I believe I’ve mentioned before that one of the changes going on in English that distresses me the most (I say “going on” out of a combination of nostalgia and wilful blindness—the fact is that it’s already happened) is the obsolescence of the contrary-to-fact past “might have.” I can’t remember the last time I heard it used, and I’m slowly beginning to wince less ferociously when I hear “if he’d run faster he may have caught the ball”; I suppose before I die I’ll become more or less accustomed to it, though I don’t imagine I’ll actually take it up myself. I seem to have made the unconscious assumption, however, that it was an American phenomenon, so I was shocked anew just now, listening to an interview with a British author named Caryl Phillips, to hear him say “If I lived there [England], it may not be as easy for me to see the changes.” Now, as is apparent from the quote itself, he has not actually lived in England for years; an online biography says “Born in St. Kitts on March 13, 1958, he moved to England after just one year. There he took an honors B.A. at Oxford and began his blossoming writing career. He has since taken up a home in Amherst as well, where he serves as writer in residence.” It is possible, therefore, that he picked up this distressing verbal remodeling here in the US, and that in the mother country they still say “it might not be as easy.” Can anyone enlighten me on usage in the UK (or, for that matter, elsewhere in the Anglophone world)?

A side note: the interviewer pronounced the writer’s given name as if it were spelled “Carl,” whereas I’ve always said it as if it were “Carroll.” Does anyone know whether the first pronunciation is correct (ie, the one the writer uses) or whether the interviewer was simply trying to avoid sounding as if he were talking about a woman named Carol?


  1. Don’t get me started on less than standard usage. In the urban school where I work, I hear all kinds of structures I had never heard before. For “I’ve known that for a while”, I hear “I been knew that.” I had always learned that compound tenses in English especially where have or had is used as an auxiliary, that the lexical verb goes into the past participle form. “He had written that” at my job becomes “he had wrote” or “she had drove” instead of she had driven where the irregular past gets substituted for the past paticiple. In fact the principal who has a master’s once asked me “On tomorrow to carry my children to the gym.” I just count the errors. As for the decline of might, I’ll be listening but I seem to have my prescriptive linguistic plate full.

  2. I’m an Englishman of similar age and educational background to Phillips, though I’ve lived in London all my adult life: I’ve never noticed that construction over here. Or at all, as far as I can remember, and it’s certainly memorable.

  3. Yup… might is mightier than may in the parts of London I inhabit. I don’t recall hearing the usage you mention either.

  4. At a slight tangent. What’s up with all the irregular verbs being regularized? We lighted the candles instead of We lit the candles. He pleaded out insted of He plead out. The sun shined all day instead of the sun shone all day. I wince and grit my teeth whenever I encounter. It seems to occur in both written and spoken English here in the good old US of A.

  5. Mary Kay: That’s an absolutely normal linguistic development; irregular forms get regularized for the obvious reason that regular forms are easier to form and remember. If it weren’t for that, you’d be saying beech for “books” and kye for “cows,” among many others. It sounds bad/strange while it’s happening, but there’s nothing wrong with it; languages, like people, must change. (Toby, you too would do well to bear that in mind.) Note that I do not say the might/may change is bad or wrong, just that I don’t like it because I’m used to an earlier state of the language, just as I don’t like what these kids today call “music” (mutter, grumble).
    John, qB: I’m delighted to hear the olde country maintains the distinction!

  6. Might is right.
    As if one, in these nighted times, needed another reminder.
    LB,dear fellow, I appreciate your Heraclitean calm in the face of linguistic change. For change it well might, despite our best efforts. I know not might, nay it does. But we do well to remember that though things do get worse, they worsen no worse than once they worsened.
    Besides, these changes merely make those of use who make fewer of those particular errors (and no doubt more of many others) seem effortlessly cleverer than our neighbors. I know not seems, etc, but far be it from me, etc.

  7. Common, lh, link to the German “Society for Strengthening Verbs” again, the way you lank to them before.

  8. There’s something noble and rather austere about lh’s anti-prescriptivism, since he obviously hates a lot of the changes.
    I recently joined a discussed of “begs the question” in the sense of “raises the question” rather than in the sense of “assumes the consequent”. To me “begging the question” is a valuable term, but if people use it both ways it becaomes useless. “Assuming the consequent” sounds too fussy and scholastic.

  9. Noble? Austere? I agree. What is he, if not the Marcus Aurelius of enlightened usage.
    But let us not flatter LH in his hearing: it MAY go to his head, and who knows what that might portend in terms of a new hat budget for 2004.

  10. Michael Farris says

    I still say ‘might have’, but I might could say ‘may have’ in some contexts.

