H.L. Mencken > The American Language > Chapter 9. The Common Speech > 3. The Verb
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H.L. Mencken (1880–1956).  The American Language.  1921.
 
3. The Verb
 
A study of the materials amassed by Charters and Lardner, if it be reinforced by observation of what is heard on the streets every day, will show that the chief grammatical peculiarities of spoken American lie among the verbs and pronouns. The nouns in common use, in the overwhelming main, are quite sound in form. Very often, of course, they do not belong to the vocabulary of English, but they at least belong to the vocabulary of American: the proletariat, setting aside transient slang, calls things by their proper names, and pronounces those names more or less correctly. The adjectives, too, are treated rather politely, and the adverbs, though commonly transformed into adjectives, are not further mutilated. But the verbs and pronouns undergo changes which set off the common speech very sharply from both correct English and correct American. Their grammatical relationships are thoroughly overhauled and sometimes they are radically modified in form.   1
  This process is natural and inevitable, for it is among the verbs and pronouns, as we have seen, that the only remaining grammatical inflections in English, at least of any force or consequence, are to be found, and so they must bear the chief pressure of the influences that have been warring upon all inflections since the earliest days. The primitive Indo-European language, it is probable, had eight cases of the noun; the oldest known Teutonic dialect reduced them to six; in Anglo-Saxon they fell to four, with a weak and moribund instrumental hanging in the air; in Middle English the dative and accusative began to decay; in Modern English they have disappeared altogether, save as ghosts to haunt grammarians. But we still have two plainly defined conjugations of the verb, and we still inflect it for number, and, in part, at least, for person. And we yet retain an objective case of the pronoun, and inflect it for person, number and gender.   2
  Some of the more familiar conjugations of verbs in the American common speech, as recorded by Charters or Lardner or derived from my own collectanea, are here set down:
 
PresentPreteritePerfect Participle
Amwasbin (or ben) 26
Attackattacktedattackted
(Be) 27wasbin (or ben)
Beatbeatenbeat
Become 28becomebecame
Beginbegunbegan
Bendbentbent
Betbetbet
Bindboundbound
Bitebittenbit
Bleedbledbled
Blowblowed (or blew)blowed (or blew)
Breakbrokenbroke
Bringbrought (or brung, or brang)brung
Broke (passive)brokebroke
Buildbuiltbuilt
Burnburnt 29burnt
Burst 30
Bustbustedbusted
Buybought (or boughten)bought (or boughten)
Cancouldcould
Catchcaught 31caught
Choosechosechoose
Climbclumclum
Cling (to hold fast)clungclung
Cling (to ring)clangclang
Comecomecame
Creepcrep (or crope)crep
Crowcrowed (or crew)crowed
Cutcutcut
Daredared (or dast) 32dared
Dealdole 33dealt
Digdugdug
Divedove 34dived
Dodonedone (or did)
Dragdrugdragged
Drawdraweddrawed (or drew)
Dreamdremptdrempt
Drinkdrank (or drunk)drank
Drivedrovedrove
Drowndrowndeddrownded
Eatet (or eat)ate (or et)
Fallfell (or fallen)fell
Feedfedfed
Feelfeltfelt
Fetchfetched 35fetch
Fightfought 36fought
Findfoundfound
Finefoundfound
Flingflangflung
Flowflewflowed
Flyflewflew
Forgetforgot (or forgotten)forgotten
Forsakeforsakenforsook
Freezefrozen (or froze) 37frozen
Getgot (or gotten)gotten
Givegivegive
Glideglode 38glode
Gowentwent
Growgrowedgrowed
Hanghung 39hung
Havehadhad (or hadden)
Hearheerdheerd (or heern)
Heathet 40het
Heavehovehove
Hidehiddenhid
H’ist 41h’istedh’isted
Hithithit
Holdheltheld (or helt)
Hollerholleredhollered
Hurthurthurt
Keepkepkep
Kneelkneltknelt
Knowknowedknew
Laylaid (or lain)laid
Leadledled
Leanlentlent
Leapleplep
Learnlearntlearnt
Lendloanedloaned
Lie (to falsify)liedlied
Lie (to recline)laid (or lain)laid
Lightlitlit
Loose 42
Loselostlost
Makemademade
Maymight’a
Meanmeantmeant
Meetmetmet
Mowmownmowed
Paypaidpaid
Pleadpledpled
Proveproved (or proven)proven
Putputput
Quitquitquit
Raiseraisedraised
Readreadread
Rench 43renchedrenched
Ridridrid
Rideriddenrode
Rile 44riledriled
Ringrungrang
Riseriz (or rose)riz
Runrunran
Saysezsaid
Seeseensaw
Sellsoldsold
Sendsentsent
Setset 45sat
Shakeshaken (or shuck)shook
Shaveshavedshaved
Shedshedshed
Shine (to polish)shinedshined
Shoeshoedshoed
Shootshotshot
Showshownshowed
Singsungsang
Sinksunksank
Sit 46
Skinskunskun
Sleepslepslep
Slideslidslid
Slingslangslung
Slitslittedslitted
Smellsmeltsmelt
Sneaksnucksnuck
Speedspeededspeeded
Spellspeltspelt
Spillspiltspilt
Spinspanspan
Spitspitspit
Spoilspoiltspoilt
Springsprungsprang
Stealstolestole
Stingstangstang
Stinkstankstunk
Strikestruckstruck
Swearsworeswore
Sweepswepswep
Swellswole (or swelled)swollen
Swimswumswam
Swingswangswung
Taketakentook
Teachtaughttaught
Teartoretorn
Telltoletole
Thin 47
Thinkthought 48thought
Thrivethrovethrove
Throwthrowedthrew
Treadtreadtread
Unloosenunloosenedunloosened
Wakewokewoken
Wearworewore
Weepwepwep
Wetwetwet
Winwon (or wan) 49won (or wan)
Windwoundwound
Wish (wisht)wishtwisht
Wringwrungwrang
Writewrittenwrote
 
