The American Language

by H.L. Mencken

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Chapter VI - The Common Speech

§ 1

Grammarians and Their Ways —So far, in the main, the language examined has been of a relatively pretentious and self-conscious variety—the speech, if not always of formal discourse, then at least of literate men. Most of the examples of its vocabulary and idiom, in fact, have been drawn from written documents or from written reports of more or less careful utterances, for example, the speeches of members of Congress and of other public men. The whole of Thornton's excellent material is of this character. In his dictionary there is scarcely a locution that is not supported by printed examples.

It must be obvious that such materials, however lavishly set forth, cannot exhibit the methods and tendencies of a living speech with anything approaching completeness, nor even with accuracy. What men put into writing and what they say when they take sober thought are very far from what they utter in everyday conversation. All of us, no matter how careful our speech habits, loosen the belt a bit, so to speak, when we speak familiarly to our fellows, and pay a good deal less heed to precedents and proprieties, perhaps, than we ought to. It was a sure instinct that made Ibsen put "bad grammar" into the mouth of Nora Helmar in "A Doll's House." She is a general's daughter and the wife of a professor, but even professor's wives are not above occasional bogglings of the cases of pronouns and the conjugations of verbs. The professors themselves, in truth, must have the same habit, for sometimes they show plain signs of it in print. More than once, plowing through profound and interminable treatises of grammar and syntax in [Pg178] preparation for the present work, I have encountered the cheering spectacle of one grammarian exposing, with contagious joy, the grammatical lapses of some other grammarian. And nine times out of ten, a few pages further on, I have found the enchanted purist erring himself.[1] The most funereal of the sciences is saved from utter horror by such displays of human malice and fallibility. Speech itself, indeed, would become almost impossible if the grammarians could follow their own rules unfailingly, and were always right.

But here we are among the learned; and their sins, when detected and exposed, are at least punished by conscience. What are of more importance, to those interested in language as a living thing, are the offendings of the millions who are not conscious of any wrong. It is among these millions, ignorant of regulation and eager only to express their ideas clearly and forcefully, that language undergoes its great changes and constantly renews its vitality. These are the genuine makers of grammar, marching miles ahead of the formal grammarians. Like the Emperor Sigismund, each man among them may well say: "Ego sum ... super grammaticam." It is competent for any individual to offer his contribution—his new word, his better idiom, his novel figure of speech, his short cut in grammar or syntax—and it is by the general vote of the whole body, not by the verdict of a small school, that the fate of the innovation is decided. As Brander Matthews says, there is not even representative government in the matter; the posse comitatus decides directly, and despite the sternest protest, finally. The ignorant, the rebellious and the daring come forward with their brilliant barbarisms; the learned and conservative bring up their objections. "And when both sides have been heard, there is a show of hands; and by this the irrevocable decision of the community itself is rendered."[2] Thus it was that the Romance languages were fashioned out of the wreck of Latin, the vast [Pg179] influence of the literate minority to the contrary notwithstanding. Thus it was, too, that English lost its case inflections and many of its old conjugations, and that our yes came to be substituted for the gea-se (=so be it) of an earlier day, and that we got rid of whom after man in the man I saw, and that our stark pronoun of the first person was precipitated from the German ich. And thus it is that, in our own day, the language faces forces in America which, not content with overhauling and greatly enriching its materials, now threaten to work changes in its very structure.

Where these tendencies run strongest, of course, is on the plane of the vulgar spoken language. Among all classes the everyday speech departs very far from orthodox English, and even very far from any recognizable spoken English, but among those lower classes which make up the great body of the people it gets so far from orthodox English that it gives promise, soon or late, of throwing off its old bonds altogether, or, at any rate, all save the loosest of them. Behind it is the gigantic impulse that I have described in earlier chapters: the impulse of an egoistic and iconoclastic people, facing a new order of life in highly self-conscious freedom, to break a relatively stable language, long since emerged from its period of growth, to their novel and multitudinous needs, and, above all, to their experimental and impatient spirit. This impulse, it must be plain, would war fiercely upon any attempt at formal regulation, however prudent and elastic; it is often rebellious for the mere sake of rebellion. But what it comes into conflict with, in America, is nothing so politic, and hence nothing so likely to keep the brakes upon it. What it actually encounters here is a formalism that is artificial, illogical and almost unintelligible—a formalism borrowed from English grammarians, and by them brought into English, against all fact and reason, from the Latin. "In most of our grammars, perhaps in all of those issued earlier than the opening of the twentieth century," says Matthews, "we find linguistic laws laid down which are in blank contradiction with the genius of the language."[3] In brief, the American [Pg180] school-boy, hauled before a pedagogue to be instructed in the structure and organization of the tongue he speaks, is actually instructed in the structure and organization of a tongue that he never hears at all, and seldom reads, and that, in more than one of the characters thus set before him, does not even exist.

The effects of this are two-fold. On the one hand he conceives an antipathy to a subject so lacking in intelligibility and utility. As one teacher puts it, "pupils tire of it; often they see nothing in it, because there is nothing in it."[4] And on the other hand, the school-boy goes entirely without sympathetic guidance in the living language that he actually speaks, in and out of the classroom, and that he will probably speak all the rest of his life. All he hears in relation to it is a series of sneers and prohibitions, most of them grounded, not upon principles deduced from its own nature, but upon its divergences from the theoretical language that he is so unsuccessfully taught. The net result is that all the instruction he receives passes for naught. It is not sufficient to make him a master of orthodox English and it is not sufficient to rid him of the speech-habits of his home and daily life. Thus he is thrown back upon these speech-habits without any helpful restraint or guidance, and they make him a willing ally of the radical and often extravagant tendencies which show themselves in the vulgar tongue. In other words, the very effort to teach him an excessively tight and formal English promotes his use of a loose and rebellious English. And so the grammarians, with the traditional fatuity of their order, labor for the destruction of the grammar they defend, and for the decay of all those refinements of speech that go with it.

The folly of this system, of course, has not failed to attract the attention of the more intelligent teachers, nor have they failed to observe the causes of its failure. "Much of the fruitlessness of the study of English grammar," says Wilcox,[5] "and many of the obstacles encountered in its study are due to 'the difficulties created by the grammarians.' These difficulties arise chiefly from three sources—excessive classification, multiplication of terms for a single conception, and the attempt to treat the English language as if it were highly inflected." So long ago as the 60's Richard Grant White began an onslaught upon all such punditic stupidities. He saw clearly that "the attempt to treat English as if it were highly inflected" was making its intelligent study almost impossible, and proposed boldly that all English grammar-books be burned.[6] Of late his ideas have begun to gain a certain acceptance, and as the literature of denunciation has grown[7] the grammarians have been constrained to overhaul their texts. When I was a school-boy, during the penultimate decade of the last century, the chief American grammar was "A Practical Grammar of the English Language," by Thomas W. Harvey.[8] This formidable work was almost purely synthetical: it began with a long series of definitions, wholly unintelligible to a child, and proceeded into a maddening maze of pedagogical distinctions, puzzling even to an adult. The latter-day grammars, at least those for the elementary schools, are far more analytical and logical. For example, there is "Longmans' Briefer Grammar," by George J. Smith,[9] a text now in very wide use. This book starts off, not with page after page of abstractions, but with a well-devised examination of the complete sentence, and the characters and relations of the parts of speech are very simply and clearly developed. But before the end the author begins to succumb to precedent, and on page 114 I find [Pg182] paragraph after paragraph of such dull, flyblown pedantry as this:

Some Intransitive Verbs are used to link the Subject and some Adjective or Noun. These Verbs are called Copulative Verbs, and the Adjective or Noun is called the Attribute.

The Attribute always describes or denotes the person or thing denoted by the Subject.

Verbals are words that are derived from Verbs and express action or being without asserting it. Infinitives and Participles are Verbals.

And so on. Smith, in his preface, says that his book is intended, "not so much to 'cover' the subject of grammar as to teach it," and calls attention to the fact, somewhat proudly, that he has omitted "the rather hard subject of gerunds," all mention of conjunctive adverbs, and even the conjugation of verbs. Nevertheless, he immerses himself in the mythical objective case of nouns on page 108, and does not emerge until the end.[10] "The New-Webster-Cooley Course in English,"[11] another popular text, carries reform a step further. The subject of case is approached through the personal pronouns, where it retains its only surviving intelligibility, and the more lucid object form is used in place of objective case. Moreover, the pupil is plainly informed, later on, that "a noun has in reality but two case-forms: a possessive and a common case-form." This is the best concession to the facts yet made by a text-book grammarian. But no one familiar with the habits of the pedagogical mind need be told that its interior pull is against even such mild and obvious reforms. Defenders of the old order are by no means silent; a fear seems to prevail that grammar, robbed of its imbecile classifications, may collapse entirely. Wilcox records how the Council of English Teachers of New Jersey, but a few years ago, spoke out boldly for the recognition of no less than five cases [Pg183] in English. "Why five?" asks Wilcox. "Why not eight, or ten, or even thirteen? Undoubtedly because there are five cases in Latin."[12] Most of the current efforts at improvement, in fact, tend toward a mere revision and multiplication of classifications; the pedant is eternally convinced that pigeon-holing and relabelling are contributions to knowledge. A curious proof in point is offered by a pamphlet entitled "Reorganization of English in Secondary Schools," compiled by James Fleming Hosic and issued by the National Bureau of Education.[13] The aim of this pamphlet is to rid the teaching of English, including grammar, of its accumulated formalism and ineffectiveness—to make it genuine instruction instead of a pedantic and meaningless routine. And how is this revolutionary aim set forth? By a meticulous and merciless splitting of hairs, a gigantic manufacture of classifications and sub-classifications, a colossal display of professorial bombast and flatulence.

I could cite many other examples. Perhaps, after all, the disease is incurable. What such laborious stupidity shows at bottom is simply this: that the sort of man who is willing to devote his life to teaching grammar to children, or to training school-marms to do it, is not often the sort of man who is intelligent enough to do it competently. In particular, he is not often intelligent enough to grapple with the fluent and ever-amazing permutations of a living and rebellious speech. The only way he can grapple with it at all is by first reducing it to a fixed and formal organization—in brief, by first killing it and embalming it. The difference in the resultant proceedings is not unlike that between a gross dissection and a surgical operation. The difficulties of the former are quickly mastered by any student of normal sense, but even the most casual of laparotomies calls for a man of special skill and address. Thus the elementary study of the national language, at least in America, is almost monopolized by dullards. Children are taught it by men and women who observe it inaccurately and expound it ignorantly. In most other fields the pedagogue meets a certain corrective competition and [Pg184] criticism. The teacher of any branch of applied mathematics, for example, has practical engineers at his elbow and they quickly expose and denounce his defects; the college teacher of chemistry, however limited his equipment, at least has the aid of text-books written by actual chemists. But English, even in its most formal shapes, is chiefly taught by those who cannot write it decently and who get no aid from those who can. One wades through treatise after treatise on English style by pedagogues whose own style is atrocious. A Huxley or a Stevenson might have written one of high merit and utility—but Huxley and Stevenson had other fish to fry, and so the business was left to Prof. Balderdash. Consider the standard texts on prosody—vast piles of meaningless words—hollow babble about spondees, iambics, trochees and so on—idiotic borrowings from dead languages. Two poets, Poe and Lanier, blew blasts of fresh air through that fog, but they had no successors, and it has apparently closed in again. In the department of prose it lies wholly unbroken; no first-rate writer of English prose has ever written a text-book upon the art of writing it.

§ 2

Spoken American As It Is—But here I wander afield. The art of prose has little to do with the stiff and pedantic English taught in grammar-schools and a great deal less to do with the loose and lively English spoken by the average American in his daily traffic. The thing of importance is that the two differ from each other even more than they differ from the English of a Huxley or a Stevenson. The school-marm, directed by grammarians, labors heroically, but all her effort goes for naught. The young American, like the youngster of any other race, inclines irresistibly toward the dialect that he hears at home, and that dialect, with its piquant neologisms, its high disdain of precedent, its complete lack of self-consciousness, is almost the antithesis of the hard and stiff speech that is expounded out of books. It derives its principles, not from the subtle logic [Pg185] of learned and stupid men, but from the rough-and-ready logic of every day. It has a vocabulary of its own, a syntax of its own, even a grammar of its own. Its verbs are conjugated in a way that defies all the injunctions of the grammar books; it has its contumacious rules of tense, number and case; it has boldly re-established the double negative, once sound in English; it admits double comparatives, confusions in person, clipped infinitives; it lays hands on the vowels, changing them to fit its obscure but powerful spirit; it disdains all the finer distinctions between the parts of speech.

