Category Archives: language and linguistics

When intransitives go transitive

This article was originally published on BoldFace, the official blog of the Toronto branch of the Editors’ Association of Canada.

We’ve all learned that there are two kinds of verbs: transitive and intransitive. Transitives take a direct object—“I fry an egg”—and intransitives don’t—“My stomach aches.” But that’s not the whole story. In fact, it’s not actually quite right.

For one thing, there are also impersonal verbs (“It seems to me,” “It rained”), which don’t even have proper subjects, just empty pro forma its.

For another thing, there are different kinds of intransitive verbs. Linguists divide them into unergative, where the subject really is the one doing the thing, and unaccusative, where the subject is treated as being on the receiving end of the action and can be modified by the past participle. We see from the guests are departed and the departed guests that depart is unaccusative; run, on the other hand, is unergative—you can’t say the run horse.

There are also verbs that change from intransitive to transitive or vice versa—several kinds of them. We don’t always think about them. In fact, some details of them are still being argued about by linguists.

I think it’s time for a quick field guide to these changeable verbs, complete with their overstuffed technical names.

Agentive ambitransitives

Some verbs can name the object of the action or not, but they always say who or what is doing the action (i.e., what is the agent). Read is one of these: “What are you doing?” “I’m reading.” “Reading what?” “I’m reading this article on grammar.” These are the nice, simple ones, and we don’t need to worry about them. But worry, now… yes, that verb can worry us a bit more, or we can worry it.

Ergatives

With worry, the object when it’s transitive—“That worries me”—is the subject when it’s intransitive—“I worry about that.” Another one of these is break: “I broke the window,” but “The window broke” and “The window is broken.” And if “I fry an egg,” then “The egg is frying.” Do those look like the unaccusatives I just mentioned? Some say that’s what these are. But some linguists argue that these aren’t true unaccusatives, precisely because they have transitive variants. True unaccusatives, like come and arrive, can’t be used this way. So what do we call these ones? Ergatives (from a Greek root for work). Well, some of us call them that, anyway.

Some people call some of these middle voice. Take for example shave: “The barber shaved me” or “I shaved myself”; “I shaved” means “I shaved myself” and “The barber shaved” means “The barber shaved himself.” Why middle voice? Because it’s not exactly active and it’s not exactly passive—or, we could say, it’s both at the same time.

Preterite causatives

Our real favourites, though (if by “favourites” we mean “favourites to get exercised about”) are a set of verbs that express transitive causation by using the past tense of the intransitive form. We don’t make new preterite causatives anymore, but we have some lying around… not laying around.

Yes, lay is one of these. “I lie down today,” “I lay down yesterday”; “Now I lay me down to sleep” (reflexive), and “I lay down the law of grammar” (transitive). We wanted something to express “cause another thing to lie down,” and we just used our past tense of the intransitive for the present of the transitive (and then made a new double past from that: lay gets a d to be laid). I’m sure many of you wish we hadn’t.

Another one like this is fell. This isn’t an ergative—if it were, you could have “I am felling the tree; the tree is felling.” Nope. “The tree falls,” “The tree fell”; “I fell the tree today,” and “I felled the tree yesterday.”

Cognate object constructions

There’s one more especially fun case: verbs that are intransitive—and in some cases always and everywhere intransitive and never taking an object—except when the object is a nominalization of the verb. You die, and you don’t die something, but you can die a death. You can die the death of a hero; you can die a happy death or a sad death. Likewise, you can smile, and you can’t smile me and I can’t smile you and neither of us can smile our faces (not in standard English, anyway), but we can smile a smile. I can smile an aimless smile that hovers in the air and vanishes along the level of the roofs (to steal from T.S. Eliot). And then perhaps you can smile that same smile.

What do we call these? What we probably should call them is a term Iva Cheung made up for them: self-transitives. But in case you haven’t noticed, linguists sometimes like ugly terms a bit too much, and so it turns out that the technical term for this sort of thing is cognate object construction, because the object has to be cognate (coming from the same source) with the verb. I wouldn’t blame you for preferring Iva’s term, though.