   3
  A glance at these conjugations is sufficient to show several general tendencies, some of them going back, in their essence, to the earliest days of the English language. The most obvious is that leading to the transfer of verbs from the so-called strong conjugation to the weak—a change already in operation before the Norman Conquest, and very marked during the Middle English period. Chaucer used growed for grew in the prologue to “The Wife of Bath’s Tale,” and rised for rose and smited for smote are in John Purvey’s edition of the Bible, circa 1385. Many of these transformations were afterward abandoned, but a large number survived, for example, climbed for clomb as a preterite of to climb, and melted for molt as the preterite of to melt. Others showed themselves during the early part of the Modern English period. Comed as the perfect participle of to come and digged as the preterite of to dig are both in Shakespeare, and the latter is also in Milton and in the Authorized Version of the Bible. This tendency went furthest, of course, in the vulgar speech, and it has been embalmed in the English dialects. I seen and I knowed, for example, are common to many of them. But during the seventeenth century it seems to have been arrested, and even to have given way to a contrary tendency—that is, toward strong conjugations. The English of Ireland, which preserves many seventeenth century forms, shows this plainly. Ped for paid, gother for gathered, and ruz for raised are still in use there, and Joyce says flatly that the Irish, “retaining the old English custom (i. e., the custom of the period of Cromwell’s invasion, circa 1650), have a leaning toward the strong inflection.” 50 Certain verb forms of the American colonial period, now reduced to the estate of localisms, are also probably survivors of the seventeenth century.   4
  “The three great causes of change in language,” says Sayce, “may be briefly described as (1) imitation or analogy, (2) a wish to be clear and emphatic, and (3) laziness. Indeed, if we choose to go deep enough we might reduce all three causes to the general one of laziness, since it is easier to imitate than to say something new.” 51 This tendency to take well-worn paths, paradoxically enough, is responsible both for the transfer of verbs from the strong to the weak declension, and for the transfer of certain others from the weak to the strong. A verb in everyday use tends almost inevitably to pull less familiar verbs with it, whether it be strong or weak. Thus fed as the preterite of to feed and led as the preterite of to lead paved the way for pled as the preterite of to plead, and rode as plainly performed the same office for glode, and rung for brung, and drove for dove and hove, and stole for dole, and won for skun. Moreover, a familiar verb, itself acquiring a faulty inflection, may fasten a similar inflection upon another verb of like sound. Thus het, as the preterite of to heat, no doubt owes its existence to the example of et, the vulgar preterite of to eat. 52 So far the irregular verbs. The same combination of laziness and imitativeness works toward the regularization of certain verbs that are historically irregular. In addition, of course, there is the fact that regularization is itself intrinsically simplification—that it makes the language easier. One sees the antagonistic pull of the two influences in the case of verbs ending in -ow. The analogy of knew suggests snew as the preterite of to snow, and it is sometimes encountered in the American vulgate. But the analogy of snowed also suggests knowed, and the superior regularity of the form is enough to overcome the greater influence of knew as a more familiar word than snowed. Thus snew grows rare and is in decay, but knowed shows vigor, and so do growed and throwed. The substitution of heerd for heard also presents a case of logic and convenience supporting analogy. The form is suggested by steered, feared and cheered, but its main advantage lies in the fact that it gets rid of a vowel change, always an impediment to easy speech. Here, as in the contrary direction, one barbarism breeds another. Thus taken, as the preterite of to take, has undoubtedly helped to make preterites of two other perfects, shaken and forsaken.   5
  But in the presence of two exactly contrary tendencies, the one in accordance with the general movement of the language since the Norman Conquest and the other opposed to it, it is unsafe, of course, to attempt any very positive generalizations. All one may exhibit with safety is a general habit of treating the verb conveniently. Now and then, disregarding grammatical tendencies, it is possible to discern what appear to be logical causes for verb phenomena. That lit is preferred to lighted and hung to hanged is probably the result of an aversion to fine distinctions, and perhaps, more fundamentally, to the passive. Again, the use of found as the preterite of to fine is obviously due to an ignorant confusion of fine and find, due to the wearing off of -d in find, and that of lit as the preterite of to alight to a confusion of alight and light. Yet again, the use of tread as its own preterite in place of trod is probably the consequence of a vague feeling that a verb ending with d is already of preterite form. Shed exhibits the same process. Both are given a logical standing by such preterites as bled, fed, led, read, dead and spread. But here, once more, it is hazardous to lay down laws, for shredded, headed, dreaded, threaded and breaded at once come to mind. In other cases it is still more difficult to account for preterites in common use. In my first edition I called attention to the cases of drug, clum and friz. On this point, a correspondent has since sent me the following interesting observations:
 
