12 April 2015

I would of written this headline properly, but...

I wanted to revisit an old theme today. A lot of people still complain about people writing would of instead of would have. There's a saying in linguistics: there's no such thing as a common error (for native speakers) because standard language is (or should be) a statistical norm of what people actually say or write, and a legitimate standard is one that accepts all common variations (hence modern English spellcheckers accepting both "all right" and "alright" -- and as if just to cause maximum embarassment, the Firefox spellchecker doesn't like "alright"... or "spellchecker").

If people write "would of", it's because in their internal model of the English language, they do not see the verb "to have" in there at all. I was looking back at an earlier blog post on this topic, and I saw that I used the phrase "the "error" only occurs when have is used as a second auxiliary". Spot the mistake.

Standard Modern English clauses can only ever have one auxiliary -- there is no "I will can..." or "I would can...", you either have to switch to a copular construction ("I will be able to...") or inflect, eg can to could: I could tell him (if you want).

The have of the perfect aspect in English has traditionally been slightly ambiguous as to whether it's an auxiliary or not. Placement of adverbs gives us an indication of what's going on: "I always have time for it" is fine where "*I have always time for it" feels quite odd and stilted, whereas perfect have is perfectly OK with having such adverbs after it, which makes it look like an auxiliary: "I have always been lucky".

Negatives (and questions) take us further: "I don't have a car" is far more natural to many English speakers than "I haven't a car", but "*I don't have been to Russia" is clearly wrong, and "I haven't been to Russia" is the only possible correction.

So, let's say that the history of the perfect-aspect-have has been one of becoming more and more like the auxiliary verbs. English has, over time, lost the ability to have more than one auxiliary verb in a clause. Those two changes, taken in parallel, means the construction "would have" is in the process of becoming impossible in English.

What do we have instead? Well, like I said before, I see it as the formation of a new suffix, one that is applied to auxiliary verbs to indicate perfect aspect.

I would argue that we already have one established, recognised auxiliary suffix in English: -ould. This first appeared as "would" (or rather "wolde"), the past form (both indicative and subjunctive of "willan" (will). Notice that there are two changes here -- firstly the grammatical vowel change i->o (->ou), and the suffixing of past D. The same changes from first principles could describe shall giving us should, even though the exact vowel change is different, but cannot account for can giving us could, as the N->L change isn't typical in English. Furthermore, it is not a commonly observed pattern for people to spell could would and should differently. Therefore -ould must be a single morpheme common to all three words.

If this is the case, then adding another suffix to that seems perfectly sensible, and we've got coulda, woulda, shoulda; or could've, would've, should've; or coodov, woodov, shoodov or however you want to write it.

Of course, this same perfective suffix can be applied to certain auxiliaries without the -ould suffix:
  • must: that must've been him etc.
  • will: he'll've been told by now
And yet "must" is already practically dead (we all use have to/have got to) in normal usage, leaving "will" rather isolated as the only non-ould auxiliary to take [ha]ve, so even that might slip out of usage fairly quickly.

The case for writing "have" is purely etymological, it doesn't fit the evidence from "mistakes", and it presents a rather more complex model of the language than the alternative I present. It's a complexity that is possible, but I believe only insofar as it is as a transitional form between two stable conditions. I think we should let the language take that final evolutionary step to find a stable state.

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