Talking in the Real World.

Lane Greene of The Economist has another good “Johnson” column; this time he’s focusing on the importance of register:

I began learning Portuguese from an old secondhand book that taught forms like comê-lo-ia, which I dutifully studied, grumbling “who on Earth says this?” If only someone had answered “nobody”. When I finally talked to Brazilians, their Portuguese resembled my textbook in roughly the way that a Picasso resembles its subject. Sadly, many traditional textbooks still teach Portuguese this way—including to native speakers in Brazil.

All languages change, but as they do, some language groups are more willing to update the formal grammar books than others. If the books don’t change, but the spoken language does—the typical case—the two forms gradually drift apart.

This is a shame for many native speakers, who arrive at school to learn that the way everyone speaks is “wrong”, and an ossified written form is “right”. […]

Instead of a rigid right-wrong approach, with the written form always being taught as right, it would be better to teach the idea of register: that certain forms are used in casual speech, other forms in formal speech, others still in writing. Lingua Portuguesa also had an interview with Valéria Paz de Almeida, a linguist consultant to a news broadcaster, who lamented that newscasters feel the need to speak in an artificial register that resembles writing. They come to her with worried questions about rare and tricky grammatical forms. She in turn tries to get them to speak as they do with the cameras switched off: fluently and articulately, but naturally. She finds this make the journalists looser and happier, and the audience never complains.

What about foreign learners? It is distressing to show up in Paris and hear a mysterious mumble that sounds like j’sépa, over and over again, only later to discover that this is what your French teacher told you to say as je ne sais pas, “I don’t know.” Those silent s’s are a perfect example of the spoken language changing while the written remains the same. And a good textbook would explain that the negative particle ne is usually dropped in colloquial speech. But most books don’t trust learners to be able to master multiple registers. Mastering register is, to be sure, tricky. But it is not well solved by teaching only a register that will leave the learner bewildered by the first live contact with a human being.

He commends Routledge’s “Modern Grammar: A Practical Guide” series for doing it right, with “detailed, detached descriptions of the difference between speaking and writing, formal and informal, regional differences and the like.” I agree with him that that should be standard in language teaching.


  1. In Russia, schoolchildren are still taught that the way to express simple future tense in English is “I/we shall, you/he/she/it/they will”.

  2. Dear me.

  3. Trond Engen says

    That’s what I was taught, too, in Norway around 1980. I think it was qualified by the teacher by something like “That’s the rule, but people don’t really follow it.”

  4. Dear me.

    A terrific example of higher register in English. Were Hat to have uttered something in response to the previous comment in, say, a crowded bar, I’m sure he’d have fired off a four-letter expletive.

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    But are the Russian/Norwegian kids taught to negate first-person future statements with “shan’t”? Or are contractions so low-register that particular pitfall can be sidestepped?

  6. Trond Engen says

    No, contractions were taught very early. As for negating future statements, I don’t remember and suspect it may have been too specific for special mention.

    My kids, born 1999 and 2001, have never heard of the shall/will rule.

  7. I remember being taught the shall/will rule in England in the 1970s, even though all of us recognized that no one actually paid any attention to it. I was too meek in those days to raise any objection to this.

  8. Now I know what my thesis advisor (not a native English speaker) was talking about when he mentioned some rule that he insisted our joint papers follow and that distinguished “will” and “shall.”

  9. Speaking of the real world, I only just now for the first time heard Rachel Maddow pronounce “Obergefell”. I’d only read it before and took it to be plain German, but her pronunciation was something like Oh-bersh-fell …

  10. I’m pretty sure she’s wrong and it’s OH-ber-guh-fell, but I can’t be sure where I found that information, so don’t take it on faith.

  11. David Marjanović says

    My mother was taught the shall/will rule in the 60s. 30 years later, I was not; sometime in the mid-90s the teacher even stated she wouldn’t count writing if I was as a serious mistake anymore and wouldn’t even mark it when we put it in someone’s mouth in direct speech.

    Contractions are taught right away. What is not taught is that they’re absent from formal writing.

  12. David Marjanović says

    Obergefell looks German to me, except I’ve never encountered *Gefell.