  11. Yes, and he may well also invade Pannonia or something like that. Marcus Aurelius wasn’t as nice as people think.

  12. There’s something noble and rather austere about lh’s anti-prescriptivism, since he obviously hates a lot of the changes.
    Why, thank you, sir. But it’s the inevitable result of the ongoing clash between my linguistic training and my native conservatism, the latter reinforced by my day job as an editor. I have been forced to forge a compromise in which I grit my teeth and defend to the death the changes I deplore. My only fear is that the day will come when they find me sitting on a staircase, slapping myself on alternate cheeks while shouting “Change!… Degradation!… Change!!… Degradation!!”
    As for Aurelius (né Marcus Annius Verus), he’s a prime illustration of the corruption of power. He might have been a perfectly nice guy if he’d stayed a perpetual student and Stoic; raised to the purple, he started bashing barbarians and crushing Christians (though he was good to the poor). If nominated as Emperor, I shall not accept, and if elected I shall not serve.

  13. Well, as a backwoods Oregonian, usually in the forefront of linguistic degradation, I must say that the sentence you quote strikes me as bizarre and completely un-English. Is it really common where you are? I don’t recollect *ever* hearing “may” as a contrary-to-fact. “If I’d seen the accident, I might have phoned.” Can’t imagine people saying “… I may have phoned,” no matter how uneducated they might be. (Of course, what we’d actually say is “Idaphoned,” where the ‘d’ would represent whatever auxilliary or combination thereof that you might want.)

  14. Well, now, that’s interesting. I wonder what the geographic spread of this phenomenon is? There have doubtless been papers published on the subject, and if I were a real linguist I’d know about them. Ah, well, perhaps one of the Language Log folks will take up the matter.

  15. I’m sorry I wasn’t clear. I know irregular things get regularized, but it seems to me I’ve just started hearing these changes all of sudden. In just the last couple of years. Sort of like all at once the orbital mind control lasers decided it was time. But apparently, only people under about 35 are susceptible to the beams.
    In other news, I haven’t heard the odd usage you’re talking about here. Maybe I don’t get out enough.

  16. Another point to bear in mind is that it’s not always easy to know what’s an innovation. For the verb shine, for example, it’s true that the regular past “shined” is later than the strong “shone,” but it’s been used since the 14th century, so you can hardly decry it as a recent development. Furthermore, if you want to hang on to the good old strong forms, you should use “shinen” as the past participle; it hasn’t been used since 1220 or so, but never say die! Light is an even worse example, since “lit” only goes back to the 17th century; the original form was liht (which survives in the dialectal leet), and “lighted” has been around since the 14th century. Worst of all is plead, which is an original weak verb, so that “pleaded” is much older than “pled” (which dates from the 15th century, originally a Scottish and dialect form). So be careful where you direct your wrath!

  17. This point I’m about to raise, this can of worms I’m opening is for all you out there who defend what we prescriptives call incorrect usage. In my urban dialect, this would be directed to all y’ll (does any language have a plural of a plural or a super-plural, like y’ll is plural and then there’s all y’all, covering even more ground). Do any of you who insist that there’s no incorrect usage use any of the forms you defend in your own speech? Do any of you say “when I had took” instead of “when I had taken”. Do any of you use ain’t for the all purpose negative particle? Or say “my granmother house” instead of “my grandmother’s house”, dropping the terminal s which marks possessive? I didn’t think so.

  18. Prescriptive grammar — we ain’t got none of that round here. (WRONG!: “We don’t got none of that round here” is the correct form).
    I think the difference here is that you’re talking about local or class dialects and we’re talking about changes in the elite or standard dialect. In my example above, either usage of “beg the question” is elite dialect, but usage in the elite dialect seems to be changing.
    So yes, people who are planning to go into the big world should learn the standard dialect. Not because they are wrong, but because not very many people speak their dialect. Like Luxembourgish or Frisian.
    An example is the archaic form in “Froggy did a-wooing go”, which is still used by country people but sounds ignorant nowadays. It’s just an obsolete form.
    Here in Oregon (hi, Dale) the faller falls trees rather than felling them. Not exactly what we’re talking about, but sort of. Sort of a tricky case — you’d expect people doing a job to know what the name of their job is, but fallers are not likely to be highly literate or correct.

  19. you’d expect people doing a job to know what the name of their job is, but fallers are not likely to be highly literate or correct
    I was with you right up to that last bit, but you lost me. By definition, the correct vocabulary for a job is whatever those who practice it use; if fallers talk about falling a tree, then that’s the correct verb in that context. If perfessers want to use some archaic umlauted form, that’s fine for them, but I fail to see how it’s more “correct.” (I have been told that potters pronounce the word kiln “kill,” which nobody else does; if true, then that is the correct pronunciation in the context of pottery.)
    Toby: As it happens, I do occasionally use “incorrect” forms in my speech. There are some I’m fond of and others I dislike. There is nothing “correct” about the forms in dictionaries except that editors and pedants insist on them and failure to observe them may harm your chances in job interviews. I would a thousand times rather read or talk with an interesting person who uses “incorrect” English than a boring one who gets all the verbs right. And y’all is a particularly bad example to cast stones at, since English badly needs a second-person plural form, and that’s a convenient and (to my mind) attractive one. I use it frequently.

