Tag Archives: English grammar

When to Use Bad English

This is the text of the presentation I gave at the Editors’ Association of Canada “Editing Goes Global” conference in Toronto on June 12, 2015. Headings are PowerPoint slides.

Title slide

As editors, we’re here to make sure the text doesn’t look sloppy or uneducated. We’re expected to uphold standards of good grammar, and – no matter what the text – keep it from using bad English. Right?

Rhett Butler

Frankly, sometimes we shouldn’t give a damn. And, more importantly, sometimes we should give a damn. And a shit. And a colloquialism. And maybe even a grammatical error.

Really? Yes. Our job is to make sure that the English in the document is appropriate, certainly. But there’s a difference between bad English and inappropriate English. English that is too informal is inappropriate in many places, but English that is too formal is inappropriate in many others.

What we want to do is this: Continue reading

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.

An article title, “An article title ‘An article title needs commas’ needs commas,” needs commas

A little while back, a fellow editor asked me about commas and appositives, particularly with an eye to mentioning titles of books and such like. Consider the following:

A 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” makes no mention of the weather in January.

The question was whether the commas should be there. It’s a restrictive, isn’t it? You’re specifying which report, right?

Actually, structurally, no. It’s kind of counterintuitive. In fact, with just a noun phrase there, you can’t make it restrictive. Compare:

A passenger, a young lady, sat next to me.

*A passenger a young lady sat next to me.

A passenger, who was a young lady, sat next to me.

A passenger who was a young lady sat next to me.

When it’s just a noun phrase, it’s effectively an alternate subject (or object, in a case such as “I sat next to another passenger, a young lady”) – you need to make a full relative clause to make a restrictive.

Now, if you use the, you can go with or without commas when it’s a name or title:

The report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

The report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

Note that the second is restrictive, while the first assumes that the report has already been established in a previous sentence and we are here just naming it. With “a” rather than “the” you of course can’t have established it before, but you are on the spot establishing it, and you would need a relative clause to restrict it further:

A report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

*A report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

A report called “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” came out in July.

A report, called “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” came out in July.

In some nonstandard versions of English we can use a simple noun phrase as a restrictive: “I met a man Bojangles and he danced for me”; we see survivals of this in something like “He is her man Friday.” But it’s not a real option in standard modern English.

And how about an instance like the following – should there be a comma after “report”?

In the 2011 report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” the authors pretend it’s not brass monkey weather in January.

In fact, it’s fine as it is as long as the report is not previously established in the text. If we said “In a 2011 report,” we would need to use commas, but with “In the 2011 report” we can’t use the comma (the comma after is fine because it’s the end of the propositional phrase that’s modifying the main clause). If the report is previously established – “…there were annual reports on Ottawa tourism from 2009 to 2014” – then your sentence would be “In the 2011 report, ‘Fun Things’” etc.

Here are the three possible combinations of articles and commas, with comments:

  • In the 2011 report “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – specifies which book you’re talking about that you are newly introducing
  • In the 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – the book has been previously named, so you’re not at this point establishing its identity, you’re just clarifying it
  • In a 2011 report, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa” – “a 2011 report” posits some report, tout court, without greater specificity possible; you can’t narrow down on a because then it’s not a report, it’s the report, this report – so if you add the title it has to be non-restrictive because a can’t be restricted further

There was one more question, based on a reading of a dictum from the Chicago Manual of Style: If you use something like called before the title, shouldn’t it have a comma? Like this:

A 2011 report called, “Fun Things to Do in Ottawa,” etc.

The answer is no, it shouldn’t. It’s an error I see on occasion, I think because of confusion with sentences such as “John said, ‘Come in,’” and “Suzie called, ‘It’s time for dinner!’” In the use here, call is a verb that takes three arguments (in the syntactic/semantic sense of argument: an entity or actor or complement): a subject and two objects. The first object is what (or who) is being called, and the second is what that person or thing is being called (i.e., the name). “I shall call him John.” When used as an adjective, the subject is removed (same as in the passive voice) but there still need to be both objects. “A boy1 called John2 came to see you” – not “A boy called, John, came to see you.” (You can write “A boy, called John, came to see you,” making it non-restrictive, because “called John” is a relative clause, though a nonfinite one. But that’s a separate matter.)

The rule is the same for entitled: “A report entitled ‘How to Freeze Your Ass Off in Ottawa’ just came out” – not “A report entitled, ‘How to Freeze Your Ass Off in Ottawa,’ just came out.” It has the same argument structure.

Always remember: approach authoritative grammar guides such as the Chicago Manual of Style with the Buddha’s dictum (a variant thereof) in mind: if something you read in it conflicts with your sense of what is usable English, follow your sense… and figure out what the reason is for the discrepancy. If following a rule makes something sound weird to you, the odds are good that the rule doesn’t apply in that way in that instance.

Time to learn about copulation

Some people really screw up their grammar. They do it by trying too hard and by misanalysing what’s going on – they’ve learned a few simple rules and don’t know the fuller facts of language, because no one told them about copulation… or resultatives or substantives.

Well, time to find out. Here’s my latest article for The Week:

What we talk about when we talk about (word) copulation

 

Planethood for the possessive

In my latest article for The Week, I take up another cause that’s not likely to go anywhere but is worth setting forth just to get people thinking about it and more aware of what’s going on in their language. What is it? It’s about the lady with all the money. Well, the lady with all the money’s cat. Actually, it’s the ladies with all the money. Or, anyway, the ladies with all the money’s cats. Or, no, in fact, it’s just those ’s possessives, which pretend to be suffixes but might be better treated as independent words:

Why we should stop using an apostrophe s for possessives

 

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]?

The geniorum octopodes

We know how some people insist on using borrowed plurals (heck, one of my first articles for The Week, a couple of years ago, was on that). But here’s the thing: they just borrow the nominative plural and think they’re covered. That works fine with languages such as French and Italian, but it’s just a token effort when you come to a fully inflecting language such as Latin. If you want to insist on genii instead of geniuses because it’s truer to the Latin, you really ought to know that genii’s is, by the same token, just plain wrong. It should be geniorum. Find out this and much more in my latest:

Octopus, octopi… octopodem? A guide to humiliating grammar nerds with Latin inflections

(Am I being dead serious with this? …Really, what do you think?)