    …Ha! Typing Obergefell into the address bar at the end of the Wikipedia prefix leads to Obergefell v. Hodges, and there it says “James Obergefell (/ˈoʊbərɡəfɛl/)”. So far, so good. 🙂

  13. David Marjanović says

    Gefälle “slope” (in the abstract, measured in ° or %). So the compound could make sense in some dialect; perhaps it’s “farmer who lives near the top of a mountain” or something.

  14. I recall hearing the lead plaintive in Obergefell interviewed on NPR a few months ago. He pronounced his name with the hard g, roughly as it would be pronounced in German.

  15. Trond Engen says

    In Norway a surname like that couldn’t be anything but a farm name, and the direct translation Øverli(e) “Upper-hillside” does exist both as a surname and a farm name. A prefigated form usually suggests that an older farm was divided into two or more distinct parts.

    (In this context ‘farm’ may not be a good translation of Norwegian gård. As a cadastral unit a gård might consist of a number of homesteads, from a single small craft to village-like groupings or a single large estate. The defining property would be areal integrity. For a partition to give rise to specific names, it would usually take a clean break where the land was divided and there was built a new settlement rather than intertwined parcels and a new homestead in the old settlement.)

  16. Gefell is a name of a town in Thuringia and also of some sort of municipality in Rhineland-Palatinate (Wikipedia rules)

  17. Jeffry House says

    My Dad, a journalist, lost all respect for US General Douglas MacArthur, when he said, “I shall return” after being ejected from the Philippines by the Japanese.

    Since Mac Arthur meant to convey commitment and purpose, he should have said: “I will return”. My brothers and I followed this rule until Dad died.

  18. fisheyed says

    Jânio retorted, “A lie! Sound doesn’t travel through a vacuum!” And asked once why he drank liquor, he said, “I drink it because it’s liquid. If it were solid, I’d eat it.”

    All this is delightfully weird enough, but the way he said the last one in Portuguese is even weirder.

    Neither of these are weird, and I don’t think his choice of using a markedly formal register is particularly weird either. Everybody knows that icy, insulting repartee is even icier in a formal register.

    If newsreaders cannot speak in an artificial, formal register with fluency and ease, I don’t know why the answer is to change the register rather than the newsreader. There was an age in which poets spontaneously composed long poems in an artificial, formal register, now newsreaders can’t manage reading off a cue card or perhaps a few interview questions? Why isn’t narrowing the space for the formal register considered as terrible as stomping on any other dialect? What about keeping alive different, even antique forms just to maintain the diversity of the language and keep older texts readable by ordinary people? What about the beauty of formal language?

    The assumption in the article is that people are learning langauges with the expectation of having conversations, but that may or may not be true. Nor did I feel distressed by going to Paris and hearing elision.

  19. fisheyed says

    Since Mac Arthur meant to convey commitment and purpose, he should have said: “I will return”.

    Is this correct? I thought it was “shall” which indicated more determination.

  20. George Grady says

    Is this correct? I thought it was “shall” which indicated more determination.

    The traditional rule is that in the first person, “shall” is basic future and “will” is determination, and in the second and third persons, the reverse is true. I’ve always had trouble believing that this reflected reality to any serious extent.

  21. George Gibbard says

    ‘Shall’ most originally means what one does as one’s duty, whereas ‘will’ means what one does out of one’s own will. So the prescriptive rule is to say that I (we) do what we must, while everyone else can do what they want. I was never taught this in school (graduated Ann Arbor Community HIgh School 1997, Swarthmore College 2001, and such things are too elementary to mention in graduate school) and learned it thorough my own reading. I have noticed the King James Bible does not follow the “standard” rule, using ‘shall’ for simple future in 2nd and 3rd persons (I think). As for myself, I never heard people my age saying ‘shall’ growing up at all. I have known of an anthropologist mistranscribing kids’ ‘should’ as ‘shall’, which struck me as very unlikely.

  22. George Gibbard says

    That being said I don’t doubt that there are RP speakers in England who have the shall/will rule natively.
    In my parents’ generation, I think ‘shall we … ?’ exists, but it can be reduced, and is interpreted by younger speakers as as reduced form of ‘should we … ?’

