To be, or not to be...


Categories: Personal

I’ve sort of come to terms with the fact that my language is changing. And I’ve found a way of thinking about this that makes me a lot happier about it. Instead of viewing every deviation from the usage rules I learned as an “error”, I consider them as proposed updates in a new version of the language.

Here’s an example. Something I’ve seen before occasionally in writing is stuff like “The car’s okay, but the brakes need replaced pretty soon.” Now, I’ve seen this usage in a lot of places, and it’s been gradually getting more common. It’s obviously an omission of that oh-so-crucial helper verb. But wait, let’s look at this as a proposed change.

Imagine that we simply added a new rule: “When you would write to-be-verbed after a verb that implies intent or future outcome, you can omit the words “to be” because they are obvious in context.”

Would that be a good rule? I’m pretty sure it would. I have never, ever, seen an instance of this usage which created any kind of ambiguity. I don’t see any harm from it. Heck, I’ll probably start doing it now. If there’s a problem with that, it needs found out before things get out of control.

This is sort of like my recent realization that “quelle horreur” is a perfectly valid English exclamation meaning “I can’t comprehend how this could possibly be cause for concern”, just as the formerly reflexive pronouns (e.g., “himself”) are now mostly used as formality cues for their base pronouns.

Comments [archived]

From: tabuno
Date: 2011-01-22 02:07:11 -0600

It would be a “good” rule only if we say that economy in syntax is what we are necessarily looking for (reasons may be supplied for that: efficiency, transparent communication etc.) But you have to make everyone agree these are the virtues and the ways of seeing efficiency and transparency no one would want to dispute.

From: Alex
Date: 2011-01-24 04:37:50 -0600

That’s an interesting idea, but I think we should take into account the purpose of such a change.

Tabuno pointed out above that “it saves space” could be an answer. The drawback is that the language becomes more complex, since there is “more than one right way to do it”.

I am aware of the fact that there are already multiple ways to express the same idea – that’s one of the reasons people make mistakes.

So… yes, the sentence gets shorter, but the complexity of code of the program that determines whether a given sentence is valid or not – increases.

The more rules you have, the more difficult it is to follow them.

From: Linda Seebach
Date: 2011-01-25 12:35:57 -0600

The linguists who hang out at Language Log Plaza had a post recently about this construction, which is called the passival; it was common two hundred years ago — found in Jane Austen’s writing, for example — but was gradually being replaced by expressions where
a form of “be” appears explicitly.

See also
for a thorough discussion of English passive constructions. “Need” is something of a special case.