This highly virile and defiant dialect, and not the fossilized English of the school-marm and her books, is the speech of the Middle American of Joseph Jacobs' composite picture—the mill-hand in a small city of Indiana, with his five years of common schooling behind him, his diligent reading of newspapers, and his proud membership in the Order of Foresters and the Knights of the Maccabees.[14] Go into any part of the country, North, East, South or West, and you will find multitudes of his brothers—car conductors in Philadelphia, immigrants of the second generation in the East Side of New York, iron-workers in the Pittsburgh region, corner grocers in St. Louis, holders of petty political jobs in Atlanta and New Orleans, small farmers in Kansas or Kentucky, house carpenters in Ohio, tinners and plumbers in Chicago,—genuine Americans all, hot for the home team, marchers in parades, readers of the yellow newspapers, fathers of families, sheep on election day, undistinguished norms of the Homo Americanus. Such typical Americans, after a fashion, know English. They can read it—all save the "hard" words, i. e., all save about 90 per cent of the words of Greek and Latin origin.[15] They can understand perhaps two-thirds of it as it comes from the lips of a political orator or clergyman. They have a feeling that it is, in some recondite sense, superior to the common speech of their kind. They recognize a fluent command of it as the salient mark of a "smart" and [Pg186] "educated" man, one with "the gift of gab." But they themselves never speak it or try to speak it, nor do they look with approbation on efforts in that direction by their fellows.

In no other way, indeed, is the failure of popular education made more vividly manifest. Despite a gigantic effort to enforce certain speech habits, universally in operation from end to end of the country, the masses of the people turn almost unanimously to very different speech habits, nowhere advocated and seldom so much as even accurately observed. The literary critic, Francis Hackett, somewhere speaks of "the enormous gap between the literate and unliterate American." He is apparently the first to call attention to it. It is the national assumption that no such gap exists—that all Americans, at least if they be white, are so outfitted with sagacity in the public schools that they are competent to consider any public question intelligently and to follow its discussion with understanding. But the truth is, of course, that the public school accomplishes no such magic. The inferior man, in America as elsewhere, remains an inferior man despite the hard effort made to improve him, and his thoughts seldom if ever rise above the most elemental concerns. What lies above not only does not interest him; it actually excites his derision, and he has coined a unique word, high-brow, to express his view of it. Especially in speech is he suspicious of superior pretension. The school-boy of the lower orders would bring down ridicule upon himself, and perhaps criticism still more devastating, if he essayed to speak what his teachers conceive to be correct English, or even correct American, outside the school-room. On the one hand his companions would laugh at him as a prig, and on the other hand his parents would probably cane him as an impertinent critic of their own speech. Once he has made his farewell to the school-marm, all her diligence in this department goes for nothing.[16] The boys with whom he plays baseball speak a tongue that is not the one taught in school, and so do the youths with whom he will begin learning a trade tomorrow, and the girl he will marry later on, and the saloon-keepers, star pitchers, vaudeville comedians, business [Pg187] sharpers and political mountebanks he will look up to and try to imitate all the rest of his life.

So far as I can discover, there has been but one attempt by a competent authority to determine the special characters of this general tongue of the mobile vulgus. That authority is Dr. W. W. Charters, now head of the School of Education at the University of Illinois. In 1914 Dr. Charters was dean of the faculty of education and professor of the theory of teaching in the University of Missouri, and one of the problems he was engaged upon was that of the teaching of grammar. In the course of this study he encountered the theory that such instruction should be confined to the rules habitually violated—that the one aim of teaching grammar was to correct the speech of the pupils, and that it was useless to harass them with principles which they already instinctively observed. Apparently inclining to this somewhat dubious notion, Dr. Charters applied to the School Board of Kansas City for permission to undertake an examination of the language actually used by the children in the elementary schools of that city, and this permission was granted. The materials thereupon gathered were of two classes. First, the teachers of grades III to VII inclusive in all the Kansas City public-schools were instructed to turn over to Dr. Charters all the written work of their pupils, "ordinarily done in the regular order of school work" during a period of four weeks. Secondly, the teachers of grades II to VII inclusive were instructed to make note of "all oral errors in grammar made in the school-room and around the school-building" during the five school-days of one week, by children of any age, and to dispatch these notes to Dr. Charters also. The result was an accumulation of material so huge that it was unworkable with the means at hand, and so the investigator and his assistants reduced it. Of the oral reports, two studies were made, the first of those from grades III and VII and the second of those from grades VI and VII. Of the written reports, only those from grades VI and VII of twelve typical schools were examined.

The ages thus covered ran from nine or ten to fourteen or fifteen, and perhaps five-sixths of the material studied came from [Pg188] children above twelve. Its examination threw a brilliant light upon the speech actually employed by children near the end of their schooling in a typical American city, and, per corollary, upon the speech employed by their parents and other older associates. If anything, the grammatical and syntactical habits revealed were a bit less loose than those of the authentic Volkssprache, for practically all of the written evidence was gathered under conditions which naturally caused the writers to try to write what they conceived to be correct English, and even the oral evidence was conditioned by the admonitory presence of the teachers. Moreover, it must be obvious that a child of the lower classes, during the period of its actual study of grammar, probably speaks better English than at any time before or afterward, for it is only then that any positive pressure is exerted upon it to that end. But even so, the departures from standard usage that were unearthed were numerous and striking, and their tendency to accumulate in definite groups showed plainly the working of general laws.[17]

Thus, no less than 57 per cent of the oral errors reported by the teachers of grades III and VII involved the use of the verb, and nearly half of these, or 24 per cent, of the total, involved a confusion of the past tense form and the perfect participle. Again, double negatives constituted 11 per cent of the errors, and the misuse of adjectives or of adjectival forms for adverbs ran to 4 per cent. Finally, the difficulties of the objective case among the pronouns, the last stronghold of that case in English, were responsible for 7 per cent, thus demonstrating a clear tendency to get rid of it altogether. Now compare the errors of these children, half of whom, as I have just said, were in grade III, and hence wholly uninstructed in formal grammar, with the errors made by children of the second oral group—that is, children of grades VI and VII, in both of which grammar is studied. Dr. Charters' tabulations show scarcely any difference in the [Pg189] character and relative rank of the errors discovered. Those in the use of the verb drop from 57 per cent of the total to 52 per cent, but the double negatives remain at 7 per cent and the errors in the case of pronouns at 11 per cent.

In the written work of grades VI and VII, however, certain changes appear, no doubt because of the special pedagogical effort against the more salient oral errors. The child, pen in hand, has in mind the cautions oftenest heard, and so reveals something of that greater exactness which all of us show when we do any writing that must bear critical inspection. Thus, the relative frequency of confusions between the past tense forms of verbs and the perfect participles drops from 24 per cent to 5 per cent, and errors based on double negatives drop to 1 per cent. But this improvement in one direction merely serves to unearth new barbarisms in other directions, concealed in the oral tables by the flood of errors now remedied. It is among the verbs that they are still most numerous; altogether, the errors here amount to exactly 50 per cent of the total. Such locutions as I had went and he seen diminish relatively and absolutely, but in all other situations the verb is treated with the lavish freedom that is so characteristic of the American common speech. Confusions of the past and present tenses jump from 2 per cent to 19 per cent, thus eloquently demonstrating the tenacity of the error. And mistakes in the forms of nouns and pronouns increase from 2 per cent to 16: a shining proof of a shakiness which follows the slightest effort to augment the vocabulary of everyday.

The materials collected by Dr. Charters and his associates are not, of course, presented in full, but his numerous specimens must strike familiar chords in every ear that is alert to the sounds and ways of the sermo vulgus. What he gathered in Kansas City might have been gathered just as well in San Francisco, or New Orleans, or Chicago, or New York, or in Youngstown, O., or Little Rock, Ark., or Waterloo, Iowa. In each of these places, large or small, a few localisms might have been noted—oi substituted for ur in New York, you-all in the South, a few Germanisms in Pennsylvania and in the upper Mississippi [Pg190] Valley, a few Spanish locutions in the Southwest, certain peculiar vowel-forms in New England—but in the main the report would have been identical with the report he makes. That vast uniformity which marks the people of the United States, in political doctrine, in social habit, in general information, in reaction to ideas, in prejudices and enthusiasms, in the veriest details of domestic custom and dress, is nowhere more marked than in language. The incessant neologisms of the national speech sweep the whole country almost instantly, and the iconoclastic changes which its popular spoken form are undergoing show themselves from coast to coast. "He hurt hisself," cited by Dr. Charters, is surely anything but a Missouri localism; one hears it everywhere. And so, too, one hears "she invited him and I," and "it hurt terrible," and "I set there," and "this here man," and "no, I never, neither", and "he ain't here," and "where is he at?" and "it seems like I remember," and "if I was you," and "us fellows," and "he give her hell." And "he taken and kissed her," and "he loaned me a dollar," and "the man was found two dollars," and "the bee stang him," and "I wouldda thought," and "can I have one?" and "he got hisn," and "the boss left him off," and "the baby et the soap," and "them are the kind I like," and "he don't care," and "no one has their ticket," and "how is the folks?" and "if you would of gotten in the car you could of rode down."

Curiously enough, this widely dispersed and highly savory dialect—already, as I shall show, come to a certain grammatical regularity—has attracted the professional writers of the country almost as little as it has attracted the philologists. There are foreshadowings of it in "Huckleberry Finn," in "The Biglow Papers" and even in the rough humor of the period that began with J. C. Neal and company and ended with Artemus Ward and Josh Billings, but in those early days it had not yet come to full flower; it wanted the influence of the later immigrations to take on its present character. The enormous dialect literature of twenty years ago left it almost untouched. Localisms were explored diligently, but the general dialect went virtually unobserved. It is not in "Chimmie Fadden"; it is not in [Pg191] "David Harum"; it is not even in the pre-fable stories of George Ade, perhaps the most acute observer of average, undistinguished American types, urban and rustic, that American literature has yet produced. The business of reducing it to print had to wait for Ring W. Lardner, a Chicago newspaper reporter. In his grotesque tales of base-ball players, so immediately and so deservedly successful and now so widely imitated,[18] Lardner reports the common speech not only with humor, but also with the utmost accuracy. The observations of Charters and his associates are here reinforced by the sharp ear of one specially competent, and the result is a mine of authentic American.

In a single story by Lardner, in truth, it is usually possible to discover examples of almost every logical and grammatical peculiarity of the emerging language, and he always resists very stoutly the temptation to overdo the thing. Here, for example, are a few typical sentences from "The Busher's Honeymoon":[19]

I and Florrie was married the day before yesterday just like I told you we was going to be.... You was wise to get married in Bedford, where not nothing is nearly half so dear.... The sum of what I have wrote down is $29.40.... Allen told me I should ought to give the priest $5.... I never seen him before.... I didn't used to eat no lunch in the playing season except when I knowed I was not going to work.... I guess the meals has cost me all together about $1.50, and I have eat very little myself....

I was willing to tell her all about them two poor girls.... They must not be no mistake about who is the boss in my house. Some men lets their wife run all over them.... Allen has went to a college football game. One of the reporters give him a pass.... He called up and said he hadn't only the one pass, but he was not hurting my feelings none.... The flat across the hall from this here one is for rent.... If we should of boughten furniture it would cost us in the neighborhood of $100, even without no piano.... I consider myself lucky to of found out about this before it was too late and somebody else had of gotten the tip.... It will always be ourn, even when we move away.... Maybe you could of did better if you had of went at it in a different way.... Both her and you is welcome at my house.... I never seen so much wine drank in my life....


Here are specimens to fit into most of Charters' categories—verbs confused as to tense, pronouns confused as to case, double and even triple negatives, nouns and verbs disagreeing in number, have softened to of, n marking the possessive instead of s, like used in place of as, and the personal pronoun substituted for the demonstrative adjective. A study of the whole story would probably unearth all the remaining errors noted in Kansas City. Lardner's baseball player, though he has pen in hand and is on his guard, and is thus very careful to write would not instead of wouldn't and even am not instead of ain't, offers a comprehensive and highly instructive panorama of popular speech habits. To him the forms of the subjunctive mood have no existence, and will and shall are identical, and adjectives and adverbs are indistinguishable, and the objective case is merely a variorum form of the nominative. His past tense is, more often than not, the orthodox present tense. All fine distinctions are obliterated in his speech. He uses invariably the word that is simplest, the grammatical form that is handiest. And so he moves toward the philological millennium dreamed of by George T. Lanigan, when "the singular verb shall lie down with the plural noun, and a little conjugation shall lead them."