  23. George Gibbard says

    People in Michigan distinguish between ‘may’ and ‘might’, which many British speakers do not, even who write for the BBC.

  24. George Gibbard says

    I should add that I have never heard anyone utter ‘shan’t” in any context.

  25. Thanks, David.

    I shoulda read closer yesterday, rather than just running here immediately.

  26. @George Gibbard: For present and future actions, “may” and “might” are interchangeable for me, but for past actions I do distinguish between uncertain “may” and counterfactual “might”.

  27. Bathrobe says

    The distinction between ‘may’ and ‘might’ always sounds clear to me when it’s explained, but I can never remember it.

    (Of course I’m not referring to questions like ‘May I leave the table please?’, which must use ‘may’.)

  28. George Gibbard says

    I think the context where I’ve seen the BBC get may/might “wrong” is something like the following:
    They said last week they may make the decision as early as yesterday, where for me yesterday demands might; on the other hand “They said they may make the decision as early as tomorrow” is fine for me. So for me might is sometimes the past tense of may, whereas should is never the past tense of shall which I don’t use at all.

  29. for past actions I do distinguish between uncertain “may” and counterfactual “might”.

    As should all right-thinking people do I, and the universal use of “may” these days drives me up a wall. I think I posted about it a while back.

  30. At least to my ear (US, 59 yo) the interrogative “Shall I” still sounds OK as polite speech. I can easily imagine a receptionist saying, “Shall I call him for you?”, which I would understand as a kind offer to do a service, whereas “Should I call him for you?” I would take as a sincere question: “Do you want/need me to call him? (Or will you call him yourself?)” As I said, I would hear the “Shall I?” as polite formal speech, but I expect that today “Would you like me to call him for you?” would be more common.

    I think I do make a distinction between “may” and “might” in the present (and in past), but I don’t know if I can pin it down.

  31. When you talked about getting may/might wrong, I was thinking more of cases like “They may have been killed”, referring to a counterfactual possibility, when the people in question are known to be alive. It’s a usage that I’ve seen in some online news articles, although I forget if the BBC was among them.

  32. It’s a usage that I’ve seen in some online news articles, although I forget if the BBC was among them.

    I hear it so constantly on the radio (NPR) that I’m always pleasantly surprised when I hear it used correctly the way I grew up with. To me, “he may have caught the ball” can only imply “(but whether he did or not is unknown)”; to express the counterfactual (“if he had tried harder…”) you have to say “he might have caught the ball.” At least I do.

  33. I should add that I have never heard anyone utter ‘shan’t” in any context.

    I like to say “shan’t” every now and then because it always amuses Americans. Also “shrubbery,” for some reason.

  34. Also “shrubbery,” for some reason.

    Monty Python.

  35. I should add that I have never heard anyone utter ‘shan’t” in any context.

    It’d very common among UK toddlers when they refuse to follow an order:

    “Pick that up !”

    “Shan’t !”

  36. David Marjanović says

    ‘Shall’ most originally means what one does as one’s duty, whereas ‘will’ means what one does out of one’s own will.

    That would be suspiciously common to the modern German – and I’m sure I overgeneralize geographically – meanings of ich soll “I’m supposed to” and ich will “I want to”. Surely that’s too good to be true? 🙂

    Further ramblings: 1) ich sollte is the simple past (“I was supposed to”) as well as the subjunctive (“[in that case] I should”), but “should I” is soll ich; 2) the line between /s/ and /ʃ/ (an entirely irregular correspondence) does not run entirely through the North Sea, but across northern Germany, as many other isoglosses do.

  37. David Marjanović says

    Oh: thinking of should and will, I have something to say on the original topic! 🙂 I was taught that could is only the subjunctive, never the past tense, which is was able to. After a few years I found that actual usage is different, and started to use could for the past tense, too – sometimes it makes for much less clumsy and wordy sentences.

    Same for whose being limited to persons, so that everything else has to be referred to by of which.

  38. Same for whose being limited to persons, so that everything else has to be referred to by of which.

    A ludicrous “rule” whose tortured offspring I take great pleasure in emending in my capacity as copyeditor.

  39. marie-lucie says

    When I was first taught (British) English in the 50s, I learned I shall and you, she, etc will for the future. In grad school in the US a decade or more later I had an English roommate who regularly used I shall and I shan’t, but I said I will and I won’t.

