Syntactical drift

I’ve been a bit coy about my area of academic expertise on the blog up to now, but here is where I half-out myself: I am a person who used to study syntax.

M and I thought we were pretty much down with American English, along with every other Brit who grows up watching American TV and reading American books. And I’ve previously documented my unease with pronouncing the words ‘stroller’, ‘diaper’ and ‘onesie’ (actually, I’m still not sure what a onesie actually is). But whereas it’s easy enough to avoid words like ‘eggplant’, ‘sidewalk’ and ‘pacifier’, or to use them when they seem absolutely essential, a more troubling phenomenon has been sneaking its way into my speech. Yes: my syntax is drifting.

Before I make my confession I want to talk about one form of words I would never, ever use. I would NEVER put an adverb before an auxiliary. Huh? I hear you ask. Well, this is what I mean:

I also was eating an eggplant at the time.

I probably have changed my daughter’s diaper before seven in the morning.

The children of Evanston always are cycling down the sidewalk. 

Aren’t those constructions ugly? You don’t find them everywhere, but there are places where they’re endemic: the book Heading Home With Your Newborn, for example, has several per page. Anyway, if you want a better account of the phenomenon, I direct you to Separated by a Common Language.

OK – enough with the accusations. Here is what I’ve started doing.

I’ve started using ‘did’ instead of ‘have’ in the present perfect when I ask, for example, ‘Did you put out the trash?’ (I don’t really say ‘trash’. That bit is a joke to distract you from the larger crime.) The British Council, no less, explains that that is NOT WHAT THE BRITISH SAY.

And, possibly worse, because I keep saying it to baby A, I have been dropping ‘can’ before verbs of perception. So, I say ‘Do you see the rabbit?’ or ‘Yes, I hear the lawn mower.’ (There’s a not very helpful mention of this on the World Service site here.)

It is clearly time for me to go home.


About scepticalexpat

British 30something wannabe academic, moving to Chicago for three years in August 2010.
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5 Responses to Syntactical drift

  1. What if you move to Australia soon? I have a feeling you will lose your mind 😉

  2. Jon Sanwell says:

    I think they call this echoing in English language teaching circles. It’s easy to do – in Vietnam I sometimes find myself speaking English like a Vietnamese person, e.g. “can I have one coffee?” There’s no indefinite article in Vietnamese, so this is a common mistake.

    Hope you’ll carry on blogging when you’re no longer an expat. You can just be sceptical.

  3. RSLongman1982 says:

    Where did you go? Just reading some of your experiences and ‘getting it’. I’m an expat now too. But you last posted about 2 years ago. What happened next?

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