A vernacular construction?

Ben Yagoda on the Chronicle of Higher Education‘s Lingua Franca blog on 12/5/18, “Why Do I Really, Really Want to Say ‘Had Went’?”

… You see what [actor and director Jonah] Hill and [director Bryan] Fogel were doing, grammatically. They were using the preterite (ran, went) instead of the past participle (run, gone). This is by no means a new thing. Writing in 1781, John Witherspoon decried the “vulgarisms” had fell, had rose, had broke, had threw, and had drew.

Such constructions have long flourished in the American vernacular.

Standard English uses the PSP (past participle) form of a verb in the perfect construction and the passive construction (among other places). Ben says that some speakers and writers have different (syntactic) constructions here, using the PST (past, aka preterite — nothing hinges on the name) form instead of the PSP.

I maintain that Ben has seriously misunderstood the phenomenon here, and that Vern, the vernacular variety, doesn’t differ syntactically from Stan, the standard variety, with respect to the forms used in the perfect and the passive; it’s the PSP for both. It’s just that for some verbs, Vern pronounces the PSP differently from Stan; for Vern, the PSP form for these verbs is pronounced the same as their PST.

Whoopdedo. That’s exactly what Stan does for most verbs, and nobody says that Stan is using the PST where the grammar of English calls for the PSP. When Stan says We have met the enemy, he’s using the PSP in the perfect construction; it’s just that for him, the PSP of the verb MEET (with BSE (base, aka unmarked infinitive) and default PRS (present) forms meet) is pronounced the same as that verb’s PST, met. And when Stan says We were met by a reception party, Stan’s using the PSP in the passive construction; again, it’s just that for him the PSP of MEET is phonologically identical to its PST.

This generalization about the pronunciation of forms for (most) English verbs is encapsulated  in the formula


conveying that the PSP form of a verb is phonologically identical to its PST form. For Stan, PSP = PST holds for

all regular verbs (for example, PLEASE, with BSE/PRS please, PST pleased, PSP pleased)

all t-PST verbs (for example, SWEEP, with BSE/PRS sweep, PST swept, PSP swept); and related subtypes illustrated by MEET, with BSE/PRS meet, PST met, PSP met, and PUT, with BSE/PRS put, PST put, PSP put)

and an ɪ -∧- ∧ class of verbs (for example, DIG, with BSE/PRS dig, PST dug, PSP dug) — among them DIG, WIN, CLING, FLING, SLING, SLINK, SPIN, STICK, STING, STRING, SWING, WRING

Vern shares all of this with Stan. Vern’s “vulgarism” lies in extending the PSP = PST generalization to still more verbs, in particular,

verbs in Stan’s ɪ -æ – ∧ class, like RUN, for which Stan has BSE/PRS run, PST ran, PSP run

verbs in Stan’s n-PSP class, among them BREAK (for Stan, BSE/PRS break, PST broke, PSP broken) and the wildly irregular GO (for Stan, BSE/PRS go, PST went, PSP gone)

(For a few verbs, Vern achieves PSP = PST by pronouncing the PST form the same as (Stan’s) PSP form. Notably for DO (for Stan, BSE/PRS do, PST did, PSP done) and SEE (for Stan, BSE/PRS see, PST saw, PSP seen); Vern has PST done (I done it) and seen (I seen him).)

(Of course, what’s “vulgar” here is not the verb forms — they’re just pairings of grammatical categories (of inflection, like PST and PSP) with phonology, with no intrinsic social characteristics — but the people who use the verb forms. That is, Vern’s verb forms are said to be vulgar because Vern is judged to be vulgar, by belonging to some disparaged group: he’s plebeian, common (one of the masses rather than the elite), working class, underclass, or in a tainted minority (by virtue of region, rurality, race or ethnicity, etc.). Vern is one of Those People. (Stan, of course, is one of Them People.))

Ben’s discussion happens to begin with two particular examples of PSP = PST, PSP went and ran, in the perfect construction, in fact in the past perfect: had went, had ran. A graphic example:

(#1) PST perfect had went

You might think that had, the PST form of HAVE, triggers PSP = PST for GO (and it’s possible that had facilitates PSP = PST), but in fact PSP went is quite general:

(#2) BSE perfect have went

Similarly for RUN in the perfect:

(#3) BSE perfect have ran

And we get PSP ran in the passive as well. On the website of radio station WZQZ (FM 99.1, AM 1180) in Chattooga County GA (serving the areas of Summerville, Rome, and La Fayette):

A motorist who was traveling on the “Narrows Road” in Chattooga County on Wednesday afternoon says that he was ran off the road and down a steep embankment by another vehicle.

