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May 13th, 2009

Should have went / feet? foots?

by Barbara Wallraff

Sharon I. Rideout, of Hermon, Maine, writes: “Are you bothered when journalists use ‘I should have went’? I have been hearing this too often -- on ‘Fox and Friends,’ and even from Bill O’Reilly the other night!”

Dear Sharon: You’ve given me a whole new reason to mistrust Fox News. From one point of view, the difference between good and bad grammar is just a bunch of picky little stuff. From another, the difference indicates the degree of respect a person has for education, how much reading the person has done and how concerned he or she is with getting things right.

I’ll bet you can guess which point of view is mine. So it bothers me when anyone says or writes “should have went” -- and it bothers me all the more when someone who talks or writes for a living does it. The mistake arises, of course, because of the irregularity of “go”: “I go,” “I went,” “I have gone.” This last form requires us also to say “I should have gone.”

OK, I admit, not all the miscreants work at Fox News. “Should have went” turns up in a wide variety of published news sources. Often it appears in a quote by an athlete or someone else whose job skills aren’t especially language-related. For instance, from a recent San Francisco Chronicle story: “Defensive tackle Ricky Jean-Francois ... got in trouble with academics at LSU. ... ‘I was led the wrong way,’ he said. ‘I should have went to the right people.’” In cases like this, even as I tut-tut about the source’s poor grammar, I have to respect the publication for quoting the person exactly.

Rick Stallings, of Washington, D.C., writes: “How do you suppose the word ‘feet’ was invented, assuming that the word ‘foot’ came first? Why don’t we say ‘foots’?”

Dear Rick: It started when the grammarians of yore got bored with regular 
“-s” plurals and decided to throw in a few wacky ones to keep things interesting. These also include “teeth,” “geese,” “mice” and “men.”

Just kidding. All these plurals came down to us from Old English, a language very different from modern English and which was spoken before about 1150. Not that this fact explains very much. These plurals were irregular even then. They originated even earlier and farther away than England, in the mists of 
Germanic-language time.

By the way, when I research questions like this one, about word history, the first source of information I usually turn to is the OED Online -- the constantly updated, readily accessible electronic version of the magisterial Oxford English Dictionary. Word lovers to whom I tell this often respond, “Oh, but that’s so expensive!” It is and it isn’t. Many public libraries have subscriptions that their card holders can access from any computer with an Internet connection. People interested in word history will do themselves a big favor by checking to see if the OED Online is available to them, free, by way of their public library. And they’ll be doing the ambitious and costly language-research project underlying the OED a favor by thanking the librarian if the library does have a subscription and asking it to get one if it doesn’t.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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