I Should Of Known: Julian of Norwich and the Venerable History of Dodgy Auxiliary Verbs

Teaching Medieval Students. London, BL MS Royal 19 C ii, f. 48v.

Teaching Medieval Students. London, BL MS Royal 19 C ii, f. 48v.

Thrilling title, I know.

And no, this post isn’t technically about feminism or medieval romance, so you’ll have to forgive me for a moment, because I’m going to bang on about bad grammar and dyslexia. I’m writing this because for about the ninth time this month, I’ve heard someone insist that it’s perfectly fair to judge people who make grammatical slips, because there’s no reason to do that except for ignorance or laziness.

Now, personally, I’m not wild about judging people for ignorance. It seems like educational privilege to me. But I’m even more fed up with people who assume grammar errors can only be made through ignorance of correct standard English. In my experience, the same people tend to have a wildly idealistic attitude towards the history of the English language, so it’s always fun when you notice something in a medieval text that is a dead ringer for one of the ‘modern’ mistakes that horrify the pearl-clutchers.

And I found a nice one of those today.

When I’m reading medieval texts, I sometimes record them as audio files, and doing that really makes you pay attention to each author’s habits of expression, in a way that I don’t remember to do so much if I’m just reading silently. At the moment, I’m recording Julian of Norwich’s Shewings, a text written in the late fourteenth century by a woman who’s often seen as one of the leading religious thinkers of her time, one of the few women whose writing survives.

I’ve been noticing how much easier Julian’s prose is to read than the previous text I recorded (Piers Plowman, which is written in verse, specifically, what’s called an alliterative long line). Langland, the author of Piers, is a book fetishist. The poem is crammed with references to this or that book, this legal document or that charter, these words in the margins or that bit of rubric. Someone or other is always opening up scrolls or reading out papers, and there’s even a character called ‘Book’. Essentially, this poem was written by someone who, in 2014, would be going around the British Library licking the display cases.

Not so Julian. Her style is theologically complex, but you don’t get the impression she writes (or dictates) her prose with an image of a finished written page in her mind’s eye. This isn’t because she writes grammatically simple English, but because she (or whoever wrote the text down for her) has a really good ear for which sounds are easy to pronounce next to one another.

Here’s the piece where she describes her horror, and pity, at her vision of Christ’s crucifixion. Be warned, it’s deliberately gruesome:

“And … I saw that the swete skyn and the tender flesh, with the heere and the blode, was al rasyd and losyd abov from the bone … And that was grete sorow and drede to me. For methowte I wold not for my life a sen it fallen.”

(“And … I saw that the sweet skin and the tender flesh, with the hair and the blood, was all raised, and loose out over the bone … And that was a great sorrow and terror to me. For I thought I would not for my life of seen it fall.”

It’s not actually that hard to understand in modern English, if you read it out loud (and if you know a couple of tricky words). But what you may notice is that Julian doesn’t use the standard modern English grammar ‘I would not for my life have seen it fall’. She uses ‘a’, which is a homophone for an elided ‘have’. Here, it creates a slow sighing sound at the end of the sentence, perfectly appropriate to the image she pictures. 

Elsewhere, she’s perfectly capable of writing ‘I would have’ and ‘I could have,’ so we can’t put this down either to pure incomprehensible medieval dialect: what we have is a situation where this was simply quite acceptable. It’s not because she, or her scribe, doesn’t understand grammar, or confuses an indefinite article with an auxiliary verb. It’s simply because they sound similar enough that, when the rhythm of the sentence demands it, she can blur ‘have’ into ‘a’ with no harm done.

Now, obviously, in formal, standard English, writing “I should of done that” or “I shoulda done that” is incorrect, and we know that.

To get technical, the reason people make this mistake (other than genuine ignorance, which is pretty simple to correct) is that “should’ve” and “should of” are homophones in some accents. You might think this would be a one-time mistake: you heard something incorrectly (aged six or so), and wrote it down phonetically once, before being corrected. But it’s not so, because of the way our brains process language as we write. As we write, we are aware of the sequence of familiar physical movements made to form letters (what we often call ‘muscle memory’). We’re also aware of the visual shapes made by familiar groups of letters on the page. And we’re aware of the sounds those letters should make. All of these three things are, for fluent readers, more or less on auto-pilot while we think about what we intend to type – or write – next.

