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Archive for the 'Syntax' Category

When is ‘different’ treated differently?

Saturday, October 19th, 2013

Joan Gambill noticed a rather odd use of an adjective in my characterization of pruinose the other day. Here is how she put it:

“In yesterday’s word email about pruinose, under Notes at the end of the paragraph, it seems as though it should be differently, not different. I do enjoy your words.”

In most dialects of English both different and differently are allowed after verbs depending on what you mean. The suffix -ly on differently associates the adjective different with the verb, so that to tell you differently would mean “to tell you in a way different from the normal way of telling”, e.g. whispering, or in a letter. To tell you different implies “to tell you that the thing we are talking about is different”.

It is difficult to find situations in which both the adjective and adverb are applicable but they do pop up from time to time: She worked furiously (to finish on time) vs. She worked furious (at the way the boss treated her). In the former sentence, furiously modifies the verb; in the latter sentence, furious refers to she. As you see here, when the adjective is used, we usually supply a subordinate clause to clarify.

Without the subordinate clause, the result is often humorous: “Mary ate her salad undressed.” Here the joke arises from the ambiguity of which thing is undressed: the salad or Mary?

Can you Enjoy without a Direct Object?

Monday, September 23rd, 2013

Joel Jacubowicz sent me the following message today:

I have several questions about the usage of the word ‘enjoy’ as a complete, standalone sentence.

1) Is the complete sentence “Enjoy!” (As in, “Here’s your meal. Enjoy!”) grammatically correct?
2) If not, despite being ungrammatical could it be considered to be acceptable usage? 
3) Is it an Americanism? And if so could it be argued to be acceptable to use it anyway in British English?

I ask this because a certain person I know has a pathological and irrational hatred of the phrase “Enjoy!”, e. g. without a direct object (“enjoy WHAT??!!”) but I argue that, even if it’s grammatically incorrect, it’s essentially a set phrase and communicates slightly different meaning to “enjoy this” or “enjoy your meal”, so it can be exempt from following the rules. Alternatively it could be just a command (Enjoy! / Eat! / Read! / Sit!) which is taken as a polite invitation rather than something that you absolutely must do. 

Here is my response.

Enjoy! as an intransitive verb was first used by Yiddish speakers according to Harry Golden in his 1958 book, For 2 Cents Plain. I first heard it from a retired Pennsylvania forest ranger who made commercials for the Pennsylvania Department of Parks about 40 years ago. It would seem to have arisen among speakers of German dialects in the US. I don’t think it is common outside the US; I’ve never heard it used in all the British or Australian movies and TV series that my wife and I have watched over the past 25 or so years.

Enjoy is an obligatorily transitive verb, i.e. a verb which must have a direct object. There are pseudotransitive verbs, verbs which may be transitive or intransitive, i.e. the verbs you mention (eat, read, sit), but enjoy, devour, fix aren’t among them.

An interesting article from the New York Times Magazine points out that the imperative is the only way we can use the intransitive enjoy. I enjoy, you enjoy, s/he enjoys, etc. without a direct object are never heard or spoken. How can this be? It follows that this usage is at best idiomatic.

If this usage spreads throughout  the US, it will be an acceptable usage in the US only, hence it is dialectal. Transitivity is rather flexible; if anyone can think of a situation where a transitive verb works intransitively or vice versa, and they (mis)use it in that situation, it is just a matter of “catching on”. Still, this expression will only be dialectal and idiomatic.

(This blog was partially based on research by Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira.)

Intonation

Saturday, June 29th, 2013

A former student of mine now living in and working in Russia, Troy McGrath, recently wrote to me and passed on this anecdote:

A linguistics professor was lecturing to his class one day and said, “In English, a double negative forms a positive. But in some languages, such as Russian, a double negative is still a negative. However,” he pointed out, “in no language in the world can a double positive form a negative.” But then a voice from the back of the room piped up, “Yeah, right.”

I responded that intonation was a crucial factor in his example and gave him a second example I actually heard.

Another linguistics professor, the late Kenneth Pike, once proved the importance of intonation in speech by demonstrating that intonation may contradict the content of a sentence.

If we simply say, “I love you”, the sentence has a positive meaning. But if we add question intonation, “I? Love you?”, the meaning of the sentence is exactly the opposite of the content of the sentence.

Verb Agreement in English

Monday, January 9th, 2012

“Dave” recently wrote:

I just read your article ‘Bad Grammar or Language Change’ and wanted to let you know that I found a grammatical error in your article.

In the sentence ‘the number of suffixes for marking grammatical functions like number, person, tense, are disappearing faster than frogs’, the subject of the sentence is number. This singular noun does not agree with the verb in the sentence are. What is most curious to me is that the subject of nouns and verbs not agreeing is discussed only a few paragraphs above this sentence”.