§ 3

The Verb—A study of the materials amassed by Charters and Lardner, if it be reinforced by observation of what is heard on the streets every day, will show that the chief grammatical peculiarities of spoken American lie among the verbs and pronouns. The nouns in common use, in the overwhelming main, are quite sound in form. Very often, of course, they do not belong to the vocabulary of English, but they at least belong to the vocabulary of American: the proletariat, setting aside transient slang, calls things by their proper names, and pronounces those names more or less correctly. The adjectives, too, are treated rather politely, and the adverbs, though commonly transformed into adjectives, are not further mutilated. But the verbs and pronouns undergo changes which set off the common speech very [Pg193] sharply from both correct English and correct American. Their grammatical relationships are thoroughly overhauled and sometimes they are radically modified in form.

This process is natural and inevitable, for it is among the verbs and pronouns, as we have seen, that the only remaining grammatical inflections in English, at least of any force or consequence, are to be found, and so they must bear the chief pressure of the influences that have been warring upon all inflections since the earliest days. The primitive Indo-European language, it is probable, had eight cases of the noun; the oldest known Teutonic dialect reduced them to six; in Anglo-Saxon they fell to four, with a weak and moribund instrumental hanging in the air; in Middle English the dative and accusative began to decay; in Modern English they have disappeared altogether, save as ghosts to haunt grammarians. But we still have two plainly defined conjugations of the verb, and we still inflect it for number, and, in part, at least, for person. And we yet retain an objective case of the pronoun, and inflect it for person, number and gender.

Some of the more familiar conjugations of verbs in the American common speech, as recorded by Charters or Lardner or derived from my own collectanea, are here set down:

Present Preterite Perfect Participle

Am was bin (or ben)[20]

Attack attackted attackted

(Be)[21] was bin (or ben) [20]

Beat beaten beat

Become[22] become became

Begin begun began

Bend bent bent

Bet bet bet

Bind bound bound

Bite bitten bit

Bleed bled bled

Blow blowed (or blew) blowed (or blew)

Break broken broke

Bring brought (or brung, or brang) brung

Broke (passive) broke broke

Build built built

Burn burnt[23] burnt

Burst[24] —— ——

Bust busted busted

Buy bought (or boughten) bought (or boughten)

Can could could'a

Catch caught[25] caught

Choose chose choose

Climb clum clum

Cling (to hold fast) clung clung

Cling (to ring) clang clang

Come come came

Creep crep (or crope) crep

Crow crew crew

Cut cut cut

Dare dared dared

Deal dole dealt

Dig dug dug

Dive dove dived

Do done done (or did)

Drag drug dragged

Draw drawed[26] drawed (or drew)

Dream dreampt dreampt

Drink drank (or drunk) drank

Drive drove drove

Drown drownded drownded

Eat et (or eat) ate

Fall fell (or fallen) fell

Feed fed fed

Feel felt felt

Fetch fetched[27] fetch

Fight fought[28] fought

Find found found

Fine found found

Fling flang flung

Flow flew flowed

Fly flew flew

Forget forgotten forgotten

Forsake forsaken forsook

Freeze frozen (or friz) frozen

Get got (or gotten) gotten

Give give give

Glide glode[29] glode

Go went went

Grow growed growed

Hang hung[30] hung

Have had had (or hadden)

Hear heerd heerd (or heern)

Heat het[31] het

Heave hove hove

Hide hidden hid

H'ist[32] h'isted h'isted

Hit hit hit

Hold helt held (or helt)

Holler hollered hollered

Hurt hurt hurt

Keep kep kep

Kneel knelt knelt

Know knowed knew

Lay laid (or lain) laid

Lead led led

Lean lent lent

Leap lep lep

Learn learnt learnt

Lend loaned[33] loaned

Lie (to falsify) lied lied

Lie (to recline) laid (or lain) laid

Light lit lit

Lose lost lost

Make made made

May —— might'a

Mean meant meant

Meet met met

Mow mown mowed

Pay paid paid

Plead pled pled

Prove proved (or proven) proven

Put put put

Quit quit quit

Raise raised raised

Read read read

Rench[34] renched renched

Rid rid rid

Ride ridden rode

Rile[35] riled riled

Ring rung rang

Rise riz (or rose) riz

Run run ran

Say sez said

See seen saw

Sell sold sold

Send sent sent

Set set[36] sat

Shake shaken (or shuck) shook

Shave shaved shaved

Shed shed shed

Shine (to polish) shined shined

Shoe shoed shoed

Shoot shot shot

Show shown showed

Sing sung sang

Sink sunk sank

Sit[37] —— ——

Skin skun skun

Sleep slep slep

Slide slid slid

Sling slang slung

Slit slitted slitted

Smell smelt smelt

Sneak snuck snuck

Speed speeded speeded

Spell spelt spelt

Spill spilt spilt

Spin span span

Spit spit spit

Spoil spoilt spoilt

Spring sprung sprang

Steal stole stole

Sting stang stang

Stink stank stank

Strike struck struck

Swear swore swore

Sweep swep swep

Swell swole swollen

Swim swum swam

Swing swang swung

Take taken took

Teach taught taught

Tear tore torn

Tell tole tole

Think thought[38] thought

Thrive throve throve

Throw throwed threw

Tread tread tread

Wake woke woken

Wear wore wore

Weep wep wep

Wet wet wet

Win won (or wan)[39] won (or wan)

Wind wound wound

Wish (wisht) wisht wisht

Wring wrung wrang

Write written wrote

A glance at these conjugations is sufficient to show several general tendencies, some of them going back, in their essence, to the earliest days of the English language. The most obvious is that leading to the transfer of verbs from the so-called strong conjugation to the weak—a change already in operation before the Norman Conquest, and very marked during the Middle English period. Chaucer used growed for grew in the prologue to "The Wife of Bath's Tale," and rised for rose and smited for smote are in John Purvey's edition of the Bible, circa 1385.[40] Many of these transformations were afterward abandoned, but a large number survived, for example, climbed for clomb as the preterite of to climb, and melted for molt as the preterite of to melt. Others showed themselves during the early part of the Modern English period. Comed as the perfect participle of to come and digged as the preterite of to dig are both in Shakespeare, and the latter is also in Milton and in the Authorized Version of the Bible. This tendency went furthest, of course, in the vulgar speech, and it has been embalmed in the English dialects. I seen and I knowed, for example, are common to many of them. But during the seventeenth century it seems to have been arrested, and even to have given way to a contrary tendency—that is, toward strong conjugations. The English of Ireland, which preserves many seventeenth century forms, shows this plainly. Ped for paid, gother for gathered, and ruz for raised are still in use there, and Joyce says flatly that the Irish, "retaining the old English custom [i. e., the custom of the period of Cromwell's invasion, circa 1650], have a leaning toward the strong inflection."[41] Certain verb forms of the American colonial period, now reduced to the estate of localisms, are also probably survivors of the seventeenth century.

"The three great causes of change in language," says Sayce, "may be briefly described as (1) imitation or analogy, (2) a wish to be clear and emphatic, and (3) laziness. Indeed, if we choose to go deep enough we might reduce all three causes to the general one of laziness, since it is easier to imitate than to say [Pg199] something new."[42] This tendency to take well-worn paths, paradoxically enough, is responsible both for the transfer of verbs from the strong to the weak declension, and for the transfer of certain others from the weak to the strong. A verb in everyday use tends almost inevitably to pull less familiar verbs with it, whether it be strong or weak. Thus fed as the preterite of to feed and led as the preterite of to lead paved the way for pled as the preterite of to plead, and rode as plainly performed the same office for glode, and rung for brung, and drove for dove and hove, and stole for dole, and won for skun. Moreover, a familiar verb, itself acquiring a faulty inflection, may fasten a similar inflection upon another verb of like sound. Thus het, as the preterite of to heat, no doubt owes its existence to the example of et, the vulgar preterite of to eat. So far the irregular verbs. The same combination of laziness and imitativeness works toward the regularization of certain verbs that are historically irregular. In addition, of course, there is the fact that regularization is itself intrinsically simplification—that it makes the language easier. One sees the antagonistic pull of the two influences in the case of verbs ending in -ow. The analogy of knew suggests snew as the preterite of to snow, and it is sometimes encountered in the American vulgate. But the analogy of snowed also suggests knowed, and the superior regularity of the form is enough to overcome the greater influence of knew as a more familiar word than snowed. Thus snew grows rare and is in decay, but knowed shows vigor, and so do growed and throwed. The substitution of heerd for heard also presents a case of logic and convenience supporting analogy. The form is suggested by steered, feared and cheered, but its main advantage lies in the fact that it gets rid of a vowel change, always an impediment to easy speech. Here, as in the contrary direction, one barbarism breeds another. Thus taken, as the preterite of to take, has undoubtedly helped to make preterites of two other perfects, shaken and forsaken.

But in the presence of two exactly contrary tendencies, the one in accordance with the general movement of the language [Pg200] since the Norman Conquest and the other opposed to it, it is unsafe, of course, to attempt any very positive generalizations. All one may exhibit with safety is a general habit of treating the verb conveniently. Now and then, disregarding grammatical tendencies, it is possible to discern what appear to be logical causes for verb phenomena. That lit is preferred to lighted and hung to hanged is probably the result of an aversion to fine distinctions, and perhaps, more fundamentally, to the passive. Again, the use of found as the preterite of to fine is obviously due to an ignorant confusion of fine and find, due to the wearing off of -d in find, and that of lit as the preterite of to alight to a confusion of alight and light. Yet again, the use of tread as its own preterite in place of trod is probably the consequence of a vague feeling that a verb ending with d is already of preterite form. Shed exhibits the same process. Both are given a logical standing by such preterites as bled, fed, fled, led, read, dead and spread. But here, once more, it is hazardous to lay down laws, for shredded, headed, dreaded, threaded and breaded at once come to mind. In other cases it is still more difficult to account for preterites in common use. Drug is wholly illogical, and so are clum and friz. Neither, fortunately, has yet supplanted the more intelligible form of its verb, and so it is not necessary to speculate about them. As for crew, it is archaic English surviving in American, and it was formed, perhaps, by analogy with knew, which has succumbed in American to knowed.

Some of the verbs of the vulgate show the end products of language movements that go back to the Anglo-Saxon period, and even beyond. There is, for example, the disappearance of the final t in such words as crep, slep, lep, swep and wep. Most of these, in Anglo-Saxon, were strong verbs. The preterite of to sleep (slâepan), for example, was slēp, and that of to weep was weop. But in the course of time both to sleep and to weep acquired weak preterite endings, the first becoming slâepte and the second wepte. This weak conjugation was itself degenerated. Originally, the inflectional suffix had been -de or -ede and in some cases -ode, and the vowels were always pronounced. The wearing down process that set in in the twelfth century disposed [Pg201] of the final e, but in certain words the other vowel survived for a good while, and we still observe it in such archaisms as belovéd. Finally, however, it became silent in other preterites, and loved, for example, began to be pronounced (and often written) as a word of one syllable: lov'd.[43] This final d-sound now fell upon difficulties of its own. After certain consonants it was hard to pronounce clearly, and so the sonant was changed into the easier surd, and such words as pushed and clipped became, in ordinary conversation, pusht and clipt. In other verbs the t-sound had come in long before, with the degenerated weak ending, and when the final e was dropped their stem vowels tended to change. Thus arose such forms as slept. In vulgar American another step is taken, and the suffix is dropped altogether. Thus, by a circuitous route, verbs originally strong, and for many centuries hovering between the two conjugations, have eventually become strong again.

The case of helt is probably an example of change by false analogy. During the thirteenth century, according to Sweet,[44] "d was changed to t in the weak preterites of verbs [ending] in rd, ld and nd." Before that time the preterite of sende (send) had been sende; now it became sente. It survives in our modern sent, and the same process is also revealed in built, girt, lent, rent and bent. The popular speech, disregarding the fact that to hold is a strong verb, arrives at helt by imitation. In the case of tole, which I almost always hear in place of told, there is a leaping of steps. The d is got rid of without any transitional use of t. So also, perhaps, in swole, which is fast displacing swelled. Attackted and drownded seem to be examples of an effort to dispose of harsh combinations by a contrary process. Both are very old in English. Boughten and dreampt [Pg202] present greater difficulties. Lounsbury says that boughten probably originated in the Northern [i. e., Lowland Scotch] dialect of English, "which ... inclined to retain the full form of the past participle," and even to add its termination "to words to which it did not properly belong."[45] I record dreampt without attempting to account for it. I have repeatedly heard a distinct p-sound in the word.