If your auto-pilot is a bit faulty, you can find your fingers provided you with a word that’s not quite what you intended (as a medievalist who writes a lot about religion I can’t type the name Chris without adding a final ‘t,’ which is very flattering to any Christophers I know). And you can find you end up typing one homophone when you intended to pick up the other one, which was sitting neatly alongside it in the box your brain marks as ‘phonetically identical’. It’s thought that dyslexia results from some kind of fault in the way the brain processes aural and visual information, and so this is a characteristic dyslexic error – an auto-pilot error, rather than an error of grammatical knowledge.

So, why did I burden you all with this incredibly dull post on grammar? Well, it’s because I wanted to try to refute two really common misconceptions. One is that this sort of error is something it’s ok to judge people for making – or at least, it’s an error that ‘proves’ their ignorance, rather than their disability. The other is that this sort of error is one of the host of peculiarly modern mistakes, to be blamed on the (fictitious) decline of the English language in recent years.

When I started writing this blog, I decided that instead of spending hours painstakingly proof-reading each post, I’d give them a quick once-over and refer anyone who was bothered by the inevitably typos and errors to my disclaimer, which points out that I’m dyslexic and don’t proof-read well. This turned out to be a really good decision, because around a week after I wrote that disclaimer, I had my PhD viva and came away with a list of corrections only slightly shorter than the thesis itself.

Those corrections were appropriate: when I’m writing formal standard English, it needs to be spot on. But when I’m writing this blog, occasionally I’ll slip up. And that’s ok. And maybe, next time you see someone making an error like this, instead of judging, you’ll take a minute to consider they might be dyslexic, and to remember that, six hundred years ago, a medieval woman was writing shoulda woulda coulda all over the shop.

75 thoughts on “I Should Of Known: Julian of Norwich and the Venerable History of Dodgy Auxiliary Verbs

  1. I love this! I get tired of all the grammar police and the assumption that language can’t change and develop. A ridiculous assumption, otherwise we’d all presumably be speaking Proto-Indo European right now!

    • Thanks! And yes, true.

      I don’t mind a little bit of grammar policing when it’s meant kindly (and it often is). But I think it’s fascinating when non-standard forms have a long history.

  2. Pingback: Would of, could of, might of, must of | Sentence first

  3. A really interesting read. Thanks for spending time writing all this up for us 🙂 It has cleared up a few things in my own mind about when I should correct someone’s (including my own) language or grammar!

    • Ah, I have a couple of editor/proofreader friends and you people always have interesting perspectives. I often notice that people who’re professionally concerned with correct language are also the most likely to be forgiving of errors in day-to-day life.

  4. Grammar can be judged on the criteria of concision and precision as well as usage. If a form makes a sentence more precise or concise, then so be it. “He should a jumped” might sum up a situation more precisely than “He should have jumped” for reasons exterior to grammar.

  5. You conducted this grammar examination in such a lovely context. It was a pleasure to read.

    Your indication of the way our brains keep track of sounds and shapes of letters that flow easily into one another and then later coordinate with our hands as to what ends up on the page is very interesting. Even with the current proliferation of keyboard use for writing it still happens, as you mention with added t’s to Chris, in your case.

    My husband is dyslexic and he pronounces many words as he originally heard them. I don’t keep a list of these but have simply noticed over the years that he tends to have a pattern. For example, words that end in -mate, like estimate or ultimate, I hear him pronounce as “estiment” or “ultiment”. And forget about spelling for him – it’s all over the map.

    Generally, I’m very good with grammar, but I’m a terrible typist, so the strange yet long list of habitual typos in my emails or Skype messages are epic. I have one friend who saves my “best” Skype sentences in a file. We laugh about them to tears because I am an editor, too!

    Language may be exalted, but it is still human.

    • Thank you! Your post made me smile – that sounds like me, with the typos! Interesting about your husband’s patterns. I’ll see if I notice that in other dyslexics now.

      I love language, but I find the mistakes really fascinating too.

      • I wonder if maybe these so-called mistakes are usage habits that just naturally take advantage of the ergonomics of the mouth, as well. We seek the path of least resistance, even in speech.

        It sure seems that in dialects in all their variations away from the standard forms of a language quickly melt into much softer and less strenuous articulations.

