Sense and polarity, or why meaning can drive language change

Sense and polarity, or why meaning can drive language change

Generally a sentence can be negative or positive depending on what one actually wants to express. Thus if I’m asked whether I think that John’s new hobby – say climbing – is a good idea, I can say It’s not a good idea; conversely, if I do think it is a good idea, I can remove the negation not to make the sentence positive and say It’s a good idea. Both sentences are perfectly acceptable in this context.

From such an example, we might therefore conclude that any sentence can be made positive by removing the relevant negative word – most often not – from the sentence. But if that is the case, why is the non-negative response I like it one bit not acceptable, odd when its negative counterpart I don’t like it one bit is perfectly acceptable and natural?

This contrast has to do with the expression one bit: notice that if it is removed, then both negative and positive responses are perfectly fine: I could respond I don’t like it or, if I do like it, I (do) like it.

It seems that there is something special about the phrase one bit: it wants to be in a negative sentence. But why? It turns out that this question is a very big puzzle, not only for English grammar but for the grammar of most (all?) languages. For instance in French, the expression bouger/lever le petit doigt `lift a finger’ must appear in a negative sentence. Thus if I know that John wanted to help with your house move and I ask you how it went, you could say Il n’a pas levé le petit doigt `lit. He didn’t lift the small finger’ if he didn’t help at all, but I could not say Il a levé le petit doigt lit. ‘He lifted the small finger’ even if he did help to some extent.

Expressions like lever le petit doigt `lift a finger’, one bit, care/give a damn, own a red cent are said to be polarity sensitive: they only really make sense if used in negative sentences. But this in itself is not the most interesting property.

What is much more interesting is why they have this property. There is a lot of research on this question in theoretical linguistics. The proposals are quite technical but they all start from the observation that most expressions that need to be in a negative context to be acceptable are expressions of minimal degrees and measures. For instance, a finger or le petit doigt `the small finger’ is the smallest body part one can lift to do something, a drop (in the expression I didn’t drink a drop of vodka yesterday) is the smallest observable quantity of vodka, etc.

Regine Eckardt, who has worked on this topic, formulates the following intuition: ‘speakers know that in the context of drinking, an event of drinking a drop can never occur on its own – even though a lot of drops usually will be consumed after a drinking of some larger quantity.’ (Eckardt 2006, p. 158). However the intuition goes, the occurrence of this expression in a negative sentence is acceptable because it denies the existence of events that consist of just drinking one drop.

What this means is that if Mary drank a small glass of vodka yesterday, although it is technically true to say She drank a drop of vodka (since the glass contains many drops) it would not be very informative, certainly not as informative as saying the equally true She drank a glass of vodka.

However imagine now that Mary didn’t drink any alcohol at all yesterday. In this context, I would be telling the truth if I said either one of the following sentences: Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka or Mary didn’t drink a drop of vodka. But now it is much more informative to say the latter. To see this consider the following: saying Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka could describe a situation in which Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka yesterday but she still drank some vodka, maybe just a spoonful. If however I say Mary didn’t drink a drop of vodka then this can only describe a situation where Mary didn’t drink a glass or even a little bit of vodka. In other words, saying Mary didn’t drink a drop of vodka yesterday is more informative than saying Mary didn’t drink a glass of vodka yesterday because the former sentence describes a very precise situation whereas the latter is a lot less specific as to what it describes (i.e. it could be uttered in a situation in which Mary drank a spoonful of vodka or maybe a cocktail that contains 2ml of vodka, etc)

By using expressions of minimal degrees/measures in negative environments, the sentences become a lot more informative. This, it seems, is part of the reason why languages like English have changed such that these words are now only usable in negative sentences.

What’s the good of ‘would of’?

What’s the good of ‘would of’?

