incorrectly interesting

Observation 1: The big parts of language are easy; the small parts are hard.
Observation 2: Mistakes are often more interesting than correct answers.

My students have just finished the textbook and today was a revision day before the test tomorrow. One revision question was something like “My father (watch/watches/watching) television every day”. Several students chose watch. This is, of course, incorrect standard English, but only by a twist of history. There’s no particular reason why third-person singular verb forms have –s/es. There’s no possibility of misunderstanding. Many languages exist quite happily with the equivalent of “My father watch television every day”. Indeed, some non-standard varieties of English exist quite happily with exactly that. Nothing would be lost and quite a bit would be gained by omitting 3sg –s/-es, but standard English includes it, so that’s what I’ve got to teach and that’s what’s my students have to learn. (Several hundred years ago, standard English lost 2sg –est, and no-one missed it.)

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A kind of affliction

Last Tuesday was an interesting day linguistically, even if it was a slow day work-wise. I noticed three separate issues twice each in different contexts. The first time each, I thought “Oh, that’s interesting” and the second time I thought “Hang on, I’ve seen that before”.

During a lull in my work, I was browsing through some of Geoffrey Pullum’s old Language Log posts. In one, titled ‘Another victim of oversimplified rules‘, he discusses a sentence which he found in a free newspaper on Edinburgh’s buses:

A record number of companies has been formed by Edinburgh University in the past 12 months.

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I wish you’d read this

Monday’s lesson was about the patten “I wish you/people would …” and “I wish I could …”. Yesterday’s was about “I regret doing that. I wish I hadn’t done that” and “I regret not doing that. I wish I had done that”. I gave some textbook examples then elicited real-life examples from the students. Some time into the lesson, one student arrived late. I said “I wish you’d come on time”, then immediately thought “Oohh, I’ll have to talk to them about that”.

“I wish you’d come on time” is perfectly ambiguous between “I wish you would come on time” and “I wish you had come on time”. With most other main verbs, we can tell the difference, because would is followed by the base form of a verb, while had is followed by the past participle form. Taking a similar verb as an example, we can tell the difference between “I wish you’d arrive on time” (would) and “I wish you’d arrived on time” (had).

This ambiguity arises only when the base and past participle forms are the same, which is the case only with come, become and run; burst, cost, cut, hit, hurt, let, put, set and shut; and read (but only in writing, which I didn’t think about until I came to write the title of this blog; how did you interpret that?).

If I was talking to a student who was usually on time but wasn’t on this occasion, “I wish you’d come on time” would be inferred to mean “I wish you had come on time (today)”. But this student is habitually late (I think she comes directly from work), so there is no immediate way of telling the difference. Of course, I could always clearly say “I wish you would …” or “I wish you had …”.