Then there’s PSP broke. In my 11/4/17 posting “Grammar police on the highway”, a PartiallyClips cartoon with a police officer acting as grammar police:”Sir, I couldn’t help but notice your “HORN BROKE, WATCH FOR FINGER” bumper sticker”:

PSP broke. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, and all that. A long-attested widespread usage, one that obeys the PSP = PST generalization that applies to all regular verbs and many irregular ones in standard English and is extended to many of the rest in non-standard varieties. I can’t imagine why anyone would get all outraged by such a trivial matter.

The sociolinguistics of PSP = PST. Back to Ben’s CHE piece. First, the quotes that he begins with:

Interviewed on NPR’s Fresh Air on October 30, the actor and director Jonah Hill was talking about his childhood obsession with movies. “I had ran through so many films,” he said.

In a 2017 interview also on NPR, the director Bryan Fogel talked about Grigory Rodchenkov, a Russian doctor who masterminded the doping of athletes at the Sochi Winter Olympics. “What happened at Sochi he was incredibly upset about,” Fogel said, “because he had went from being a scientist, meaning his whole life is — yes, it’s doing the exact opposite of what he should be doing, but he was using science to beat the system.

And then an observation from 80 years ago:

In the fourth (1936) edition of The American Language, H.L. Mencken notes, “The substitution of the preterite for the … participle seems to me to be increasing of late, and such striking examples as ‘How old of a cat have you ever saw?’ are surely not uncommon.” [Note also +of EDM (Exceptional Degree Marking) in how old of a cat.]

(Mencken writes here, with unfortunate looseness, of “the substitution of the preterite for the … participle”, suggesting that PST was being used for PSP, while all that was going on was that PSP was phonologically identical to PST.)

Mencken thought that PSP = PST usage was increasing at the time, and that’s possible, but it’s also well-known that subjective impressions of increase in frequency in recent days (for the appropriate value of recent) are extremely unreliable.

Some 30 years ago, I came across a number of Ohio State staff members who were, as far as I could tell, virtually 100% PSP = PST users in speech and I thought it was increasing then. But I think that was just because I’d just noticed it. (They were clearly from the South Midlands dialect area, and I judged them to be lower middle class. Most, but not all, were white. These observations are relevant because PSP = PST has been reported almost entirely: in speech rather than writing; in working class and lower middle class speakers; in the South and South Midlands dialect areas and in AAVE.) I also had some anecdotal evidence of Columbus OH teenage boys who were heavy PSP = PST users in speech amongst themselves, but entirely standard in their PSP phonology in speech and writing in school contexts.

More from Ben:

I believe the substitution is still increasing — as Mencken perceived it to be in 1936 — with the added wrinkle that it’s currently seen not only in speech but in various kinds of online writing. (It still is virtually absent in published and edited work, other than in dialogue.)

It’s only recently that we have extensive easily available corpora of informal writing that can be searched for such usages, but insofar as the increase in PSP = PST in this context is real (and not just an artifact of sampling), that would suggest a spread of the phenomenon from speech to writing, a spread that would presage a spread from informal to more formal contexts. As Ben noted:

Another difference is that it is showing up among unexpected people. Jonah Hill and Bryan Fogel are city-born Caucasians who both went to the University of Colorado. And my colleagues report preterite-for-participle increasingly showing up in student papers.

Again, this could be a matter of subjective impression, but it could well be a real effect, and that possibility should be investigated systematically. PSP = PST might be on the same path as +of EDM, which has moved from speech to informal writing to formal writing, and is now clearly the dominant variant of EDM for young people (of all educational levels).

It seems pretty clear that in general PSP = PST is a variable phenomenon, with most people who use Vern variants of PSP also using some Stan variants on occasion. There are then the usual questions to ask about the way the variation is condtioned: what role do sociolinguistic factors play, and what about entirely linguistic factors, for PSP = PST:

in the perfect vs. in the passive

with respect to the inflectional category of the governing verb (of HAVE in the perfect, BE/GET in the passive): BSE in would have went, would get ran down vs. PRS in has wentis ran by vs. PST in had went, got ran down vs. PRP in having went, being ran by vs. PSP in (hasbeen ran by


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