Tag Archives: grammar

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!).


On wine tasting and grammar

I talk about word tasting regularly. But actual wine tasting has a lot in common with opinions on grammar.

I’ve tasted a lot of wine in a lot of places served by a lot of different kinds of people, and one thing that’s pretty consistent is that the people who know the least about it have the most rigid and snobby opinions. It seems they’re insecure and make up for it with bluster and strict rule-following. Meanwhile,those who know the most about it have a well-informed open-mindedness and are focused on enjoying it. Compare tasting experiences with different people pouring:

Person who has taken a one-day course in wine and wants to come off as an expert The winemaker
[wears business formal attire] [wears a puffy vest over an old button-up]
“You will taste blackcurrants, plums, and black pepper in this. Eucalyptus? No, there’s none of that.” “What do you think? …Eucalyptus? Yeah, I see what you mean! I think that’s the 5% tempranillo and maybe some of the terroir.”
“This wine matches well with roast beef and grilled meats. …Oh, no, never have red wine with white meat.” “Don’t tell anyone, but I opened a bottle of this red blend with Thanksgiving dinner. Turkey is just a stuffing and cranberry sauce delivery system, right?”
“That’s not ready for tasting. It needs three years in the cellar.” “Here, let me get you a barrel sample. We’re bottling this next year… It’s looking really promising.”
“Please. Let me get you a clean cup. You don’t want to contaminate the taste.” “Just use the same glass. The next one’s darker anyway. I’ll swap up when we get to the sweet wines.”
“Oh, those grapes are completely different. You could never mistake the one for the other.” “I thought I was trying a Merlot from Oregon and it turned out it was a Pinot Noir from California!”
“Never chill red wine!” “Try this Grenache chilled. You’ll be surprised how well it works! Refreshing, right?”
“This wine is a higher-quality wine at a higher price point.” “Taste this! You won’t believe how little it costs!”

You get the general idea. If you’re talking to someone who says “Never do that” or “Always do this,” you’re not talking to someone who’s spent their life enjoying wines. You’re talking to someone who’s more concerned with appearing to know something than actually knowing it and enjoying it. The fear of seeming ignorant is overriding – they associate lesser knowledge with lower status. Meanwhile, the people who really enjoy it and enjoy knowing about it also enjoy discovering it with other people.

So what does this have to do with grammar? It’s the same divide: The snobs don’t know a lot, and those who know a lot aren’t snobs. I’ve been a language professional for 20 years and I know a lot of other language professionals… and I’ve heard and seen no end of grammar grumblers. Here’s how it typically goes:

Grammar snob Language professional
[only reads literary fiction] [loves genre fiction and “trash”]
Ain’t ain’t a word!” “Say it ain’t so!”
“These Twitterers don’t even know how to use proper grammar.” “Twitter English is fascinating. It adds so many levels of nuance.”
“Never end a sentence with a preposition.” “Grammar superstitions aren’t something I really cotton to.”
“Misplaced apostrophes upset me so much! I have to fix them!” “Did you see what that nitwit with the marker did to that sign? Someone needs to get a life.”
“A sentence always has to have a subject and verb.” “Not really.”
“There is only one correct English.” “I don’t wear white-tie to the beach. Why would I use formal English in a beer ad?”
“Singular they is an abomination.” “Yay! We’ve added singular they to the style guide! About time.”
“The language is in a dire state. People don’t even know what words mean anymore.” “Hey, look! Merriam-Webster just added a whole bunch more words! Ooh, including some new verbings.”
“Swearwords are a sign of limited intelligence.” “Did you see? Another study showing smart people tend to swear more. F— yeah.”
“When someone makes an error, I just have to correct them.” “Ha. Say what you want. I’m off duty and I don’t do freebies.”

People who enjoy wine enjoy wine in as many ways as possible and want other people to join in that enjoyment. People who enjoy language enjoy language in as many ways as possible and want other people to join in that enjoyment.

That doesn’t mean anything goes – you’re unlikely to see a wine lover drinking cabernet sauvignon with a tuna sandwich, but just because they are unlikely to taste good together. And most wine lovers have their favourites and least favourites. Likewise, language professionals have things they like more or less (there are certain turns of phrase I’m almost allergic to, but I know that’s me), and they can recognize what’s not going to work well on a page and fix it. That’s why they’re professionals.

The point is to get as much from it as you can. If you’re rigid about rules and who’s right and who’s wrong, you don’t really care about what you claim to care about. You just care about status. But since your pursuit of being “right” is making you wrong a lot of the time, well, as the saying goes, you just went hunting and shot your dog.

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.”


Does verbing impact the language?

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly.