True enough, these forms may not adhere closely to the rules of umlaut; but are they not born of the spirit of umlaut which pervades the English verb? Thus: the most obvious form of strong verb is
 
ringrangrung
stinkstankstunk
beginbeganbegun
singsangsung
spinspan 53spun
speakspakespoke 54
spitspatspot
 
(I feel in my bones that spot is a derivative of spit. Spot is the name of the mark made by spitting, which is obviously one of the most primary of human acts.)
 
swimswamswum
springsprangsprung
 
I imagine that more irregular verbs conform to this one succession than to any one of the others. But all of them, including this one, have been interrupted and obscured by the collision of such independent words as think and thank, i.e.,
 
think(thank)(thunk)
 
Thank is forced out to avoid collision with
 
thankthankedthanked
 
Now, if freeze had been regularly irregular, it would have been
 
frizfrazfrozen
 
but the present being freeze instead of friz, the procession would normally be
 
freezefrezfrozen
 
I don’t know whether I have made my idea plain: it is not based on visible law so much as on innate feeling. Its validity depends on whether, when I state it to you, you too feel instinctively that amid the clash of strong tenses your own mind would select these forms, in obedience to an overmastering impulse of euphony. The proper jury to render the verdict would be one of poets. I do not suppose anyone will deny that a man reacts to the genius of his mother tongue, without knowing why. There are, and must have been, even deeper depths of reaction than these strong verbs, to account for the choice of vowel sounds in different words, which process in early ages was entirely unconscious.
This, of course, is only to intimate that there must have been “method in the madness” of friz. As for clum, it seems to me that it is visibly clomb descended to the next lower level, and then denuded of its final b, probably by analogy with thumb. Indeed, it is difficult to pronounce that b unless one says clommmb, thummmb! And will you not agree with me that these are inevitable:
 
(drig)dragdrog (descended to drug)
drag(drog)drug
(dreeg)(dreg)(droge)
(drogg)(drug)(droog)
 
i.e., it scarcely matters what vowel marked the present tense of dr-g, for with any vowel this combination of consonants demands, in any English-speaking mind which is functioning naturally, and not biased by conscious thought, that its past participle be something very close to drug.
 