The general tendency toward regularization is well exhibited by the new verbs that come into the language constantly. Practically all of them show the weak conjugation, for example, to phone, to bluff, to rubber-neck, to ante, to bunt, to wireless, to insurge and to loop-the-loop. Even when a compound has as its last member a verb ordinarily strong, it remains weak itself. Thus the preterite of to joy-ride is not joy-rode, nor even joy-ridden, but joy-rided. And thus bust, from burst, is regular and its preterite is busted, though burst is irregular and its preterite is the verb itself unchanged. The same tendency toward regularity is shown by the verbs of the kneel-class. They are strong in English, but tend to become weak in colloquial American. Thus the preterite of to kneel, despite the example of to sleep and its analogues, is not knel', nor even knelt, but kneeled. I have even heard feeled as the preterite of to feel, as in "I feeled my way," though here felt still persists. To spread also tends to become weak, as in "he spreaded a piece of bread." And to peep remains so, despite the example of to leap. The confusion between the inflections of to lie and those of to lay extends to the higher reaches of spoken American, and so does that between lend and loan. The proper inflections of to lend are often given to to loan, and so leaned becomes lent, as in "I lent on the counter." In the same way to set has almost completely superseded to sit, and the preterite of the former, set, is used in place of sat. But the perfect participle (which is also the disused preterite) of to sit has survived, as in "I have sat there." To speed and to shoe have become regular, not only because of the general tendency toward the weak conjugation, but also for logical reasons. The prevalence of speed contests [Pg203] of various sorts, always to the intense interest of the proletariat, has brought such words as speeder, speeding, speed-mania, speed-maniac and speed-limit into daily use, and speeded harmonizes with them better than the stronger sped. As for shoed, it merely reveals the virtual disappearance of the verb in its passive form. An American would never say that his wife was well shod; he would say that she wore good shoes. To shoe suggests to him only the shoeing of animals, and so, by way of shoeing and horse-shoer, he comes to shoed. His misuse of to learn for to teach is common to most of the English dialects. More peculiar to his speech is the use of to leave for to let. Charters records it in "Washington left them have it," and there are many examples of it in Lardner. Spit, in American, has become invariable; the old preterite, spat, has completely disappeared. But slit, which is now invariable in English (though it was strong in Old English and had both strong and weak preterites in Middle English), has become regular in American, as in "she slitted her skirt."

In studying the American verb, of course, it is necessary to remember always that it is in a state of transition, and that in many cases the manner of using it is not yet fixed. "The history of language," says Lounsbury, "when looked at from the purely grammatical point of view, is little else than the history of corruptions." What we have before us is a series of corruptions in active process, and while some of them have gone very far, others are just beginning. Thus it is not uncommon to find corrupt forms side by side with orthodox forms, or even two corrupt forms battling with each other. Lardner, in the case of to throw, hears "if he had throwed"; my own observation is that threw is more often used in that situation. Again, he uses "the rottenest I ever seen gave"; my own belief is that give is far more commonly used. The conjugation of to give, however, is yet very uncertain, and so Lardner may report accurately. I have heard "I given" and "I would of gave," but "I give" seems to be prevailing, and "I would of give" with it, thus reducing to give to one invariable form, like those of to cut, to hit, to put, to cost, to hurt and to spit. My table of verbs shows [Pg204] various other uncertainties and confusions. The preterite of to hear is heerd; the perfect may be either heerd or heern. That of to do may be either done or did, with the latter apparently prevailing; that of to draw is drew if the verb indicates to attract or to abstract and drawed if it indicates to draw with a pencil. Similarly, the preterite of to blow may be either blowed or blew, and that of to drink oscillates between drank and drunk, and that of to fall is still usually fell, though fallen has appeared, and that of to shake may be either shaken or shuck. The conjugation of to win is yet far from fixed. The correct English preterite, won, is still in use, but against it are arrayed wan and winned. Wan seems to show some kinship, by ignorant analogy, with ran and began. It is often used as the perfect participle, as in "I have wan $4."

The misuse of the perfect participle for the preterite, now almost the invariable rule in vulgar American, is common to many other dialects of English, and seems to be a symptom of a general decay of the perfect tenses. That decay has been going on for a long time, and in American, the most vigorous and advanced of all the dialects of the language, it is particularly well marked. Even in the most pretentious written American it shows itself. The English, in their writing, still use the future perfect, albeit somewhat laboriously and self-consciously, but in America it has virtually disappeared: one often reads whole books without encountering a single example of it. Even the present perfect and the past perfect seem to be instinctively avoided. The Englishman says "I have dined," but the American says "I am through dinner"; the Englishman says "I had slept," but the American often says "I was done sleeping." Thus the perfect tenses are forsaken for the simple present and the past. In the vulgate a further step is taken, and "I have been there" becomes "I been there." Even in such phrases as "he hasn't been here," ain't (=am not) is commonly substituted for have not, thus giving the present perfect a flavor of the simple present. The step from "I have taken" to "I taken" was therefore neither difficult nor unnatural, and once it had been made the resulting locution was supported by the greater [Pg205] apparent regularity of its verb. Moreover, this perfect participle, thus put in place of the preterite, was further reinforced by the fact that it was the adjectival form of the verb, and hence collaterally familiar. Finally, it was also the authentic preterite in the passive voice, and although this influence, in view of the decay of the passive, may not have been of much consequence, nevertheless it is not to be dismissed as of no consequence at all.

The contrary substitution of the preterite for the perfect participle, as in "I have went" and "he has did," apparently has a double influence behind it. In the first place, there is the effect of the confused and blundering effort, by an ignorant and unanalytical speaker, to give the perfect some grammatical differentiation when he finds himself getting into it—an excursion not infrequently made necessary by logical exigencies, despite his inclination to keep out. The nearest indicator at hand is the disused preterite, and so it is put to use. Sometimes a sense of its uncouthness seems to linger, and there is a tendency to give it an en-suffix, thus bringing it into greater harmony with its tense. I find that boughten, just discussed, is used much oftener in the perfect than in the simple past tense;[46] for the latter bought usually suffices. The quick ear of Lardner detects various other coinages of the same sort, among them tooken, as in "little Al might of tooken sick."[47] Hadden is also met with, as in "I would of hadden." But the majority of preterites remain unchanged. Lardner's baseball player never writes "I have written" or "I have wroten," but always "I have wrote." And in the same way he always writes, "I have did, ate, went, drank, rode, ran, saw, sang, woke and stole." Sometimes the simple form of the verb persists through all tenses. This is usually the case, for example, with to give. I have noted "I give" both as present and as preterite, and "I have give," and even "I had give." But even here "I have gave" offers rivalry to "I have give," and usage is not settled. So, too, with to come. "I have come" and "I have came" seem to be almost equally [Pg206] favored, with the former supported by pedagogical admonition and the latter by the spirit of the language.

Whatever the true cause of the substitution of the preterite for the perfect participle, it seems to be a tendency inherent in English, and during the age of Elizabeth it showed itself even in the most formal speech. An examination of any play of Shakespeare's will show many such forms as "I have wrote," "I am mistook" and "he has rode." In several cases this transfer of the preterite has survived. "I have stood," for example, is now perfectly correct English, but before 1550 the form was "I have stonden." To hold and to sit belong to the same class; their original perfect participles were not held and sat, but holden and sitten. These survived the movement toward the formalization of the language which began with the eighteenth century, but scores of other such misplaced preterites were driven out. One of the last to go was wrote, which persisted until near the end of the century.[48] Paradoxically enough, the very purists who performed the purging showed a preference for got (though not for forgot), and it survives in correct English today in the preterite-present form, as in "I have got," whereas in American, both vulgar and polite, the elder and more regular gotten is often used. In the polite speech gotten indicates a distinction between a completed action and a continuing action,—between obtaining and possessing. "I have gotten what I came for" is correct, and so is "I have got the measles." In the vulgar speech, much the same distinction exists, but the perfect becomes a sort of simple tense by the elision of have. Thus the two sentences change to "I gotten what I come for" and "I got the measles," the latter being understood, not as past, but as present.

In "I have got the measles" got is historically a sort of auxiliary of have, and in colloquial American, as we have seen in the examples just given, the auxiliary has obliterated the verb. To have, as an auxiliary, probably because of its intimate relationship with the perfect tenses, is under heavy pressure, and [Pg207] promises to disappear from the situations in which it is still used. I have heard was used in place of it, as in "before the Elks was come here."[49] Sometimes it is confused ignorantly with a distinct of, as in "she would of drove," and "I would of gave." More often it is shaded to a sort of particle, attached to the verb as an inflection, as in "he would 'a tole you," and "who could 'a took it?" But this is not all. Having degenerated to such forms, it is now employed as a sort of auxiliary to itself, in the subjunctive, as in "if you had of went," "if it had of been hard," and "if I had of had."[50] I have encountered some rather astonishing examples of this doubling of the auxiliary: one appears in "I wouldn't had 'a went." Here, however, the a may belong partly to had and partly to went; such forms as a-going are very common in American. But in the other cases, and in such forms as "I had 'a wanted," it clearly belongs to had. Sometimes for syntactical reasons, the degenerated form of have is put before had instead of after it, as in "I could of had her if I had of wanted to."[51] Meanwhile, to have, ceasing to be an auxiliary, becomes a general verb indicating compulsion. Here it promises to displace must. The American seldom says "I must go"; he almost invariably says "I have to go," or "I have got to go," in which last case, as we have seen, got is the auxiliary.

The most common inflections of the verb for mode and voice are shown in the following paradigm of to bite:

Active Voice

Indicative Mode

Present I bite Past Perfect I had of bit

Present Perfect I have bit Future I will bite

Past I bitten Future Perfect (wanting)

Subjunctive Mode

Present If I bite Past Perfect If I had of bit

Past If I bitten

Potential Mode

Present I can bite Past I could bite

Present Perfect (wanting) Past Perfect I could of bit

Imperative (or Optative) Mode

Future I shall (or will) bite

Infinitive Mode


Passive Voice

Indicative Mode

Present I am bit Past Perfect I had been bit

Present Perfect I been bit Future I will be bit

Past I was bit Future Perfect (wanting)

Subjunctive Mode

Present If I am bit Past Perfect If I had of been bit

Past If I was bit

Potential Mode

Present I can be bit Past I could be bit

Present Perfect (wanting) Past Perfect I could of been bit

Imperative Mode


Infinitive Mode


A study of this paradigm reveals several plain tendencies. One has just been discussed: the addition of a degenerated form of have to the preterite of the auxiliary, and its use in place of the auxiliary itself. Another is the use of will instead of shall in the first person future. Shall is confined to a sort of optative, indicating much more than mere intention, and even here it is yielding to will. Yet another is the consistent use of the transferred preterite in the passive. Here the rule in correct English is followed faithfully, though the perfect participle [Pg209] employed is not the English participle. "I am broke" is a good example. Finally, there is the substitution of was for were and of am for be in the past and present of the subjunctive. In this last case American is in accord with the general movement of English, though somewhat more advanced. Be, in the Shakespearean form of "where be thy brothers?" was expelled from the present indicative two hundred years ago, and survives today only in dialect. And as it thus yielded to are in the indicative, it now seems destined to yield to am and is in the subjunctive. It remains, of course, in the future indicative: "I will be." In American its conjugation coalesces with that of am in the following manner:

Present I am Past Perfect I had of ben

Present Perfect I bin (or ben) Future I will be

Past I was Future Perfect (wanting)

And in the subjunction:

Present If I am Past Perfect If I had of ben

Past If I was

All signs of the subjunctive, indeed, seem to be disappearing from vulgar American. One never hears "if I were you," but always "if I was you." In the third person the -s is not dropped from the verb. One hears, not "if she go," but "if she goes." "If he be the man" is never heard; it is always "if he is." This war upon the forms of the subjunctive, of course, extends to the most formal English. "In Old English," says Bradley,[52] "the subjunctive played as important a part as in modern German, and was used in much the same way. Its inflection differed in several respects from that of the indicative. But the only formal trace of the old subjunctive still remaining, except the use of be and were, is the omission of the final s in the third person singular. And even this is rapidly dropping out of use.... Perhaps in another generation the subjunctive forms will have ceased to exist except in the single instance of were, which serves a useful function, although we manage to [Pg210] dispense with a corresponding form in other verbs." Here, as elsewhere, unlettered American usage simply proceeds in advance of the general movement. Be and the omitted s are already dispensed with, and even were has been discarded.

