Corpus lexicographers are used to basing their linguistic judgements on authentic data, on what people have actually said or written. This approach has led to major advances in the study of language, but what it tends to underplay is what people think of their own (or other people’s) language habits, in terms of correctness or acceptability. With this in mind, I recently picked up a short book published in 1970 by Oxford University Press, entitled Attitudes to English Usage. The authors, a team of researchers from the University of Newcastle led by W. H. Mittins, surveyed a total of 457 native English speakers, mainly from the world of education or the liberal professions, on the acceptability – in both spoken and written registers – of an initial set of 50 sentences, each intended to encapsulate a contested point of grammar or usage. Many of the sentences may sound to us today rather quaint (They bought some tomatoes off a barrow-boy.) or entirely unobjectionable (I will be twenty-one tomorrow.), but ‘twas not ever thus.
There seems to have been some recent research interest in Mittins et al’s survey, so I thought it might be useful (in an occasional series) to re-examine some of the sentences in the light of up-to-date corpus data. Let’s start with the most uncontroversial one, achieving the highest percentage of acceptability (86%) from the original respondents:
He did not do as well as the experts had expected.
I imagine it will be quite mystifying to most readers under 40 why anyone might deem this sentence to be incorrect. However, Mittins et al quote a number of authoritative sources, one as late as 1960, to the effect that so should be used instead of the first as in negative comparisons of this kind:
He did not do so well as the experts had expected.
My treasured 1915 copy of Carrad’s English and Commercial Correspondence is certainly pretty categorical on this point, but I’m guessing that most people reading this post would be more likely to use as. All three examples of the as … as construction in the Macmillan English Dictionary (2002) are negative sentences.
Turning now to the corpus data, the massive Google Books corpus shows that not so well as has in fact occurred more frequently than not as well as for most of the past 200 years, finally being overtaken in 1952 (and as late as 1971 for British English considered separately). The crossover seems to occur somewhat earlier in the case of not as / so good as and not as / so bad as. Readers might like to try replacing good and bad with other common adjectives or adverbs, to see if there are any significant differences in timing.
A comparison between the British National Corpus (early 1990s) and ukWaC (2007) shows that as is still gaining ground over so in the pattern not as / so * as, from being 4.17 times more frequent in the early 1990s to 6.21 times more frequent in 2007. In the Corpus of Contemporary American English (1990-2012) the gap is even more pronounced (7.57 times more frequent).
Having talked to many English teachers from many different countries during my career, I am often struck by the persistence of ‘old-fashioned’ rules of grammar and usage in educational syllabuses and textbooks. I would certainly be interested in hearing from anyone, native or non-native speaker, who was taught this rule or attempts to observe it. It may not be so / as old-fashioned as we might think.Email this Post