   6
  Some of the verbs of the vulgate show the end and products of language movements that go back to the Anglo-Saxon period, and even beyond. There is, for example, the disappearance of the final t in such words as crep, slep, lep, swep and wep. Most of these, in Anglo-Saxon, were strong verbs. The preterite of to sleep (sloepan), for example, was slep, and of to weep was weop. But in the course of time both to sleep and to weep acquired weak preterite endings, the first becoming sloepte and the second wepte. This weak conjugation was itself degenerated. Originally, the inflectional suffix had been -de or -ede and in some cases -ode, and the vowels were always pronounced. The wearing down process that set in in the twelfth century disposed of the final e, but in certain words the other vowel survived for a good while, and we still observe it in such archaisms as learned and beloved. Finally, however, it became silent in other preterites, and loved, for example, began to be pronounced (and often written) as a word of one syllable: lov’d. 55 This final d-sound now fell upon difficulties of its own. After certain consonants it was hard to pronounce clearly, and so the sonant was changed into the easier surd, and such words as pushed and clipped became, in ordinary conversation, pusht and clipt. In other verbs, the t-sound had come in long before, with the degenerated weak ending, and when the final e was dropped their stem vowels tended to change. Thus arose such forms as slept. In vulgar American another step is taken, and the suffix is dropped altogether. Thus, by a circuitous route, verbs originally strong, and for many centuries hovering between the two conjugations, have eventually become strong again.   7
  The case of helt is probably an example of change by false analogy. During the thirteenth century, according to Sweet, 56 “d was changed to t in the weak preterites of verbs (ending) in rd, ld, nd.” Before that time the preterite of sende (send) had been sende; now it became sente. It survives in our modern sent, and the same process is also revealed in built, girt, lent, rent and bent. The popular speech, disregarding the fact that to hold is a strong verb, arrives at helt by imitation. 57 In the case of tole, which I almost always hear in place of told, there is a leaping of steps. The d is got rid of without any transitional use of t. So also, perhaps, in swole, which is fast displacing swelled. Attackted and drownded seem to be examples of an effort to dispose of harsh combinations by a contrary process. Both are very old in English. Boughten and dreampt present greater difficulties. Lounsbury says that boughten probably originated in the Northern (i.e., Lowland Scotch) dialect of English, “which… inclined to retain the full form of the past participle,” and even to add its termination “to words to which it did not properly belong.” 58 The p-sound in dreampt follows a phonetic law that is also seen in warm(p)th, com(p)fort, and some(p)thing, and that has actually inserted a p in Thompson (=Tom’s son).   8
  The general tendency toward regularization is well exhibited by the new verbs that come into the language constantly. Practically all of them show the weak conjugation, for example, to phone, to bluff, to rubber-neck, to ante, to bunt, to wireless, to insurge and to loop-the-loop. Even when a compound has as its last member a verb ordinarily strong, it remains weak itself. Thus the preterite of to joy-ride is not joy-rode, nor even joy-ridden, but joy-rided. And thus bust, from burst, is regular and its preterite is busted, though burst is irregular and its preterite is the verb itself unchanged. The same tendency toward regularity is shown by the verbs of the kneel-class. They are strong in English, but tend to become weak in colloquial American. Thus the preterite of to kneel, despite the example of to sleep and its analogues, is not knel’, nor even knelt, but kneeled. I have even heard feeled as the preterite of to feel, as in “I feeled my way,” though here felt still persists. To spread also tends to become weak, as in “he spreaded a piece of bread.” And to peep remains so, despite the example of to leap. The confusion between the inflections of to lie and those of to lay extends to the higher reaches of spoken American, and so does that between lend and loan. The proper inflections of to lend are often given to to lean, and so leaned becomes lent, as in “I lent on the counter.” In the same way to set has almost completely superseded to sit, and the preterite of the former, set, is used in place of sat. But the perfect participle (which is also the disused preterite) of to sit has survived, as in “I have sat there.” To speed and to shoe have become regular, not only because of the general tendency toward the weak conjugation, but also for logical reasons. The prevalence of speed contests of various sorts, always to the intense interest of the proletariat, has brought such words as speeder, speeding, speed-mania, speed-maniac and speed-limit into daily use, and speeded harmonizes with them better than the stronger sped. As for shoed, it merely reveals the virtual disappearance of the verb in its passive form. An American would never say that his wife was well shod; he would say that she wore good shoes. To shoe suggests to him only the shoeing of animals, and so, by way of shoeing and horse-shoer, he comes to shoed. His misuse of to learn for to teach is common to most of the English dialects. More peculiar to his speech is the use of to leave for to let. Charters records it in “Washington left them have it,” and there are many examples of it in Lardner. Spit, in American, has become invariable; the old preterite, spat, has completely disappeared. But slit, which is now invariable in English (though it was strong in Old English and had both strong and weak preterites in Middle English), has become regular in American, as in “she slitted her skirt.”   9
  In studying the American verb, of course, it is necessary to remember always that it is in a state of transition, and that in many cases the manner of using it is not yet fixed. “The history of language,” says Lounsbury, “when looked at from the purely grammatical point of view, is little else than the history of corruptions.” What we have before us is a series of corruptions in active process, and while some of them have gone very far, others are just beginning. Thus it is not uncommon to find corrupt forms side by side with orthodox forms, or even two corrupt forms battling with each other. Lardner, in the case of to throw, hears “if he had throwed”; my own observation is that threw is more often used in that situation. Again, he uses “the rottenest I ever seen gave”; my own belief is that give is far more commonly used. The conjugation of to give, however, is yet very uncertain, and so Lardner may report accurately. I have heard “I given” and “I would of gave,” but “I give” seems to be prevailing, and “I would of give” with it, thus reducing to give to one invariable form, like those of to cut, to hit, to put, to cost, to hurt and to spit. My table of verbs shows various other uncertainties and confusions. The preterite of to hear is heerd; the perfect may be either heerd or heern. That of to do may be either done or did, with the former apparently prevailing; that of to draw is drew if the verb indicates to attract or to abstract and drawed if it indicates to draw with a pencil. Similarly, the preterite of to blow may be either blowed or blew, and that of to drink oscillates between drank and drunk, and that of to fall is still usually fell, though fallen has appeared, and that of to shake may be either shaken or shuck. The conjugation of to win is yet far from fixed. The correct English preterite, won, is still in use, but against it are arrayed wan and winned, and Lardner, as I have noted, believes that the plain form of the present is ousting all of them. Wan seems to show some kinship, by ignorant analogy, with ran and began. It is often used as the perfect participle, as in “I have wan $4.” This uncertainty shows itself in many of the communications that I have received since my first edition was published. Practically every one of my conjugations has been questioned by at least one correspondent; nevertheless, the weight of observation has supported all save a few of them, and I have made no more than half a dozen changes.   10