In the same way the distinction between will and shall, preserved in correct English but already breaking down in the most correct American, has been lost entirely in the American common speech. Will has displaced shall completely, save in the imperative. This preference extends to the inflections of both. Sha'n't is very seldom heard; almost always won't is used instead. As for should, it is displaced by ought to (degenerated to oughter or ought'a), and in its negative form by hadn't ought'a, as in "he hadn't oughter said that," reported by Charters. Lardner gives various redundant combinations of should and ought, as in "I don't feel as if I should ought to leave" and "they should not ought to of had." I have encountered the same form, but I don't think it is as common as the simple ought'a-forms. In the main, should is avoided, sometimes at considerable pains. Often its place is taken by the more positive don't. Thus "I don't mind" is used instead of "I shouldn't mind." Don't has also completely displaced doesn't, which is very seldom heard. "He don't" and "they don't" are practically universal. In the same way ain't has displaced is not, am not, isn't and aren't, and even have not and haven't. One recalls a famous speech in a naval melodrama of twenty years ago: "We ain't got no manners, but we can fight like hell." Such forms as "he ain't here," "I ain't the man," "them ain't what I want" and "I ain't heerd of it" are common.

This extensive use of ain't, of course, is merely a single symptom of a general disregard of number, obvious throughout the verbs, and also among the pronouns, as we shall see. Charters gives many examples, among them, "how is Uncle Wallace and Aunt Clara?" "you was," "there is six" and the incomparable "it ain't right to say, 'He ain't here today.'" In Lardner there are many more, for instance, "them Giants is not such rotten hitters, is they?" "the people has all wanted to shake hands with Matthewson and I" and "some of the men has [Pg211] brung their wife along." Sez (=says), used as the preterite of to say, shows the same confusion. One observes it again in such forms as "then I goes up to him." Here the decay of number helps in what threatens to become a decay of tense. Examples of it are not hard to find. The average race-track follower of the humbler sort seldom says "I won $2," or even "I wan $2," but almost always "I win $2." And in the same way he says "I see him come in," not "I saw him" or "seen him." Charters' materials offers other specimens, among them "we help distributed the fruit," "she recognize, hug, and kiss him" and "her father ask her if she intended doing what he ask." Perhaps the occasional use of eat as the preterite of to eat, as in "I eat breakfast as soon as I got up," is an example of the same flattening out of distinctions. Lardner has many specimens, among them "if Weaver and them had not of begin kicking" and "they would of knock down the fence." I notice that used, in used to be, is almost always reduced to simple use, as in "it use to be the rule." One seldom, if ever, hears a clear d at the end. Here, of course, the elision of the d is due primarily to assimilation with the t of to—a second example of one form of decay aiding another form. But the tenses apparently tend to crumble without help. I frequently hear whole narratives in a sort of debased present: "I says to him.... Then he ups and says.... I land him one on the ear.... He goes down and out, ..." and so on.[53] Still under the spell of our disintegrating inflections, we are prone to regard the tense inflections of the verb as absolutely essential, but there are plenty of languages that get on without them, and even in our own language children and foreigners often reduce them to a few simple forms. Some time ago an Italian contractor said to me "I have go there often." Here one of our few surviving inflections was displaced by an analytical devise, and yet the man's meaning was quite clear, and it would be absurd to say that his sentence violated the inner spirit of English. That inner spirit, in fact, has inclined steadily toward "I have go" for a thousand years. [Pg212]

§ 4

The Pronoun—The following paradigm shows the inflections of the personal pronoun in the American common speech:

First Person

Common Gender

Singular Plural

Nominative I we

Possessive Conjoint my our

Possessive Absolute mine ourn

Objective me us

Second Person

Common Gender


Nominative you yous

Possessive Conjoint your your

Possessive Absolute yourn yourn

Objective you yous

Third Person

Masculine Gender

Nominative he they

Possessive Conjoint his their

Possessive Absolute hisn theirn

Objective him them

Feminine Gender

Nominative she they

Possessive Conjoint her their

Possessive Absolute hern theirn

Objective her them

Neuter Gender

Nominative it they

Possessive Conjoint its theirn

Possessive Absolute its their

Objective it them

These inflections, as we shall see, are often disregarded in use, but nevertheless it is profitable to glance at them as they [Pg213] stand. The only variations that they show from standard English are the substitution of n for s as the distinguishing mark of the absolute form of the possessive, and the attempt to differentiate between the logical and the merely polite plurals in the second person by adding the usual sign of the plural to the former. The use of n in place of s is not an American innovation. It is found in many of the dialects of English, and is, in fact, historically quite as sound as the use of s. In John Wiclif's translation of the Bible (circa 1380) the first sentence of the Sermon on the Mount (Mark v, 3) is made: "Blessed be the pore in spirit, for the kyngdam in hevenes is heren." And in his version of Luke xxiv, 24, is this: "And some of ouren wentin to the grave." Here heren, (or herun) represents, of course, not the modern hers, but theirs. In Anglo-Saxon the word was heora, and down to Chaucer's day a modified form of it, here, was still used in the possessive plural in place of the modern their, though they had already displaced hie in the nominative.[54] But in John Purvey's revision of the Wiclif Bible, made a few years later, hern actually occurs in II Kings viii, 6, thus: "Restore thou to hir alle things that ben hern." In Anglo-Saxon there had been no distinction between the conjoint and absolute forms of the possessive pronouns; the simple genitive sufficed for both uses. But with the decay of that language the surviving remnants of its grammar began to be put to service somewhat recklessly, and so there arose a genitive inflection of this genitive—a true double inflection. In the Northern dialects of English that inflection was made by simply adding s, the sign of the possessive. In the Southern dialects the old n-declension was applied, and so there arose such forms as minum and eowrum (=mine and yours), from min and eower (=my and your).[55] Meanwhile, the original simple genitive, now become youre, also survived, and so the literature of [Pg214] the fourteenth century shows the three forms flourishing side by side: youre, youres and youren. All of them are in Chaucer.

Thus, yourn, hern, hisn, ourn and theirn, whatever their present offense to grammarians, are of a genealogy quite as respectable as that of yours, hers, his, ours and theirs. Both forms represent a doubling of inflections, and hence grammatical debasement. On the side of the yours-form is the standard usage of the past five hundred years, but on the side of the yourn-form there is no little force of analogy and logic, as appears on turning to mine and thine. In Anglo-Saxon, as we have seen, my was min; in the same way thy was thin. During the decadence of the language the final n was dropped in both cases before nouns—that is, in the conjoint form—but it was retained in the absolute form. This usage survives to our own day. One says "my book," but "the book is mine"; "thy faith," but "I am thine."[56] Also, one says "no matter," but "I have none." Without question this retention of the n in these pronouns had something to do with the appearance of the n-declension in the treatment of your, her, his and our, and, after their had displaced here in the third person plural, in their. And equally without question it supports the vulgar American usage today. What that usage shows is simply the strong popular tendency to make language as simple and as regular as possible—to abolish subtleties and exceptions. The difference between "his book" and "the book is his'n" is exactly that between my and mine, thy and thine, in the examples just given. "Perhaps it would have been better," says Bradley, "if the literary language had accepted hisn, but from some cause it did not do so."[57]

As for the addition of s to you in the nominative and objective of the second person plural, it exhibits no more than an effort to give clarity to the logical difference between the true plural and the mere polite plural. In several other dialects of [Pg215] English the same desire has given rise to cognate forms, and there are even secondary devices in American. In the South, for example, the true plural is commonly indicated by you-all, which, despite a Northern belief to the contrary, is never used in the singular by any save the most ignorant.[58] You-all, like yous, simply means you-jointly as opposed to the you that means thou. Again, there is the form observed in "you can all of you go to hell"—another plain effort to differentiate between singular and plural. The substitution of you for thou goes back to the end of the thirteenth century. It appeared in late Latin and in the other continental languages as well as in English, and at about the same time. In these languages the true singular survives alongside the transplanted plural, but English has dropped it entirely, save in its poetical and liturgical forms and in a few dialects. It passed out of ordinary polite speech before Elizabeth's day. By that time, indeed, its use had acquired an air of the offensive, such as it has today, save between intimates or to children, in Germany. Thus, at the trial of Sir Walter Raleigh in 1603, Sir Edward Coke, then attorney-general, displayed his animosity to Raleigh by addressing him as thou, and finally burst into the contemptuous "I thou thee, thou traitor!" And in "Twelfth Night" Sir Toby Belch urges Sir Andrew Aguecheek to provoke the disguised Viola to combat by thouing her. In our own time, with thou passed out entirely, even as a pronoun of contempt, the confusion between you in the plural and you in the singular presents plain difficulties to a man of limited linguistic resources. He gets around them by setting up a distinction that is well supported by logic and analogy. "I seen yous" is clearly separated from "I seen you.". And in the conjoint position "yous guys" is separated from "you liar."

So much for the personal pronouns. As we shall see, they are used in such a manner that the distinction between the nominative and the objective forms, though still existing grammatically, has begun to break down. But first it may be well to glance at the demonstrative and relative pronouns. Of the former there [Pg216] are but two in English, this and that, with their plural forms, these and those. To them, American adds a third, them, which is also the personal pronoun of the third person, objective case.[59] In addition it has adopted certain adverbial pronouns, this-here, these-here, that-there, those-there and them-there, and set up inflections of the original demonstratives by analogy with mine, hisn and yourn, to wit, thisn, thesen, thatn and thosen. I present some examples of everyday use:

Them are the kind I like.

Them men all work here.

Who is this-here Smith I hear about?

These-here are mine.

That-there medicine ain't no good.

Those-there wops has all took to the woods.

I wisht I had one of them-there Fords.

Thisn is better'n thatn.

I like thesen better'n thosen.

The origin of the demonstratives of the thisn-group is plain: they are degenerate forms of this-one, that-one, etc., just as none is a degenerate composition form of no(t)-one. In every case of their use that I have observed the simple demonstratives might have been set free and one actually substituted for the terminal n. But it must be equally obvious that they have been reinforced very greatly by the absolutes of the hisn-group, for in their relation to the original demonstratives they play the part of just such absolutes and are never used conjointly. Thus, one says, in American, "I take thisn" or "thisn is mine," but one never says "I take thisn hat" or "thisn dog is mine." In this conjoint situation plain this is always used, and the same rule [Pg217] applies to these, those and that. Them, being a newcomer among the demonstratives, has not yet acquired an inflection in the absolute. I have never heard them'n, and it will probably never come in, for it is forbiddingly clumsy. One says, in American, both "them are mine" and "them collars are mine."

This-here, these-here, that-there, those-there and them-there are plainly combinations of pronouns and adverbs, and their function is to support the distinction between proximity, as embodied in this and these, and remoteness, as embodied in that, those and them. "This-here coat is mine" simply means "this coat, here, or this present coat, is mine." But the adverb promises to coalesce with the pronoun so completely as to obliterate all sense of its distinct existence, even as a false noun or adjective. As commonly pronounced, this-here becomes a single word, somewhat like thish-yur, and these-here becomes these-yur, and that-there and them-there become that-ere and them-ere. Those-there, if I observed accurately, is still pronounced more distinctly, but it, too, may succumb to composition in time. The adverb will then sink to the estate of a mere inflectional particle, as one has done in the absolutes of the thisn-group. Them, as a personal pronoun in the absolute, of course, is commonly pronounced em, as in "I seen em," and sometimes its vowel is almost lost, but this is also the case in all save the most exact spoken English. Sweet and Lounsbury, following the German grammarians, argue that this em is not really a debased form of them, but the offspring of hem, which survived as the regular plural of the third person in the objective case down to the beginning of the fifteenth century. But in American them is clearly pronounced as a demonstrative. I have never heard "em men" or "em are the kind I like," but always "them men" and "them are the kind I like."

The relative pronouns, so far as I have been able to make out, are declined as follows:

Nominative who which what that

Possessive Conjoint whose whose

Possessive Absolute whosen whosen

Objective who which what that


Two things will be noted in this paradigm. First there is the disappearance of whom as the objective form of who, and secondly there is the appearance of an inflected form of whose in the absolute, by analogy with mine, hisn and thesen. Whom, as we have seen, is fast disappearing from standard spoken American;[60] in the vulgar language it is already virtually extinct. Not only is who used in such constructions as "who did you find there?" where even standard spoken English would tolerate it, but also in such constructions as "the man who I saw," "them who I trust in" and "to who?" Krapp explains this use of who on the ground that there is a "general feeling," due to the normal word-order in English, that "the word which precedes the verb is the subject word, or at least the subject form."[61] But this explanation is probably fanciful. Among the plain people no such "general feeling" for case exists. Their only "general feeling" is a prejudice against case inflections in any form whatsoever. They use who in place of whom simply because they can discern no logical difference between the significance of the one and the significance of the other.