        Want to–wanna; going to—gonna; what do you—whadya and so on. And the classic that you highlighted: shoulda, woulda, coulda.

        Just a curious thought.

      • I love that idea – it makes sense. I must read more about the physical side of things. Thank you for prompting me.

  6. I stumbled across your blog as I checked the recent Freshly Pressed servings… what a delightful blog! You also touched on one of my pet peeves, basic grammar errors, and made me realize that not everyone who uses that ghastly “should of” is an idiot. I stand corrected. 🙂

  7. I love this post! One of the most wonderful things about the English language is that it is constantly evolving and changing to suit the needs of the people using it. I’ve always felt annoyed when people insist that usage of the English language has to follow rigid and specific rules. I can’t help but think that people who think this way are missing the point.

  8. I agree. Look at writers like Caitlin Moran who flout grammatical convention and (whether you agree with them or not) are living proof of the dynamic nature of language.

  9. This was a really great read, thanks for sharing! I study languages, and I often slip up in spoken and written grammar; I say “should of” instead of “should have” as well as many other ‘grammatical mistakes’, but it’s not because I’m ignorant, it’s just that languages evolve constantly, along with every other thing that changes in this world.

  10. “Would of” and “could of” bother me from an aesthetic standpoint (I prefer woulda and coulda), but the one I really dislike is “one-off” meaning unique. I have no reference, but I’ll bet that’s generated from “one of a kind”. The one I really like is “Jeet?”, Brooklynese for Did you eat?

    • Ah, now you’ve made me wonder where ‘one-off’ comes from too! I’d never thought of it being from ‘one of a kind’. I must try to find out!

      ‘Jeet’ is rather cute.

      • In entertainment we use “one-off” to distinguish between steady gigs and just working here and there. For example, “Is your band still touring?” “No, we’re just doing one-offs for the rest of the year.”

      • Oh, I like that – so in that context, it’s one ‘off’ the steady routine (a deviation from it)? That’s rather nice.

  11. While dyslexia may explain errors, the majority of those who make the errors that you describe, are NOT dyslexic. In my opinion those people are either ignorant or habitually lazy in their speech and writing. You are obviously entitled to your opinion

      • Not meant to be facetious but only to state the obvious ie it is merely a matter of personal opinions whether certain deviations from the norm are tolerated by the reader or listener. I do not tolerate lazy speech or writing

      • Well, in that case, you should learn to punctuate correctly.

        I find it much more difficult to read an unpunctuated passage than to read one with misspellings. This is a personal issue too, of course, but one I know many dyslexics share.

  12. There is a third reason for these slips; it is what musicians call a “tin ear.” The phrase refers to those who can’t make “nice distinctions” (look it up) between sounds.

  13. Pingback: I Should Of Known: Julian of Norwich and the Venerable History of Dodgy Auxiliary Verbs | poetry from the frontera

  14. I was checking my grandson’s First Grade homework about blends (e.g. “tr”), when I noticed that he had written “chr” next to a picture of an evergreen. When I asked him why he picked those letters, he answered that it was a “chree.” It was the first we realized that he had a hearing disorder. Phonics is harder when you don’t hear clearly!

    • Yes: quite a lot of people who have difficulty with phonics fail to distinguish accurately between sounds. One possible cause is ‘glue ear’ (or otitis media), which is very common in young children and blocks your ears up horribly. Very young children who have a lot of ear infections may not get the desirable exposure to speech sounds at the formative stages of language development, so, even though they are not deaf in any permanent way, their ability to make the distinctions is impaired. Even when they are free of glue ear, their sensitivity to the sound differences is reduced because the brain has not become accustomed to detecting those fine details.
      It may help to show the child (in front of a mirror) what his mouth does to make the sounds: ‘tr’ requires teeth close together and then lips vibrating as air is expressed, while ‘chr’ needs lips a bit apart and pushed forward, then pulled back for the vibrating ‘r’ sound. Practice in front of the mirror.
      Also, of course get medical advice over the cause of the physical symptoms.

      But ,Janet, I thought you were going to say it was a ‘chr(istmas tr)ee’!

  15. I enjoyed this. When I was young, I read an essay in the front of the family dictionary called The History of the English Language and became hooked on the subject, particularly the political and class implications of changes in the language. Consequently, I am delighted to read your blog and am now following you.