  20. Yes, I too occasionally use y’all as a needed English you plural form (as in the Spanish ustedes). Though I monitor who I use it with, as it tends to mark the speaker geographically and at times classwise. But what about “all y’all”, which I just learned to be the global plural form. What else could you call a plural for a plural? I bet some other languages have such a subject pronoun.

  21. When I was studying Portuguese, I found (as I remember) that in Brazil at least there were three second-person singular forms: intimate (=”tu”), modern polite, and old polite. The second person is always causing problems. I say screw him.

  22. Michael Farris says

    toby: “does any language have a plural of a plural or a super-plural, like y’ll is plural and then there’s all y’all, covering even more ground”
    South Asian languages do this kind of thing all the time. I call it plural inflation. Plurals are closely connected to politeness (in all persons) so that a given plural is used more and more as a polite term and new forms are pressed into service to indicate numerical plurals. These new forms in turn are used for politeness and so on.
    The Tamil form avarkal is etymologically ‘they’ (avar) and the general plural marker (kal) but the whole thing can be used as a polite reference for one person.
    Also see Hindi forms like tumlog, hamlog etc.
    I don’t see any particular difference between ‘all y’all’ ‘all them’ and ‘all us’.
    Where I used to live (Gainesville, Florida, 80’s) y’all was in general use as a plural and tended to seep into the speech of those from non-y’all dialects.

  23. I don’t see any particular difference between ‘all y’all’ ‘all them’ and ‘all us’.
    Excellent point. “All y’all” is only superficially redundant, like “the La Brea tar pits.”

  24. It was reported to my by a most excellent linguist (the late Jim Nattinger of Portland State University, who lives in the memory of many former students) that the “thou” form was destroyed by the Quakers. They didn’t recognize rank and to show that they kep their hats on when addressing their “superiors” and addressed them as “thou” rather than using the respectful form. Increasingly people avoided the word in situations where doubts might be raised, which tended to destroy the distinction since the polite form can always be used. It was like intimacy and familiarity became taboo. So now “you” is the singular, pretty much, and various makeshifts are used for the plural. (Also as a result of this, we live in a soulless, mechanical society dominated by The Man).

  25. Round here in North Essex, I’ve never heard any of the usages you cite, but we have our own perversions. I think they are all standard Estuary English, but I never noticed them when I lived in London. The oddest is ’round mine’ for ‘at my house’ — cf ‘we could go round yours’.

  26. zizka: With all due respect to the late Jim Nattinger, who I’m sure was a most excellent linguist, the Quaker story is something of a myth: the change began centuries before there were any Quakers to create doubts. See my entry What Happened to ‘Thou’? and the links therein contained.

  27. Hat, man lives by myths.

  28. Be comforted – I still use “might have” and take what opportunities I have to correct the other version. Will continue to do so for the next 35 years – target age is 96.
    BUT English in the UK, especially in London and major cities, is being changed by the Englishes of 100+ countries on which it was quite recently imposed. This I find both just and interesting.
    Oh, and Happy New Year!

  29. P.S. The fact that the “thou” form disappeared almost entirely in English, as it did not in other languages, might still have something to do with the Quakers’ very aggressive use of the intimate/condescending form for everyone whatsoever. The Quakers were big players in the changes in class relations that took place in early modern England. Calling everyone “thou” was so offensive that everyone became “you”.
    I still say, screw the second person.

  30. On ‘may have” versus “might have”, I noted during a recent three-year stay in Australia that “may have” was commonly used for counter-factual situations where I (as a Pennsylvanian) would only use “might have”. Australians I asked about this certainly recognized “might have”, and seemed to accept the distinction in meaning, but nonetheless used “may have” pretty consistently. I don’t think I ever heard “might have” from an Australian.

  31. Aha! The antipodes heard from. Any other sources of infection?

  32. Tom Lockhart says

    Re: If a news report states “he pleaded guilty”
    is considered acceptable, should we brace for
    “he bleeded to death” as the next new phrase ?
    Tom L.

  33. I’m pretty sure “pled” is obsolete in American English; I can’t remember the last time I heard it. This does not mean the death of the irregular verb.

  34. All(a) y’all is just the y’all-dialect’s version of all of you. No magic double plurals here: the difference between Are y’all going? and Are all y’all going? is exactly the difference between Are you going? and Are all of you going? in non-y’all dialects. These may express the latter alternative as Are you all going?, with sentential stress on all.