Whosen is obviously the offspring of the other absolutes in n. In the conjoint relation plain whose is always used, as in "whose hat is that?" and "the man whose dog bit me." But in the absolute whosen is often substituted, as in "if it ain't hisn, then whosen is it?" The imitation is obvious. There is an analogous form of which, to wit, whichn, resting heavily on which one. Thus, "whichn do you like?" and "I didn't say whichn" are plainly variations of "which one do you like?" and "I didn't say which one." That, as we have seen, has a like form, thatn, but never, of course, in the relative situation. "I like thatn," is familiar, but "the one thatn I like" is never heard. If that, as a relative, could be used absolutely, I have no doubt that it would change to thatn, as it does as a demonstrative. So with what. As things stand, it is sometimes substituted for that, as in "them's the kind what I like." Joined to but it can also take the place of that in other situations, as in "I don't know but what." [Pg219]

The substitution of who for whom in the objective case, just noticed, is typical of a general movement toward breaking down all case distinctions among the pronouns, where they make their last stand in English and its dialects. This movement, of course, is not peculiar to vulgar American; nor is it of recent beginning. So long ago as the fifteenth century the old clear distinction between ye, nominative, and you, objective, disappeared, and today the latter is used in both cases. Sweet says that the phonetic similarity between ye and thee, the objective form of the true second singular, was responsible for this confusion.[62] At the start ye actually went over to the objective case, and the usage thus established shows itself in such survivors of the period as harkee (hark ye) and look ye. In modern spoken English, indeed, you in the objective often has a sound far more like that of ye than like that of you, as, for example, in "how do y' do?" and in American its vowel takes the neutral form of the e in the definite article, and the word becomes a sort of shortened yuh. But whenever emphasis is laid upon it, you becomes quite distinct, even in American. In "I mean you," for example, there is never any chance of mistaking it for ye.

In Shakespeare's time the other personal pronouns of the objective case threatened to follow you into the nominative, and there was a compensatory movement of the nominative pronouns toward the objective. Lounsbury has collected many examples.[63] Marlowe used "is it him you seek?" "'tis her I esteem" and "nor thee nor them, shall want"; Fletcher used "'tis her I admire"; Shakespeare himself used "that's me." Contrariwise, Webster used "what difference is between the duke and I?" and Greene used "nor earth nor heaven shall part my love and I." Krapp has unearthed many similar examples from the Restoration dramatists.[64] Etheredge used "'tis them," "it may be him," "let you and I" and "nor is it me"; Matthew Prior, in a famous couplet, achieved this: [Pg220]

For thou art a girl as much brighter than her.

As he was a poet sublimer than me.

The free exchange continued, in fact, until the eighteenth century was well advanced; there are examples of it in Addison. Moreover, it survived, at least in part, even the attack that was then made upon it by the professors of the new-born science of English grammar, and to this day "it is me" is still in more or less good colloquial use. Sweet thinks that it is supported in such use, though not, of course, grammatically, by the analogy of the correct "it is he" and "it is she." Lounsbury, following Dean Alford, says it came into English in imitation of the French c'est moi, and defends it as at least as good as "it is I."[65] The contrary form, "between you and I," has no defenders, and is apparently going out. But in the shape of "between my wife and I" it is seldom challenged, at least in spoken English.

All these liberties with the personal pronouns, however, fade to insignificance when put beside the thoroughgoing confusion of the case forms in vulgar American. "Us fellers" is so far established in the language that "we fellers," from the mouth of a car conductor, would seem almost an affectation. So, too, is "me and her are friends." So, again, are "I seen you and her," "her and I set down together," "him and his wife," and "I knowed it was her." Here are some other characteristic examples of the use of the objective forms in the nominative from Charters and Lardner:

Me and her was both late.

His brother is taller than him.

That little boy was me.

Us girls went home.

They were John and him.

Her and little Al is to stay here.

She says she thinks us and the Allens.

If Weaver and them had not of begin kicking.

But not me.

Him and I are friends.

Me and them are friends.


Less numerous, but still varied and plentiful, are the substitutions of nominative forms for objective forms:

She gave it to mother and I.

She took all of we children.

I want you to meet he and I at 29th street.

He gave he and I both some.

It is going to cost me $6 a week for a room for she and the baby.

Anything she has is O. K. for I and Florrie.

Here are some grotesque confusions, indeed. Perhaps the best way to get at the principles underlying them is to examine first, not the cases of their occurrence, but the cases of their non-occurrence. Let us begin with the transfer of the objective form to the nominative in the subject relation. "Me and her was both late" is obviously sound American; one hears it, or something like it, on the streets every day. But one never hears "me was late" or "her was late" or "us was late" or "him was late" or "them was late." Again, one hears "us girls was there" but never "us was there." Yet again, one hears "her and John was married," but never "her was married." The distinction here set up should be immediately plain. It exactly parallels that between her and hern, our and ourn, their and theirn: the tendency, as Sweet says, is "to merge the distinction of nominative and objective in that of conjoint and absolute."[66] The nominative, in the subject relation, takes the usual nominative form only when it is in immediate contact with its verb. If it be separated from its verb by a conjunction or any other part of speech, even including another pronoun, it takes the objective form. Thus "me went home" would strike even the most ignorant shopgirl as "bad grammar," but she would use "me and my friend went," or "me and him," or "he and her," or "me and them" without the slightest hesitation. What is more, if the separation be effected by a conjunction and another pronoun, the other pronoun also changes to the objective form, even though its contact with the verb may be immediate. Thus one hears "me and her was there," not "me and she"; her and "him kissed," not "her and he." Still more, this second pronoun [Pg222] commonly undergoes the same inflection even when the first member of the group is not another pronoun, but a noun. Thus one hears "John and her were married," not "John and she." To this rule there is but one exception, and that is in the case of the first person pronoun, especially in the singular. "Him and me are friends" is heard often, but "him and I are friends" is also heard. I seems to suggest the subject very powerfully; it is actually the subject of perhaps a majority of the sentences uttered by an ignorant man. At all events, it resists the rule, at least partially, and may even do so when actually separated from the verb by another pronoun, itself in the objective form, as for example, in "I and him were there."

In the predicate relation the pronouns respond to a more complex regulation. When they follow any form of the simple verb of being they take the objective form, as in "it's me," "it ain't him," and "I am him," probably because the transitiveness of this verb exerts a greater pull than its function as a mere copula, and perhaps, too, because the passive naturally tends to put the speaker in the place of the object. "I seen he" or "he kissed she" or "he struck I" would seem as ridiculous to an ignorant American as to the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his instinct for simplicity and regularity naturally tends to make him reduce all similar expressions, or what seem to him to be similar expressions, to coincidence with the more seemly "I seen him." After all, the verb of being is fundamentally transitive, and, in some ways, the most transitive of all verbs, and so it is not illogical to bring its powers over the pronoun into accord with the powers exerted by the others. I incline to think that it is some such subconscious logic, and not the analogy of "it is he," as Sweet argues, that has brought "it is me" to conversational respectability, even among rather careful speakers of English.[67]

But against this use of the objective form in the nominative [Pg223] position after the verb of being there also occurs in American a use of the nominative form in the objective position, as in "she gave it to mother and I" and "she took all of we children." What lies at the bottom of it seems to be a feeling somewhat resembling that which causes the use of the objective form before the verb, but exactly contrary in its effects. That is to say, the nominative form is used when the pronoun is separated from its governing verb, whether by a noun, a noun-phrase or another pronoun, as in "she gave it to mother and I," "she took all of we children" and "he paid her and I" respectively. But here usage is far from fixed, and one observes variations in both directions—that is, toward using the correct objective when the pronoun is detached from the verb, and toward using the nominative even when it directly follows the verb. "She gave it to mother and me," "she took all of us children" and "he paid her and me" would probably sound quite as correct, to a Knight of Pythias, as the forms just given. And at the other end Charters and Lardner report such forms as "I want you to meet he and I" and "it is going to cost me $6 a week for a room for she and the baby." I have noticed, however, that, in the overwhelming main, the use of the nominative is confined to the pronoun of the first person, and particularly to its singular. Here again we have an example of the powerful way in which I asserts itself. And superimposed upon that influence is a cause mentioned by Sweet in discussing "between you and I."[68] It is a sort of by-product of the pedagogical war upon "it is me." "As such expressions," he says, "are still denounced by the grammars, many people try to avoid them in speech as well as in writing. The result of this reaction is that the me in such constructions as 'between John and me' and 'he saw John and me' sounds vulgar and ungrammatical, and is consequently corrected into I." Here the pedagogues, seeking to impose an inelastic and illogical grammar upon a living speech, succeed only in corrupting it still more.

Following than and as the American uses the objective form of the pronoun, as in "he is taller than me" and "such as her." [Pg224] He also uses it following like, but not when, as often happens, he uses the word in place of as or as if. Thus he says "do it like him," but "do it like he does" and "she looks like she was sick." What appears here is an instinctive feeling that these words, followed by a pronoun only, are not adverbs, but prepositions, and that they should have the same power to put the pronoun into an oblique case that other prepositions have. Just as "the taller of we" would sound absurd to all of us, so "taller than he," to the unschooled American, sounds absurd. This feeling has a good deal of respectable support. "As her" was used by Swift, "than me" by Burke, and "than whom" by Milton. The brothers Fowler show that, in some cases, "than him," is grammatically correct and logically necessary.[69] For example, compare "I love you more than him" and "I love you more than he." The first means "I love you more than (I love) him"; the second, "I love you more than he (loves you)." In the first him does not refer to I, which is nominative, but to you, which is objective, and so it is properly objective also. But the American, of course, uses him even when the preceding noun is in the nominative, save only when another verb follows the pronoun. Thus, he says, "I love you better than him," but "I love you better than he does."

In the matter of the reflexive pronouns the American vulgate exhibits forms which plainly show that it is the spirit of the language to regard self, not as an adjective, which it is historically, but as a noun. This confusion goes back to Anglo-Saxon days; it originated at a time when both the adjectives and the nouns were losing their old inflections. Such forms as Petrussylf (=Peter's self), Cristsylf (=Christ's self) and Icsylf (=I, self) then came into use, and along with them came combinations of self and the genitive, still surviving in hisself and theirselves (or theirself). Down to the sixteenth century these forms remained in perfectly good usage. "Each for hisself," for example, was written by Sir Philip Sidney, and is to be found in the dramatists of the time, though modern editors always change it to himself. How the dative pronoun got itself [Pg225] fastened upon self in the third person masculine and neuter is one of the mysteries of language, but there it is, and so, against all logic, history and grammatical regularity, himself, themselves and itself (not its-self) are in favor today. But the American, as usual, inclines against these illogical exceptions to the rule set by myself. I constantly hear hisself and theirselves, as in "he done it hisself" and "they don't know theirselves." Sometimes theirself is substituted for theirselves, as in "they all seen it theirself." Also, the emphatic own is often inserted between the pronoun and the noun, as in "let every man save his own self."

The American pronoun does not necessarily agree with its noun in number. I find "I can tell each one what they make," "each fellow put their foot on the line," "nobody can do what they like" and "she was one of these kind of people" in Charters, and "I am not the kind of man that is always thinking about their record," "if he was to hit a man in the head ... they would think their nose tickled" in Lardner. At the bottom of this error there is a real difficulty: the lack of a pronoun of the true common gender in English, corresponding to the French soi and son. His, after a noun or pronoun connoting both sexes, often sounds inept, and his-or-her is intolerably clumsy. Thus the inaccurate plural is often substituted. The brothers Fowler have discovered "anybody else who have only themselves in view" in Richardson and "everybody is discontented with their lot" in Disraeli, and Ruskin once wrote "if a customer wishes you to injure their foot." In spoken American, even the most careful, they and their often appear; I turn to the Congressional Record at random and in two minutes find "if anyone will look at the bank statements they will see."[70] In the lower reaches of the language the plural seems to get into every sentence of any complexity, even when the preceding noun or pronoun is plainly singular. [Pg226]

§ 5

The Adverb—All the adverbial endings in English, save -ly, have gradually fallen into decay; it is the only one that is ever used to form new adverbs. At earlier stages of the language various other endings were used, and some of them survive in a few old words, though they are no longer employed in making new words. The Anglo-Saxon endings were -e and -lice. The latter was, at first, merely an -e-ending to adjectives in -lic, but after a time it attained to independence and was attached to adjectives not ending in -lic. In early Middle English this -lice changes to -like, and later on to -li and -ly. Meanwhile, the -e-ending, following the -e-endings of the nouns, adjectives and verbs, ceased to be pronounced, and so it gradually fell away. Thus a good many adverbs came to be indistinguishable from their ancestral adjectives, for example, hard in to pull hard, loud in to speak loud, and deep in to bury deep (=Anglo-Saxon, dĕop-e). Worse, not a few adverbs actually became adjectives, for example, wide, which was originally the Anglo-Saxon adjective wid (=wide) with the adverbial -e-ending, and late, which was originally the Anglo-Saxon adjective laet (=slow) with the same ending.

