The Verb "To Be:" Going, Going, Gone

Written for The Fresno Bee on June 6, 1994

"So Hamlet goes: 'To be, or, like, not to be. Whatever.'"

In case you haven't noticed, there is a revolution afoot in the younger generation that (finally) doesn't involve sex, drugs, or crime. Nope, this revolution is at once more radical and far-reaching. It's a fundamental change of how we speak the English language: the de facto replacement of the verb "to say" with the verb "to go."

This is a relatively recent phenomenon, and is different than simply using "dude" rather than "man." This is deeper than slang. Listen to anyone under, say, 35 or so, describe a recent conversation, and their speech is riddled with "so I go" and "she goes" and "he went" as they recount it. This cuts across all classes and races and educational levels--I've heard law students and rock musicians, computer programmers and baseball MVPs use this language. But why? Why is America's youth trashing what has always been a perfectly useful verb?

It probably has to do with the times. In the warp-speed 1990's, the verb "to say," while very useful, is too passive. It just sits there. Yawn. Boring British butlers use "I say." But "to go," that's a carrot of a different stripe. Movement! Action! "Hey ho, let's go!" Our conversations become vehicles taking us from one place to another, fast-paced and exciting--a reflection on the age in which we live.

Of course sometimes what we describe is so important, we can't just "go" it, we actually have to become it. Here's an example, taken from Stamphammer's Official English Primer 1994:

Do you see the difference? Initially, as the narrator is recounting the story, he uses a conjugation of the normal "I go." As he gets into his tale, he becomes more passionate and involved, until he actually melds with it--he is what he's saying. "I am" instead of "I said." See how much more powerful that is? And the modifier "all" simply and elegantly reinforces it. "I am all." (And as far as the modifier "like," well, since it's, like, rapidly taking its place as The Most Important Word In The English Language, it deserves more space than we have here.)

Nevertheless, a lot of people would have you believe these speech patterns are more evidence of our illiteracy. Pshaw. I mean, first of all, who needs reading when you have computers? I'm not il-literate, I'm post-literate, thank you very much. And secondly, those who worry about such things are no doubt are the same type of people who railed as "thee" and "thou" were eradicated from the English language. People who don't understand that like sharks, languages intrinsically progress.

After all, you know what they call a language that isn't constantly moving forward. Latin. Celtic. A dead shark. We don't want to have a dead shark on our hands, do we? I didn't think so--certainly not when English is pretty much the standard tongue of intelligentsia around the planet. Indeed, rather than being treated as one giant duh, America's youth should be applauded for keeping English alive and viable as we move towards the 21st Century.

So, like, I'm all curious as to what you think.

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This document was HTMLized on 31 October, 1995
I was listening to Elvis Costello -- The Kojak Variety