A favourite crank for language cranks to crank is the demon of verbing. It wrecks our language, they protest! They target such usages as impacted and referenced in business-speak and medalled in broadcasting. While liberal-minded linguists may see these words as just more of the odd flowers that bloom in the spring (and spring up throughout the year, for that matter), the grumblers want to weed them out.

Just recently, for instance, the Guardian gave column space to one Jonathan Bouquet, who fumes at such conversions and would like to bin them all. He welcomes loanwords, he protests, but “there are some constructions that still grate”: impacted and reference, for two, and “Only yesterday, I heard a business reporter on TV use ‘headquarter’ as a verb.” He especially dreads “the fullest flowering of such manglings” during the Olympics, with medal and podium used as verbs.

I honestly can’t tell whether Mr. Bouquet sincerely believes what he writes, or whether he’s taking the, uh, mickey. Although his position is extreme, there are many who hold the same views. But it’s not really the movement of words from one class to another that nettles them – it is the movement of people from one class into another. They dislike the words because they dislike the self-important upstarts who use them: barbarous posers putting on airs and commandeering the language.

I state this with confidence because when they air their grievances they nearly always characterize the sources of these usages peevishly, and because they inevitably use – without comment, without even noticing – words that are the product of exactly the same process: verbs that were nouns first, nouns that were verbs first, adjectives that were nouns first, and so on. They accept and use the fruits of conversion, except when someone they don’t fancy uses a word that looks new to them.

Do I overstate my case? Consider verbs Mr. Bouquet used gladly: grate, flower, mangle. If I look at the rest of his brief rant, I see also – used ingenuously – the verb monitor and the noun import. But take a look at the rest of what I’ve written here. How many words can you count that are regularly used as multiple classes of word? Let’s see: crank, wreck, protest, target, broadcast, mind, flower, mangle, bloom, weed, matter, fume, bin, welcome, protest, dread, hold, class, nettle, like, start, air, pose, state, peeve, comment, process, fancy, rant, look… Look, whenever you scan a book (or book a scan), you’re sure to spy some verbing. English would not be English without it.

And if you’re fine with all those but not with impact, reference, medal, or podium as verbs, why is that? Is it because those latter four could be rephrased using existing words? Consider how many of the words you’re fine with could be paraphrased reasonably well. This is English. We are the ancient spice shop of languages. We have far more words than we need – but we can use them all to good effect. When we take dislikes to words, it’s almost always related to our ideas of the people who use them.

This doesn’t mean you have to use a word you don’t like. But it’s best to be clear on why you don’t like it.


The linguistic bodhisattva

In Buddhism, a bodhisattva is someone who could attain pure enlightenment and transcend to Nirvana, but chooses instead to remain on earth to help other beings come closer to enlightenment. The idea of the bodhisattva is popular in most sects of Buddhism, and though I’m not a Buddhist, I’ve always liked it.

I make no claim to being anywhere near the kind of enlightenment that leads to Nirvana (it seems a fraught route, though I’ve heard with the lights out it’s less dangerous). But I do have a sort of parallel in my own life. Continue reading



I had a panini for lunch today, which, as always, set me thinking about grammar.

You’re probably thinking “Oh! Because panini comes from Italian, where it’s a plural, and panino is the singular!” You may also be thinking “He used panini as a singular. What an ignoramus.”

In fact, panini makes me think about grammar because of Panini – which is more properly written Pāṇini (which means the “ah” takes twice as long to say as it otherwise would, and the first n is said with the tongue tip farther back in the mouth; also, since it’s not written with a Ph, the P is closer to an English “b”). He was a Sanskrit grammarian; he lived in India sometime before the Buddha was born (and thus also sometime before Socrates and everyone after that), probably around the 6th century BCE. You could almost say he was the Sanskrit grammarian, though others came after. Panini wrote the authoritative manual on Sanskrit grammar. It is a concise work, effectively an algorithm. It’s an exercise in figuring out a natural phenomenon, and at the same time it’s what computer dorks might call an API (basically a set of instructions on how to make a certain kind of thing work). He observed something, figured out as best he could how it worked, and set down as elegant a description of it as he could, which thereby became a means of standardizing its production in formal contexts. I don’t want to go on too long here; this Scroll.in article on him is worth your 5 minutes to learn more.

Do I think of him every time I see panini because I’m a pretentious self-regarding twerp who is mighty pleased with himself for knowing something to do with Sanskrit? Of course not. I mean, I am a pretentious etc., but the reason I think of him every time is that I knew Panini as his name for years before I ever saw it as a name of a food item. I learned about him in university in the mid-1980s; paninis (or panini, if you prefer) didn’t encroach on my sphere of existence until the late 1980s or early 1990s. Our firstborn impressions of a lexeme have birthright: they get the full baby albums and all the brand new toys and clothes. The later impressions get the hand-me-downs.