The result of this movement toward identity in form was a confusion between the two classes of words, and from the time of Chaucer down to the eighteenth century one finds innumerable instances of the use of the simple adjective as an adverb. "He will answer trewe" is in Sir Thomas More; "and soft unto himself he sayd" in Chaucer; "the singers sang loud" in the Revised Version of the Bible (Nehemiah xii, 42), and "indifferent well" in Shakespeare. Even after the purists of the eighteenth century began their corrective work this confusion continued. Thus, one finds, "the people are miserable poor" in Hume, "how unworthy you treated mankind" in The Spectator, and "wonderful silly" in Joseph Butler. To this day the grammarians battle with the barbarism, still without complete success; every new volume of rules and regulations for those who would speak by the book is full of warnings against it. Among [Pg227] the great masses of the plain people, it goes without saying, it flourishes unimpeded. The cautions of the school-marm, in a matter so subtle and so plainly lacking in logic or necessity, are forgotten as quickly as her prohibition of the double negative, and thereafter the adjective and the adverb tend more and more to coalesce in a part of speech which serves the purposes of both, and is simple and intelligible and satisfying.

Charters gives a number of characteristic examples of its use: "wounded very bad," "I sure was stiff," "drank out of a cup easy," "he looked up quick." Many more are in Lardner: "a chance to see me work regular," "I am glad I was lucky enough to marry happy," "I beat them easy," and so on. And others fall upon the ear every day: "he done it proper," "he done himself proud," "she was dressed neat," "she was awful ugly," "the horse ran O. K.," "it near finished him," "it sells quick," "I like it fine," "he et hoggish," "she acted mean," "they keep company steady." The bob-tailed adverb, indeed, enters into a large number of the commonest coins of vulgar speech. Near-silk, I daresay, is properly nearly-silk. The grammarians protest that "run slow" should be "run slowly." But near-silk and "run slow" remain, and so do "to be in bad," "to play it up strong" and their brothers. What we have here is simply an incapacity to distinguish any ponderable difference between adverb and adjective, and beneath it, perhaps, is the incapacity, already noticed in dealing with "it is me," to distinguish between the common verb of being and any other verb. If "it is bad" is correct, then why should "it leaks bad" be incorrect? It is just this disdain of purely grammatical reasons that is at the bottom of most of the phenomena visible in vulgar American, and the same impulse is observable in all other languages during periods of inflectional decay. During the highly inflected stage of a language the parts of speech are sharply distinct, but when inflections fall off they tend to disappear. The adverb, being at best the step-child of grammar—as the old Latin grammarians used to say, "Omnis pars orationis migrat in adverbium"—is one of the chief victims of this anarchy. John Horne Tooke, despairing of bringing it to any [Pg228] order, even in the most careful English, called it, in his "Epea Ptercenta," "the common sink and repository of all heterogeneous and unknown corruptions."

Where an obvious logical or lexical distinction has grown up between an adverb and its primary adjective the unschooled American is very careful to give it its terminal -ly. For example, he seldom confuses hard and hardly, scarce and scarcely, real and really. These words convey different ideas. Hard means unyielding; hardly means barely. Scarce means present only in small numbers; scarcely is substantially synonymous with hardly. Real means genuine; really is an assurance of veracity. So, again, with late and lately. Thus, an American says "I don't know, scarcely," not "I don't know, scarce"; "he died lately," not "he died late." But in nearly all such cases syntax is the preservative, not grammar. These adverbs seem to keep their tails largely because they are commonly put before and not after verbs, as in, for example, "I hardly (or scarcely) know," and "I really mean it." Many other adverbs that take that position habitually are saved as well, for example, generally, usually, surely, certainly. But when they follow verbs they often succumb, as in "I'll do it sure" and "I seen him recent." And when they modify adjectives they sometimes succumb, too, as in "it was sure hot." Practically all the adverbs made of adjectives in -y lose the terminal -ly and thus become identical with their adjectives. I have never heard mightily used; it is always mighty, as in "he hit him mighty hard." So with filthy, dirty, nasty, lowly, naughty and their cognates. One hears "he acted dirty," "he spoke nasty," "the child behaved naughty," and so on. Here even standard English has had to make concessions to euphony. Cleanlily is seldom used;, cleanly nearly always takes its place. And the use of illy is confined to pedants.

Vulgar American, like all the higher forms of American and all save the most precise form of written English, has abandoned the old inflections of here, there and where, to wit, hither and hence, thither and thence, whither and whence. These fossil remains of dead cases are fast disappearing from the language. [Pg229] In the case of hither (=to here) even the preposition has been abandoned. One says, not "I came to here," but simply "I came here." In the case of hence, however, from here is still used, and so with from there and from where. Finally, it goes without saying that the common American tendency to add -s to such adverbs as towards is carried to full length in the vulgar language. One constantly hears, not only somewheres and forwards, but even noways and anyways. Here we have but one more example of the movement toward uniformity and simplicity. Anyways is obviously fully supported by sideways and always.

§ 6

The Noun and Adjective—The only inflections of the noun remaining in English are those for number and for the genitive, and so it is in these two regions that the few variations to be noted in vulgar American occur. The rule that, in forming the plurals of compound nouns or noun-phrases, the -s shall be attached to the principal noun is commonly disregarded, and it goes at the end. Thus, "I have two sons-in-law" is never heard; one always hears "I have two son-in-laws." So with the genitive. I once overheard this: "that umbrella is the young lady I go with's." Often a false singular is formed from a singular ending in s, the latter being mistaken for a plural. Chinee, Portugee and Japanee are familiar; I have also noted trapee, tactic and summon (from trapeze, tactics and summons). Paradoxically, the word incidence is commonly misused for incident, as in "he told an incidence." Here incidence (or incident) seems to be regarded as a synonym, not for happening, but for story. I have never heard "he told of an incidence." The of is always omitted. The general disregard of number often shows itself when the noun is used as object. I have already quoted Lardner's "some of the men has brung their wife along"; in a popular magazine I lately encountered "those book ethnologists ... can't see what is before their nose." Many similar examples might be brought forward.

The adjectives are inflected only for comparison, and the [Pg230] American commonly uses them correctly, with now and then a double comparative or superlative to ease his soul. More better is the commonest of these. It has a good deal of support in logic. A sick man is reported today to be better. Tomorrow he is further improved. Is he to be reported better again, or best? The standard language gets around the difficulty by using still better. The American vulgate boldly employs more better. In the case of worse, worser is used, as Charters shows. He also reports baddest, more queerer and beautifulest. Littler, which he notes, is still outlawed from standard English, but it has, with littlest, a respectable place in American. The late Richard Harding Davis wrote a play called "The Littlest Girl." The American freely compares adjectives that are incapable of the inflection logically. Charters reports most principal, and I myself have heard uniquer and even more uniquer, as in "I have never saw nothing more uniquer." I have also heard more ultra, more worse, idealer, liver (that is, more alive), and wellest, as in "he was the wellest man you ever seen." In general, the -er and -est terminations are used instead of the more and most prefixes, as in beautiful, beautifuller, beautifullest. The fact that the comparative relates to two and the superlative to more than two is almost always forgotten. I have never heard "the better of the two," but always "the best of the two." Charters also reports "the hardest of the two" and "my brother and I measured and he was the tallest." I have frequently heard "it ain't so worse," but here a humorous effect seems to have been intended.

Adjectives are made much less rapidly in American than either substantives or verbs. The only suffix that seems to be in general use for that purpose is -y, as in tony, classy, daffy, nutty, dinky, leery, etc. The use of the adjectival prefix super- is confined to the more sophisticated classes; the plain people seem to be unaware of it.[71] This relative paucity of adjectives appears to be common to the more primitive varieties of speech. E. J. [Pg231] Hills, in his elaborate study of the vocabulary of a child of two,[72] found that it contained but 23 descriptive adjectives, of which six were the names of colors, as against 59 verbs and 173 common nouns. Moreover, most of the 23 minus six were adjectives of all work, such as nasty, funny and nice. Colloquial American uses the same rubber-stamps of speech. Funny connotes the whole range of the unusual; hard indicates every shade of difficulty; nice is everything satisfactory; bully is a superlative of almost limitless scope.

The decay of one to a vague n-sound, as in this'n, is matched by a decay of than after comparatives. Earlier than is seldom if ever heard; composition reduces the two words to earlier'n. So with better'n, faster'n, hotter'n, deader'n, etc. Once I overheard the following dialogue: "I like a belt more looser'n what this one is." "Well, then, why don't you unloosen it more'n you got it unloosened?"

§ 7

The Double Negative—Syntactically, perhaps the chief characteristic of vulgar American is its sturdy fidelity to the double negative. So freely is it used, indeed, that the simple negative appears to be almost abandoned. Such phrases as "I see nobody" or "I know nothing about it" are heard so seldom that they appear to be affectations when encountered; the well-nigh universal forms are "I don't see nobody" and "I don't know nothing about it." Charters lists some very typical examples, among them, "he ain't never coming back no more," "you don't care for nobody but yourself," "couldn't be no more happier" and "I can't see nothing." In Lardner there are innumerable examples: "they was not no team," "I have not never thought of that," "I can't write no more," "no chance to get no money from nowhere," "we can't have nothing to do," and so on. Some of his specimens show a considerable complexity, for [Pg232] example, "Matthewson was not only going as far as the coast," meaning, as the context shows, that he was going as far as the coast and no further. Only gets into many other examples, e. g., "he hadn't only the one pass" and "I don't work nights no more, only except Sunday nights." This latter I got from a car conductor. Many other curious specimens are in my collectanea, among them: "one swaller don't make no summer," "I never seen nothing I would of rather saw," and "once a child gets burnt once it won't never stick its hand in no fire no more," and so on. The last embodies a triple negative. In "the more faster you go, the sooner you don't get there" there is an elaborate muddling of negatives that is very characteristic.

Like most other examples of "bad grammar" encountered in American the compound negative is of great antiquity and was once quite respectable. The student of Anglo-Saxon encounters it constantly. In that language the negative of the verb was formed by prefixing a particle, ne. Thus, singan (=to sing) became ne singan (=not to sing). In case the verb began with a vowel the ne dropped its e and was combined with the verb, as in naefre (never), from ne-aefre (=not ever). In case the verb began with an h or a w followed by a vowel, the h or w of the verb and the e of ne were both dropped, as in naefth (=has not), from ne-haefth (=not has), and nolde (=would not), from ne-wolde. Finally, in case the vowel following a w was an i, it changed to y, as in nyste (=knew not), from ne-wiste. But inasmuch as Anglo-Saxon was a fully inflected language the inflections for the negative did not stop with the verbs; the indefinite article, the indefinite pronoun and even some of the nouns were also inflected, and survivors of those forms appear to this day in such words as none and nothing. Moreover, when an actual inflection was impossible it was the practise to insert this ne before a word, in the sense of our no or not. Still more, it came to be the practise to reinforce ne, before a vowel, with nā (=not) or naht (=nothing), which later degenerated to nat and not. As a result, there were fearful and wonderful combinations of negatives, some of them fully matching the best efforts of Lardner's baseball player. Sweet [Pg233] gives several curious examples.[73] "Nān ne dorste nān thing āscian," translated literally, becomes "no one dares not ask nothing." "Thaet hus nā ne feoll" becomes "the house did not fall not." As for the Middle English "he never nadde nothing," it has too modern and familiar a ring to need translating at all. Chaucer, at the beginning of the period of transition to Modern English, used the double negative with the utmost freedom. In "The Knight's Tale" is this:

He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde

In al his lyf unto no maner wight.

