Thursday, July 12, 2012

I dispute irregular verbs with William Cobbett

John McWhorter
Some surprises in a New York Times piece on English usage.  John McWhorter, who teaches linguistics at Columbia University, says that what is considered proper English is, like so much else, a matter of fashion. 

First surprise.  He makes a fuss about using they in the singular as in Tell each student that they can hand the paper in until 4.  Whilst he concedes that Shakespeare and Thackeray both did this, he seems to think it's unfashionable now. Huh? How else would you tell each student that they can hand the paper in until 4?  Unless you used the ghastly he/she.

2nd surprise.  Apparently, in the 19th century it was the fashion to say a street was well-lighted: lit was considered vulgar.  And to this day it's the New York Times house style to use well-lighted. Reprehensible!  I know irregular verb forms have a depressing habit of dying out; but all right-thinking people ought to mount a vigorous rearguard action in their defence.

William Cobbett 1763-1835

It seems I would have had a fierce opponent in William Cobbett. In his 1818 A Grammar of the English Language (a series of letters to his 14 year old son) Cobbett denounced the past tense forms awoke, blew, built, burst, clung, dealt, dug, drew, froze, grew, hung, meant, spat, stung, swept, swam, threw and wove. The well-spoken person, Cobbett instructed, swimmed yesterday and builded a house last year.

Now I've got this far, it's dawned upon me that I shouldn’t really have been so surprised by Cobbett’s preference for builded over built. Did not William Blake ask if Jerusalem was builded here among these dark satanic mills? I had always imagined that was merely dictated by the meter. And then I can call to mind a much earlier instance, from the 1611 King James Bible, where Cain builded him a city [1]. So these irregular verb forms have been dying out longer than I thought. Hmm.

That doesn't make it right however, and I shall persist in my campaign to retain them.

Another nugget from John McWhorter (unconnected with the foregoing). He gives an example from Charles Dickens to demonstrate “the magnificent evanescence of what is considered sophisticated”. In David Copperfield, Aunt Betsey (a distinctly proper lady) says “Mr. Dick is his name here, and everywhere else, now – if he ever went anywhere else, which he don’t.”

Thanks to Tom for drawing this article to my attention.

John McWhorter’s latest book is What Language Is, What It Isn’t and What It Could Be.

[1] Genesis 4:17


  1. Caitlin must be from the Cobbett school of thought Pete - she would definitely say "builded" as well as "waked", "maked" etc, but then she's only three!

    1. Yes I know a six year old who must also be from the Cobbett School of Thought. And just what would John McWhorter say instead of the They?

  2. Cobbett would have been happy to hear that Swedes have accepted his advice that a well-spoken person swimmed yesterday. In older Swedish, still in dialect use in some parts of Dalarna, swim, swam, swum is simma, sam, summit. But modern Swedish has simma, simmade, simmat – sam (swam) has become simmade (swimmed).

  3. I'm surprised that "came", "slept", "shot", "shot" and "stank" are not on Coggett's list since they are just as much strong past forms as the words that are; strong past forms of verbs used as modal auxiliaries seem to have been exempt from condemnation for strength, as do forms ending in "ught". I can't see any rational argument for condemning the forms listed in this blog post and not condemning forms like "went" and "gone" or any of many many others, but then so much absolute balderdash about correct English was generated in the 19th century that I probably ought not be surprised that it included this inconsistent drivel.