Robin Straaijer, be/have Variation in the Letters of Joseph Priestley

As part of the research project The Codifiers and the English Language: tracing the norms of standard English at Leiden University Centre for Linguistics, I explore The variation of be and have with intransitive mutative verbs in the idiolect of the eighteenth-century English grammarian, Joseph Priestley (1733-1804).
The variation of be and have with intransitive mutative verbs has been extensively studied in a diachronic context. Mats Rydén & Sverker Brorström found a rise in the occurrence of have from 20% around 1700 to 40% at the beginning of the 19th century, with have reaching a “paradigmatic majority” in the first decades of that century (Rydén & Brorström 1987: 196).
In a footnote of his Short Introduction to English Grammar (1762: 63), the eighteenth-century grammarian Robert Lowth (1710-1787) proscribes the use of be with mutative intransitives (Tieken-Boon van Ostade 2006: 553), taking a progressive stance in light of the change in progress.
The alleged descriptivist Joseph Priestley does not appear to lean either way, saying that though strictly speaking be may be more appropriate,
Yet I think we have an advantage in the choice of these forms of expression, as it appears to me, that we use them to express different modifications of the sense. (Priestley 1768: 128)
In order to uncover Priestley’s actual usage, I shall look at the distribution of be and have with intransitive mutatives in his personal correspondence. To this end, I have  compiled a machine-readable corpus of 308 of Priestley’s private letters with a corpus size of 124.403 running words in text.
I investigate the following verbs: advance, arrive, become, come, diminish, get, go, increase, miscarry, recover & return, all of which occur at least 5 times in the corpus. I shall examine Joseph Priestley’s position with respect to the change in progress and, in addition look for diachronic variation in the distribution between be and have during the four decades which the letters cover (1766-1804).

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