As schoolteachers the English-speaking world over know well, the use of of instead of have after modal verbs like would, should and must is a very common feature in the writing of children (and many adults). Some take this an omen of the demise of the English language,  and would perhaps agree with Fowler’s colourful assertion in A Dictionary of Modern English Usage (1926) that “of shares with another word of the same length, as, the evil glory of being accessory to more crimes against grammar than any other” (though admittedly this use of of has been hanging around for a while without doing any apparent harm: this study finds one example as early as 1773, and another almost half a century later in a letter of the poet Keats).

According to the usual explanation, this is nothing more than a spelling mistake. Following ‘would’, ‘could’ etc., the verb have is usually pronounced in a reduced form as [əv], usually spelt would’ve, must’ve, and so on. It can even be reduced further to [ə], as in shoulda, woulda, coulda. This kind of phonetic reduction is a normal part of grammaticalisation, the process by which grammatical markers evolve out of full words. Given the famous unreliability of English spelling, and the fact that these reduced forms of have sound identical to reduced forms of the preposition of (as in a cuppa tea), writers can be forgiven for mistakenly inferring the following rule:

‘what you hear/say as [əv] or [ə], write as of’.

But if it’s just a spelling mistake, this use of ‘of’ is surprisingly common in respectable literature. The examples below (from this blog post documenting the phenomenon) are typical:

‘If I hadn’t of got my tubes tied, it could of been me, say I was ten years younger.’ (Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale)

Couldn’t you of – oh, he was ignorant in his speech – couldn’t you of prevented it?’ (Hilary Mantel, Beyond Black)

Clearly neither these authors nor their editors make careless errors. They consciously use ‘of’ instead of ‘have’ in these examples for stylistic effect. This is typically found in dialogue to imply something about the speaker, be it positive (i.e. they’re authentic and unpretentious) or negative (they are illiterate or unsophisticated).


These examples look like ‘eye dialect’: the use of nonstandard spellings that correspond to a standard pronunciation, and so seem ‘dialecty’ to the eye but not the ear. This is often seen in news headlines, like the Sun newspaper’s famous proclamation “it’s the Sun wot won it!” announcing the surprise victory of the conservatives in the 1992 general election. But what about sentences like the following from the British National Corpus?

“If we’d of accepted it would of meant we would have to of sold every stick of furniture because the rooms were not large enough”

The BNC is intended as a neutral record of the English language in the late 20th century, containing 100 million words of carefully transcribed and spellchecked text. As such, we expect it to have minimal errors, and there is certainly no reason it should contain eye dialect. As Geoffrey Sampson explains in this article:

“I had taken the of spelling to represent a simple orthographic confusion… I took this to imply that cases like could of should be corrected to could’ve; but two researchers with whom I discussed the issue on separate occasions felt that this was inappropriate – one, with a language-teaching background, protested vigorously that could of should be retained because, for the speakers, the word ‘really is’ of rather than have.”

In other words, some speakers have not just reinterpreted the rules of English spelling, but the rules of English grammar itself. As a result, they understand expressions like should’ve been and must’ve gone as instances of a construction containing the preposition of instead of the verb have:

Modal verb (e.g. must, would…) + of + past participle (e.g. had, been, driven…)

One way of testing this theory is to look at pronunciation. Of can receive a full pronunciation [ɒv] (with the same vowel as in hot) when it occurs at the end of a sentence, for example ‘what are you dreaming of?’. So if the word ‘really is’ of for some speakers, we ought to hear [ɒv] in utterances where of/have appears at the end, such as the sentence below. To my mind’s ear, this pronunciation sounds okay, and I think I even use it sometimes (although intuition isn’t always a reliable guide to your own speech).

I didn’t think I left the door open, but I must of.

The examples below from the Audio BNC, both from the same speaker, are transcribed as of but clearly pronounced as [ə] or [əv]. In the second example, of appears to be at the end of the utterance, where we might expect to hear [ɒv], although the amount of background noise makes it hard to tell for sure.