    As for may and might (which I mentioned earlier), according to my knowledge of English a sentence like I may have been killed would only be acceptable from a ghost unable to recall the exact circumstances of their death, rather than from a live person who had been in a near-fatal accident.

  40. For me, shall I? is still a normal way to offer to do something for someone, though should I? works too. My sense is that shall we? is somewhat more restricted, although I can’t think offhand of a specific verb with which it doesn’t work.

  41. I think my default casual equivalent to “Shall I…?” is “You want me to…?”, cutting the modal Gordian knot and kicking do-support to the curb in one swift creolizing motion.

  42. Bathrobe says

    Not creolised enough. I think it should be “Want me to…?”

    E.g., “Want me to get you a drink?”, spoken as “Wommy gechou a drink?”

  43. As a young child I believe I understood “shall” as being essentially a synonym of “will” — a synonym used much more often in the UK than here in the US.

    Then at some point — I believe it may have been in some sort of school textbook about Grammar — I read about a distinction, in UK English, between “shall” and “will”. The distinction was a little hard to hang onto for me, and I have been a bit skeptical about whether it is really so widespread, also about how old it is. Ever since then I have had to stop and think every time I wanted to work out the reason why an English person had used one word rather than the other.

    And now I seem to be finding out that I got it wrong anyway. Here’s what I thought it was. “I shall do it” is a more forceful statement than “I will do it”; the latter is not much stronger than “I want to do it, and I am going to try”, while the former says that I am going to succeed. But “you will do it” is a more forceful statement than “You shall do it”; the latter says that you are going to do it, while the former states more directly that in telling you what you are going to do I am imposing my will on you.

    I seem to have fabricated most of this, though.

  44. Or, Matt, there’s always “You want I should …?”

  45. Fowler on shall and will. In essence, he says there are two systems. One he calls the “pure system”, in which shall refers to command or obligation, and will to wish. Then there is another system, which he divides into two, calling them the colored-future and pure-future systems, in which shall expresses the pure future in the first person and the colored future in the second and third, and will expresses the colored future in the first person and the pure future in the second. Only the semantics tells us whether a given sentence adheres to the pure system or to the colored/pure future system. Consequently, it’s complicated.

  46. Oops. For “pure future” read “plain future” throughout. I managed to make things even more confusing than they are.

  47. To continue.

    The pure system is defective on semantic grounds. I shall would mean ‘I command myself to’, which is fairly useless; similarly, you will and (s)he will mean ‘you are willing to’ and ‘(s)he is willing to’, which assert more than can normally be known. The same is true in the plural. These forms I shall, you will, (s)he will, we shall, they will are therefore available to represent the plain future, whereas the other forms I will, you shall, (s)he shall, we will, they shall make sense in the pure system and when used as futures inherently express the colored future.

    So far, so descriptive. Fowler gets prescriptive when dealing with expressions like I would like to, which is doubly colored, once by first-person would and once by like, and which he says is equivalent to I should like to like to. Of course, the notion that redundancy as such is a bad thing is not always sensible.

  48. fisheyed says

    Fowler says:

    IT is unfortunate that the idiomatic use, while it comes by nature to southern Englishmen (who will find most of this section superfluous), is so complicated that those who are not to the manner born can hardly acquire it; and for them the section is in danger of being useless.

    The rest of the article made my forehead hurt. The only time I consistently hear “shall” is “Shall we” for “let’s go” so I shall be giving up on incorporating it any further.

    I fear that I am contradicting what I said earlier in the thread.

  49. Of course, the notion that redundancy as such is a bad thing is not always sensible.

    I myself would omit the “always.”

  50. Depends on the the context.

  51. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    This page says that Old English had two sets of forms of ‘to be’ in the present tense and one was preferred in future contexts. An interesting parallel for the Common Slavic *jestꙏvs bǫdetꙏ distinction, by the way (even etymologically homologous). Someone should do an alternative English where bið is generalized as a future auxiliary.

  52. It was both future and consuetudinal (customary and/or habitual). The latter is now represented in Standard English by would, as in “He would run down to the office every morning.” Curiously, this use of b-forms for both future and consuetudinal was a Sprachbund feature shared with Old Welsh and not found in the continental Germanic languages.

