Tag Archives: grammar

Watch out for the theta roles!

Never mind passive voice — it’s all about your cast list

This article was originally published in NINK, the magazine of Novelists, Inc.

Listen to the audio version of this article on Patreon.com

We have all been taught to be leery of the passive voice – sorry, make that we have all learned to be leery of the passive voice – because passive voice focuses on the recipient of the action rather than the actor. But we often get it wrong – for example, when a news story or headline is criticized for using the “passive,” odds are high that it’s actually written in the active voice; it’s just evasive in some other way.

Consider a few real-world examples of active voice misidentified as passive. When Janet Jackson had her famous “wardrobe malfunction” at the Super Bowl, one writer tut-tutted another for using the passive by writing A snap unfastened and part of the bodice tore. But although that sentence doesn’t name Justin Timberlake, it isn’t passive voice either – to be passive, the sentence would need to say a snap was unfastened. Other typical examples of misidentified passives include An accidental discharge of the firearm occurred and Boy dies as troops fire on demonstration. In spite of writers inveighing against other writers for using “the passive,” these sentences have no is or was and no past participle – to be passive, they would have to be written as The firearm was accidentally discharged and Boy is killed as troops fire on demonstration.

So how did we get so far off base in telling the passive voice from the active voice? The answer is that we’re not off base at all; we’re asking the wrong question. It’s not really the passive we should be looking out for. It’s the theta roles.  Continue reading

Let’s do the time Whorf again

Every so often, someone in a field such as economics comes up with something that seems to suggest that the language we use can affect how we think and even how we act. I’m not talking about obvious things (such as “How do you get 50 Canadians out of a swimming pool? You say, ‘Everyone please get out of the pool.’”). I mean what if, for instance, our grammar affected how we save for the future? What if our perception of time is conditioned by our language?

And all the linguists roll their eyes and say, “Whorf.” They’ve been down this road before. They reach for the mute button.

But what if both sides are overreacting a bit?

Read my latest article for the BBC:

Can language slow down time?

Season your fiction just right

This article was originally published in NINK, the magazine of Novelists, Inc.

Can you tell when and where (America or England) these passages were written? (And I promise the answers will be revealed.)

  1. When we were summoned to dinner, a young gentleman in a clerical dress offered his hand, and led me to a table furnished with an elegant and sumptuous repast, with more gallantry and address than commonly fall to the share of students.
  2. She wore the hood set back off her square honest face and showed her hair, dark brown with a tinge of Tudor red. Her smile was her great charm: it came slowly, and her eyes were warm. But what struck me most about her was her air of honesty.
  3. I was so vexed to see him stand up with her! But, however, he did not admire her at all; indeed, nobody can, you know; and he seemed quite struck with Jane as she was going down the dance.

Continue reading

Walk away from this sentence

A colleague called my attention to the following sentence in the article “Trudeau gives his definition of ‘national interest’: Chris Hall”:

Why is Justin Trudeau investing so much in a single pipeline that his officials met on Friday in Toronto with Kinder Morgan executives, who issued the threat to abandon the project while the prime minister was travelling to a vigil in Humboldt, Saskatchewan, for the hockey players and others killed in that tragic bus accident, and who can still walk away from it on May 31 if they aren’t satisfied?

If you’re left reeling and trying to figure out if it’s saying the hockey players killed in the bus accident can still walk away from it, you’re not alone. And yet the sentence is perfectly grammatical and makes sense – once you take it apart and set the pieces on the table. Which is not to say it should have been published as it was.

Let’s start by making it a fun exercise in field-stripping a sentence. Continue reading

Do you want to use a Germanic feature, or do you prefer using a Celtic one?

Originally published in The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Canada’s national editorial association

Learning other languages is fun. And to learn another language is to learn more about your own language – especially when it takes on the aspect of learning more about your family tree.

You’ve probably had the experience of meeting new relatives or learning about ancestors and thinking, “Oh, that explains something.” Well, consider this: English was brought to Britain by invaders from what is now northern Germany and was learned by the resident Celts; then Scandinavians invaded and had a significant influence on the language; then the French invaded and had a major influence; then the English started invading other places and stealing their words. So discovering these other languages is discovering English – to get to know them is to get to know our own weird tongue. Such as why we can use either a gerund – learning, discovering – or an infinitive – to learn, to discover – as the subject or object of a sentence.

