Tag Archives: syntax

One of those questions that are often asked

A friend passed on to me one of those grammar questions that are often asked and often opined on:

In a sentence like “She is one of those people who are always late,” I learned to cross out prepositional phrases when linking subject to verb, so I would cross-out “of those people” and link “she” with “is” instead of “are.” Isn’t “of those people” modifying “one” (which acts as a complement to “she”) and not acting as the actual subject?

The problem with just crossing out preposition phrases is that you sometimes miss where the phrase ends – or doesn’t end! There are a few ways to look at it. The bracket way is short but benefits from further explanation:

She is one [of those people {who are always late}].

What that means is that there are people who are always late, and she is one of them. Yes, “of those people” is modifying “one,” but “who are always late” is modifying “of those people.”

A person could object (as many do) that it could equally be

She is one [of those people] [who is always late].

In other words, of those people, she is one who is always late. The problem with that is only in part that “She is one who is always late” is a bit odd; after all, “She is one” is a bit odd by itself too, but we’re not saying it by itself. The issue is really with “of those people.” For one thing, if the “always late” isn’t there to describe the set of “those people” of which she’s a member, it’s not specified who “those people” are. Who are they? And why are we mentioning them at all? Let’s look at a similar structure:

She is an eater of those hot dogs that have fallen on the floor.

She is an eater of those hot dogs that has fallen on the floor.

The difference is plain enough: in the first, the hot dogs have fallen; in the second, she has. And we have to assume that which hot dogs “those hot dogs” are has been established or can be inferred contextually; if not, it may be perplexing.

She eats those hot dogs. She has fallen on the floor.

Umm… tell me which hot dogs.

Returning to the example in question, the “is” version means this:

She is one of those people. Specifically, she is one who is always late.

If you’re in a context where you know who “those people” are, OK; but otherwise you have to specify them, or why are you mentioning them? And if your answer to “Who are they?” is “People who are always late,” you have shown why you really want to say “those people who are always late.” If she is one of them, then yes, she is one who is always late (as are they all), but if you go with the “is” version then you haven’t actually specified who they are; in fact, you’ve implied they’re not all like her in this respect. It’s like saying

It’s one of those hot dogs that is delicious.

You can see that the implication is that not all of those hot dogs are delicious; otherwise, why would you be singling that one out? Or if you say

He’s an editor who is popular at parties.

you know that it implies that not all editors are! And likewise, if she is one of those people who is always late, by implication others of those people are not. On the other hand, if you say “one of those people who are” and she is one of them, then she is covered.

That’s the logical analysis, and it’s the one I go with as an editor. In casual speech, I admit that I sometimes say “who is” in similar instances before I can catch myself, just because the structure of the sentence is so analogous to others where “is” would be appropriate; “one of those people” is a noun phrase like “a member of the club,” and we would most likely say “She is a member of the club who is always late.” (Unless it’s a club of people who are always late. Which is, in fact, what we mean in this case!) But when I’m editing, it’s more important to make it stand up to analysis. And it sounds good to me.

Made-up rules are what get on my nerves

What many word lovers love most are books. But what some word lovers love most is, apparently, a tidy bookshelf. Everything in its place. A single possible spot for any book. And, similarly, some language lovers love a nice tidy grammar, one where there’s only one option at any given juncture.

I understand the inclination. I’m an editor, and I know that tidiness is valuable. But I also know that it needs to serve effectiveness. If your drive for tidiness reduces the expressive potential of the language and proscribes something that people do with good effect, I do not think you are doing the good work.

I’ve harped on this in many of my articles on grammar. Lately I’ve encountered yet another instance of forced tidiness that I don’t think serves a good purpose. On a couple of occasions, people have said that they learned that what as a relative pronoun subject always takes a singular verb. In other words, Good gin and a little dry vermouth are what makes a good martini is correct and, according to them, Good gin and a little dry vermouth are what make a good martini is not. Continue reading

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

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!).

