Something must have went on

The first time I read about have went as a usage problem was in the context of what 18th century prescriptivists wrote about it: Robert Lowth and Noah Webster, two 18th (and, in the case of Webster, 19th) century grammarians, both noted the widespread  variation in the usage of past simple and past participle forms with have, in such sentences as I think we would have went down or She would have went to the ends of the Earth for anything he wanted. They both strongly proscribed it as well. Upon reading about it, I thought that it must be a variation that has died out by now. Almost concurrently, Ingrid’s usage poll results showed that some speakers still notice the use of have with a past simple form occurring in present-day usage. A quick corpus search showed that this is, indeed, the case. The examples I give above are taken from the COCA concordance for have went (have went occurs in 95 instances in total).

Since discovering this, Ingrid and I have both become very interested in this atypical usage problem. Atypical because unlike popular usage problems, or old chestnuts, this usage item doesn’t seem to be used often enough for it to spark significant prescriptivist commentary. Another reason for this seems to be the fact that it’s virtually non-existent in written language. Corpus evidence from COCA and BNC suggests a stronger occurrence of this structure in American English than in British; in both cases, however, in spoken register.

With this initial evidence on the table, we were naturally interested in the attitudes of speakers towards this usage item and I included it in a series of interviews I conducted with native speakers last summer in Ann Arbor, Michigan. My expectation was that most speakers would recognise it as a mistake and would have an opinion about it. Much to my amazement, however, not only did some speakers not qualify it as a mistake, they also said it was a dialectal feature, or something that people certainly say, even though it’s ‘certainly not grammatically correct’. One speaker pointed to a possible difference in the meaning of have went  and have gone, in cases such as You must have went to one of them fancy schools as opposed to You must have gone to one of them fancy schools, although she wasn’t able to be more specific than saying that ‘gone is an almost stronger past tense’.

All this data singles out have went (and other occurrences of have + past simple forms) as a structure that can possibly reveal why and how certain usage items become problematic for language users and others don’t. Why is it that the split infinitive can provoke such strong reactions, while (according to my findings at least) people seem to be fine with have went? In order to discover more about the usage and speakers’ perceptions of have went, we have launched a survey to help us get a better idea of the way in which this item is used and the kind of (social) meaning (if any) that is assigned to it. And we are very much looking forward to your input!

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