Photograph of two women talking

Grammatical change in the English language

Would you frame a request for loose change with ‘have you got any coins’ or ‘do you have any coins’? Discover the subtle ways grammar can change across generations.

If you overheard the following statement you might be able to make a pretty accurate estimate of the speaker’s age:

we couldn’t listen to the latest tunes because we hadn't a wireless

For some people, the construction we hadn’t a wireless might sound unusual. Younger speakers in many parts of the UK are nowadays far more likely to say we hadn’t got a radio or we didn’t have a radio. This is an example of grammatical change – a subtle process and not always obvious to listeners. Because grammatical change appears to spread more slowly than lexical change, older, more conservative forms of speech might sometimes remain present in some regional dialects, but not in others. The use of the second person pronouns thou, thee, thy and thine, for instance, sound old-fashioned to most of us, but are still heard in parts of northern England – although even there they are becoming increasingly associated with older speakers.

Listen to these extracts of speakers using grammatical constructions that give us a clue about their age.

Full verb to have

if you wanted to go to college or you wanted to go to university you couldn’t if you hadn’t the money

This speaker uses the word have with the negative particle, not, but without the support of the auxiliary verb, do. For most verbs in English, questions and negative constructions are formed with so-called do-support (do you play football? I don’t play football), although the verb ‘to be’ is an exception (are you rich? I'm not rich). Until relatively recently, the verb ‘to have’ was likewise an exception to the rule – constructions such as have you any money and I haven’t any money were the normal, unmarked form and indeed they remain the preferred alternative for many speakers in northern England and Scotland. In other parts of the UK, however, speakers nowadays seem to prefer the compound verbal construction have you got any money and I haven’t got any money. In addition to this construction with got, many younger speakers, particularly in southern England, now seem to favour alternative versions with do-support (do you have any money and I don’t have any money) bringing have into line with other verbs.

Listen to the recordings featured on this site in Leeds, Burnley, Kilmarnock and Selkirk for other examples of similar non-standard have constructions.

So not

I mean the dress sense in this lot is whacky down here and I’m so not used to it, cause in Romford we all used to, like, people my age used to follow a certain dress code: it all used to be, like, designer

The use of so here as an emphatic intensifier is a very recent innovation, and is unlikely to occur naturally in the speech of anyone over a certain age. It first drew attention in positive statements such as that’s so last year, but is now just as commonly used with the negative particle, not, as in the statement that’s so not cool. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this latter construction first appeared in print in 1997, although it has almost certainly been around in spoken English for much longer and probably originated in the USA. For older speakers it is roughly the equivalent of I’m just not used to it or I’m not really used to it, but the newer construction I’m so not used to it uttered with additional stress on the word so lends an extra degree of emphasis to a statement.

Historic present

and, uh, when we gets to the camp – it was a beautiful, one of the best camps I’d ever been to at Pontins – I was upstairs, fur, furthest chalet away and I says to, uh, Dorothy, I says, ‘No, Dorothy, I can’t walk down here every day and every night.’

This speaker uses an interesting verbal construction, the historic present, to describe an event in the past. The additional <s> on we gets and I says indicates quite clearly this is not a ‘normal’ present tense and the event obviously happened some time ago, as elsewhere she uses simple past tense constructions (it was a beautiful day and I was upstairs). The historic present is quite common among older speakers: the immediacy of a pseudo-present tense tends to enliven the act of telling a story or relating a series of connected events in the past. It remains relatively widespread in north England and Scotland, but is less heard among younger speakers elsewhere.

Listen to the recordings for other examples of the historic present in Wearhead, Welwick, Kniveton, Stannington and Byker.

Historic perfect

got my torch, got down on my hands and knees, shone the torch into the gap and as soon as it’s seen the torch it’s come rushing out

This speaker uses a relatively new verbal construction to relate an event in the past. The present perfect tense (I’ve seen that film and she’s gone to Italy) expresses a number of meanings in English, but generally refers to something that happened at an unspecified time in the past. In initially using the simple past tense (got my torch and shone the torch) this speaker establishes he is referring to a specific occasion in the past and describing an action that is both complete and happened only once. He then switches at the end of the statement, however, to the present perfect tense (it’s seen the torch and it’s come rushing out) thereby signalling to the listener that this is the more interesting and engaging part of his story.

The use of this type of construction, the historic perfect, appears to be on the increase among younger speakers across the UK. It is used to enliven the act of telling a story or to relate a series of connected events in the past. For instance, it is commonly used in sporting circles to describe an individual piece of play in a match. When asked to describe a goal, footballers and commentators frequently use statements such as he’s beaten the full back, he’s pulled the ball back and I’ve nodded it in, where previous generations might have expected a simple past tensehe beat the full back, he pulled the ball back and I nodded it in.

  • Jonnie Robinson
  • Jonnie Robinson is Lead Curator for Spoken English at the British Library. He has worked on two nationwide surveys of regional speech, the Survey of English Dialects and BBC Voices, and is on the editorial team for the journal English Today. In 2010/11 he co-curated the British Library exhibition Evolving English: One Language, Many Voices. His latest publication Evolving English WordBank: a glossary of present-day English dialect and slang (2015) draws on sound recordings made by visitors to the exhibition.

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