 “Should of done it last night when it was empty then” (audio) (pronounced [ə], i.e. shoulda)

(phone rings) “Should of.” (audio) (pronounced [əv], i.e. should’ve)

When carefully interpreted, writing can also be a source of clues on how speakers make sense of their language. If writing have as of is just a linguistically meaningless spelling mistake, why do we never see spellings like pint’ve beer or a man’ve his word? (Though we do, occasionally, see sort’ve or kind’ve). This otherwise puzzling asymmetry is explained if the spelling of in should of etc. is supported by a genuine linguistic change, at least for some speakers. Furthermore, have only gets spelt of when it follows a modal verb, but never in sentences like the dogs have been fed, although the pronunciation [əv] is just as acceptable here as in the dogs must have been fed (and in both cases have can be written ‘ve).

If this nonstandard spelling reflects a real linguistic variant (as this paper argues), this is quite a departure from the usual role of a preposition like of, which is typically followed by a noun rather than a verb. The preposition to is a partial exception, because while it is followed by a noun in sentences like we went to the party, it can also be followed by a verb in sentences like we like to party. But with to, the verb must appear in its basic infinitive form (party) rather than the past participle (we must’ve partied too hard), making it a bit different from modal of, if such a thing exists.

She must’ve partied too hard

Whether or not we’re convinced by the modal-of theory, it’s remarkable how often we make idiosyncratic analyses of the language we hear spoken around us. Sometimes these are corrected by exposure to the written language: I remember as a young child having my spelling corrected from storbry to strawberry, which led to a small epiphany for me, as that was the first time I realised the word had anything to do with either straw or berry. But many more examples slip under the radar. When these new analyses lead to permanent changes in spelling or pronunciation we sometimes call them folk etymology, as when the Spanish word cucaracha was misheard by English speakers as containing the words cock and roach, and became cockroach (you can read more about folk etymology in earlier posts by Briana and Matthew).

Meanwhile, if any readers can find clear evidence of modal of with the full pronunciation as  [ɒv], please comment below! I’m quite sure I’ve heard it, but solid evidence has proven surprisingly elusive…

Today’s vocabulary, tomorrow’s grammar

Today’s vocabulary, tomorrow’s grammar

If an alien scientist were designing a communication system from scratch, they would probably decide on a single way of conveying grammatical information like whether an event happened in the past, present or future. But this is not the case in human languages, which is a major clue that they are the product of evolution, rather than design. Consider the way tense is expressed in English. To indicate that something happened in the past, we alter the form of the verb (it is cold today, but it was cold yesterday), but to express that something will happen in the future we add the word will. The same type of variation can also be seen across languages: French changes the form of the verb to express future tense (il fera froid demain, ‘it will be cold tomorrow’, vs il fait froid aujourd’hui, ‘it is cold today’).

The future construction using will is a relatively recent development. In the earliest English, there was no grammatical means of expressing future time: present and future sentences had identical verb forms, and any ambiguity was resolved by context. This is also how many modern languages operate. In Finnish huomenna on kylmää ‘it will be cold tomorrow’, the only clue that the sentence refers to a future state of affairs is the word huomenna ‘tomorrow’.

How, then, do languages acquire new grammatical categories like tense? Occasionally they get them from another language. Tok Pisin, a creole language spoken in Papua New Guinea, uses the word bin (from English been) to express past tense, and bai (from English by and by) to express future. More often, though, grammatical words evolve gradually out of native material. The Old English predecessor of will was the verb wyllan, ‘wish, want’, which could be followed by a noun as direct object (in sentences like I want money) as well as another verb (I want to sleep). While the original sense of the verb can still be seen in its German cousin (Ich will schwimmen means ‘I want to swim’, not ‘I will swim’), English will has lost it in all but a few set expressions like say what you will. From there it developed a somewhat altered sense of expressing that the subject intends to perform the action of the verb, or at least, that they do not object to doing so (giving us the modern sense of the adjective ‘willing’). And from there, it became a mere marker of future time: you can now say “I don’t want to do it, but I will anyway” without any contradiction.

