sneaky behaviour it has come to mean. At first glance the term doesn’t fit well with the usual metaphors of deception, which evoke things that are dark, down, dirty and hidden – not playful and brightly coloured. But when we look at puppet’s other metaphorical uses, we see it’s not such a leap. [read more]

Older posts are available in my archive at Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

Slightly sinister sock puppet image via Wikimedia Commons.


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