F is for Futurity

4 03 2012

A video blog, in an occasional series on features of English grammar:


Relative distribution of different modals in the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English (Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., and Finegan, E. 1999. London: Longman).

C is for Corpus

10 01 2010

In the entry for corpus I made the point that “the availability, now, of corpus and concordancing software on the internet is a useful tool for teachers, especially when it comes to checking hunches, such as whether people really say I’m going to go to the shops (rather than I’m going to the shops) or she mustn’t have known…(rather than she can’t have known…) or me and my sister…(rather the my sister and I…)”

Out of interest there are 595 examples of going to go in the online British National Corpus (courtesy Mark Davies’ Brigham Young University site at http://corpus.byu.edu/bnc/x.asp) of which the majority (339) are in the spoken language section of the corpus. But there are a good number in the written corpus too, e.g. Secretary Cecil Parkinson took the view that cars were not going to go away; he stormed off to France, saying that he was going to go to Jerusalem – certainly, enough to make a nonsense of this advice (from the Collins COBUILD Student’s Grammar, 1991):

You do not normally use ‘going to’ with the verb ‘go’. You usually just say ‘I’m going’ rather than ‘I’m going to go’.

But even more fun than checking hunches is discovering areas of grammar that – theoretically – ought to exist, but don’t exist in the standard grammars. I’ve always argued, for example, that the tense and aspect system of English is compositional. That is, the so-called tenses in English, such as past continuous or present perfect continuous etc – are nothing more than the combination of their separate components – not just in terms of their form, but also their meaning. So, the past continuous combines past tense (meaning) plus continuous aspect (meaning). Viewed this way, the past continuous needn’t be taught as a special ‘tense’ in its own right, but can simply be inferred from what is known about the past (from the past simple) and what is known about the continuous (from the present continuous).  

But, according to that theory, if the present perfect continuous is nothing more than present tense + perfect aspect + continuous aspect, it should have an “indefinite time in the past” meaning. That is, if we can say Have you ever been to Rome? we should also be able to say Have you ever been doing X [at some indefinite time in the past]? Using WebCorp (a corpus that uses web-based search engines: http://www.webcorp.org.uk/), I found enough examples to confirm my hypothesis. For example:

Have you ever been driving when you get almost hit by a tornado

Have you ever been camping when you didn’t want to spend a lot of time preparing meals? 

Or, have you ever been watching sport on tv and wanted….

In other words, it is possible to use the present perfect continuous for finished past situations (although the only examples I have found so far are in the question form with ever, which suggests that this use of the present perfect continuous is severely constrained).

Finally, here’s another area of grammar that doesn’t exist in the standard grammars but does exist in corpora: the use of would have + past participle for real (as opposed to hypothetical) past situations.  Recall that normally would have done is taught as a counterfactual, compatible with but didn’t, as in “I would have baked you a cake [but I didn’t]”. But check these (also found using WebCorp)  – none are counterfactual, judging by their contexts:

my elder brother, Leonard, was killed during the Southern African War while I was still a boy. Naturally, my father would have felt this loss keenly;

Stone-age man would have noticed that birds navigating by means of the magnetic properties of the ley lines…

Whatever local radio you were listening to during the 3rd week of June, it is likely that you would have heard Delahunty’s editorial director, Paul Mace, on the hour, every hour, bringing you those live reports from the Pilkington Glass Ladies’ Championships at Eastbourne.

When it was on scheduled service, the jumbo would have had up to 450 passengers and 12 crew on board.

Of all the grammars I’ve consulted, only one makes any mention of this usage: English as a Foreign Language, by R.A. Close (1962)

 Would have –ed

 …It can also be a present, hesitant assumption about past action…as in:

A. Someone telephoned you last night.

B. That would have been Jeremy, I would say.

(Not something I’ve ever seen mentioned in a coursebook!)

Does anyone know of any other attested grammar items (i.e. ones for which there’s corpus evidence), but which the conventional grammars ignore?