The Imperfect Perfect

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
This essay deals with some aspects of changes in American English usage that I find puzzling.

Submitted: December 09, 2018

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Submitted: December 09, 2018

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The Imperfect Perfect

I know that languages change over time. That’s completely natural, but sometimes, I don’t understand the linguistic advantages. I know that expressions and word usage are subject to influences from subcultures that are fashionable. A word like cool is a good example. Originally used in the subculture of jazz musicians, it slowly became a word immense numbers of people started to use, so it became a mainstream word. There’s nothing wrong with adding a new word to our vocabulary in a way that enriches the language.

What I don’t understand is the willingness to accept linguistic mistakes as being acceptable in mainstream usage. Having been a teacher of English for more than twenty-five years, I observe what is going on, and I find it beyond comprehension. Have a look at the following example.

The dog has bit me.

A clear example of a sentence that pretends to use a present perfect. It isn’t a present perfect, because the perfect form of the verb to bite is the word bitten, as every speaker of English should know. Whenever I watch a newsreel on television, I even hear presenters, journalists and anchors use the past tense form of irregular verbs as an acceptable component of the present perfect. It always makes me smile. If this happened in Dutch, people would regard the speaker to be incapable of using his/her native language, and he/she would be made fun of.

I understand that languages are fluid, and words appearring or disappearring are part of that fluidity.  I don’t judge that.  I am curious about the linguistic process operating here. There was a perfectly good solution for expressing yourself in those situations where the present perfect is needed, yet suddenly people started to use verb forms that used to be wrong in those situations. One could say that bitten is a longer word than bit, and that’s why people opt for a shorter word. I don’t think that is the case. Laziness can’t be the reason. Especially in speech, the length of a word does not really matter. It may be different for the written form, but I presume that this particular usage has an oral origin.

The most likely candidate for initiating this linguistic change may be found in some subculture. Then it becomes even more of a conundrum. I can understand that subcultures add descriptive words to a language, but how does this work on a grammatical level? What are the pay-offs for using those forms on a structural level. What would Noam Chomsky have to say on this matter?

 A similar development can be seen in the usage of the verb to do.  Foreign students of English find it confusing that the rule says that the following forms need to be used: he doesn’t, she doesn’t and it doesn’t, whereas native speakers of American English often - but not every one  -  use the form don’t instead.

This strange linguistic change can also be found in the use of word categories. When I hear my American in-laws use words like meet istead of meeting, or invite instead of invitation. I wonder what is going on, and which words are going to change in a similar way in the near future?

Perhaps the fact that I am interested in these linguistic mechanisms, proves that I am not

cool.


© Copyright 2019 Bert Broomberg. All rights reserved.

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