  16. One-off is used to designate a design attempt that was carried to completion and then abandoned. I have a buddy who has a one-off sailplane; the manufacturer decided on a new design with new materials and did not proceed to produce this one.

    • Instead of the sloppy “one-off”, more appropriate terms are prototype or test bed. Any additional information about why the project was abandoned would then be more credible than the impression given by sloppy English.

      • Engineers/manufacturers don’t care that much about explaining these decisions outside the company’s workplace. They often attempt many models – to various stages of completion, choose the best, and abandon (or sell, occasionally) the rest. I doubt they believe they owe anyone an explanation. This has happened in the automobile world, as well and the models turn up in collector’s barns. Luxury sailboats and powered yachts are mostly one-off productions — designed for the buyer and with no thought of producing the particular model for repeat sales. Those items are called “stock” designs and are for the lower end of the market.

        I’m not an engineer or manufacturer, but I have picked up on this as a matter of interest.

      • And it is interesting!

        I have found engineers are often pretty down-to-earth about non-standard English. At least in the UK, a high proportion of engineering students is dyslexic, so there seems to be a culture of not making too big a fuss.

  17. In a manufacturing context, it’s common to say that a product comes off the production line, meaning that the process of making it is complete. I suspect that the term one-off originates from that usage, so if only one ever came off the line, it’s a one-off.

    That seems a much more likely origin than one-of-a-kind.

  18. This article strongly brought to mind the prevalent usage of “try and” instead of “try to” – trips off the tongue more easily, but still bugs me no end!

  19. Ever consider that “of” in the context mentioned above could be a misspelling of the elided form of have, i.e. ” ‘ve” , which is pronounced the same way? That would’ve been a rational explanation.

    • Erm … that’s more or less the point! 😀

      People seem furious when the sound ‘ve’ is written as ‘of,’ because they imagine the person writing has confused the word ‘of’ with the word ‘have’. But, of course, they are simply homophones with different orthographies.

      • While it is understandable, it is not acceptable. That sloppy writing reflects sloppy habits.
        Does the same thinking apply to “could of” vs “could have” etc., etc.?

      • Well, take it up with Julian of Norwich’s scribe, poor, ignorant fool that he was. Do you think you’ll be being read 600 years after your death for your penetrating insights?

      • Who ever thought the contraction meant “I of never” or “we will of?” Proper grammar instruction would lead anyone to understand “I have” and “will have.” We lost it in the US when grammar instruction disappeared in the lower grades. Nowadays the younger people even write it out as “of.” It is sloppy thought processes that produces such and is a flag waver that the person does not think clearly.

  20. Our parent company is in Brazil so we have a lot of ex-pats working with us in North America. They all use ‘gonna’ in speach and writing just as they have learned it listening to us.

    • This just came to me from A.Word.A.Day: “The pig doesn’t express himself in some exotic swine-dialect, the farmer has no need to summon a dragoman fluent in grunts, each understands the other perfectly.”
      Eric Ormsby; Ambitious Diminutives; Parnassus: Poetry in Review; 2008.

  21. Some might find this to be an “incredibly dull post on grammar,” but I loved it! I harbour a quiet love affair with grammar and the evolutionary nature of language in general, and so your points are very welcomed. Look forward to reading more of your thoughts. -J

    If interested, please see a spuriously related post on changes to the English language on my site:

  22. Just getting caught up with back issues of AWADmail issues and enjoyed this link. On another front, Chaucer sometimes uses “axe” for “ask.” I wouldn’t try to pass that off as Standard English now, but the usage is old.

  23. Sir, (because you are one) I wanted to thank you for the article you have written, and your views on Julien of Norwich. I think of it as wonderful. ‘Katherine’ a book by Anya Seaton contains material to do with Julien. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katherine_(Seton_novel). She (Anya) Does come under some criticism about her ‘fact’ but it is a work of fiction and in my view she can be forgiven. Katherine was a mistress of John of Gaunt. Wikipedia “Katherine Swynford was a significant figure in English history. Apart from being the direct ancestress of all members of the British royal family since Edward IV, who was her fourth great-grandson, she and John of Gaunt gave Henry Tudor his tenuous claim to the English throne. Queen Elizabeth II is only one of Katherine’s and Gaunt’s many direct descendants”. Just thought this might amuse you. Our Queen is from a bastard line!

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