On the Second Person Singular

I was reading some essays by David Foster Wallace (Consider the Lobster) which someone gave me for Christmas; – to be honest, I’m not impressed as some: – the first essay, for instance, is about pornography, and manages to make an inherently interesting subject very dull. (But if you enjoy journalism as the failure of journalism, I suppose… )

Anyway, there’s one essay (Authority and American Usage), where DFW goes on about authority and American usage of language – mostly in the context of compiling dictionaries and guides of how to use English correctly (of which DFW approves).

In this essay (it’s actually in an essay within the essay), DFW writes the following, re Standard Black English (as opposed to Standard White English):

Using “he don’t” makes me a little more uncomfortable; I admit that it’s logic isn’t quite as compelling. Nevertheless, a clear trend in the evolution of English from Middle to Modern has been the gradual regularizing of irregular present tense verbs,48 a trend justified by the fact that irregulars are hard to learn and to keep straight and have nothing but history going for them. By this reasoning, Standard Black English is way out on the cutting edge of English with its abandonment of the 3-S present in to do and to go and to say and its marvelously streamlined six identical present-tense inflections of to be.

48 E.g., for a long time English had a special 2-S present conjugation – “thou lovest”, “thou sayest” – that now survives only in certain past tenses (and in the present tense of to be, where it consists simply in giving the 2-S a plural inflection).

(As as aside, since a large part of this essay is about using words correctly, it would be good if DFW used the word “irregular” correctly when speaking of grammar. “Regular” in grammatical terms does not mean that every single person of a verb is the same, e.g.:

I had
You had
He/She/It had
We had
You had
They had

It means that the verb follows certain specific rules for its inflections, e.g.:

I walk
You walk
He walk-s
We walk
You walk
They walk

(OK, English is a language without many good examples of this).
An irregular verb is one that follows a much crazier pattern, where no inflection rule is followed and often the different persons(?) bear no resemblance to one another e.g.:

I am
You are
He/She/It is
We are
You are
They are

I feel a little uncomfortable with his usage of “conjugation” too).

Anyway, as it happens, that wasn’t the passage I wanted to quote or talk about – but all the same, if anyone can explain to me what he meant by footnote 48, I’d appreciate it. (The only odd 2-S past tense I could think of was “were” – but then, to be is insanely irregular in any language).

What I wanted to discuss was another passage, which I’ll leave to another post…

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