Tag Archives: English syntax

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.

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]?

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.

Seriously, what’s the problem with sentence adverbs?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly

The English language is a very complex and powerful thing, capable of many nuances and quite resistant to simplistic attempts at tidying it up. Sadly, not everyone realizes that. Worse still, many people take very narrow and inconsistent views, focusing on pet peeves while letting parallel instances of usage pass unnoticed. It’s as though a self-trained self-appointed “master chef” opened a cooking school and taught, among other things, that salt and anything containing sodium can only be used in savoury dishes, never in desserts. The cakes may all be horrible and heavy and the puddings insipid, but goshdarn it, they’re culinarily correct!

Adverbs give us a good example of this. “An adverb modifies a verb,” some people say, “so it must always directly modify the main verb of the sentence. If someone says ‘Hopefully, they will be here tomorrow,’ it can only mean that their presence here will be hopeful.” And yet the same people will not be seen declaring that “Seriously, it will be very amusing” must mean that it will be amusing in a serious manner, or that “Frankly, you’re being evasive” must mean that your evasiveness is frank, or that “Clearly, someone has muddied the water” must mean that the water has been muddied in a clear manner.

If the “hopefully” peevers were to take note of how these other sentence adverbs function – using the adverb to give an attitude or setting for the entire sentence – they would be forced to allow the same role for hopefully… or perhaps they would decide that all those uses must be wrong, well established though they are (some date from the 1600s). But let’s say they allowed them. The next thing the forced-tidying mind might do – like the robot maid tossing out both the cat and the master of the house – is decide that only single-word adverbs can fill this role. Never mind that one may modify the action of a verb with prepositional phrases and participles; they’re not adverbs, so (the reasoning might go) they can’t be used as sentence adverbs. Sure, you can say “Hypothetically, he could resolve it with a clear statement of fact,” but you must not say “Speaking hypothetically, he could resolve it with a clear statement of fact”…!

Now, of course, there’s a perfectly good reason not to use the latter sentence – it has an ambiguity that could make the reader snicker (I like to say such sentences have a high SQ, or snicker quotient) – but ambiguity (and high SQ) is not the same thing as grammatical error. There are many instances of prepositional phrases, participles, and infinitives being used to set the scene for a sentence: “To give an example, he is disinclined to use illustrations”; “Going forward, all cars on the ferry must have their parking brakes on”; “Among other things, it is located on an empty treeless plain”; and so on. These do not generally raise the ire of the particular – although some can be awkward – and they are not ungrammatical.

Hopefully, as editors, we have eyes more finely tuned to such structures and can discern the many places and cases of their use. Going forward, I would like to suggest that we all keep our eyes open for every instance where an adverbial construction of any sort is used to give a setting for the entire action of a sentence rather than to modify the main verb directly – and, if we dislike it, ask ourselves whether it is truly ungrammatical or simply ambiguous. You may find yourself having to come to some surprising and possibly discomfiting conclusions.

I only wanted to explain this

This week is a bit of a double header for me: two articles published in different places at the same time. Yesterday I posted a link to my latest article on TheWeek.com; today I’m posting (in its entirely) my latest article on the Editors’ Association of Canada’s national blog, The Editors’ Weekly.

Adverbs are a problematic and much-maligned class of words. Linguists often have trouble explaining exactly why they go where they go. Some sorts of adverbs are baselessly despised (hopefully, people will eventually get over those hangups, but I’m not hopeful). Some people think adverbs should be excised from writing altogether.

I’d like to cover all the misconceptions relating to adverbs, but that would make for very long reading. So today, I’m only going to talk about the placement of one specific adverb.

Those of you who read that and thought, “That’s bad grammar — it should be ‘I’m going to talk only about’ or ‘I’m going to talk about only,’ ” raise your hands.

Hands raised? Keep them there. As long as they’re raised they won’t be causing any trouble.

Oh, there’s no mistake in thinking that careful placement of only has much to recommend it. The mistake is in thinking that putting it in the default position, right before the main verb, is an error unless it’s limiting the main verb specifically.

Let’s look at an example sentence:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

Without context, all you know is that baking three cakes is the full scope of what I wanted. You don’t know if the thrust of it is “I was not happy about baking the fourth one” or “I didn’t want to have to decorate them” or “I had no desire to bake three pies too.”

But do you know what the supposed only correct interpretation of that is? It’s that I only wanted to bake the cakes — I didn’t actually do it.

Does that seem odd? It should. It’s a made-up rule with no correspondence to reality. As Matt Gordon recently said on Twitter, quoting a student paper he was marking, “If ‘this grammatical distinction has confused writers for centuries,’ maybe it’s those trying to impose the distinction who are confused.”