So. First the Sanskrit, then the sandwich. When it showed up in North America, the average Anglophone saw panini and took it for the singular. People who know some Italian say “No, panino is the singular,” but they might as well be saying “No, it’s Panini’s monster. Panini is the one who created it.” Ask yourself how often you see biscotto or graffito. Even I, who know enough Italian to pass a graduate proficiency test in it (it was one of my two for my PhD, the other being French), seldom make a point of using the Italian singular. It would almost be like asking for a wedgie instead of a sandwich.

Look, Panini saw grammar as a means to understanding the divine, and thus perhaps good grammar as next to godliness, but he still worked with the data he had before him in the state it was in. He didn’t, for example, try to reverse sandhi. And I won’t try to reverse the sandwich. In Italian, after all, panino just means ‘small bread’ or ‘bread-ette’ and that’s often all they mean when they say it (though they can mean the sandwich too). If you’re going to be a purist, get that meat and cheese out of it.

And if you think someone who takes a word that is one thing grammatically in the source language and makes it another thing grammatically in English is an ignoramus, allow me to remind you that ignoramus is, in Latin, a verb in the first-person plural indicative, meaning ‘we don’t know’ (it comes to us by way of a character named Ignoramus in a 17th-century play of the same name). And you have just used it as a singular noun, sans critique. You’ll have to eat your words.


funner, funnest

Know what I think is fun? Playing with words. A pun is fun. Scrabble is funner. But tweaking priggish prescriptivists is funnest.

Funner? Funnest? If you do a Google search on “not a word,” funner will show up pretty early. There are many people who are determined to make sure that others know that funner is not a word – and funnest isn’t either. To them, funner is unfair and funnest is downright funest.

They’re obviously wrong. I just used those words, as many others have, and you just understood them, as many others have. They’re the comparative and superlative forms of the adjective fun. Is fun an adjective? Of course it is. It’s been used as an adjective for well over a century. Prescriptivist has only been in use about half as long, since the 1950s, but I bet you didn’t say it wasn’t a word!

Of course, that’s part of the problem: fun has been around a long time… as a noun. And a verb. So the adjective form that showed up by the late 1800s seemed like a new upstart, and it has carried that stigma in the minds of people who long for the simplicity of a time when we had no mobile phones, no televisions, no cars, and the infant mortality rate was over 20%. They don’t necessarily want to restore that infant mortality rate… except when it comes to words, where they would like to smother nearly all the neonates. Even among those who have come to (perhaps grudgingly) accept fun as an adjective, there is a frequent reaction against funner and funnest: this upstart doesn’t merit inclusion in the grand old set of single-syllable adjectives that can be modified like that!

I can’t change the fact that some people see language as a means of expressing and enforcing a simple, simplistic, inflexible order – both mental and social. Such people tend to see fun as the opposite of adult. Or they would if they accepted fun as an adjective. The only fun they want is in fundamentals (and somehow those fundamentals have been pulled right out of their own fundaments). Well, real adults know how to have good fun and do fun things. And I guarantee you that playful people have far funner lives than prigs do. And accomplish more useful things too.

People of the priggish bent, being authoritarian, naturally do not wish to admit lexemes to recognized wordhood just on the strength of people actually using them. We can safely say they would sooner make such people non-persons than allow “non-words” to be words. So they will point to dictionaries. Dictionaries are meant to be field guides, documenting the language but always following popular usage, but many people think they are legislation, and a word not in the dictionary is not a word at all.

Well. I can flip open my handy Scrabble dictionary (published by Merriam-Wesbter) and find before me funner and funnest. Do you not accept the authority of the Scrabble dictionary? Very well. Open your Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (or visit it online, as I just have) and see “fun adjective” with the note “sometimes fun•ner; sometimes fun•nest” – or go to dictionary.com and see it as an adjective with funner and funnest listed as comparative (and superlative). Happy now?

You’re happy now if you were hoping for that outcome, of course. But if you’re of the priggish authoritarian bent, this is likely where you reveal that you are selective with authorities. These modern dictionaries! They have disgraced themselves! You know better. Which somehow means you accept less into your mind.

But limitation is not a virtue. Being able to do less with language is not a good thing, unless you think self-abusively following needlessly restrictive dogma as a sign of obedience is a good thing. I don’t. In my view, creation is the obvious point of existence: new things, new variations, new arrangements. Not chaos but new connections. And the way to create is to play and discover. To have fun. Not a rock-star room-trashing party (no one really does that with language, not even teens) but a collage, a mobile, a fantastical garden. Indeed, the people who truly understand a subject are, in my experience, the ones who have the most fun with it… and are, consequently, the funnest people. Sometimes the funniest, too.