Hello, LA, this is your future talking

My latest article for The Week, “What Americans will sound like in 2050,” has drawn some attention. In particular, it caught the attention of some folks at KPCC, an NPR radio station in southern California. They did a live interview with me this afternoon (this morning their time). They also recorded it and transcribed some of it. It’s 7:23 long, so it won’t eat too too much of your time…

Predicting the future of American English

 

Swearing around the world

About a month ago, I got an email out of the blue from an editor at BBC Culture asking me if I was interested in doing an article for them on why different languages focus on different things in their swearwords (or whatever you want to call them). Of course I was interested. The article went live today. If you don’t like reading crude language, taboo language, coarse language, vulgarities, etc., don’t read this article. But if you’re curious about why people shout different things when upset…

Mind your language! Swearing around the world

Whom do you believe?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly, blog.editors.ca

First of all: If you can avoid using whom, you should. Any but the most formal texts are better off without it; it’s a foreign word for most users, as evidenced by the general inability of even many language professionals to use it quite correctly all the time.

Sometimes, however, you have to use it. The text demands it. When you do, you may be faced with a choice between two voices in your head – the one who says what you would say without thinking too hard about, and the one who says what you would say if you did think too hard about it. Whom do you believe? More to the point, who do you believe is right?

As a general rule, believe the first one. That’s the one that won’t tell you to use “Whom do you believe is right?”

Is that whom wrong? You bet it is. It’s also an error many people make. Here’s what’s wrong and how to avoid it – and similar misadventures.

The key is this: Always look for a subject for every conjugated verb.

We know (I hope) that whom is for the object and who is for the subject (and, if you don’t use whom, who is for the object too). We also know that when we ask a question or make a relative clause, the subject or object of the verb is at the start of the clause:

She is right.

Who is right?

She tickled him.

Whom did she tickle?

A woman knows her grammar.

She’s a woman who knows her grammar.

She tickles him.

He’s a man whom she tickles.

In each of the above sentences, all subjects are in small caps, all conjugated verbs are underlined, and all objects are in bold. Not all verbs have objects, but they all have subjects. In some sentence a single subject has two verbs – “He baked a cake and iced it nicely.” But unless the verb is an imperative, there has to be an explicit subject. And if that subject is the interrogative or relative pronoun, it has to be who, not whom. So:

Who do you believe is right?

Who is the subject of is. And you is the subject of do (which is the auxiliary for the infinitive believe). If you make who into whom, you don’t have a subject for is.

This throws people off because they see “do you believe” and think, well, it has to have an object. “Whom do you believe” is correct, after all.

But when it’s “…believe is right,” it’s not the same. You say “I believe him” but not “I believe him is right” because the clause “he is right” is the object of believe, and within it he is the subject of is. We get tripped up because the subject and object raise to the same position (I’ve added brackets to separate the clauses):

I believe [she tickled him].

[Who] do I believe [tickled him]?

[Whom] do I believe [she tickled]?

The key, as I said, is to make sure you have a subject for every verb. Or avoid using whom altogether. And when you are faced with those voices, ask yourself: Whom do you believe? And [who] do you believe [is right]?

What’s English?

This was first published on The Editors’ Weekly.

Here’s a quick quiz. Tell me which of the following are English and which aren’t. For each one, say why it is or isn’t English and, if it’s not English, what it is.

  1. There’s no place to plug your car in in the parkade.
  2. A wha dat dey dem people deh nyam ih smell sweet.
  3. He was found to have contraband in the boot and under the bonnet, so he is in gaol.
  4. Breid is a staple fuid prepared by bakin a daich o floor an watter.
  5. That pom’s running around like a chook with its head cut off.
  6. Biiolojii esa saiens, daa studehs lief, plant a’ anamal.
  7. Sildenafil is contraindicated in hypertension.
  8. I might have the odd poutine, but mostly I don’t pig out.
  9. Tell me, what is one to do yaar? They are like that only.
  10. Ðā ġeseah ðæt wīf ðæt ðæt trēow wæs gōd tō etenne.
  11. If yall are fixin to go, I might could leave early.
  12. One coffee regular. All set?
  13. I damn tired den langgar the car lor. Dun know oreddy lah!