  The misuse of the perfect participle for the preterite, now almost the invariable rule in vulgar American, is common to many other dialects of English, and seems to be a symptom of a general decay of the perfect tenses. That decay has been going on for a long time, and in American, the most vigorous and advanced of all the dialects of the language, it is particularly well marked. Even in the most pretentious written American it shows itself. The English, in their writing, still use the future perfect, albeit somewhat laboriously and self-consciously, but in America it has virtually disappeared: one often reads whole books without encountering a single example of it. Even the present perfect and past perfect seem to be instinctively avoided. The Englishman says “I have dined,” but the American says “I am through dinner”; the Englishman says “I had slept,” but the American often says “I was done sleeping.” Thus the perfect tenses are forsaken for the simple present and the past. In the vulgate a further step is taken, and “I have been there” becomes “I been there.” Even in such phrases as “he hasn’t been here,” ain’t (=am not) is commonly substituted for have not, thus giving the present perfect a flavor of the simple present. The step from “I have taken” to “I taken” was therefore neither difficult nor unnatural, and once it had been made the resulting locution was supported by the greater apparent regularity of its verb. Moreover, this perfect participle, thus put in place of the preterite, was further reinforced by the fact that it was the adjectival form of the verb, and hence collaterally familiar. Finally, it was also the authentic preterite in the passive voice, and although this influence, in view of the decay of the passive, may not have been of much consequence, nevertheless it is not to be dismissed as of no consequence at all.   11
  The contrary substitution of the preterite for the perfect participle, as in “I have went” and “he has did,” apparently has a double influence behind it. In the first place, there is the effect of the confused and blundering effort, by an ignorant and unanalytical speaker, to give the perfect some grammatical differentiation when he finds himself getting into it—an excursion not infrequently made necessary by logical exigencies, despite his inclination to keep out. The nearest indicator at hand is the disused preterite, and so it is put to use. Sometimes a sense of its uncouthness seems to linger, and there is a tendency to give it an en-suffix, thus bringing it into greater harmony with its tense. I find that boughten, just discussed, is used much oftener in the perfect than in the simple past tense; 59 for the latter bought usually suffices. The quick ear of Lardner detects various other coinages of the same sort, among them tooken, as in “little A1 might of tooken sick.” 60 Hadden is also met with, as in “I would of hadden.” But the majority of preterites remain unchanged. Lardner’s baseball player never writes “I have written” or “I have wroten,” but always “I have wrote.” And in the same way he always writes, “I have did, ate, went, drank, rode, ran, saw, sang, woke and stole.” Sometimes the simple form of the verb persists through all tenses. This is usually the case, for example, with to give. I have noted “I give” both as present and as preterite, and “I have give,” and even “I had give.” But even here “I have gave” offers rivalry to “I have give,” and usage is not settled. So, too, with to come. “I have come” and “I have came” seem to be almost equally favored, with the former supported by pedagogical admonition and the latter by the spirit of the language.   12
  Whatever the true cause of the substitution of the preterite for the perfect participle, it seems to be a tendency inherent in English, and during the age of Elizabeth it showed itself even in the most formal speech. An examination of any play of Shakespeare’s will show many such forms as “I have wrote.” “I am mistook” and “he has rode.” In several cases this transfer for the preterite has survived. “I have stood,” for example, is now perfectly correct English, but before 1550 the form was “I have stonden.” To hold and to sit belong to the same class; their original perfect participles were not held and sat, but holden and sitten. These survived the movement toward the formalization of the language which began with the eighteenth century, but scores of other such misplaced preterites were driven out. One of the last to go was wrote, which persisted until near the end of the century. 61 Paradoxically enough, the very purists who performed the purging showed a preference for got (though not forgot), and it survives in correct English today in the preterite-present form, as in “I have got,” whereas in American, both vulgar and polite, the elder and more regular gotten is often used. In the polite speech gotten indicates a distinction between a completed action and a continuing action—between obtaining and possessing. “I have gotten what I came for” is correct, and so is “I have got a house.” In the vulgar speech much the same distinction exists, but the perfect becomes a sort of simple tense by the elision of have. Thus the two sentences change to “I gotten what I come for” and “I got a house,” the latter being understood, not as past, but as present. 62   13
  In “I have got a house” got is historically a sort of auxiliary of have, and in colloquial American, as we have seen in the examples just given, the auxiliary has obliterated the verb. To have, as an auxiliary, probably because of its intimate relationship with the perfect tenses, is under heavy pressure, and promises to disappear from the situations in which it is still used. I have heard was used in place of it, as in “before the Elks was come here.” 63 Sometimes it is confused ignorantly with a distinct of, as in “she would of drove,” and “I would of gave.” 64 More often it is shaded to a sort of particle, attached to the verb as an inflection, as in “he would ’a tole you,” and “who could ’a took it?” But this is not all. Having degenerated to such forms, it is now employed as a sort of auxiliary to itself, in the subjunctive, as in “if you had of went,” “if it had of been hard,” and “if I had of had.” 65 I have encountered some rather astonishing examples of this doubling of the auxiliary. One appears in “I wouldn’t had ’a went”; another in “I’d ’a had ’a saved more money.” Here, however, the a may belong partly to had and partly to the verb; such forms as a-going are very common in American. But in the other cases, and in such forms as “I had ’a wanted,” it clearly belongs to had. Sometimes for syntactical reasons the degenerated form of have is put before had instead of after it, as in “I could of had her if I had of wanted to.” 66 Meanwhile, to have, ceasing to be an auxiliary, becomes a general verb indicating compulsion. Here it promises to displace must. The American seldom says “I must go”; he almost invariably says “I have to go,” 67 or “I have got to go,” in which last case, as we have seen, got is the auxiliary.   14
  The most common inflections of the verb for mode and voice are shown in the following paradigm of to bite:
 

