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  • Print publication year: 2006
  • Online publication date: September 2009

4 - Grammatical changes in twentieth-century English



Grammatical change differs from lexical and phonetic/phonological change in at least two important respects. First, it generally unfolds much more slowly, often taking hundreds of years to run its course to completion; and second, it tends to proceed below the threshold of speakers' conscious awareness (which makes introspection-based statements on ongoing changes in English grammar particularly unreliable). A third, but relatively more manageable, problem is caused by the fact that, from among the vast number of grammatical changes going on in the language at any one time, a very small selection is strongly stigmatized. This has led to a bias in the scholarly literature towards the discussion of these high-profile instances – at the expense of developments which are, arguably, far more comprehensive and important in the long run. Examples which come to mind include the use of like as a conjunction (e.g., tell it like it is), the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb (e.g., hopefully, they'll bury the hatchet soon), or text-type-specific stylistic mannerisms such as noun-phrase name appositions of the type veteran newspaper pundit Brian Miller. Considering that some of these phenomena are not as recent as is often alleged and that, moreover, they are often unsystematic in nature, it is surprising to see the inordinate amount of expert and lay comment which they have generated.