Thanks for the edit. I have to say, in my own defense, that this is not an uncommon error. It comes from the fact that English speakers are losing their grasp of subject and object due to the loss of case endings. At least that is my opinion.

Kay Bock of the University of Illinois (a former student of mine) disagrees. She is trying to find a grammatical pattern among these mistakes. We coauthored a paper on the subject, where I was asked only to provide data for Russian.

What happens when speakers lose control of the subject – object distinction but not verb agreement? Well, one thing is that they rely on the noun nearest the verb to reflect agreement. That is how I compensated, along with the vast majority of US speakers.

Another way is to resort to semantics: if the subject noun refers to a group, then agreement is plural. If it refers to a single item, singular. That is the British solution. They say things like “the parliament are”, “the team are” but the “player is”, “the lamp is”.

Both these approaches are temporary. We are all waiting for the -s which distinguishes 3rd singular verbs from 3rd plural to fall by the wayside. That will solve everything.

How Many Meanings of “UP”?

Thursday, June 30th, 2011

Up, up, upLou Ann Freeman finally sent me a really funny essay about the many meanings of the word “up”, so I’ll take the opportunity to write up my thoughts on this subject. It was on my agenda the year I retired from academia, but I never quite found time to look up up. You may very well be among the very first to understand exactly how it operates.

To get us started, here is the beginning of the essay that Lou Ann sent:

  • “People stir UP trouble, line UP for tickets, work UP an appetite, and think UP excuses.
  • To be dressed is one thing but to be dressed UP  is  special.
  • And this is confusing:  A drain must be opened UP because it is stopped UP.
  • We open UP a store in the morning but we close it UP   at night.
  • We seem to be pretty mixed UP about UP!”

Well, no, we aren’t. It is true that up has several functions. It can be an adverb, as when prices go up. I can be a preposition as when the monkey goes up the flagpole. It is a verb when we up the ante.  Finally, it can be a verbal particle, which is quite different from a preposition, though most prepositions server double duty as a verbal particle.

So, what is a verbal particle? English uses verbal particles the way other Indo-European languages use prefixes.  The English verb chase out corresponds to the German hinausjagen made up of the prefix hinaus “out” + jagen “to chase”. In Russian gnat’ means “to chase” and “chase out” = vygnat’ with the prefix vy- “out”.

So out in chase out is a verbal particle, predictable by the fact that it does not require an object and moves around freely in a sentence: “I chased the cat out” or “I chased out the cat.” The verbal particle up behaves similarly: “I dressed up the cat” or “I dressed the cat up.”

Since particles behave like prefixes and suffixes in other languages, it means that they are not real words but function words, words that represent grammatical categories, like past tense, plural, and comparative. Up the verbal particle expresses the perfect aspect, a verb category that indicates a completed action. It is very consistent in this expression.

In most cases, it can be translated as “completely” for this adverb indicates the absolute completion of an action. So the difference between opening a store and opening it up a can, let’s say, is the fact that the can has been completely opened. A drain that is clogged up is one that is completely clogged. (A clogged drain might still let some water pass.) If you dress, you put on clothes but if you dress up, you are completely dressed, that is, as best you can be dressed.

Before I finish up, let me say this: I enjoyed Lou Ann’s essay; the writer brought up about as much humor from this misconception as may be found there. However, when properly used, language is very consistent. It is about 2-3% irregular but, considering the species that uses it, that is a modest deviation.  Up is not one of the irregularities.

The Tale of Two Thans

Sunday, February 6th, 2011

Mary Jane Stoneburg, one of our Good Word editors (along with Paul Ogden and Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira), has complained about the use of the objective case with than in several of our recent Good Words. Now Carolyn Whitaker has written in agreement with Mary Jane, so I have to respond more fully.

If you check the US and British dictionaries (including the OED) you will find that “than” is accepted as both a preposition and conjunction and, as a preposition, it requires the objective case. The OED says that it is only a conjunction but is used with the objective case of pronouns, an odd conclusion at odds with current English grammar.

The earliest citation of this usage appears to be 1560 in the Geneva Bible, Proverbs xxvii:3: “A fooles wrath is heauier then them bothe”. A few years later it appeared in Agrippa’s Of the vanitie and uncertaintie of artes and sciences, translated by James Sandford (1569:165): “We cannot resiste them that be stronger then vs.” So this usage has been around a long time.

Nor is it uncommon or unexpected. Prepositions come from a wide variety of sources: verbs (save, except), adjectives (near, nearest, like), adverbs (aboard, outside, out), participles (following, concerning), conjunctions (than, as, but—as in everyone but her), even the occasional prepositional phrase (alongside).

While many careful readers try to use than purely as a conjunction, the examples drawn from various sources over the centuries in the OED show that this change is not an example language degeneration. I see nothing wrong with going with the flow here, given the origins and histories of conjunctions.