Poetic inversion in all of us command

Originally published in Active Voice, the national newsletter of Editors Canada

Our anthem has been updated! It’s gotten royal assent! If you haven’t yet, you will need to get used to singing “true patriot love in all of us command.” And, perhaps less frequently, to hearing people complain about the change.

Some will contest the grammar: “Shouldn’t it be ‘in all of our command’?” And some will fulminate against the perceived “political correctness”: “It’s an inversion of the natural order!” Both sets of people are off base, but – inadvertently – the second set have the answer to the first set’s complaint. It is an inversion… but a grammatical one.

Here’s the old version: “O Canada, our home and native land, True patriot love in all thy sons command.” What don’t you see there? An apostrophe on sons. It’s not a possessive! The sentence is an imperative – a command (fittingly). It addresses Canada (the O gives that away), says it’s our home and native land, and then tells Canada, “command true patriot love in all thy sons.” Only because it’s an anthem, and it’s in a formal register, and it’s poetry, it moves the verb to the end to make it work with the metre and rhyme.

This is something we ought to learn in school: poetic inversion, or anastrophe if you like twenty-dollar Greek terms. Poetry often made use of it when end-rhymes were in vogue: “‘Sir,’ said I, ‘or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore’” is from Poe’s “The Raven”; “Else the Puck a liar call” is from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. You occasionally find it in other national anthems; Nigeria’s has the line “Arise, O compatriots, Nigeria’s call obey.” But for our own times, with free verse in the ascendancy, we’re more likely to hear anastrophe from Yoda: “Begun the Clone War has.”

The grammatical confusion is no surprise; you can’t hear the lack of apostrophe. But if it were “all thy sons’ command” – and now “all of our command” – the sentence would have no verb; command would be a noun. As it is, it’s not saying that true patriot love actually is in all of our command; it’s an imprecation, fervently wishing that Canada command true patriot love in all who sing the anthem.

Is the phrasing awkward? Very. Could it be rewritten better? Much. Would a larger change ever get through parliament? I sincerely doubt it.

Anyway, we can’t let mishearings win the day. If we did, the French anthem might declare that Canada’s valour has been fooled twice and will protect our hearths and fingers: “Et ta valeur, deux fois trompée, protegera nos foyers et nos doigts.”* Nope. Won’t get fooled again.

 

*The original is “Et ta valeur, de foi trempée, protegera nos foyers et nos droits”: “And your valour, steeped in faith, will protect our homes and rights.”

Writing “smart” versus smart writing

An impression of intelligence is readily achievable, even in the absence of significant information value, through the expedient of adhering to the expected usages of a genre associated with intellectual output.

Let me put that another way: You can sound smart without saying much by just following the rules of the “intelligent writing” game.

We all know this, of course. You can use ten-dollar words instead of two-bit ones, and the mental effort associated with their retrieval and decoding will stand in for the mental effort associated with working out information-rich content. More than that, though, words are known by the company they keep; words seen in “smart” content will cue your mind that what you’re reading is smart. It’s just like going to a restaurant with expensive décor and smartly dressed waiters: they could serve you frozen dinners and cheap wine and you’d still assume, at least at first, that the food and bev were of high quality.

But wait. There’s more. Continue reading

Whoever is the subject?

Who will inherit the investigation?

Oh, whoever will inherit the investigation?

Whoever will inherit the investigation, he will be someone Mr. Trump nominates.

Whoever will inherit the investigation, Mr. Trump nominates him.

Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Wait, says the writer. Mr. Trump nominates him. So it must be whom. Whomever. And so, in The New York Times, appears this:

Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Because formally correct. So whom. Yeah?

Nah. Hyperformalism.

Of course cases like this bedevil writers. The construction is complex and whom is not part of standard daily English; in effect, it is a foreign word for most of us. Wherever we think it might be appropriate for formally correct speech, we are tempted to slip it in, sort of like how some people stick –eth on every conjugation when they want to sound old-fashioned. But sometimes we go overboard and use it where it doesn’t belong.

