The Recency Illusion

Three comments in recent threads reminded me of what Arnold Zwicky (Language Log) calls the recency illusion, “the belief that things YOU have noticed only recently are in fact recent. This is a selective attention effect. Your impressions are simply not to be trusted; you have to check the facts. Again and again — retro not, double is, speaker-oriented hopefully, split infinitives, etc. — the phenomena turn out to have been around, with some frequency, for very much longer than you think. It’s not just Kids These Days.”

1. Consider this comment, from the “Internal Structures of Logic or Order” thread:

All I can [say] is that very little grates on me more than people who use “proved” for the perfect. I understand that it widely accepted and has gained wide use among academic types, but it sounds absolutely awful and, in the end, those aesthetics are among the most important underlying forces in any language.

I do recognize that this is the general trend in English — reducing verbs forms. We had already done away with almost all verb conjugations, with only “to be” left with the full complement of forms (though “to be” is a structural verb that we use instead of most verb conjugations that other languages utilize), and if people want to reduce “to prove” to the Basic Three forms (prove,proves,proved) as so many other verbs have come to, then that makes sense. But it still hurts my ear.

I can’t say much about the commenter’s aesthetic reaction; but one seeming assumption behind that reaction — that “have proven” is the traditional model, and “have proved” is some neologism — is not historically correct. (I infer that this is the assumption from the “has gained wide use among academic types,” “this is the general trend,” “We had already done away,” and “people want to reduce ‘to prove.'”) According to the Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, “proven” has been on the rise in recent decades; “proved” used to be more dominant. A search through Shakespeare yields several uses of the perfect “proved,” but no “proven.” You can find the same with Jonathan Swift and Jane Austen. Not that “have proven” is wrong today; it’s just that the trend has been towards greater use of the irregular “have proven,” not away from it.

2. Likewise, several commenters in the “pled” / “pleaded” thread assumed that “pled” was the traditional term, and that “pleaded” is the innovation. (E.g., “As a layman in his 60s, I recall reading and hearing ‘pled’ in the legal context most of my life, and the use of ‘pleaded’ as a neologism that clunks to the ear rather than rings true. Could just be a regional thing.”) Actually, “pled” was very rare in legal opinions before 1900, and was outnumbered nearly 5-to-1 by “pleaded” as recently as 1970. Only in the last few decades has it reached rough parity with “pleaded,” which had earlier been the dominant form.

3. Finally, consider this comment from the “When People Commit Errors of ‘Internal Structure of Logic or Order'” thread: “At the end of the day, it all comes down to style. How many of you use ‘since’ and ‘because’ interchangeably in formal writing? One defines a temporal scope, the other establishes causation. Somewhere along the line, the two became synonyms, but not to me.”

That somewhere along the line turns out to have been 1450 or so; the OED gives quotes from 1450 and 1489 for “since” meaning “because” (plus more from later years). We see it in William Shakespeare: “But, since I am a dog, beware my fangs.” Jonathan Swift: “[S]ince it is necessary that there should be a perpetual intercourse of buying and selling, and dealing upon credit, where fraud is permitted and connived at, or hath no law to punish it, the honest dealer is always undone, and the knave gets the advantage.” Daniel Defoe: “[S]ince human affairs are all subject to changes and disasters, I would have you give orders but for one hundred pounds sterling, which, you say, is half your stock, and let the hazard be run for the first.” Jane Austen: “They were certainly no friends to his acquaintance with me, which I cannot wonder at, since he might have chosen so much more advantageously in many respects.”

Again, if you don’t want to use “since” in its “because” sense, you should certainly feel free to do that; and if you want to make aesthetic arguments about what’s better style — or functional arguments about what is supposedly more or less confusing — you should feel free to. But if you want to make a claim about the supposed recency of some developments, keep in mind that your own observation and recollection of such matters might have been quite limited. It doesn’t hurt to check one’s assumptions here, especially since search tools that can let one do that (such as Google Books) are nowadays so easily available.

Powered by WordPress. Designed by Woo Themes