Many of us cling to the rules of grammar when learning or even teaching a foreign language. It is comforting to have guidelines to hold on to, particularly if you have a logical mind. So why do different people have conflicting opinions on what is right or wrong? Language is not predictable, it is wild and changeable and like the people who speak it has many different sides to its character and contexts.
Just like our society, our language has evolved. Many of our favourite classics were written during the Industrial Revolution thanks to which they were made available to a wider audience. Before this time standards in communication were perhaps not so important or more localized. Even our Jane Eyre is scattered with apparent inconsistencies that may call into question the ‘rules’ that we have gone by and hold as truths. Here are some discrepancies in the use of auxiliary verbs that I have noticed while reading.
I have noted different negative forms.
‘I doubted not--never doubted--that if Mr. Reed had been alive he would have treated me kindly.’ Chapter 2
‘I had now got hold of Bessie's hand, and she did not snatch it from me.’ Chapter 2
I usually teach students that the negative form of ‘have’ is ‘don’t have’ (past ‘didn’t have’) but in Jane Eyre I find it often with ‘not’, without auxiliary.
‘You have not an umbrella that I can use as a stick?’ Chapter 12
‘I think she is poor, for she had not so fine a house as mamma.’ Chapter 11
These are examples of archaic language. English is one of the few languages to use an auxiliary verb for negatives and questions. I know that there was a tendency to align English with the patterns of Latin and French grammar, as these languages were considered nobler and purer, so perhaps the absence of ‘do’ is part of this trend. ‘Do’ actually originates from the Celtic language. Moving forward in history Modern English is returning more and more to its roots. Perhaps as English radicates itself as an international language this will change again in the future to make it easier for non-natives to use. I have read that perhaps the practice of using ‘do’ arose from the tendency for contractions and the consequent need to avoid having too many different forms. For example ‘came not’ could have been contracted to ‘camn’t’ or ‘cain’t’, made + not, main’t. Contractions have been keptonly with some very frequent verbs eg modals but in other cases using auxiliaries was a way of simplifying.
‘Do’ or ‘did’ is often absent also in questions.
‘But has he no peculiarities? What, in short, is his character?’ Chapter 11
‘Well, you have been crying, Miss Jane Eyre; can you tell me what about? Have you any pain?’ Chapter 3
There are also questions without inversion.
‘Ghost! What, you are a baby after all! You are afraid of ghosts?’ Chapter 3
If a student came out with this type of question he would get a fierce look from me! Looking online I have learnt that many people disagree with me, saying that tone is voice is sufficient. But if you are not a native speaker you might prefer to make your question more explicit using inversion to avoid misunderstandings. The above question however is like a tag question without the tag: it might be okay in a particular context when you believe you are right and want the other person to agree with you. In fact it is Mr Rochester who most commonly uses this type of construction. He comes across, at least on his first appearances, as the type of person who has fixed beliefs about people and things and is not used to having them challenged.
‘Yes, and Miss Adele; they are in the dining-room, and John is gone for a surgeon; for master has had an accident; his horse fell and his ankle is sprained.’ Chapter 12
‘Leah brought it; she entered, followed by Mrs. Fairfax, who repeated the news; adding that Mr. Carter the surgeon was come, and was now with Mr. Rochester: then she hurried out to give orders about tea, and I went upstairs to take off my things.’ Chapter 12
‘When he did come down, it was to attend to business: his agent and some of his tenants were arrived and waiting to speak with him.’ Chapter 13
‘Be’ and the past participle was used to form the present perfect for all intransitive verbs in older English just as in other Germanic languages. At a certain point the auxiliary verb for the present perfect changed to ‘have’ in English. Also here it is useful to remember contractions, where we can’t tell the difference between ‘he is’ and ‘he has’. If we use the verb ‘be’, the past participle is an adjective and so emphasizes the location of the person in question (ie he is not here), whereas ‘he has gone’ emphasizes the action ( he went so he is not here ).
The verb ‘be’ could also be used as we how use ‘have to’. ‘What am I to do?’ today would be ‘What must I / do I have to do?’.
When you read a classic novel, see it as a work of art, go with the flow and enjoy it as it is. When you speak don’t get caught up too much in the grammar rules you have read in books but rather identify and copy the way that those around you speak. Remember that you are contributing to the evolution and future of the language so enjoy it, play with it. The important thing is to communicate your message clearly.
Every month, I publish a review of the book I ahve read that month.