Not A Shakespearean Quote

At GFS discussions happen every moment of the day about every imaginable subject. Listening to students in the middle school, there is a lot of babble and giggle and hubbub; but what some don’t realize is that as one goes through life speaking, they actually play a role in the evolution of language.

Contractions are integral parts of our language and they are necessary for the natural flow of conversations. Can you imagine going a day without saying “it’s” or “there’s” or “I’m”? Looking deeper into this idea, the reason for contractions is simple. Contractions are more efficient and require less articulation, so in the murmur of the Sharpless hallways filled with “I’m going to the cafeteria,” and “there’s a game today,” there isn’t much focus on grammatical correctness (though both these examples are perfectly fine).

Language is an interesting idea. Whatever is correct is usually due to popular use. For example, the word omnibus, from the Latin meaning “for everyone” (thanks Julie!), was once used in ordinary conversations as in “Suzy, I’m taking the omnibus home from school,” but throughout time, this was shortened to “Suzy, I’m taking the “bus” and later, “Suzy, I’m taking the bus.” This idea is also discussed in the book Frindle by Andrew Clements.  In this book a boy makes up another word for pen—frindle—and it gains popularity.

One change in language that has an uncertain future is the verb “to be.” Looking at a chart of this, much like one would in foreign language class; English has one of the simplest conjugation structures of any language. I am, you are, he is, we are, they are, y’all are (Hey! It’s a contraction! [And another! Wow!] Actually in English, there isn’t [contraction!] a difference if “you” is singular or plural—lucky us.). The simplicity of this is both beneficial and harmful to our way of communication.

Most recently, I’ve (contraction!) noticed sentences like “There’s doughnuts (or donuts? Another conversation here) in the cafeteria.” At first glance this sentence appears to be perfectly acceptable, but when the contraction “there’s” is pulled apart the sentence becomes “there is donuts (or doughnuts) in the cafeteria,” which is incorrect, because there are multiple doughnuts (donuts) in the cafeteria; so, the verb to be (I am, you are, he/she/it is, we are, they are) is clearly not  followed.  Donuts in this case is “they” because the sentence could go “there are donuts” and “they are in the cafeteria,” where doughnuts is “they” because it (as a group) is a third person plural subject. More frequently this sort of sentence has come into popular use and most people don’t even notice they’re (they are) doing it.

Sometimes the difference between when one should use “is” and when one should use “are,” such as in the context of “there is an elephant and there are two giraffes” can become confusing because the total subject is three. “There are two giraffes and there is an elephant,” but when the two are together “there is an elephant and there are two giraffes” is a longer version of a simple idea, which is that there are three things and two of them are the same. Another way of communicating this idea would be: “There are two giraffes and an elephant” and the “are” in the sentence is communicating the two giraffes as well as the three animals. The incorrect way of attempting to convey this idea is “There is an elephant and two giraffes.”

What does this mean for the English language as a whole? In the future, will we only have two forms of the verb to be? I am, you is, he/she/it is, we is, they is, or will our need for a distinction of number prevent the change?

Image courtesy of penelopeillustration.com