Misuse of the verb to go


Robleh Wais

A common construction in spoken English worldwide is to use the verb to go in ungrammatical ways. It is not as grossly incorrect as the use of the noun like in the same context, nevertheless, it is wrong. I will examine this usage and remark, that it is accepted in speech, while still not found in literary work, unless,  its use is depicting speech in a fictional context. Finally, expanding on the idea of accepted colloquial speech, I offer a few thoughts on how the language has limitations on what will change.


So what am I talking about above? An example perhaps? Of course, examples make these things crystal clear. But before I give an example, an explanation is in order. I am talking about the use of some form of the infinitive verb to go, to mean to do an action. These infinitive verbs are not the same, nor are they interchangeable. Just as to do and to make are similar but not interchangeable. So, here is an example as promised, I saw this while watching a YouTube video of a professor of physics giving a lecture on the difference between diffuse and specular reflected light. I will paraphrase since I can't remember the exact words:

You step out of the shower in the morning and the mirror is fogged up so you GO like that to see yourself

Now, he was standing in front of an audience of students and used his arm to demonstrate what a person does to make the mirror visible. I'm not trying to besmirch the reputation of this superb professor of physics. As I indicated above, this use is in the context of speech. We all do it, I do it, but it is still wrong! Go as a verb is not meant to mean to do an action. We know this is true as we learned it while growing up from elementary English grammar. Yet, culturally this change has happened in speech and it is well understood and widely used. So much such, that speakers will employ this misconstruction without the slightest thought to its ungrammatical structure. I suspect most are unaware it's wrong. Unaware until they are engaging in writing something that requires a grammatically correct structure. Once again, an example is illustrative. Suppose you're asked to write about an encounter, in which you were assaulted physically for a pending legal action. You might pen something like the following:

He came towards me and raised his arm to hit me, and then I GO(you stop and think) I put my arms up to protect myself.

The fictional example above shows that when a speaker considers the use of the verb to go in a written context it is clear to him/her that it can't replace many other verbs that express action like for instance put, bring, hold, etc. This catch-all use of the verb to go is a development that has occurred in spoken language over time. It is most likely the result of people wanting to make a point without being too verbose, like I am now, to make a point. But and this is the third time I'll write this, it's still wrong!

Many, I dare say, most others would disagree with me, that this use is wrong grammatically, as long as it is restricted to spoken exchanges. I won't quibble on the point, but concede my judgement, may be extreme by considering it wrong in all contexts. So, let's say it's okay to talk in this manner but not write this way.

What can we glean from looking at this issue formally? There is a difference in what is acceptable between spoken and written contexts. What I conjecture is that these two different forms of expression will not ever converge. That's a strong conjecture. I am saying that what is accepted in speech will not become standard in written language. I will immediately modify that and say (actually write) that it will not become acceptable in most cases, since nothing is absolute in the real world. Why? It has to do with the dichotomy of having a written versus a spoken language. Once a language becomes recorded in written symbols, its structure assumes an attribute of being static. It can be modified by changing symbolization and other characteristics, but the fundamental structure is frozen. While the living, spoken language will evolve and diverge from the written one. These two sets are unlikely to converge as time goes on. The reason they diverge ensures they won't converge; the need to speak directly and succinctly is one reason. There is a much more important reason these sets will remain apart and not converge, the written language rejects the spoken one if it violates its rules. That's the meaning of grammar. Yes, I hear the objection, grammars evolve just as colloquy does. However, there is an important distinction, the grammatical evolution itself has a limitation. Written languages resist a complete breakdown of their grammatical rules. Especially if this breakdown threatens the verbal structure of the grammar! With this in mind, we can easily see such things as the written language evolving to accept noun changes to a degree, but not verbal expression. That is to say, if it's written as it's spoken it's understood to be informal and not grammatically correct. What do I mean by the preceding? Yes, an example.

People routinely say the following:

Feb-U-ary for Feb-RU-ary

Sec-AH-tary for Sec-CRE-tary

This kind of speech is common, informal, and accepted; it may well find its way into dictionaries as accepted written English soon.

But, verbal constructions like:

That ain't true...

He don't do that...

Then, he goes real weird on me and says...

I believe these constructions will very likely NEVER find their way into written English as grammatically acceptable. The first set of examples refers to noun pronunciation change, the second to verbal usage change and that is to use a metaphor, the blood and bone of the language and unlikely to change.

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