ACTIVE VOICE
Indicative Mode
PresentI bitePast PerfectI had of bit
Present PerfectI have bitFutureI will bite
PastI bittenFuture Perfect(wanting)
Subjunctive Mode
PresentIf I bitePast PerfectIf I had of bit
PastIf I bitten
Potential Mode
PresentI can bitePastI could bite
Present Perfect(wanting)Past PerfectI could of bit
Imperative (or Optative) Mode
FutureI shall (or will)
bite
Infinitive Mode
(wanting)

PASSIVE VOICE
Indicative Mode
PresentI am bitPast PerfectI had been bit
Present PerfectI been bitFutureI will be bit
PastI was bitFuture Perfect(wanting)
Subjunctive Mode
PresentIf I am bitPast PerfectIf I had of been
PastIf I was bitbit
Potential Mode
PresentI can be bitPastI could be bit
Present Perfect(wanting)Past PerfectI could of been bit
Imperative Mode
(wanting)
Infinitive Mode
(wanting)
 
   15
  A study of this paradigm reveals several plain tendencies. One has just been discussed: the addition of a degenerated form of have to the preterite of the auxiliary, and its use in place of the auxiliary itself. Another is the use of will instead of shall in the first person future. Shall is confined to a sort of optative, indicating much more than mere intention, and even here it is yielding to will. Yet another is the consistent use of the transferred preterite in the passive. Here the rule in correct English is followed faithfully, though the perfect participle employed is not the English participle. “I am broke” is a good example. Finally, there is the substitution of was for were and of am for be in the past and present of the subjunctive. In this last case American is in accord with the general movement of English, though somewhat more advanced. Be, in the Shakespearean form of “where be thy brothers?” was expelled from the present indicative two hundred years ago, and survives today only in dialect. And as it thus yielded to are in the indicative, it now seems destined to yield to am and is in the subjunctive. It remains, of course, in the future indicative: “I will be.” In American its conjugation coalesces with that of am in the following manner:
 
PresentI amPast PerfectI had of ben
Present PerfectI bin (or ben)FutureI will be
PastI wasFuture Perfect(wanting)
 