  35. Hat, as I’ve mentioned before, I use both ‘might’ and ‘may’, but I would have a hard time telling you which was correct. That is, I don’t know what the rule is for using one or the other, they seem to be in some kind of free variation. Of course there might be sentences where I could state that one or the other is definitely correct, but I can’t think of any at the moment. Perhaps if you could give me a few examples I could tell you whether I have any intuitions/judgements either way.

  36. Robe,
    In a sentence like “I might go shopping today” I could just as easily use “may”. I don’t know how I decide in such cases.
    In a sentence like “If it hadn’t rained today I might have gone shopping” I would never use “may”.

  37. For the second sentence, I would normally use ‘might’. But wouldn’t be impossible, especially in speech.

  38. I would say might and may are truly interchangeable in sentences with future reference, with might indicating a more remote possibility: I may stumble when I take a walk later today (it happens often enough), whereas I might fall down (only once in the last few decades, thank Ghu).
    The innovative sense of may is its use in the conclusion of contrary-to-fact conditionals, like the one given in the post. Historically, lived in the condition compels might in the conclusion, thanks to an inherited rule of the Western European Sprachbund called the “sequence of tenses”. In modern English, however, the rule has broken down in many respects: “He said that two plus two is/*was four”, and this is I think just another instance of that collapse.

  39. I’m pretty sure “pled” is obsolete in American English; I can’t remember the last time I heard it. This does not mean the death of the irregular verb.
    Really? I was just thinking that “pleaded” has been the normal London-English usage, at least during my lifetime, whereas “pled” is US usage. Now I’m hopelessly confused. There’s a clearish US-British split with “dove” and “dived”, though.

  40. AJP, ‘pled’ is definitely US, but if LH is correct, it’s dying out in the place of its birth.

  41. Aha, just so long as I’m not losing it. I thought it was US, but then I began to wonder.

  42., which is the most rapidly updated professional dictionary, says “pleaded or pled also plead” without further; I take that to mean that pleaded and pled are equal variants, with plead as the past tense or past participle a minority usage. The OED says that pled is “chiefly Sc. and U.S.“:

    The acceptability of plead and pled as past tense and past participle forms has been questioned by commentators on usage; both forms have often been associated with legal usage. For a full discussion of this, with examples, see B. A. Garner Dict. Mod. Legal Usage (ed. 2, 1995) 667.

    And looking in Garner, thanks to Google Books, I find this entry (my editorial inclusions in [[double square brackets]], Garner’s in [single square brackets]):

    pleaded; pled; plead. Traditionally speaking, pleaded is the best past-tense and past-participial form. Commentators on usage have long said so, pouring drops of vitriol onto has pled and has plead.
    [[vitriol from 1905 to 1943 snipped]]
    The problem with these strong pronouncements, of course, is that pled and plead have gained some standing in AmE, as the Evanses noted in midcentury: “In the United States pleaded and pled are both acceptable for the past tense and the past participle. In Great Britain only the form pleaded is used and pled is considered an Americanism.” [[cit. om.]] The variant forms might not be the best usage, but neither can they be condemned as horrible.
    Nevertheless, pleaded is the predominant form in both AmE and BrE — e.g.
    [[examples from legal books and a newspaper article snipped]]
    The spelling plead as a past tense (for pled) appeared in the 18th century, apparently on the analogy of read > read (Cf. lead.) E.g., “The legal proposition plead [read pleaded] by plaintiff is unpersuasive.” One problem with this form is that many readers will suffer a miscue by seeing plead at first as a present-tense verb.
    The other variant form, pled, dates from the 16th century. It is nearly obsolete in BrE except as a dialectal word. Nor is it considered quite standard in AmE, although it is the common variant in legal usage, e.g.: [[examples from legal judgments snipped]].

    In short, Garner is being too conservative (no surprise). Pled has been semi-standard AmE for a long time, and fully standard since 1950 or so; indeed, one of the judgments that I snipped is from 1939, the other from 1985. How much it is used outside the specialized legal context, neither Garner nor I can say, but evidently thinks it is. So if there’s been a drop-off in usage, it’s very recent.

  43. Anyway my first wife’s sister who’s a public defender in San Francisco says “pled”. So there.

  44. I forgot to say, for those who may have forgotten to remember, that is the most rapidly updated professional dictionary of American English.

  45. I found an 1895 counterfactual-may in Jude the Obscure, spoken by the irregularly educated Sue Bridehead:

    If there had been a rope-ladder, and he had run after us with pistols, it would have seemed different, and I may have acted otherwise.

  46. Excellent find!

  47. On regularised verbs: I find the sheep has been sheared peculiar. Has to be shorn.

    That’s why “Sean the Sheep”. (Of course it doesn’t work in American English.)

  48. That’s why “Sean the Sheep”.

    Shaun the Sheep.

    (Of course it doesn’t work in American English.)

    There are non-rhotic American accents. Anyway, I figured it pretty quickly.

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