  53. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says

    *should make an alternative English. Joys of multitasking/yelling at my family at the same time (but isn’t do encroaching upon that meaning in colloquial English?)

  54. It is indeed; in fact, I didn’t even raise an eyebrow at it.

  55. The shall/will alternation is an interesting wrinkle in the grammar of a certain variety of Southern British English. Many people there pick it up naturally as infants, and good luck to them. Curious linguists may enjoy teasing out the precise triggers for and connotations of each alternative, and good luck to them.

    I feel everyone else should ignore it, just as parents should not attempt to use their teenage children’s slang. Is there ever a chance that a shall-er could actually misunderstand a will-er, as opposed to merely recognising that the speaker was Not One Of Us?

  56. Some people, like some C++ compilers, treat the tiniest deviation from their own dialect as rendering everything someone says as meaningless. That aside, I don’t think there is any chance of misunderstanding. To me, the most jolting Hiberno-English usage is Will I? rather than Shall I? when offering to do something for another person, but jolting is not the same as unintelligible.

  57. J. W. Brewer says

    The varying ways in which the different Germanic languages (and probably not only Germanic within IE) dealt with the lack of an inflected future tense by developing periphrastic structures involving modal or other “auxiliary” verbs is a potentially interesting topic. So interesting that many many moons ago (almost 28.5 years, to be more precise) I chose it as my topic for the senior essay requirement for my B.A. in linguistics. But given the various distractions incident to being in the last semester of ones college career (and having already decided that linguistics grad school was not in the cards for me and maybe I should take the LSAT) I did a horrible and superficial job even by undergraduate-research-paper standards, so I’ve always hoped that someone out there will do the topic justice.

  58. Reading this set me wondering about something only marginally related. I always assumed that the “l” in “would” and “should” was there because these words are (morphologically, at least) past forms of “will” and “shall.” But what about the spelling of “could”? Was it respelled with a “l” to match the past tenses of the other modals? Or do all three have a different common origin?

    The OED is no help, with a very limited entry from 1893 and apparently no citations for “could” prior to 1938.

  59. David Marjanović says

    But what about the spelling of “could”?

    Unetymological analogy to would and should.

    English: shall – should; will – would; can – could
    German: soll – sollte; will – wollte; kann – konnte/könnte (all 1st/3rd person singular; konnte is past, könnte is subjunctive)

    The lack of /n/ in could can probably be blamed, ultimately, on Verner’s law

  60. That’s what I figured. I guess I was just wondering if anybody had documented historical spellings of “could” to see when and how the unetymological spelling arose.

  61. The OED does that:

    Forms: α OE cúðe, ME cuþe, kuthe, ME cowþe, cowthe, (ME coth), ME couþe, ME–15 couthe, (ME couȝthe), ME north. cuþ, cuth, ME–15 couth, (also in ME with k-); β ME–15 coude, k-, ME–15 coud, 15 cowed, 16–17 often cou’d; γ15 coulde, 15– could, (15 coold, 15–16 cold, 15– Sc. culd).The current spelling is erroneous: l began to be inserted about 1525, app. in mechanical imitation of should and would, where an etymological l had become silent, so that these words now rhymed with coud, and might better have been written shoud, woud; cf. northern wad. In the sense ‘know’, the earlier form couth was retained longer.