Wasn’t that fun? As you may have guessed, all of the above are versions of English from different places (and in one case a different time). But of course they’re not equally acceptable in all contexts, and some are sometimes treated as different languages now. I’m willing to bet that several of them were more than a little hard to understand, and most of them seemed somehow “wrong” to you. So let’s look at what they are and what they mean.

  1. Albertan: There’s no place to plug in the block heater on your car engine in the parking garage.
  2. Jamaican (patois; from Chat Jamaican by J.J. Thomas): What are those people eating? It smells sweet.
  3. British: He was found to have contraband in the trunk and under the hood, so he is in jail.
  4. Scots (from http://sco.wikipedia.org/wiki/Breid): Bread is a staple food prepared by baking a dough of flour and water.
  5. Australian: That British person is running around like a chicken with its head cut off.
  6. Pitkern and Norfuk (Pitcairn and Norfolk; descendants of the crew of the Bounty; from http://pih.wikipedia.org/wiki/Biiolojii): Biology is a science that studies life, both plant and animal.
  7. Medical jargon: Viagra® should not be prescribed to people with high blood pressure.
  8. Canadian: I might have the occasional dish of French fries with cheese and gravy, but mostly I don’t eat to excess.
  9. Indian English: Tell me, what can one do, man? They are just like that.
  10. Old English (Anglo-Saxon; from http://www.oldenglishaerobics.net/fall.html): Then the woman saw that the tree was good to eat.
  11. Southern US English: If you [plural] are getting ready to go, I just might be able to leave early.
  12. New England English: One coffee with cream and sugar. Is that everything?
  13. Singlish (Singapore English; from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singlish): I was really tired, which is why I crashed into the other car. I don’t know any more about it!

There is not one “right” English. English is a language complex. All languages have different levels and tones and different usages for different contexts, but English, due to its spread, has much more variation than many. Within their own systems, all of the above are perfectly grammatical. Obviously, most of them would only be acceptable in a conversational tone directed to a specific audience, but to that audience, they would sound entirely natural.

And that’s the take-home. What sounds natural to you, and what sounds natural to the audience you’re editing for, in the context of your document? Are you sure? The Albertan sentence sounds perfectly normal to me, but there are many Canadians who would scratch their heads at it…

Are you a fan of its?

Sometimes editors (and others) wonder what the difference is between, say, “He’s not a fan of Cher” and “He’s not a fan of Cher’s.” Is there a distinction? Is it equally important in all instances?

There is a distinction: it’s between possession and association. In some cases it’s the same thing; in others, quite different. “A picture of Mr. Goldfine” is not a picture belonging to Mr. Goldfine but a picture depicting him; “A picture of Mr. Goldfine’s” is a picture belonging to him. (“Mr. Goldfine’s picture” can mean either because we use the “possessive” for both possession and association.)

When you talk about fandom, there is again the possible distinction between association and possession, but in that case it really refers to the same thing, just from a slightly different angle. “A fan of Cher’s” is the same as “a fan of Cher” but in the “Cher’s” case it gives a sense of there being a collection of fans belong to Cher, as opposed to it being simply an attitude on the part of the fan.

It also follows that because running in the rain is a kind of action, not an entity that can possess, “A fan of running in the rain’s” is odd.

English pronouns are more archaic than the rest of English; they preserve case distinctions that have been lost everywhere else, mainly because they’re so entrenched and we used them automatically by habit and without analysis. In cases such as this, a distinction can be made with them when there is a real distinction to be made: “A picture of him”; “A picture of his.” In instances where the distinction is not a significant one, we may hew to the older construction, which in this case uses the genitive because that was the case governed by this construction: “A fan of his” may seem more natural than “A fan of him” (though this will vary from speaker to speaker). (Languages that have full and productive cases systems for nouns tend to use different cases after different prepositions and depending on context; German and Latin are two languages that do this. Old English was another.) Note, however, that the association/possession distinction still matters: “I am not a fan of it” is fine; “I am not a fan of its” is probably not.

The Grammarist interviews me

The language-oriented website Grammarist.com has published an interview with me about my views on words, blogging, et cetera. If you would like to read it, it is at http://grammarist.com/interviews/interview-with-james-harbeck/ . Previous interviewees include Constance Hale and Mignon Fogarty.