In French, you learn that this function is served by the infinitive. If you want to say “Seeing is believing,” you say Voir c’est croire, using the infinitives: “To see is to believe.” German has it the same way – Sehen heisst glauben – and so does Norwegian: Å se er å tro. These languages also have in common that they don’t use a present progressive tense as we do: “I am walking” translates to Je marche, Ich laufe, Jeg går – “I walk.”

On the other hand, when you learn Irish or Scots Gaelic you find they have a thing called a verbal noun. “I am walking” in Irish is Táim ag siúl, “I am at walking.” Irish uses the present progressive much as English does, and it uses its verbal nouns where English would use gerunds. (Irish happens to have its own idiomatic phrase for “Seeing is believing”: Is é a chreidiúint, “It’s believing.”) The Celtic inhabitants of southeastern Britain when the Angles and Saxons arrived from Germany weren’t Irish, of course; the language displaced by English was the ancestor of modern Breton, which is still spoken by descendants of Britons who fled to northern France (Brittany). It has the same verbal noun feature, worn down a bit by the centuries and the influence of French.

English, given a choice of two influences, chose to keep both of them. Typical.

English isn’t the only Germanic language that normally uses a present progressive, by the way, as you will discover if you learn Icelandic. Icelandic’s version uses the preposition plus the infinitive, but in the same way as Irish uses its verbal nouns: “I am walking” is Ég er að ganga. Oh, and it just happens that early Icelanders brought over a lot of Irish and Scottish people to, um, help around the house. Nearly two-thirds of the maternal gene pool and about a quarter of the paternal gene pool in Iceland is of Irish or Scottish descent.

So there you have it. In languages as in families, to learn is to discover, and seeing is believing.

There is to be no overthinking and no false agreement

A colleague asked me about a grammatical judgement someone had questioned her on: a sentence of the type “There is to be no swinging the legs back, no leaning forward, no pushing down on the feet.” Surely it should be “There are to be…” said the person, because there are three things named. My colleague knew well that it’s is – if you use your native-speaker reflex, that’s the choice you’ll make unless you second-guess yourself – but there’s always the matter of explaining why.

Well, here’s a quick analysis of why. It has to do with no and the number it negates. Have a look at some sentences that most native speakers would find idiomatic (they all work without the to be as well):

“There are to be no flowers.” → negating plural

“There is to be no gardener.” → negating singular countable

“There is to be no water.” → negating mass object, which is treated as singular because it’s not plural (singular is the default in English and plural is the “marked” option)

“There is to be no watering the flowers.” → negating gerund representation of action, which is inflectionally the same as a mass object because it’s not plural

“There is to be no water and no wine.” → negating mass and mass, which is still mass and thus still singular (absence of mass is absence of mass; nothing plus nothing is still nothing)

“There is to be no watering the flowers and no drinking the wine.” → as in the previous one, singular because unmarked (equivalent to mass objects – no specification of plural number)

“There is to be no gardener and no bartender.” → distributively negating non-plural objects; compare “There are to be no gardener and no bartender” or “There are no gardener and no bartender,” which may sound not quite right

“There are to be no flowers and no water.” → may seem weird because it’s conflicting in number

“There is to be no water and no flowers.” → also weird, but possibly more acceptable because we default to the singular on existential predicates (why we often say “There’s flowers on the table” when formally it’s “There are flowers on the table”)

So negation of a mass object is a mass negation, and as such takes the singular, and negation of multiple gerunds is also by default singular because it doesn’t specify plural and because in any case it would get the distributive singular. It only gets plural if it is specified to plural (“There are to be no swingings back of the legs”).

The “There are to be…” thought is clearly an example of overthinking. It’s false agreement, because although there are multiple noun phrases, the agreement is with not the quantity of noun phrases but the quantity signified by them. A native speaker’s ear will normally by reflex give the singular, but we override that reflex if we overthink. It’s like thinking too hard about the muscles used in standing up: swinging the legs back, leaning forward, pushing down on the feet… you may end up stuck in your chair until you stop overanalyzing it.

If you’re interested on more on there is versus there are, by the way, I’ve covered the topic a couple of times, once on this site in “There’s a couple of things about this…” and once for The Week in “There’s a number of reasons the grammar of this headline could infuriate you” (their title!).

On wine tasting and grammar

I talk about word tasting regularly. But actual wine tasting has a lot in common with opinions on grammar.

