Tag Archives: grammar

And can it be?

And can it be that I should gain
An int’rest in the Savior’s blood?

Those are the first words – the very first – of the well-known hymn named “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” written in 1738 by Charles Wesley, who is among the most revered hymn-writers in Protestant Christendom (the fact that he wrote some 6000 hymns might have something to do with that, I suppose).

It puts me in mind of the second chapter of the Gospel According to Luke in the King James Version. It starts “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” It goes on to tell the story of the birth of Jesus: “And she brought forth her firstborn son… And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field… And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them…” It continues for 41 sentences in 52 verses. Of those 41 sentences, 37 start with “And,” two start with “But,” one starts with “For,” and one starts with “Now” (that’s the discourse particle Now, not the temporal adverb Now: “Now his parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover”). Continue reading

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!).