This drift from lexical to grammatical meaning is known as grammaticalisation. As the meaning of a word gets reduced in this way, its form often gets reduced too. Words undergoing grammaticalisation tend to gradually get shorter and fuse with adjacent words, just as I will can be reduced to I‘ll. A close parallel exists in in the Greek verb thélō, which still survives in its original sense ‘want’, but has also developed into a reduced form, tha, which precedes the verb as a marker of future tense. Another future construction in English, going to, can be reduced to gonna only when it’s used as a future marker (you can say I’m gonna go to France, but not *I’m gonna France). This phonetic reduction and fusion can eventually lead to the kind of grammatical marking within words that we saw with French fera, which has arisen through the gradual fusion of earlier  ferre habet ‘it has to bear’.

Words meaning ‘want’ or ‘wish’ are a common source of future tense markers cross-linguistically. This is no coincidence: if someone wants to perform an action, you can often be reasonably confident that the action will actually take place. For speakers of a language lacking an established convention for expressing future tense, using a word for ‘want’ is a clever way of exploiting this inference. Over the course of many repetitions, the construction eventually gets reinterpreted as a grammatical marker by children learning the language. For similar reasons, another common source of future tense markers is words expressing obligation on the part of the subject. We can see this in Basque, where behar ‘need’ has developed an additional use as a marker of the immediate future:

ikusi    behar   dut

see       need     aux

‘I need to see’/ ‘I am about to see’

This is also the origin of the English future with shall. This started life as Old English sceal, ‘owe (e.g. money)’. From there it developed a more general sense of obligation, best translated by should (itself originally the past tense of shall) or must, as in thou shalt not kill. Eventually, like will, it came to be used as a neutral way of indicating future time.

But how do we know whether to use will or shall, if both indicate future tense? According to a curious rule of prescriptive grammar, you should use shall in the first person (with ‘I’ or ‘we’), and will otherwise, unless you are being particularly emphatic, in which case the rule is reversed (which is why the fairy godmother tells Cindarella ‘you shall go to the ball!’). The dangers of deviating from this rule are illustrated by an old story in which a Frenchman, ignorant of the distinction between will and shall, proclaimed “I will drown; nobody shall save me!”. His English companions, misunderstanding his cry as a declaration of suicidal intent, offered no aid.

This rule was originally codified by Bishop John Wallis in 1653, and repeated with increasing consensus by grammarians throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries. However, it doesn’t appear to reflect the way the words were actually used at any point in time. For a long time shall and will competed on fairly equal terms – shall substantially outnumbers will in Shakespeare, for example – but now shall has given way almost entirely to will, especially in American English, with the exception of deliberative questions like shall we dance? You can see below how will has gradually displaced shall over the last few centuries, mitigated only slightly by the effect of the prescriptive rule, which is perhaps responsible for the slight resurgence of shall in the 1st person from approximately 1830-1920:

Until the eventual victory of will in the late 18th century, these charts (from this study) actually show the reverse of what Wallis’s rule would predict: will is preferred in the 1st person and shall in the 2nd , while the two are more or less equally popular in the 3rd person. Perhaps this can be explained by the different origins of the two futures. At the time when will still retained an echo of its earlier meaning ‘want’, we might expect it to be more frequent with ‘I’, because the speaker is in the best position to know what he or she wants to do. Likewise, when shall still carried a shade of its original meaning ‘ought’, we might expect it to be most frequent with ‘you’, because a word expressing obligation is particularly useful for trying to influence the action of the person you are speaking to. Wallis’ rule may have been an attempt to be extra-polite: someone who is constantly giving orders and asserting their own will comes across as a bit strident at best. Hence the advice to use shall (which never had any connotations of ‘want’) in the first person, and will (without any implication of ‘ought’) in the second, to avoid any risk of being mistaken for such a character, unless you actually want to imply volition or obligation.