I’ve tasted a lot of wine in a lot of places served by a lot of different kinds of people, and one thing that’s pretty consistent is that the people who know the least about it have the most rigid and snobby opinions. It seems they’re insecure and make up for it with bluster and strict rule-following. Meanwhile,those who know the most about it have a well-informed open-mindedness and are focused on enjoying it. Compare tasting experiences with different people pouring:

Person who has taken a one-day course in wine and wants to come off as an expert The winemaker
[wears business formal attire] [wears a puffy vest over an old button-up]
“You will taste blackcurrants, plums, and black pepper in this. Eucalyptus? No, there’s none of that.” “What do you think? …Eucalyptus? Yeah, I see what you mean! I think that’s the 5% tempranillo and maybe some of the terroir.”
“This wine matches well with roast beef and grilled meats. …Oh, no, never have red wine with white meat.” “Don’t tell anyone, but I opened a bottle of this red blend with Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey is just a stuffing and cranberry sauce delivery system, right?”
“That’s not ready for tasting. It needs three years in the cellar.” “Here, let me get you a barrel sample. We’re bottling this next year… It’s looking really promising.”
“Please. Let me get you a clean cup. You don’t want to contaminate the taste.” “Just use the same glass. The next one’s darker anyway. I’ll swap up when we get to the sweet wines.”
“Oh, those grapes are completely different. You could never mistake the one for the other.” “I thought I was trying a Merlot from Oregon and it turned out it was a Pinot Noir from California!”
“Never chill red wine!” “Try this Grenache chilled. You’ll be surprised how well it works! Refreshing, right?”
“This wine is a higher-quality wine at a higher price point.” “Taste this! You won’t believe how little it costs!”

You get the general idea. If you’re talking to someone who says “Never do that” or “Always do this,” you’re not talking to someone who’s spent their life enjoying wines. You’re talking to someone who’s more concerned with appearing to know something than actually knowing it and enjoying it. The fear of seeming ignorant is overriding – they associate lesser knowledge with lower status. Meanwhile, the people who really enjoy it and enjoy knowing about it also enjoy discovering it with other people.

So what does this have to do with grammar? It’s the same divide: The snobs don’t know a lot, and those who know a lot aren’t snobs. I’ve been a language professional for 20 years and I know a lot of other language professionals… and I’ve heard and seen no end of grammar grumblers. Here’s how it typically goes:

Grammar snob Language professional
[only reads literary fiction] [loves genre fiction and “trash”]
Ain’t ain’t a word!” “Say it ain’t so!”
“These Twitterers don’t even know how to use proper grammar.” “Twitter English is fascinating. It adds so many levels of nuance.”
“Never end a sentence with a preposition.” “Grammar superstitions aren’t something I really cotton to.”
“Misplaced apostrophes upset me so much! I have to fix them!” “Did you see what that nitwit with the marker did to that sign? Someone needs to get a life.”
“A sentence always has to have a subject and verb.” “Not really.”
“There is only one correct English.” “I don’t wear white-tie to the beach. Why would I use formal English in a beer ad?”
“Singular they is an abomination.” “Yay! We’ve added singular they to the style guide! About time.”
“The language is in a dire state. People don’t even know what words mean anymore.” “Hey, look! Merriam-Webster just added a whole bunch more words! Ooh, including some new verbings.”
“Swearwords are a sign of limited intelligence.” “Did you see? Another study showing smart people tend to swear more. F— yeah.”
“When someone makes an error, I just have to correct them.” “Ha. Say what you want. I’m off duty and I don’t do freebies.”

People who enjoy wine enjoy wine in as many ways as possible and want other people to join in that enjoyment. People who enjoy language enjoy language in as many ways as possible and want other people to join in that enjoyment.

That doesn’t mean anything goes – you’re unlikely to see a wine lover drinking cabernet sauvignon with a tuna sandwich, but just because they are unlikely to taste good together. And most wine lovers have their favourites and least favourites. Likewise, language professionals have things they like more or less (there are certain turns of phrase I’m almost allergic to, but I know that’s me), and they can recognize what’s not going to work well on a page and fix it. That’s why they’re professionals.

The point is to get as much from it as you can. If you’re rigid about rules and who’s right and who’s wrong, you don’t really care about what you claim to care about. You just care about status. But since your pursuit of being “right” is making you wrong a lot of the time, well, as the saying goes, you just went hunting and shot your dog.