Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Real gone difference

I was somewhat taken aback recently when a disucssion on the ETJ mailing list brought to light the different interpretations of the 's in "Where's my car? It's gone." It turns out that most North American speakers of English interpret this as "My car is gone?" while British speakers tend to parse it as "My car has gone."

In the NA interpretation (and my own), gone is an adjective meaning "to be no longer in a particular place". Furthermore, in NA English, the present perfect construction favoured by the Brits is interpreted to mean that the car itself left, but that's discounted as the car can't leave of its own accord. Strictly speaking, this use of go is not limited to animate agents; yet the agent must at least appear to move on its own. Consider:
  • The mist is gone. (The mist seems to move of its own volition; the wind and sun are unseen.)
  • The pain is gone. (We view pain as an entity which comes and goes.)
  • The bus is gone. (The bus driver is an integral part of the bus and can be expected to be inside.)
The British interpretation takes the verb go to mean disappear, which is indeed the sense that the NAs have of the adjective, but don't accept for the verb.

I wonder how many other contractions are masking interpretations that have gone their separate ways.

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