A Grammar Girl follower on Twitter named Aaron Heintz tweeted a question earlier this month. He asked, “Why do we use plural form of verbs with the singular subject ‘I’. e.g. ‘I go to the store.’”
— Aaron Heintz (@AaronHeintz) May 16, 2013
Verbs Have a Number, Tense, and Person
When he talks about singular and plural, he’s talking about what grammarians call number, but the assumption that “go” is a plural form is not entirely correct. In addition to number, verb forms can also encode tense and person.
English Has Different Types of Pronouns
We talked about person in Episode 259, when the topic was first-person, second-person, and third-person pronouns. To summarize, the first-person singular pronouns are the forms of “I,” including “me,” “my,” “mine,” and “myself.”
First-person plural pronouns are forms of “we.”
Second-person pronouns are the forms of “you.” In present-day English, we don’t distinguish between singular and plural for second-person pronouns, except for the singular form “yourself” and plural “yourselves.” “You” can refer to one person (“you get the passenger seat” ) or many people (“would you please form a line in front of the counter?”).
Third-person singular pronouns are the forms of “he,” “she,” and “it.”
Third-person plural pronouns are the forms of “they.”
How Can One Verb Tell Us All These Things?
Now let’s look at the verb “go” and how it can give information about all three of these things–number, tense, and person. In the form “goes,” the “-s” ending tells us not only that it’s in the present tense, but also that its subject is third person singular: “he,” or “she,” or maybe “Squiggly.” So the answer to why the singular verb “goes” doesn’t agree with the singular subject “I” is that “goes” is also third person, while “I” is first person. They don’t match.
Syncretism Gives Us the “Everything Else” Verb Tense
If “goes” is the third-person singular present tense form, then what form is just “go”? The short answer is that it’s the “everything else” form for the present tense. Traditional grammar books will often list this same form five times, for first- and second-person singular, and for first-, second-, and third-person plural. However, from a learning perspective, it’s easier just to think of “go” as a form that can take on whatever combination of person and number you need in the present tense, other than third-person singular.
The technical term for this kind of situation, in which one word form can fill more than one function, is syncretism [sink-reh-tism], and English has a lot of it. In fact, we’ve already run across another example of it, with the second-person pronouns, where “you” can be either singular or plural.
In older stages of English, there were different pronouns for second-person singular and plural. The second-person singular pronouns were forms of “thou,” and “you” was used for the plural. But these days, “thou” isn’t used in everyday English, and instead, “you” serves as both a singular and a plural second-person pronoun.
More Syncretism: “You” Can Be the Subject or the Object
In fact, “you” is even more syncretic than that, because it can act as either a subject or an object. For comparison, the first-person singular pronoun is “I” as a subject, and “me” as an object. Likewise, the first-person plural pronoun is “we” as a subject, and “us” as an object. In older stages of English, “ye” was the subjective case of the second-person plural pronoun, and “you” was the objective case.
Next: Where “Thou,” “Thee,” and “Ye” Fit In
“Thou,” “Thee,” and “Ye” Were Replaced by “You”
The difference shows up clearly in the King James translation of the Bible, in John 8:32: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” These days, “you” does the job of both, and “ye” is only used by speakers who want to sound like old-timey sailors. So with this double dose of syncretism, instead of “thou,” “thee,” “ye,” and “you,” it’s all “you,” “you,” “you,” “you”! But we don’t say that we have four second-person pronouns and they’re all homonyms. We say that we just have one pronoun, “you,” which can be singular or plural, subjective or objective, as needed.
So how did English end up with so much syncretism? For plural verbs, it’s always been that way. Even back in Old English, the present tense for all three persons in the plural was the same form. To illustrate with an actual Old English verb, let’s take the verb that eventually developed into Modern English “deem.” The plural present tense form for all three persons was “demaþ” [day-mahth].
By the way, if you look at the transcript for this episode, you’ll see that the word ends with a character that looks like a lowercase “p” with a vertical part that goes up too far. That character is called “thorn,” and represents the TH sound. As Old English developed into Middle English, this “-aþ” suffix was lost.
The rest of the syncretism in present-tense forms came later. The next piece to fall into place was the first-person singular form. When the plural “-aþ” suffix was lost, the plural form ended up sounding almost indistinguishable from the first-person singular, which was “deme” [day-muh]. That just leaves the second-person singular form, “demest” [day-mest].
Next: Why Do Words Change?
Why Do Words Change?
How did “demest” lose that “-st” suffix? Easy! Once speakers started using the plural “you” for both singular and plural, it was natural to use the same plural verb forms with it that they’d always been using.
The same thing happens today when speakers use “they” as a singular pronoun. They don’t say, “Does anybody know what they wants to order?” They say, “Does anybody know what they want to order?”
A webpage for a college class on the history of English talks about this development in second-person verb forms, and says that the poet Alexander Pope objected to using a plural verb form for “you” when it referred to an individual. According to the webpage, “for some time he used the pattern ‘you was,’ but abandoned it when his contemporaries condemned it as inelegant and vulgar.” These days, of course, grammarians don’t consider the “go” in “You go to the store” a plural form anymore. It’s second-person singular, or depending on your point of view, a default verb form that can perform the function of second-person singular.
And that’s how we ended up with just two verb forms for most present-tense English verbs—why we say things such as “I go to the store on Wednesdays.”
Thanks to Aaron for an interesting question. I’ll put the link for that class webpage on the transcript for this episode. It also gives an interesting sociolinguistic history of how and why “you” edged out “thou.”
þu demst; demest
he demþ; demeþ
David Crystal. The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language. 1995, Cambridge University Press, p. 44.