September 26, 2007

Stealth variation

Commenting on Dick Margulis's comment on "'Be done' again", an anonymous reader writes:

Some months ago, I accidentally stumbled upon a grammatical difference on this point with a friend and fellow linguistics Ph.D. student. I said to her (by IM), "I think I'm done the exercise." She was shocked that I found that grammatical - it was unquestionably blindingly bad for her. I, on the other hand, couldn't figure out why she was asking if I really found it grammatical. I couldn't see anything about it that looked even slightly questionable. Our initial investigations into who found it good and who didn't seemed to suggest that Canadians (perhaps particularly Western Canadians - I'm from British Columbia myself) tended to find it good and Americans didn't, but then we came across someone from New Jersey who used it - and your "side note" adds more Americans who like it.

One thing that's interesting to me about this is that people on each side of the usage seem to be completely unaware that it could be different. I was amazed that there were people who couldn't say things like "I'm done my homework", and I've found similar reactions from other people who find it good; my fellow student was amazed that anyone could say things like that, and I've seen similar reactions from other people who find it bad. At least with the people I've talked to so far, there doesn't seem to be a lot of "well, I've heard people who say it, but I can't" or "I say it, but I know people who don't like it." I don't know how typical this is of points of grammatical variation.

My impression: it's typical except when it isn't.

Perhaps such stealth variation is commoner when the variants are more-or-less randomly distributed, without salient connections to geography, gender, class or ethnicity -- but that's mere speculation on my part. I dimly recall some research on this topic, but maybe someone once just told me that there ought to be some research on this topic. If your memory is better, tell me and I'll add the information here.

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 26, 2007 07:53 AM