Tag Archives: syntax

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