Tag Archives: syntax

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


Whoever is the subject?

Who will inherit the investigation?

Oh, whoever will inherit the investigation?

Whoever will inherit the investigation, he will be someone Mr. Trump nominates.

Whoever will inherit the investigation, Mr. Trump nominates him.

Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Wait, says the writer. Mr. Trump nominates him. So it must be whom. Whomever. And so, in The New York Times, appears this:

Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Because formally correct. So whom. Yeah?

Nah. Hyperformalism.

Of course cases like this bedevil writers. The construction is complex and whom is not part of standard daily English; in effect, it is a foreign word for most of us. Wherever we think it might be appropriate for formally correct speech, we are tempted to slip it in, sort of like how some people stick –eth on every conjugation when they want to sound old-fashioned. But sometimes we go overboard and use it where it doesn’t belong.

When people write sentences like the one in question, the rule they’re turning to is that the object must be whom, not who.

The rule that they’re forgetting is that every verb must have a subject.

What’s the subject of will inherit?

It has to be whoever, because whoever else would it be?

One loophole that writers miss that would resolve some grammatical dilemmas is that a whole clause can be an object, as in “Mr. Trump will nominate {whoever gives him the most money}.” Another loophole they miss is that the subject or object of an embedded clause can be made to disappear by what linguists call moving and merging, leaving just an embedded trace (that we know exists thanks to psycholinguistic experiments). That’s what goes on here. The him in Mr. Trump nominates him gets tossed like a baseball in a double play back to the Who, and the catcher’s mitt on the Who is ever. (It can also be an emphatic as in “Oh, whoever will help us?” but it’s not one here.)

Look at “Who(m)ever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” (I put the m in parentheses because if you use whom as the object you would use whomever here, but in normal non-prickly English we use whoever as the object too.) Notice that you (almost certainly) wouldn’t write “Who(m) Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” The ever sets up a second reference, the he. It can also set up an object (him): “Whoever gives the most money, Mr. Trump will nominate him.” (All of this works with she and her too, but we can see that Mr. Trump does not work with very many shes and hers.) So the ever can refer to an object while attached to a who that’s a subject, or the converse.

Our sentence du jour, however, is not derived from “Who(m)ever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation.” Not quite. In “Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation,” the main verb of the sentence is clearly will inherit (will is the auxiliary that takes the actual inflection, and inherit is the infinitive that conveys the sense); the subject of will inherit is Whoever, as already pointed out. Mr. Trump nominates is an insertion – a subordinate clause modifying Whoever. By itself it would be Mr. Trump nominates him, but, as I said, the him is tossed back and caught by the ever.

Let’s diagram that like a good linguist, shall we? This is the fun part! Syntax trees have details that non-linguists will be unfamiliar with, so let me set down a couple of basic facts:

  1. A sentence is a TP, which means tense phrase – because it conveys tense (when the thing happens), not because it’s too wound up. The heart of it is thus the part that conveys when it happens: the conjugation on the verb. The verb phrase (VP) is subordinate to that, but it merges with it unless there’s an auxiliary verb taking the tense.
  1. A subordinate clause is also a TP, because it has a conjugated verb, but it’s inside a CP, which means complement phrase, because it’s a complement to something else in the sentence. Often there’s a complementizer, such as that or which, but not always.


The subject is Whoever. Because in English conjugated verbs (except for imperatives) have to have explicit subjects and they have to be in the subject (nominative) case, this can’t be Whom or Whomever. The tense goes on will. The verb is inherit. The object of that (its complement) is the noun phrase (NP) the freakin’ mess – sorry, the investigation. (I haven’t broken that down further, but actually it’s a determiner – the – and a noun.) The complement of Whoever, by which I mean the subordinate clause that describes who the Whoever is, is Mr. Trump nominates [him]. The him is tossed back to the ever.

Whoever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation.

Whoever will inherit the investigation?

Who will inherit the investigation?

He will inherit the investigation.

(Mr. Trump nominates him.)

So why doesn’t the NYT version instantly sound bad, as “Whom will inherit it?” would? It’s a more complex and unfamiliar construction, and what we tend to do in such cases is go with the salient rules we can remember and basically make up rules to make the rest work. For people who don’t balk at the “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates will inherit the investigation,” I believe what’s probably going on is that it’s an underlying “Whomever Mr. Trump nominates, he will inherit the investigation,” and the he is getting tossed back to the ever. So you have a trace of the subject rather than the object. Now, you can have a trace of a subject when you have more than one verb conjugated to the same subject – “Whoever gets the nomination inherits the investigation” – but it’s not normal formal standard English for a subject to be deleted and merge with an object that is not deleted. We need the subject!

But then, really, whoever speaks formal standard English all the time? Well, not whoever wrote that sentence, anyway, or it wouldn’t have been written, because it would have sounded wrong.


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.


Sentence fragments? If you like.

As I sometimes do, I guested into a friend’s online copyediting course as a grammar expert for a week recently. One of the questions I answered was about whether “If you like” is acceptable on its own in any context. The questioner felt that in a conversational context it was acceptable (“Shall we leave at noon?” “If you like.”). Another student said that it doesn’t work because there’s an if but not a then. I said the following:

There are a few important things to remember.

First is that there are many kinds of English, suited for many different situations. To insist on standard formal English in all contexts is like wearing formal wear every day all the time. To use formal English in colloquial contexts doesn’t bespeak class and elegance; it bespeaks tone-deafness and rigidity. Rules are made to serve communication, not vice versa. Get to know the kind of English that is expected and used in each context you’re writing for. The point of editing is to make sure that the text produces the desired effect on the readers. Your job as an editor is to minimize the impedance in the circuit between author and audience. This often involves fixing infractions of rules, but not always. Indeed, sometimes the way to signal the tone of the text is to break a formal rule.