    c893 tr. Orosius Hist. i. ii. §1 cuðe manna ærest dry-cræftas.
    a1274 Prisoner’s Prayer 1 in Philol. Trans. (1868) 104 Ar ne kuthe ich sorghe non.
    c1297 R. Gloucester’s Chron. 29 He was y flowe an hey, & ne cowþe not a-liȝte.
    a1300 Cursor M. (Edinb.) l. 23945, I wald spek if I cuþe [Vesp. cuth, Fairf. couþe].
    a1325 (▸c1250) Gen. & Exod. (1968) l. 289 Ne kuðe he nogt blinne.
    1340 R. Rolle Pricke of Conscience 7444 Wha couth þan telle.
    a1400 (▸a1325) Cursor Mundi (Vesp.) l. 21420 Ful wel he cuth [Gött. cutht, Fairf. couþe].
    c1400 (▸?c1380) Cleanness (1920) l. 813 As þe wyf couþe.
    a1450 Knt. de la Tour (1868) 75 He took fro them all that he couthe.
    1519 in J. T. Fowler Memorials Church SS. Peter & Wilfrid, Ripon (1882) I. 315 In as convenient hast as I couthe.
    1559 D. Lindsay Test. Papyngo l. 875 in Wks. (1931) I In Inglande couthe scho get none ordinance.
    1579 Spenser Shepheardes Cal. Jan. 10 Well couth he tune his pipe.
    1607 T. Walkington Optick Glasse 18 Ne any couth his wit so hiely straine.
    1652 C. B. Stapylton tr. Herodian Imperiall Hist. v. 37 So well his leere he Couth [rhyme South].

    a1375 William of Palerne (1867) l. 4378 As he coude.
    c1386 Chaucer Squire’s Tale 31 A Rethor excellent That koude [v.r. coude, couþe, kouþe, couþe] hise colours.
    a1400 Octouian (W.) 111 The emperour, couthde no man kythe His ioye.
    c1420 Chron. Vilod. 554 As he wel couȝthe and ouȝte to do.
    1478 J. Paston in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) I. 613 He koud get the good wyll.
    c1500 in W. C. Hazlitt Remains Early Pop. Poetry Eng. 211 Yet could he neyther pates noster nor ave.
    c1532 Ld. Berners tr. Huon clxvi. 654 Al preuely as he coude.
    1697 Dryden tr. Virgil Georgics iii, in tr. Virgil Wks. 118 Th’..Entrails, cou’d no Fates foretel.
    1762 Gentleman’s Mag. Mar. 137/2 [Will] cou’d his fears impart.

    1530 Myroure Oure Ladye (Fawkes) (1873) i. 20 The same Alphonse..coulde nothynge of her language.
    a1533 Ld. Berners tr. Arthur of Brytayn (?1560) xl. sig. Hii, There was none that coude..yet Gouernar dyd as moche as he coulde.
    1575 R. Laneham Let. (1871) 61, I coold my rulez, coold conster, and pars.
    1584 H. Llwyd & D. Powel Hist. Cambria 315 [He] cold doo no good.
    1588 A. King tr. P. CanisiusCathechisme or Schort Instr. 114 He culd nocht be præiudiciable to ye kirk.
    1590 Spenser Faerie Queene i. ii. sig. B3v, He could not rest.
    c1620 A. Hume Of Orthogr. Britan Tongue (1870) i. vii. §8 Of this I cold reckon armies.
    1849 T. B. Macaulay Hist. Eng. II. 265 He could not consent.
    1882 ‘L. Keith’ Alasnam’s Lady III. 201 He really couldn’t say where.

  62. Interesting “shall” wrinkle in a Language Log comment:

    The modal “Must the plan… be accepted” strikes me as odd for a referendum. Surely the question for the Greek voters is, or should be, not whether the plan must be accepted but whether it shall.

    I felt the same with the Scottish Referendum last year. The question was, “Should Scotland be an independent country?” I find it very hard to assign any meaning to the statement “Scotland should be an independent country.” It depended on so many factors, not least the result of the referendum. We ought to have been asked, “Shall Scotland be an independent country?”

    FWIW, Irish referendum ballots ask “Do you approve of the proposal to amend the Constitution contained in the undermentioned Bill?” Of course bills themselves are full of “shall”.

  63. Has the OED Web site changed its functionality, because I cannot see all those examples, whatever options I selected the other day. (At the moment, I find the site to be borked anyway, so I can’t check again just now.)

  64. They’re listed under “Forms”, but you may have to click on “(More)” at the end of that section. The site is indeed borked: it is sending out raw XML instead of HTML.

  65. John Cowan says

    I have noticed the King James Bible does not follow the “standard” rule, using ‘shall’ for simple future in 2nd and 3rd persons (I think).

    In EModE there was a different prescriptive rule, which is that will renders Latin velle and shall the Latin synthetic future. Chaucer, in his carefree American fashion (as with I guess and fall ‘autumn’) uses will in all cases.

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