Mark Liberman at the Log discusses Merja Kytö’s “Be/have + past participle: The choice of the auxiliary with intransitives from Late Middle to Modern English,” which “explains very clearly how English changed from be to have as the marker of perfect aspect in intransitive verbs. … Based on tracking the use of be/have + past participle in a corpus of about 2.7 million words spanning the period from 1350 to 1990, Kytö demonstrates that ‘in the late Middle English period, the use of have increases gradually, gains in momentum in the late 1700s and supersedes the use of be in the early 1800s’.” Mark says:

What puzzles me is why this process seems to have escaped the notice of prescriptive grammarians. Here’s a change that ‘[gained] in momentum in the late 1700s’, just when the likes of Robert Lowth and Lindley Murray were in bloom. Did anyone stand up against the rising tide of have for marking the perfect in intransitives? If so, their delaying action was ineffective and quickly forgotten.

Which is a good question, and I hope one of the people who froth about misused apostrophes will take up the cudgels for a return to the good old King James way of “the king of Israel is come out to seek a flea.” At any rate, it’s nice to have the chronology pinned down; I’m all for more facts and less hand-waving when it comes to talking about language.


  1. Richard Hershberger says

    There is a strong random element to what features of the language the prescriptivists pick up on. A recent example of this is sentence-adverb ‘hopefully’. This construction evokes outrage while similar constructions pass without complaint. Why the difference? Explaining this on logical or linguistic grounds is likely hopeless. It is a social phenomenon, where ‘hopefully’ attracted some usage writer’s attention, he complained of it, and other writers took up the complaint.
    So for this have/be change, it is likely neither possible nor necessary to posit anything beyond no one noticing.
    I wonder if any usage writers complained of the King James usage. The King James Bible was by no means held to be above criticism. It wouldn’t surprise me if, say, Goold Brown pointed this usage out as an error.

  2. The chronology parallels quite closely that of the same phenomenon in Spanish, as I understand it. Wonder has anyone done any work on Sprachbund phenomena in the two.

  3. You’re got to be joking!

  4. Aidan, see Heine and Kuteva, The Changing Languages of Europe (Oxford University Press, 2006) for information on that.

  5. You’re got to be joking!
    About facts and hand-waving?

  6. caffeind says

    This distinction is too subtle for most people with prescriptive bees in their bonnets to understand.

  7. I’m sure I am never heard any of this newfangled ‘have’ nonsense before.

  8. I’m sure that many of us who’ve studied new languages have had the situation occur where we just can’t comprehend a spelling or point of grammar. This happens often to me in French, with its many homophones. For example, arrivé / arriver / arrivez / arrivée. I’ll wonder, why is the person using this form? only to realize the reason after some time: it’s just a mistake.
    The list of Google examples on the linked page is a mixed bag. Some of them seem Biblical or used purposefully to convey a sort of commanding eloquence. I can sense that, even though my English is pretty new. And some of them I might use myself, seeing them as adjectival, rather than verbal, forms.
    But I have to say, a lot of them just seem like the English equivalents of those French “mistakes” – one wants to believe that they are some sort of remnant, but . . .
    I Googled some of the expressions, and in cases where they could be little or no ambiguity, I found few examples. “Is come to be” struck me as a theoretically common assemblage, but there are only 674 hits – some of them deliberately archaic (“Freyja is come to be my bride!”) and others from sites so poorly written that it’s hard to take them as viable examples of anything but poor writing. “Has come to be” has 2,370,000 hits, by way of comparison.
    I don’t always understand a lot of what it written here, but I enjoyed this post, especially as it taught me some interesting fact about English!

  9. @Richard Hershberger: I agree. I think percolation theory and the theory of reaction-diffusion systems might offer a lot of insight on this.

  10. Thanks for the pointer to this fascinating article. I’d never thought about it before, but now is the opportunity for causing discontent to prescriptivists made more gloriously large than ever. Cheers!

  11. John Emerson says

    My vague feeling is that there is also some kind of similar dynamic between “tener” vs. “haber” in Portuguese and Spanish, but that it is much more pronounced in Portuguese.

  12. John Emerson says

    Best I could find by Googling. Hopefully someone here knows more than I do.

  13. Everything is more pronounced in Portuguese. Those people pronounce like it’s going out of style.

  14. John Emerson says

    You’re such a kidder, Hat.

  15. John Atkinson says

    Standard Italian is pretty standard as western European languages go — using both “essere” and “avere” as perfect auxiliary, favouring “essere” a bit more than, say, French. But the Italian dialects are all over the place, according to Rebecca Posner’s “Romance Languages”. In the south “have” tends to be generalized, as is also the case in some northern dialects. But, she says, “in several Central and a few Northern and Southern dialects ESSE is consistently used for transitive as well as for intransitive verbs, though sometimes the auxiliary may vary according to the person of the verb (often the third […] persons select HABERE): [Examples from Genoa, Carpingnano, Novara, Marche, Latium]. One consequence is that the BE passive tends to be avoided in these dialects. Similar generalization of ESSE is recorded for some Catalan varieties. [Examples from Capcir and Gerona]”

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