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Here it Are

by Byron Browne
I don’t know what it ever did to make us shy away but we’ve all begun to avoid its use like a writer avoids semi-colons. It’s been with us for a millennia and a half since the Germanic tribes brought their yerk n’ chuk language with them from across the North Sea. Nevertheless, we have all let it slip quietly into oblivion, denying it life’s animus while pumping the life-infusing breath of common usage into its simpler, easier to pronounce relative –‘s. The demi-word in question is third person plural-the abbreviated –re, for are, at the enclitic end of our many itemed, contracted words. By proximity, are and were have been thrown aside as well – forgotten in our scurry to finish a complete sentence and get back to our latte and laptop.

I asked my stalwart Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary for some guidance with the issue because, I thought, maybe I was wrong, again. Maybe I had missed some new grammar point, some neologism, broadcast on CNN. Maybe I missed the memo from Oxford. But no, page 115 of the dictionary has the word are there (the distal adverb-there- not the pronoun or noun, as in opposite of here.) but instead of finding a half page entry, as I had expected, there was a single, skeletal sentence. A fragment at that. “pres 2d sing or pres pl of Be.” Except for the requisite etymology, e.g. [ME are, arne, fr, OE aron, earun; akin to ON reu (they) are, erum (we) are, OE is. More at is.] the entry was as anemic as a freshman’s essay. And, “more at is”!? Even the dictionary, that sacred tool of our blessed language, was not only denying the –‘re to belong to the 3d person but it was also shirking its responsibility and passing the rhetorical buck 1082 pages to its retarded, yet somehow more popular, cousin is.

And so and to is. The entry was almost as cryptic as the former concerning the are. The first of a few entries read: [ME (3rd pers. sing. pres. indic. and- northern dial. – 1st & 2nd pers. sing. pres. indic. and – northern dial. – 1st & 2nd & 3rd pers. pl. (finally!) pres. indic. of been – suppletive infinitive – to be). But, is as plural for 1st, 2nd or 3rd person plural? In what alternative universe, what northern tribe has a dialect that allows for statements such as “we is” or “you all is” or “they is”? And if this genus exists, if there are (is?) classrooms where is is allowed for plural, what are, uh…is, all their English teachers doing? Are there a constant and perennial coffee break? Maybe all the instructors are graduates of Phoenix University. I began to suspect that these people lived in some far off Oz, those same bleak nether-regions that are occupied by the subjects of National Enquirer articles.

The second entry, shorter and offering \iz\ for clarity, was much more esoteric, more existential: that which is; specif. : that which is factual, empirical, actually the case, or spatiotemporal. Ignoring that Mrs. Hayes at Lubbock Christian School in 1972 told us to never use the word itself in its own definition, I felt better after reading this. At least there was no mention of using the singular for plural. One of the entries made sense and equilibrium returned, my blood pressure began to fall.

Was I over reacting? I frequently do with issues that excite and malapropisms and solecisms certainly get my dander up (English majors are wont to seek out strange, soft antagonists). Then, as Fortune would have it, the voice on the radio betrayed the second-guessing. The news-the war in Iraq, “Today, in Iraq, there’s more soldiers than before the surge…” There is soldiers? Even from professional talking heads, is the difficulty level of pronouncing a there’re so onerous that it requires suspension of standard grammar regulations? Evidently so; it is everywhere.

However, it isn’t so hard to understand. Every language evolves as it rolls along its trajectory, changing idioms, expressions, phrases to suit each generation’s needs and desires of expression. Languages advance their own standards by generation, by year, by the hour. Additionally, what language has not, over time, altered the spelling of particular words to suit the purposeful mispronunciations that were the result of ease of speech? The muscles in our face are forever trying for easier methods of pronunciation. We exclude, include, interject, suspend and insert vowels at random in an effort to smooth over those words whose pronunciations are the phonetic equivalents of speed bumps. We want the shorter route home. But it isn’t just this mollifying of contractions that is the problem. We have purposefully denied ourselves the ingestion of whole are’s and were’s (the plurals of to be, that most served of verbs) as though, in an effort to slim down our speech, we felt their collective weight was too meaty to feed on. Consider this entry from a web site I was researching for some schoolwork: Pharaoh Ptolemy XII died in March 51 BC making the 18 year old Cleopatra and her 12 year old brother Ptolemy XIII joint monarchs. These first three years of their reign was difficult due to economic difficulties, famine, deficient floods of Nile and political conflicts. “These…years…was”? I imagine even Cleopatra, a speaker of several languages, might have proscribed asps for the author of that paragraph.

I asked Dr. Gary Underwood at the University of Texas at Austin for help. I wanted to know whether there wasn’t some terminology for this happening. I wanted to know if anyone else had noticed the demise of these terms. More than anything, I wanted to know if I was alone in my agony. Luckily, I caught Dr. Underwood (a professor of English and more directly, of Linguistics) on his way out the door-literally. Dr. Underwood retired this past year and had I waited just another day or so, he would have been well on his way to that realm of existence where issues of this sort are dreamily ignored.

After trying to explain myself, Dr. Underwood offered that, "There" is the existential, anticipatory, or dummy subject, "is" is called the invariant singular verb, and the logical subject is called the postponed, delayed, extra-positioned or post-positioned subject.” He then proclaimed that this “phenomenon” has a long and healthy relationship in the English language, even citing usage in Shakespeare as a way to temper my ever-growing feelings of discomfort. So, simply put, everyone’s doing it so, why don’t I just accept it and go on? [Here the patriotic music swells.] I just can’t. My training and intuition will not allow me to participate in what I know to be wrong. It would be un-American. As a teacher and writer of two languages' grammar, I am bound by an obsequious devotion to formality and regulation when it comes to things textbook. I have noticed over the years that while all are expecting students to know their grammar, to be familiar with what is termed SWE (Standard Written English), no one is teaching it any longer. My students depend on me to remain that lone voice, the oddball eating raw honey and bugs while railing against any deviation from the set paradigms. Each group has its own dialect but there is and must be, a standard by which we can all exchange ideas when the situation demands. That is, we cannot all participate in each other’s dialects-otherwise, what’s the point? A group is a group for the sole purpose of differentiating itself from another. So, why don’t I just accept the solecistic machinations and fall into line? It’s unpatriotic.

Dr. Underwood used to expound on the value and necessity of “Standard English”, in contrast to vulgar, common, colloquial English. Standard English being the language of books, job interviews, board meetings, contracts, sermons, lectures, articles, etc. Non-Standard English the stuff of living rooms, cell phones, Thanksgiving dinners and late-night arguments about why the Beatles were the better of any other musical group. (It occurs to me now that the classroom is one of those peculiar places where both of these entities can coexist agreeably; the lecture delivered in SWE and the discussion following allowing for whatever dialect is present. Well, hopefully). And so it is/are to this that we should allow for the –re’s and were’s and are’s, no matter the stress caused to our maximal-facial muscles. With enough usage, they’ll beef up. So, dangle your participles like Christmas ornaments, split your infinitives with as many adverbs as the green line under the text will allow and end every sentence with a preposition under. Just remember who your audience were and be sure that there are some method to your madness.

Copyright Byron Browne

Notes From Over Here
June 4, 2009 Column
Byron Browne can be reached at Byron.Browne@gmail.com
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