By the time of Shakespeare this license was already much restricted, but a good many double negatives are nevertheless to be found in his plays, and he was particularly shaky in the use of nor. In "Richard III" one finds "I never was nor never will be"; in "Measure for Measure," "harp not on that nor do not banish treason," and in "Romeo and Juliet," "thou expectedst not, nor I looked not for." This misuse of nor is still very frequent. In other directions, too, the older forms show a tendency to survive all the assaults of grammarians. "No it doesn't," heard every day and by no means from the ignorant only, is a sort of double negative. The insertion of but before that, as in "I doubt but that" and "there is no question but that," makes a double negative that is probably full-blown. Nevertheless, as we have seen, it is heard on the floor of Congress every day, and the Fowlers show that it is also common in England.[74] Even worse forms get into the Congressional Record. Not long ago, for example, I encountered "without hardly an exception" in a public paper of the utmost importance.[75] There are, indeed, situations in which the double negative leaps to the lips or from the pen almost irresistibly; even such careful writers as Huxley, Robert Louis Stevenson and Leslie Stephen have [Pg234] occasionally dallied with it.[76] It is perfectly allowable in the Romance languages, and, as we have seen, is almost the rule in the American vulgate. Now and then some anarchistic student of the language boldly defends and even advocates it. "The double negative," said a writer in the London Review a long time ago,[77] "has been abandoned to the great injury of strength of expression." Surely "I won't take nothing" is stronger than either "I will take nothing" or "I won't take anything."

"Language begins," says Sayce, "with sentences, not with single words." In a speech in process of rapid development, unrestrained by critical analysis, the tendency to sacrifice the integrity of words to the needs of the complete sentence is especially marked. One finds it clearly in American. Already we have examined various assimilation and composition forms: that'n, use' to, would'a, them 'ere and so on. Many others are observable. Off'n is a good example; it comes from off of and shows a preposition decaying to the form of a mere inflectional particle. One constantly hears "I bought it off'n John." Sort'a, kind'a and their like follow in the footsteps of would'a. Usen't follows the analogy of don't and wouldn't. Would 've and should 've are widely used; Lardner commonly hears them as would of and should of. The neutral a-particle also appears in other situations, especially before way, as in that'a way and this'a way. It is found again in a tall, a liaison form of at all.[78]

§ 8

Pronunciation—Before anything approaching a thorough and profitable study of the sounds of the American common speech is possible, there must be a careful assembling of the materials, and this, unfortunately, still awaits a philologist of sufficient enterprise and equipment. Dr. William A. Read, of the State University of Louisiana, has made some excellent examinations [Pg235] of vowel and consonant sounds in the South, Dr. Louise Pound has done capital work of the same sort in the Middle West,[79] and there have been other regional studies of merit. But most of these become misleading by reason of their lack of scope; forms practically universal in the nation are discussed as dialectical variations. This is the central defect in the work of the American Dialect Society, otherwise very industrious and meritorious. It is essaying to study localisms before having first platted the characteristics of the general speech. The dictionaries of Americanisms deal with pronunciation only casually, and often very inaccurately; the remaining literature is meagre and unsatisfactory.[80] Until the matter is gone into at length it will be impossible to discuss any phase of it with exactness. No single investigator can examine the speech of the whole country; for that business a pooling of forces is necessary. But meanwhile it may be of interest to set forth a few provisional ideas.

At the start two streams of influence upon American pronunciation may be noted, the one an inheritance from the English of the colonists and the other arising spontaneously within the country, and apparently much colored by immigration. The first influence, it goes without saying, is gradually dying out. Consider, for example, the pronunciation of the diphthong oi. In Middle English it was as in boy, but during the early Modern English period it was assimilated with that of the i in wine, and this usage prevailed at the time of the settlement of America. The colonists thus brought it with them, and at the same time it lodged in Ireland, where it still prevails. But in England, during the pedantic eighteenth century, this i-sound was displaced by the original oi-sound, not by historical research but by mere deduction from the spelling, and the new pronunciation soon extended to the polite speech of America. In the common speech, however, the i-sound persisted, and down to the time of [Pg236] the Civil War it was constantly heard in such words as boil, hoist, oil, join, poison and roil, which thus became bile, hist, ile, jine, pisen and rile. Since then the school-marm has combatted it with such vigor that it has begun to disappear, and such forms as pisen, jine, bile and ile are now very seldom heard, save as dialectic variations. But in certain other words, perhaps supported by Irish influence, the i-sound still persists. Chief among them are hoist and roil. An unlearned American, wishing to say that he was enraged, never says that he was roiled, but always that he was riled. Desiring to examine the hoof of his horse, he never orders the animal to hoist but always to hist. In the form of booze-hister, the latter is almost in good usage. I have seen booze-hister thus spelled and obviously to be thus pronounced, in an editorial article in the American Issue, organ of the Anti-Saloon League of America.[81]

Various similar misplaced vowels were brought from England by the colonists and have persisted in America, while dying out of good England usage. There is, for example, short i in place of long e, as in critter for creature. Critter is common to almost all the dialects of English, but American has embedded the vowel in a word that is met with nowhere else and has thus become characteristic, to wit, crick for creek. Nor does any other dialect make such extensive use of slick for sleek. Again, there is the substitution of the flat a for the broad a in sauce. England has gone back to the broad a, but in America the flat a persists, and many Americans who use sassy every day would scarcely recognize saucy if they heard it. Yet again, there is quoit. Originally, the English pronounced it quate, but now they pronounce the diphthong as in doily. In the United States the quate pronunciation remains. Finally, there is deaf. Its proper pronunciation, in the England that the colonists left, was deef, but it now rhymes with Jeff. That new pronunciation has been adopted by polite American, despite the protests of Noah Webster, but in the common speech the word is still always deef.

However, a good many of the vowels of the early days have [Pg237] succumbed to pedagogy. The American proletarian may still use skeer for scare, but in most of the other words of that class he now uses the vowel approved by correct English usage. Thus he seldom permits himself such old forms as dreen for drain, keer for care, skeerce for scarce or even cheer for chair. The Irish influence supported them for a while, but now they are fast going out. So, too, are kivver for cover, crap for crop, and chist for chest. But kittle for kettle still shows a certain vitality, rench is still used in place of rinse, and squinch in place of squint, and a flat a continues to displace various e-sounds in such words as rare for rear (e. g., as a horse) and wrassle for wrestle. Contrariwise, e displaces a in catch and radish, which are commonly pronounced ketch and reddish. This e-sound was once accepted in standard English; when it got into spoken American it was perfectly sound; one still hears it from the most pedantic lips in any.[82] There are also certain other ancients that show equally unbroken vitality among us, for example, stomp for stamp,[83] snoot for snout, guardeen for guardian, and champeen for champion.

But all these vowels, whether approved or disapproved, have been under the pressure, for the past century, of a movement toward a general vowel neutralization, and in the long run it promises to dispose of many of them. The same movement also affects standard English, as appears by Robert Bridges' "Tract on the Present State of English Pronunciation," but I believe that it is stronger in America, and will go farther, at least with the common speech, if only because of our unparalleled immigration. Standard English has 19 separate vowel sounds. No other living tongue of Europe, save Portuguese, has so many; most of the others have a good many less; Modern Greek has but five. The immigrant, facing all these vowels, finds some of them quite impossible; the Russian Jew, as we have seen, cannot manage ur. As a result, he tends to employ a neutralized [Pg238] vowel in all the situations which present difficulties, and this neutralized vowel, supported by the slip-shod speech-habits of the native proletariat, makes steady progress. It appears in many of the forms that we have been examining—in the final a of would'a, vaguely before the n in this'n and off'n, in place of the original d in use' to, and in the common pronunciation of such words as been, come and have, particularly when they are sacrificed to sentence exigencies, as in "I b'n thinking," "c'm 'ere," and "he would 've saw you."

Here we are upon a wearing down process that shows many other symptoms. One finds, not only vowels disorganized, but also consonants. Some are displaced by other consonants, measurably more facile; others are dropped altogether. D becomes t, as in holt, or is dropped, as in tole, han'kerchief, bran-new and fine (for find). In ast (for ask) t replaces k: when the same word is used in place of asked, as often happens, e. g., in "I ast him his name," it shoulders out ked. It is itself lopped off in bankrup, quan'ity, crep, slep, wep, kep, gris'-mill and les (=let's = let us), and is replaced by d in kindergarden and pardner. L disappears, as in a'ready and gent'man. S becomes tsh, as in pincers. The same tsh replaces c, as in pitcher for picture, and t, as in amachoor. G disappears from the ends of words, and sometimes, too, in the middle, as in stren'th and reco'nize. R, though it is better preserved in American than in English, is also under pressure, as appears by bust, stuck on (for struck on), cuss (for curse), yestiddy, sa's'parella, pa'tridge, ca'tridge, they is (for there is) and Sadd'y (for Saturday). An excrescent t survives in a number of words, e. g., onc't, twic't, clos't, wisht (for wish) and chanc't; it is an heirloom from the English of two centuries ago. So is the final h in heighth. An excrescent b, as in chimbley and fambly, seems to be native. Whole syllables are dropped out of words, paralleling the English butchery of extraordinary; for example, in bound'ry, hist'ry, lib'ry and prob'ly. Ordinary, like extraordinary, is commonly enunciated clearly, but it has bred a degenerated form, onry or onery, differentiated in meaning. Consonants are misplaced by metathesis, as in prespiration, hunderd, [Pg239] brethern, childern, interduce, apern, calvary, govrenment, modren and wosterd (for worsted). Ow is changed to er, as in feller, swaller, yeller, beller, umbreller and holler; ice is changed to ers in jaunders. Words are given new syllables, as in ellum, mischievious and municipial.

In the complete sentence, assimilation makes this disorganization much more obvious. Mearns, in a brief article[84] gives many examples of the extent to which it is carried. He hears "wah zee say?" for "what does he say?" "ware zee?" for "where is he?" "ast 'er in" for "ask her in," "itt'm owd" for "hit them out," "sry" for "that is right," and "c'meer" for "come here." He believes that t is gradually succumbing to d, and cites "ass bedder" (for "that's better"), "wen juh ged din?" (for "when did you get in?"), and "siddup" (for "sit up"). One hears countless other such decayed forms on the street every day. Have to is almost invariably made hafta, with the neutral vowel where I have put the second a. Let's, already noticed, is le' 's. The neutral vowel replaces the oo of good in g'by. "What did you say" reduces itself to "wuz ay?" Maybe is mebby, perhaps is p'raps, so long is s'long, excuse me is skus me; the common salutation, "How are you?" is so dismembered that it finally emerges as a word almost indistinguishable from high. Here there is room for inquiry, and that inquiry deserves the best effort of American phonologists, for the language is undergoing rapid changes under their very eyes, or, perhaps more accurately, under their very ears, and a study of those changes should yield a great deal of interesting matter. How did the word stint, on American lips, first convert itself into stent and then into stunt? By what process was baulk changed into buck? Both stunt and buck are among the commonest words in the everyday American vocabulary, and yet no one, so far, has investigated them scientifically.

A by-way that is yet to be so much as entered is that of naturalized loan-words in the common speech. A very characteristic word of that sort is sashay. Its relationship to the French chassé seems to be plain, and yet it has acquired meanings in [Pg240] American that differ very widely from the meaning of chassé. How widely it is dispersed may be seen by the fact that it is reported in popular use, as a verb signifying to prance or to walk consciously, in Southeastern Missouri, Nebraska, Northwestern Arkansas, Eastern Alabama and Western Indiana, and, with slightly different meaning, on Cape Cod. The travels of café in America would repay investigation; particularly its variations in pronunciation. I believe that it is fast becoming kaif. Plaza, boulevard, vaudeville, menu and rathskeller have entered into the common speech of the land, and are pronounced as American words. Such words, when they come in verbally, by actual contact with immigrants, commonly retain some measure of their correct native pronunciation. Spiel, kosher, ganof and matzoh are examples; their vowels remain un-American. But words that come in visually, say through street-signs and the newspapers, are immediately overhauled and have thoroughly Americanized vowels and consonants thereafter. School-teachers have been trying to establish various pseudo-French pronunciations of vase for fifty years past, but it still rhymes with face in the vulgate. Vaudeville is vawd-vill; boulevard has a hard d at the end; plaza has two flat a's; the first syllable of menu rhymes with bee; the first of rathskeller with cats; fiancée is fy-ancé-y; née rhymes with see; décolleté is de-coll-ty; hofbräu is huffbrow; the German w has lost its v-sound and becomes an American w. I have, in my day, heard proteege for protégé, habichoo for habitué, connisoor for connisseur, shirtso for scherzo, premeer for première, eetood for étude and prelood for prelude. Divorcée is divorcey, and has all the rakishness of the adjectives in -y. The first syllable of mayonnaise rhymes with hay. Crème de menthe is cream de mint. Schweizer is swite-ser. Rochefort is roke-fort. I have heard début with the last syllable rhyming with nut. I have heard minoot for minuet. I have heard tchef doover for chef d'œuvre. And who doesn't remember

As I walked along the Boys Boo-long

With an independent air


Say aw re-vore,

But not good-by!

Charles James Fox, it is said, called the red wine of France Bordox to the end of his days. He had an American heart; his great speeches for the revolting colonies were more than mere oratory.


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