When people write sentences like the one in question, the rule they’re turning to is that the object must be whom, not who.

The rule that they’re forgetting is that every verb must have a subject.

What’s the subject of will inherit?

It has to be whoever, because whoever else would it be?

One loophole that writers miss that would resolve some grammatical dilemmas is that a whole clause can be an object, as in “Mr. Trump will nominate {whoever gives him the most money}.” Another loophole they miss is that the subject or object of an embedded clause can be made to disappear by what linguists call moving and merging, leaving just an embedded trace (that we know exists thanks to psycholinguistic experiments). That’s what goes on here. The him in Mr. Trump nominates him gets tossed like a baseball in a double play back to the Who, and the catcher’s mitt on the Who is ever. (It can also be an emphatic as in “Oh, whoever will help us?” but it’s not one here.)

Look at “Who(m)ever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” (I put the m in parentheses because if you use whom as the object you would use whomever here, but in normal non-prickly English we use whoever as the object too.) Notice that you (almost certainly) wouldn’t write “Who(m) Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” The ever sets up a second reference, the he. It can also set up an object (him): “Whoever gives the most money, Mr. Trump will nominate him.” (All of this works with she and her too, but we can see that Mr. Trump does not work with very many shes and hers.) So the ever can refer to an object while attached to a who that’s a subject, or the converse.

Our sentence du jour, however, is not derived from “Who(m)ever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” Not quite. In “Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation,” the main verb of the sentence is clearly will inherit (will is the auxiliary that takes the actual inflection, and inherit is the infinitive that conveys the sense); the subject of will inherit is Whoever, as already pointed out. Mr. Trump nominates is an insertion – a subordinate clause modifying Whoever. By itself it would be Mr. Trump nominates him, but, as I said, the him is tossed back and caught by the ever.

Let’s diagram that like a good linguist, shall we? This is the fun part! Syntax trees have details that non-linguists will be unfamiliar with, so let me set down a couple of basic facts:

  1. A sentence is a TP, which means tense phrase – because it conveys tense (when the thing happens), not because it’s too wound up. The heart of it is thus the part that conveys when it happens: the conjugation on the verb. The verb phrase (VP) is subordinate to that, but it merges with it unless there’s an auxiliary verb taking the tense.
  1. A subordinate clause is also a TP, because it has a conjugated verb, but it’s inside a CP, which means complement phrase, because it’s a complement to something else in the sentence. Often there’s a complementizer, such as that or which, but not always.

So.

The subject is Whoever. Because in English conjugated verbs (except for imperatives) have to have explicit subjects and they have to be in the subject (nominative) case, this can’t be Whom or Whomever. The tense goes on will. The verb is inherit. The object of that (its complement) is the noun phrase (NP) the freakin’ mess – sorry, the investigation. (I haven’t broken that down further, but actually it’s a determiner – the – and a noun.) The complement of Whoever, by which I mean the subordinate clause that describes who the Whoever is, is Mr. Trump nominates [him]. The him is tossed back to the ever.

Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Whoever will inherit the investigation?

Who will inherit the investigation?

He will inherit the investigation.

(Mr. Trump nominates him.)

So why doesn’t the NYT version instantly sound bad, as “Whom will inherit it?” would? It’s a more complex and unfamiliar construction, and what we tend to do in such cases is go with the salient rules we can remember and basically make up rules to make the rest work. For people who don’t balk at the “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation,” I believe what’s probably going on is that it’s an underlying “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation,” and the he is getting tossed back to the ever. So you have a trace of the subject rather than the object. Now, you can have a trace of a subject when you have more than one verb conjugated to the same subject – “Whoever gets the nomination inherits the investigation” – but it’s not normal formal standard English for a subject to be deleted and merge with an object that is not deleted. We need the subject!

But then, really, whoever speaks formal standard English all the time? Well, not whoever wrote that sentence, anyway, or it wouldn’t have been written, because it would have sounded wrong.