In truth, the only way you can make that only about wanted is to emphasize wanted, or to phrase it differently. That position is the default position for only regardless of what aspect of the action it is limiting. But the rule-thumpers insist that you must move the only right next to what it limits:

I wanted only to bake three cakes.

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

I wanted to bake three only cakes.

Ah, wait, the last one isn’t even usable. You have to do this:

I wanted to bake only three cakes.

But that blows the “rule” right away. If you can do that, you can do this:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

You can do likewise for the other restrictions:

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

I only wanted to bake three cakes.

The fact that we can — and do — shift the emphasis like that without moving the only is proof that this is a standard feature of English grammar, and that the word feels natural in the default position and can work there quite well. Anyone who tells you that “I only wanted to bake three cakes” is wrong and must be “I wanted only to bake three cakes” has not correctly analyzed the syntax of the sentence. He or she also has a tin ear, and yet thinks himself or herself a better writer than the many respected authors throughout the history of English who have used only in the “wrong” way.

This is not to say that you can only put only before the main verb — or, if you prefer, it’s not to say that you can put only only before the main verb. Its mobility gives you a very good tool for clarifying the meaning. But the availability of the default position gives you a tool for adjusting the rhythm and the naturalness of the sentence when the meaning is clear anyway. Why limit your toolkit unnecessarily?

Topics, we front them

Featured on The Editors’ Weekly, blog of the Editors’ Association of Canada

English is normally a subject-verb-object kind of language, but there are some interesting exceptions, especially in casual contexts. Consider examples such as the following:

Poodles, we walk them. Labradors, they walk us.

Chickens we have; roads, not so much.

Not one of the clauses above follows standard English sentence order, and yet we understand them. Of the four clauses, the first is object, subject-verb-object (pronoun); the second is subject, subject (pronoun)-verb-object; the third is object-subject-verb; and the fourth is object, adverb – no subject or verb overtly expressed at all. All four are examples of topic fronting, sometimes called left dislocation. (Note that we normally use a comma to set off the topic when it is followed by a complete clause or an elliptical statement, but not usually when the sentence is not syntactically complete without it.)

So why do we depart from our usual syntactic structure? We do it to maintain our preferred information structure. When we communicate information, we usually prefer to introduce a topic and then comment on it with new information. This can be especially useful when we are contrasting two topics. We don’t have to do it; we could rewrite the above sentences as follows:

We walk poodles. Labradors walk us.

We have chickens; we don’t have roads to nearly the same extent.

The first example works well as rewritten, though it loses its folksy feel; it also loses the parallelism of topics, but it highlights the inversion, which has its own effect. The second really, um, fails to cross the road. And even in a structure such as the first, you get poorer results if you can’t make a useful inversion:

Shirts, we mend them. Shorts, we toss them.

We mend shirts. We toss shorts.

You can see it loses some of the contrast effect. In speech you can emphasize the topic structure using intonation; in print that option is not as available.

Now look at the preceding sentence (“In speech…”): it contrasts the adverbial prepositional phrases thematically by moving them from the end to the beginning of their clauses – and no one would object to it. So why does it seem somehow incorrect to do it with nouns?

It’s not because it’s some new error, or a structure borrowed from another language (though some languages do normally introduce topics first, regardless of syntactic role). In fact, as Mark Liberman has discussed on Language Log, left dislocation has existed in English as long as there has been an English for it to exist in.

What has happened is that it has fallen out of use in recent centuries. Like some other formerly standard things, such as double negatives, double superlatives, use of ain’t, pronunciation of –ing as –in, and use of ’em in place of them, it has come to be seen as nonstandard, especially when there is also a pronoun filling the same role – we can sometimes get away with it as poetic when there is no pronoun:

Parsley we put on the plate, sage we leave on the plain, rosemary and thyme we drop in the pot.

The nonstandard air of left dislocation gives a useful means of making your text seem casual or colloquial – as well as keeping a nice clear parallelism. On the other hand, if you need to seem more formally correct, you still have a means of putting it in front acceptably: just turn the parallel nouns into parallel prepositional phrases.

With poodles, we walk them; with Labradors, they walk us.

Between you and I, could you take a picture of my friends and I?

My latest article for TheWeek.com deals with a popular issue: pronouns in compound objects (the things in my title, above, that may have your teeth grinding). I talk about not just the rule but why so many people find it so hard to stick to it. The article is

‘You and I’ vs. ‘You and me’

In the past couple of days, I’ve also added a couple of longer posts on grammar. One of them tears to bits a web page of grammar advice: Why it’s best to leave grammar advice to experts. The other does a detailed dismantling and analysis of a potentially confusing sentence from a recent award-winning book: A little Hellgoing sentence mechanical deconstruction.