Do and Am: How You Can Tell What Century You're In


One of the ways the English language is weird: in most Indo-European languages, if you want to tell someone what you're doing right now, you simply use the present tense of the verb (for instance, "I eat"). In contemporary English, though, we tend to add a bunch of helping verbs (usually to do or to be) and "ing" (for instance, "I am eating"). Normally, a fluent English speaker would never say, "I walk to the concert" - they'd say, "I'm walking to the concert". Or, if they're driving, they'd say, "I'm driving" (rather than "I drive").
Many other languages have these kind of constructions, but the use of them is (usually) flipped in English. These tenses are called "present tense" and "present continuous tense," but in most languages, the construction "is ___-ing," or its equivalent, means something that you habitually do, or an on-going process - not necessarily something that is happening right now. In English, however, it's flipped around: "I teach" means: teaching is what I do, regularly - most likely as a profession, whereas "I'm teaching" means: I'm up in front of the classroom as we speak. But not always. It depends on the verb, and some are pretty ambiguous, depending on a person and their circumstances. Think about the difference in meaning between "I think [x]" and "I'm thinking [x]." There's a subtly different connotation, but what is it?
Another example of these weird helping verbs is "do". It's much more natural in English to say, "What do you want?" than "What want you?" Similarly, instead of saying "Where go the clouds?" we ask "Where do clouds go?" For many English speakers, these kinds of counter-examples don't sound wrong, exactly - they just sound unnecessarily poetic. That's because the kinds of sentences that require these helping verbs has been slowly increasing over time. In Shakespeare's time, we didn't talk the way we do now, and even as late as the 19th century, you can find some examples of people not sticking "do" into their sentences the way we... do. So leaving out the "do" sounds old-fashioned, and fit only for poetry.
But lately I've been noticing another shift. People are starting to leave some of the helping verbs out of their sentences again, especially on facebook and twitter. Why are they writing in this abbreviated way? Several reasons: on twitter, people were trying to keep it below 140 (now 280) characters. Even on other social media platforms, people usually want to keep it short, just because of their audience's attention span. Also, people are typing in a hurry (People type in a hurry? Now I don't even know what sounds right) and there may be an element of trendiness. But I think the main reason is: Google. People are used to searching for information in search engines, and putting unnecessary words like "do" and "am" in as search terms is unnecessary and will only cause confusion. Therefore, constructions like "Why people eat cardboard" is becoming more natural than "Why do people eat cardboard" or "Why are people eating cardboard".
So, is English going to become like most other European languages, and like it used to be, centuries ago? Will future linguists be able to date a text to the 18th-21st century by the proliferation of "do" and "am" in its sentences?
[First written on facebook, June 16, 2021]


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