NaTheWriMo Day 10: Autocorrection (was/were)

It’s still grammatical in some English dialects to say things like “we was going to church” – that is to say, the verb be can occur equally in plural form with a singular referent pronoun, or vice versa – contrary to standard English usage and what we are taught in school. Having read thousands of Early and Late Modern English letters, this usage does not strike me as odd. However, when I came across the following excerpt in a letter from 1600, it made me think, perhaps for the first time, about how the writer might have differentiated between the available variants, and about which variant was standard for him.

This is Francis Lambert in October 1600 (TNA SP 78/44 f. 319r), writing about a recent edict passed in Spain which prohibits the import of English goods into Spain:

our Comodetyes are is staple
were [ware], and in my simple openion wee maye bee better with out theres
then they with out ours. our Comodytyes are staple and there tryfoles
vnlesse a lyttell oylle

The deletion of “are” is an instance of self-correction – Lambert wrote “are”, then immediately crossed it out and wrote “ys”. In other words, this is an example of unambiguous favour of a singular form of the verb be with a plural referent.

(Of course, there’s another possibility: like many if not most correspondents throughout history, Lambert often wrote several copies of his letters, possibly even starting with a rough draft. In other words, he may have copied this letter from the draft version, and the correction could reflect the difference between what he wrote in the draft and what he wrote out when copying – no copies ever being perfect copies, instead many being partial paraphrasings.

What is more, I have some reason to think that Lambert either was not a native speaker of English, or then had spent long enough abroad to have resulted in visible interference in his letters written in English. But the letter could also have been written by a future time-travelling paradigm-creating historical linguist, so this speculation is rather silly. I reckon an analysis of Lambert’s use of the verb be would tell us more. But I ain’t doing that!)


ETA 3hrs later: Well, it seems I am doing that: I was too delighted with the autocorrection to spot what Ms T immediately saw: why didn’t Lambert correct the following “are” as well? So I had a look at all the “are”s and “is”‘s in the letter, and it turns out that Lambert uses “is” for singular and “are” for plural in all other cases in this letter at least. So a third explanation: maybe it’s just a slip of the pen (or even hypercorrection?). But it looks like it’s accidental after all, rather than intentional – that is to say, it may be an acceptable variant to use, but not the norm.

NaTheWriMo November 2010
Day: 10
Word count: 2,385
Transcription word count: 13,600
Blog entries: 9

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