Home  »  The American Language  »  Page 288

H.L. Mencken (1880–1956). The American Language. 1921.

Page 288

  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 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:
PresentI amPast PerfectI had of ben
Present PerfectI bin (or ben)FutureI will be
PastI wasFuture Perfect(wanting)
  And in the subjunctive:
PresentIf I amPast PerfectIf I had of ben
PastIf 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”; “was you going to the dance?” is a very common form. In the third person the -s is not dropped from the verb. One hears, not “if she go,” but always “if she goes.” “If he be the man” is never heard; it is always “if he is.” Such a sentence as “Had I wished her, I had had her” would be unintelligible to most Americans; even “I had rather” is fast disappearing. This war upon the forms of the subjunctive, of course, extends to the