Second is that even in formal standard English, there are many things that are matters of preference, not rules.

Third is that not everything you do with language is a matter of grammar. Spelling mistakes, for instance, are not grammar errors. Neither are malapropisms. They’re errors, but they’re different kinds of errors (and in fact are the kind you can make sure to fix everywhere regardless of the tone and audience).

So, for instance, if as in “I want to know if you’re in town” is not a bad habit you need to cure yourself of for once and for all. The colloquial use of it where whether is the formal standard is very well established, and for some texts using if in place of whether will be the sort of little adjustment you can make to make it seem more relaxed. Bear in mind that “If you’re in town, I want to know” is acceptable even formally (the then can be and often is left out), which means that in the same sense, “I want to know if you’re in town” is also formally acceptable to mean “Let me know in the case that you are in town.” This, I believe, is why it has come to be used in the other sense, “Let me know whether you are in town or not.”

A very common mistake made by people who are eager to be right about grammar is to infer an absolute rule from one case, or to take a rule as learned overtly and apply it too broadly, declaring many common usages to be wrong because they don’t fit it. This is like pulling out a field guide to birds, looking at the picture of a magpie, deciding that all magpies must exactly resemble the exact specific colouring of that picture, and declaring any that don’t not to be magpies (and perhaps repainting or just killing them).

The effective approach is to read widely, see what kind of usages are common in what kind of contexts, and figure out the real rules on that basis. Often the real rule is not so simple and clean-cut; some things that are perfectly standard formal English still provoke arguments among linguists as to their actual grammatical structure.

To address a specific question: “If you like” by itself is a “sentence fragment” because it uses a subordinating conjunction (“If”) without a main clause to be subordinate to. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be used; we use sentence fragments all the time (I won’t say “The more, the merrier,” but if I did, it wouldn’t have a verb!). Only in the starchiest of contexts is it necessary to avoid starting sentences with conjunctions such as But and And, and in those cases only because some people in the past decided to repaint the magpies. In conversation, it is quite normal to leave out established material, especially in responses: “Shall I join you?” “[You can join me] If you like.” In more formal texts, where it is a monologue, not a dialogue, and is expected to convey clearly the logical connection, you would just use a single full sentence: “You can join me if you like.” (I’m not going to wander into the can/may argument here, but here is a full article on things many people think are errors that aren’t: sesquiotic.wordpress.com/2008/12/04/when-an-error-isnt/)

An important step on the way to being an expert user of the language is to read authors you respect in as many different genres as possible. Learning cut-and-dried rules and trying to apply them as broadly as possible won’t make you an expert user; in fact, you risk destroying your ear for the language. You need to be able to hear and read it as your readers will. You won’t be in a position to give them lessons in how to hear it the way you’ve learned to.


None of it is true, and none of them are right

One of the more popular grammar superstitions is that none must always only be singular. This belief has less basis and produces more awkward results than the idea that you should never step on cracks in the sidewalk, but it persists, even though if you Google none is none are you will get a full page of authoritative sites, none of which supports it.

None of which support it. Not one of which supports it.

Ah, and there’s the thing: those who spread this bit of syntactic spit-over-the-shoulder support it with the contention that none is short for not one or no one. Since you would say no one agrees or not one of them agrees, you should – they counsel – say none agrees and none of them agrees.

Even if the supposed derivation were true, it wouldn’t matter: etymology is not a guide to current usage. Even words that have their current form due to a historical mistake still aren’t guided by the pre-mistake usage – although peas was a reanalysis of pease, which was singular, we can’t now say The peas is ready. (Well, not in standard English, anyway.) But none isn’t a contraction of no one or not one.

OK, to be fair, back in the mists of time it came from a root meaning ‘not’ and a root meaning ‘one’ or ‘any’. But by the time there was an English, it was already one word, nan or non, and it was already being used with plural as well as singular referents.

And there’s the important thing: you can use it with the singular. Of course you can. It’s the less common usage – when we want the singular we are more likely to say no one or not one – but it’s entirely available. You can even use the conjugation to make a subtle differentiation: “We expected deer, but none have arrived”; “We expected deer, but none has arrived.” (The former sentence might be spoken in a park, the latter perhaps in a restaurant.)

Given that every authoritative, learned source you can find will tell you that none can be singular or plural – and given that anyone well read in English knows it by reflex – how is it that so many people insist on this mumpsimus? Most likely just because it was enshrined in one book that remains popular, even though it is inconsistent, self-contradictory, and prone to declaring many of the most revered authors in the language to be wrong.

The book in question is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White. If you want to know why people who know English syntax well tend not to be so fond of it, read Geoffrey Pullum’s “50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice.” Pullum notes that on the matter of plural none, Strunk and White place themselves above Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, and Lucy Maude Montgomery.

They also place themselves above John Dryden (himself no wild descriptivist), Henry Fielding, Oliver Goldsmith, and Somerset Maugham – and that’s just in the short list of citations in the Oxford English Dictionary. I particularly like these two illustrative quotations presented by the OED:

None are more ignorant of them than those learned Pedants…
Tom Jones, Henry Fielding

There are none so deaf as those who will not hear the truth.
The Times, March 4, 1963

So trust your ear, and ignore those who self-deafen with this superstitious hypercorrection. None of them is right.