   16
  And in the subjunctive:
 
PresentIf I amPast PerfectIf I had of ben
PastIf I was
 
   17
  All signs of the subjunctive, indeed, seem to be disappearing from vulgar American. One never hears “if I were you,” but always “if I was you”; “was you going to the dance?” is a very common form. In the third person the -s is not dropped from the verb. One hears, not “if she go,” but always “if she goes.” “If he be the man” is never heard; it is always “if he is.” Such a sentence as “Had I wished her, I had had her” would be unintelligible to most Americans; even “I had rather” is fast disappearing. This war upon the forms of the subjunctive, of course, extends to the most formal English. “In Old English,” says Bradley, 68 “the subjunctive played as important a part as in modern German, and was used in much the same way. Its inflection differed in several respects from that of the indicative. But the only formal trace of the old subjunctive still remaining, except the use of be and were, is the omission of the final s in the third person singular. And even this is rapidly dropping out of use…. Perhaps in another generation the subjunctive forms will have ceased to exist except in the single instance of were, which serves a useful function, although we manage to dispense with a corresponding form in other verbs.” Here, as elsewhere, unlettered American usage simply proceeds in advance of the general movement. Be and the omitted s are already dispensed with, and even were has been discarded.   18
  In the same way the distinction between will and shall, preserved in correct English but already breaking down in the most correct American, has been lost entirely in the American common speech. Will has displaced shall completely, save in the imperative. This preference extends to the inflections of both. Sha’n’t is very seldom heard; almost always won’t is used instead. As for should, it is displaced by ought to (degenerated to oughter or ought’a), and in its negative form by hadn’t ought’a, as in “he hadn’t oughter said that,” reported by Charters. Lardner gives various redundant combinations of should and ought, as in “I don’t feel as if I should ought to leave” and “they should not ought to of had.” I have encountered the same form, but I don’t think it is as common as the simple ought’a forms. 69 In the main, should is avoided, sometimes at considerable pains. Often its place is taken by the more positive don’t. Thus “I don’t” mind” is used instead of “I shouldn’t mind.” Don’t has also completely displaced doesn’t, which is very seldom heard. “He don’t” and “they don’t” are practically universal. In the same way ain’t has displaced is not, am not, isn’t and aren’t, and even have not and haven’t. One recalls a famous speech in a naval melodrama of twenty years ago: “We ain’t got no manners, but we can fight like hell.” Such forms as “he ain’t here,” “I ain’t the man,” “ain’t it the truth?”, “you been there, ain’t you?”, “you ain’t drank much,” “them ain’t what I want” and “I ain’t heerd of it” are common.   19
  This extensive use of ain’t, of course, is merely a single symptom of a general disregard of number, obvious throughout the verbs, and also among the pronouns, as we shall see. Charters gives many examples, among them, “how is Uncle Wallace and Aunt Clara?”, “you was,” “there is six” and the incomparable “it ain’t right to say, ‘He ain’t here today.’#” In Lardner there are many more, for instance, “them Giants is not such rotten hitters, isthey?”, “the people has all wanted to shake hands with Matthewson and I” and “some of the men has brung their wife along.” Sez (=says), used as the preterite of to say shows the same confusion. One observes it again in such forms as “then I goes up to him.” Here the decay of number helps in what threatens to become a decay of tense. A gambler of the humbler sort seldom says “I won $2,” or even “I wan $2,” but almost always “I win $2.” And in the same way he says “I see him come in,” not “I saw him come in” or “seen him.” Lardner, as we have seen, believes that win is displacing both won,winned and wan. Charters’ materials offer other specimens, among them “we help distributed the fruit,” “she recognize, hug, and kiss him” and “her father ask her if she intended doing what he ask.” Perhaps the occasional use of eat as the preterite of to eat, as in “I eat breakfast as soon as I got up,” is an example of the same flattening out of distinctions. Lardner has many specimens, among them “if Weaver and them had not of begin kicking” and “they would of knock down the fence.” I notice that used, in used to be, is almost always reduced to simple use, as in “it use to be the rule,” with the s very much like that of hiss. One seldom, if ever, hears a clear d at the end. Here, of course, the elision of the d is due primarily to assimilation with the t of to—a second example of one form of decay aiding another form. But the tenses apparently tend to crumble without help. I frequently hear whole narratives in a sort of debased historical present: “I says to him…. Then he ups and says…. I land him one on the ear…. He goes down and out,…” and so on. 70 Still under the spell of our disintegrating inflections, we are prone to regard the tense inflections of the verb as absolutely essential, but there are plenty of languages that get on without them, and even in our own language children and foreigners often reduce them to a few simple forms. Some time ago an Italian contractor said to me, “I have go there often.” Here one of our few surviving inflections was displaced by an analytical device, and yet the man’s meaning was quite clear, and it would be absurd to say that his sentence violated the inner spirit of English. That inner spirit, in fact, has inclined steadily toward “I have go” for a thousand years.   20
