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Bad Grammar or Language Change?


What is happening to the English language. NBC Nightly News recently aired a criticism of English speakers, accusing us of misusing the grammar of the language. This is a criticism we have heard from editors, publishers, and readers for at least 300 years. But is it fair? Are we battering English grammar or is English grammar simply changing, as all languages do, over time? Linguists have been struggling with this question for ages.

Take, for example, the plural number in English. English traditionally distinguishes one or more objects by a distinct form, the plural, e.g. one table, two tables, many tables. Lately, however, a series of problems has arisen in the language that suggests this distinction is in trouble.

For example, have you heard people say things like this:

A large amount of pigeons flew by
We found less pigeons than we expected

English once distinguished nouns referring to substances that are always in the singular by using amount for singular substances and number for countable objects in the plural:

A large amount of Kool-Aid, ambition, coffee, or crawfish gumbo
A large number of pigeons, bullwhips, armadillos, or blueberry pies

The same distinction was made by less and fewer. Less was used only if the noun were uncountable: less Kool-Aid, less coffee, fewer crawfish but less crawfish gumbo. Fewer was applied to countable objects: fewer bullwhips, fewer armadillos, and fewer blueberry pies. This distinction, too, seems to be swooshing out the window these days. Is that a natural or unnatural process?

One final bit of evidence. Kay Bock, one of the nation's leading psycholinguists, has been researching the plurals of nouns and finding that we are confusing singular and plural more and more.

In English, the noun that is the subject of a sentence agrees with its verb. Roughly, if the noun has an the plural -s on it, the verb doesn't The pigs run) but if the noun doesn't have one (is singular), the verb does (The pig runs).

What Professor Bock is finding is that agreement is not always between the subject noun and the verb, as grammar dictates, but between the noun nearest the verb, whatever its function in the sentence. For example:

A rootery of pigs were running through the barnyard.
As the problem of rooting pigs grow, we have to address them.

In these sentences, the subject nouns are group and problem, so the verb should contain the -s:

A rootery of pigs was running through the barnyard.
As the problem of rooting pigs grows, we have to address it.

What Bock is finding, is that agreement is often between the verb and the nearest noun to it, which is not necessarily the subject of the sentence. She thinks language is changing but such sentences sound a lot like bad grammar.

By the way, this has nothing to do with the difference between British and US English, where the British use the plural with what linguists call 'collective nouns' (as opposed to our use of rootery above): nouns that are singular in form but refer to a plurality of objects:

The Parliament are in session
The crew are on alert
The team play well together.

The British are consistent in this usage. In the US it seems that our grasp of the sense of plurality is diminishing and, if that is the case, we could see the plural disappear from the language in a relative short linguistic period—perhaps, fewer than 200 years!

Before summing up, let me alert you of one final symptom that seems to fit the pattern of the other three. To understand it, you have to be aware of another loss in English: the number of suffixes for marking grammatical functions like number, person, tense, is dropping rapidly. Suffixes like -dom, -ery, -ess and many others are no longer being added to new words.

The result of this is that the suffixes we are left with have to serve more and more functions. For example, the suffix -s is used to mark the following:

The plural: ant-s, launching-s, door-s
The 3rd singular Present tense of verbs: He/she/it run-s, smell-s, plunge-s
Making nouns out of adjectives: linguistic-s, acrobatic-s, mathematic-s
Possessive: George's, Bush's, the anaconda's (ignore the apostrophe since you can't hear it)

This brings us to the fourth bit of evidence that at least US English-speakers are losing their grasp of the plural: plural number is often confused with nonplural uses. You have probably heard things like these:

Boscov's are having a big sale this week.
Logistics are not my forte.

These would be just speech errors if they didn't fit the pattern created by the first three bits of evidence: we are losing our grip on the plural of words.

So, how will we be able to communicate if the plural disappears? Would you believe that many languages get away without the singular-plural distinction today and have been doing so for millennia?

Oriental languages like Vietnamese and Chinese have no singular-plural distinction at all. The reason these languages do without plural number suggests that it might be redundant in English: we generally use the plural with some modifier that makes plural obvious:

Many Cadillacs Many Cadillac
Five toads Five toad
A few warts A few wart

Do we really need -s when we already have many, five, few in the sentence? The Chinese and Vietnamese have built advanced civilizations on languages limited to phrases like those in the second column above. English could be getting more like Chinese!

If the plural is abandoning English, it is too early to be sure. However, if the process has begun, there is no stopping it, so tormenting your kids with constant grammatical corrections will not work. Only time will tell and, as we all know, time takes its time.

—Dr. Goodword is Robert Beard, PhD Linguistics, and President, The Lexiteria