In case you’re wondering, it’s a callow mistake

A recent cartoon from Randall Munroe’s xkcd, which is the most intelligent cartoon in existence, has been brought to my attention. You can see it at http://xkcd.com/1652/ but, since Munroe gives permission, I’ll reproduce it here for ease of reference:

This interpretation is not just pedantry and not just a turn-off. It’s a callow mistake.

It’s callow because it transgresses standard expectations of interpersonal decency in conversation – if the other person is using a common turn of phrase and you understand what they mean, don’t be a dick about it (or, as I put it in a haiku for the ACES Grammar Day haiku contest, Which do you prefer: / keeping your friends’ grammar right / or keeping your friends?). But it’s also callow because it imposes an inappropriate misreading, the sort of simple-minded overbroad application of a rule that is characteristic of an immature understanding of grammar. The clause in question, you see, only looks like a conditional.

I’m put in mind of an anecdote I recall from the actor Simon Callow. When he was first trying to make it in theatre, he worked in the box office of a theatre. Later on, when he was becoming established as an actor, he was in the cast of a play that happened to be performing in the same theatre. One evening before a performance, one of the box office staff saw him and, thinking he still worked in the box office, asked him to come help with some box office function.

Thinking this if you want to hang out is a conditional is like thinking Simon Callow still works at the box office. It’s the same clause, but it’s been elevated. It’s a sentence adverbial.

In case the term isn’t familiar, a sentence adverbial is a word or phrase that, within the ambit of a verb phrase, could serve to modify the action of the verb, but that is instead applied to the entire sentence to frame it within a discursive context such as the attitude of the speaker or writer towards the utterance. “Frankly, Scarlett, I don’t give a damn” uses Frankly to mean ‘I speak to you frankly and say…’; “Among other things, this book explores the concept of silliness” uses Among other things to position the following statement within a larger possible set of observations (‘There are various things this book does; one of them is that…’); “Going forward, we’ll do it this way” uses Going forward to mean ‘I am making a prescription that applies to future instances when I say…’. They do not mean, respectively, that Rhett doesn’t give a damn frankly but he may give one covertly; that the book only explores silliness when the book is among other things; or that we will do it this way only when we are progressing ahead. And In case the term isn’t familiar doesn’t mean the preceding applies only in the case where the term is unfamiliar. It means I’m saying it in anticipation of the possibility of unfamiliarity.

Because sentence adverbials use words and phrases that can be used to different effect at lower levels, they are like candy to immature minds who are eager to pounce on other people’s “errors” to show their superior knowledge. But, as with so many rigid “rules” propounded by people who claim to care about grammar but really care mainly about demonstrating superiority, the “pedantic” interpretation is founded on a simple-minded misunderstanding. We have no difficulty understanding the sentences as they are intended – the pedants don’t even have the excuse that the box-office employee (who evidently didn’t read the programmes) had. The most they can argue is that the sentences are ambiguous. That can be something worth fixing, but it’s not a grammatical error. And they’re not always ambiguous, either. We usually understand them with no risk of confusion.

To add another analogy: When I was in New Zealand, I rented two different cars on separate occasions. In New Zealand they drive on the left, and so some of the driver’s controls are also the reverse of what I’m used to. With the first car, I managed to get used to the turn signal being on the opposite side from what I expected. Then when I rented the next car it was a model with the turn signal on the North American side. So I had to get used to it again and not keep turning on the wipers when I wanted to turn left or right. But in all of that, I did not say that the controls were wrong and I was right and stick to my preferred sides. I did not insist on turning on the wipers when I wanted to turn off the highway – or on signaling a turn when I wanted to wipe the windshield – because those were the correct sides for the controls to be on. I did what worked. When my expectations did not correspond with the results, I corrected my perspective. Which is what those who care about understanding language must do if they do not wish to be wrong.

So this pedantry is both a turn-off and a callow error.

Which, of course, Randall Munroe knows. He also knows that linguistics isn’t his area of expertise, and I’m not going to hold it against him for missing the analysis. He’s not the only one.