Note 26.  Bin is the correct American pronunciation. Bean, as we have seen, is the English. But I have often found ben, rhyming with pen, in such phrases as “I ben there.” [back]
Note 27.  Be, in the subjunctive, is practically extinct. [back]
Note 28.  Seldom used. Get is used in the place of it, as in “I am getting old” and “he got sick.” [back]
Note 29.  Burned with a distinct d-sound is almost unknown in American. [back]
Note 30.  Not used. Bust has quite displaced it. [back]
Note 31.  Cotched is heard only in the South, and mainly among negroes. Catch, of course, is usually pronounced ketch. Even catcher is ketcher. [back]
Note 32.  Dast is more common in the negative, as in “He dasn’t do it.” [back]
Note 33.  Dole, of course, is supported by the noun. [back]
Note 34.  Dove seems to be making its way into standard American. I constantly encounter it in manuscripts. It is used by Amy Lowell in Legends; Boston, 1921, p. 4. [back]
Note 35.  Fotch is also heard, but it is not general. [back]
Note 36.  Fit and fitten, unless my observation errs, are heard only in dialect. Fit is archaic English. Cf. Thornton, vol. i, p. 322. [back]
Note 37.  Friz is used only humorously. [back]
Note 38.  Glode once enjoyed a certain respectability in America. It occurs in the Knickerbocker Magazine for April, 1856. [back]
Note 39.  Hanged is never heard. [back]
Note 40.  Het is incomplete without the addition of up. “He was het up” is always heard, not “he was het.” [back]
Note 41.  Always so pronounced. [back]
Note 42.  To loose is never used; to unloosen has displaced it. [back]
Note 43.  Always used in place of rinse. [back]
Note 44.  Always used in place of roil. [back]
Note 45.  Sot is heard as a localism only. [back]
Note 46.  See set, which is used almost invariably in place of sit. [back]
Note 47.  To thin is never used; to thinnen takes its place. [back]
Note 48.  Thunk is never used seriously; it always shows humorous intent. [back]
Note 49.  Lardner tells me that he believes win is supplanting both won and wan in the past tense. [back]
Note 50.  English As We Speak It in Ireland, p. 77. [back]
Note 51.  The Science of Language, vol. i, p. 166. [back]
Note 52.  The use of eat as its own preterite was formerly sound in English and still survives more or less. I find it on p. 24 of On Human Bondage, by W. Somerset Maugham; New York, 1915. A correspondent informs me that it occurs in Much Ado About Nothing, act iv, sc. i, in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, act ii, sc. ii, in As You Like It, act i, sc. iii, in The Taming of the Shrew, act iv, sc. i, in Macbeth, act ii, sc. iv, and in King Lear, act i, sc. iv. How the preterite was pronounced in Shakespeare’s day I do not know. [back]
Note 53.  Span, of course, is now archaic in standard English, but it survives in vulgar American and in many other English dialects. [back]
Note 54.  Spoke replaces the earlier spak. [back]
Note 55.  The last stand of the distinct -ed was made in Addison’s day. He was in favor of retaining it, and in the Spectator for Aug. 4, 1711, he protested against obliterating the syllable in the termination “of our praeter perfect tense, as in these words, drown’d, walk’d, arriv’d, for drowned, walked, arrived, which has very much disfigured the tongue, and turned a tenth part of our smoothest words into so many clusters of consonants.” [back]
Note 56.  A New English Grammar, pt. i, p. 380. [back]
Note 57.  The noun is commonly made holt, as in, “I got a-holt of it.” [back]
Note 58.  History of the English Language, p. 398. [back]
Note 59.  And still more often as an adjective, as in “it was a boughten dress.” [back]
Note 60.  You Know Me Al, p. 180; see also p. 122. [back]
Note 61.  Cf. Lounsbury: History of the English Language, pp. 393 ff. [back]
Note 62.  Got, of course, also has a compulsive sense, as in “I have got to go.” It is also used in the general sense of becoming, as in “I got scared.” [back]
Note 63.  Remark of a policeman talking to another. What he actually said was “before the Elks was c’m’ere.” Come and here were one word, approximately cmear. The context showed that he meant to use the past perfect tense. [back]
Note 64.  The following curious example, sent to me by Dr. Morris Fishbein of the Journal of the American Medical Association, is from a letter received by a California physician: “If I had of waited a day longer before I wrote to you I would not of had to write that letter to you.” Here the author plainly mistakes have for of. [back]
Note 65.  These examples are from Lardner’s story, A New Busher Breaks In, in You Know Me Al, pp. 122 et seq. [back]
Note 66.  You Know Me Al, op. cit., p. 124. [back]
Note 67.  Almost always pronounced haf to, or, in the past tense, hat to. Sometimes hat to undergoes composition and the d is restored; it then becomes hadda. Haf to similarly changes to hafta. [back]
Note 68.  The Making of English, p. 53. [back]
Note 69.  In the negative, ought not has degenerated to oughten, as in “you oughten do that.” [back]
Note 70.  Cf. Dialect Notes, vol. iii, pt. i, p. 59; ibid., vol. iii, pt. iv, p. 283. [back]

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