To -ly or not to -ly

Tuesday, September 21st, 2010

Joan Gambill noticed a rather odd use of an adjective in my characterization of pruinose the other day. Here is how she put it:

“In yesterday’s word email about pruinose, under Notes at the end of the paragraph, it seems as though it should be “don’t let anyone tell you differently,” not different. I do enjoy your words.”

In most dialects of English both different and differently are allowed after some verbs depending on what you mean. The suffix -ly on differently associates the adjective inevitably with the verb, so that to tell you differently would mean “to tell you in a way different from the way it is being told,” i.e. in a whisper, in a letter, or some other way. To tell you different implies “to tell you that the thing we are talking about is different.”

It is difficult to find situations in which both the adjective and adverb are applicable but they do pop up from time to time: She worked furiously (to finish on time) vs. She worked furious (that she had been kept late). As you can see, we often supply a subordinate clause for clarification.

Without the subordinate clause the result is often humorous: “Mary ate her salad undressed.” Here the joke arises from the ambiguity of which is undressed, the salad or Mary. So, let’s not give up this distinction: we need all the laughs we can get.

Whomever? Whatever!

Wednesday, June 9th, 2010

Two stalwart Good Word subscribers, Stan Davis and Jere Mitchum, wrote a day or two ago about my use of whomever in my writeup of kudos. Stan wrote, “In your e-mail featuring kudos, you wrote: “Kudos [ku-dahs] is due whomever repaired the faucet in the ladies restroom.”

“Shame, shame!! The correct form in this sentence would be whoever. The choice between whoever and whomever is governed by the use of the word IN ITS OWN CLAUSE, not by how the whole clause is used. Thus whoever is the subject of repaired and requires the nominative case, while the whole clause acts as the indirect object of due.”

I actually had written whoever in my original version of the Good Word but one of my editors chided my cowardice in giving up on whom forms and I couldn’t refuse the inherent dare in his comment. When I asked him about the rule Stan and Jere raised, his response was, “…I’ve just consulted the Oxford Fowler’s Modern English Usage Dictionary and after a quick scan of the five pages devoted to who, whom and their cousins, have concluded he [Fowler] agrees with your correspondent.”

The point, therefore, must be conceded with apologies and one brief note: this sort of confusion probably contributes to the loss of whom those of my generation are currently suffering: the simplest way to avoid breaking this rule is to simply use who everywhere.

Litotes in Kansas

Thursday, May 27th, 2010

Dee Scrogin caught this line in an article about capping the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in the Wichita Eagle (May 27, 2010) and wondered if it were not an example of litotes, the Good Word for May 22, 2010:

“So far, ‘top kill” isn’t failing to plug oil leak”

Dee wrote, “I wonder if this is an example of litotes which you discussed recently? (5/22) I’d never heard the word but found it interesting about a double negative appealing to the positive. I enjoy your daily word; a friend, Ed Garvin, recommended you.”

Indeed, “isn’t failing” is a perfect example of litotes since “not” is built into the word “fail” = “not succeed”. You do not have to see the two negations as in “not uncommon” to make a litotes. So long as two words imply negation, they are litotic.The implication in this phrase is that top kill isn’t failing but isn’t succeeding, either. This is the expected effect of litotes.

Porn in the Slow Lane

Monday, May 3rd, 2010

My favorite newspaper, the Sunbury Daily Item, carried an article with this lead sentence last Friday: “A 57-year-old Lewistown man has been charged with stealing $500 raised by middle school students to purchase porn videos from an Internet site.”

This sentence immediately catches the eye because you wonder why middle school students were raising money to purchase porn in the first place. Moreover, didn’t the 57-year-old do us all a favor by stealing the money and keeping porn out of the hands of those children?

Well, reading further we discover that the money was actually being raised for middle school band and chorus activities and that it was the thief who purchased the porn, keeping good and evil in proper alignment. Of course, that is not what the lead sentence says.

The infinitive phrase “to purchase porn videos . . .” in the first sentence is closer to “middle school students” than to “57-year-old Lewiston man” and for that reason goes with the former and not the latter.

Restructuring the sentence to correct it in journalese is a bit difficult and the author probably should have just worked on a different story. It seems to me that this is one of those situations where a passive sentence might work despite the bad reputation this construction has among journalists. “$500 raised by middle school students was stolen by a 57-year-old Lewistown man to purchase porn videos from an Internet site,” is perfectly good English that states the case more clearly.

The active variant would be: “A 57-year-old Lewistown man stole $500 to purchase porn videos on an Internet site from middle school students in Beaver Creek.” This variant lets you pack more information about the middle school kids into the sentence but is a tad clunky.

Anyway, the sentence that went to press wrongly stated the facts by misassociating the infinitive phrase, thereby frightening readers with the suggestion that we had somehow swerved into the fast lane in the not-too-distant past.