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Archive for the 'Syntax' Category

Using ‘As’ as it Should be

Monday, February 25th, 2008

Barbara Zimmerman brought up a recurring question in connection with our recent Good Word mortify:

“Is it not more properly said: ‘Maud Lynn Dresser was positively mortified when she saw Portia Carr wearing the same dress as she at the spring cotillion?’ I say that because the full version of the partially unspoken clause is ‘as she was wearing’? You wouldn’t say ‘Maud Lynn Dresser was positively mortified when she saw Portia Carr wearing the same dress as her was wearing at the spring cotillion.’ Or at least I think you would not.”

Barbara is right, of course, I wouldn’t. But I also didn’t write “as she was wearing” but only “as her”.

The problem is that as, like most English function words, serves more than one function: it is both a preposition, which requires the objective case, and a conjunction, which requires no case at all since it introduces a full sentence. (It can also function as an adverb, by the way.) Using as as a preposition, it is perfectly fine to say things like: “as big as me”, “as round as the moon”, “as important as him”. Using it as a conjunction, we can say, “as big as I am,” “as round as the moon is,” or “as important as he is.”

So, to begin with, we can say “Portia Carr was wearing the same dress as her (Maud)” or “Portia was wearing the same dress as she (Maud) was wearing.” Both are perfectly grammatical and normal. However, it is also true that repeated phrases are consistently omitted in spoken and written English. So “Portia was wearing the same dress as she (Maud) was wearing,” may be shortened to “Portia was wearing the same dress as she was” or just “as she.” Again, either is perfectly grammatical and normal.

The issue here is not which is right or wrong but which is preferable in any given context. In most US dialects, the preposition as offers the same comparative sense as the conjunctive as, so both as she and as her are correct and acceptable.

Not all dialects outside the US allow the comparative meaning of the preposition (it has two or three others, too). This means that as her would not be acceptable or correct in those dialects. As is so often the case, the preference here boils down to which dialect we prefer—or your own personal preference.

Can ‘They’ replace ‘He’ and ‘She’?

Monday, August 20th, 2007

Kathleen of Norway asked the following poignant question via e-mail today:

“EveryONE paying THEIR own check???”

The question arose in connection with an example in yesterday’s Good Word, stickler: “Morris Bedda is a stickler about everyone paying their own check when dining out.”

Since this question has been raised before, I decided to write something definitive on the subject.  I just added it to the reference shelf in my office, which you can access by clicking here.

Weighing your Chances

Thursday, May 10th, 2007

If you have little chance of doing something your chances are slim. Makes sense: slim things are smaller than fat ones. It follows, then, that if your chances are great, you have a fat chance, right?

It doesn’t seem to work that way. Slim chance and fat chance seem to be oxymora, for if I say “I have a slim chance of winning” my chances are probably greater than if I say, “Fat chance I have of winning!” This is tantamount to saying I have no chance at all!

There is a syntactic difference which may account for the semantic difference between these two sentences. But even if I make their syntactic structures identical, “I have a fat chance of winning,” I don’t get the impression that my chances are great.

Fat chance is used more often ironically, usually with sarcastic intonation for emphasis. Irony, of course, turns meanings upside-down. “I love you” is pretty straightforward but by simply changing the intonation to, “I, love you?” you turn the meaning around. The same irony converges fat chances with slim chances.

Don’t you wish we had an irony pill that worked the same way on our bodies?

Case Conflicts in English

Monday, January 29th, 2007

Last November a visitor to the Grammar Shop of the Alpha Agora asked about the construction, “I thought her not so pretty” and I only got around to replying today. Here are my thoughts. They point up an interesting difference between languages with case systems (nouns with endings which change with changes in sentence functions) and without them. English is in the final stage of losing its cases.

There are several verbs that accept direct objects with ‘predicate’ adjectives, most have to do with mental processing. It is parallel to consider, as in “I consider that she is pretty” or, shortened, “I consider her pretty,” “I imagined her pretty;” “I imagined that she would be pretty” or “I imagined her pretty.”

It is a peculiar prerogative of English which allows predicates of nouns in the objective case. In languages like German and Russian, where the objectives (accusative) case is used only for direct objects and direct objects cannot be the subject of a phrase, such constructions are impossible. Notice that in the shortened sentences above her is the direct object of the main sentence and subject of the dependent clause “her (=she is) pretty”.

We do this elsewhere, too, usually using the infinitive construction. In the sentence “I asked her to do it,” her is the direct object of asked and the subject of do it at the same time. In languages with real case systems, this is impossible. It is possible in English because the case system has vanished except for the pronouns I, we, he, she and our comfort level with constructions like between you and I show that it is on the way out even for these pronouns.

Is ‘than’ More a Conjunction than a Preposition?

Friday, December 8th, 2006

Mary Jane Stoneburg, one of our Good Word editors (along with Paul Ogden) complained about the use of the objective case with than in our rendition of aborigine for Thursday’s (December 7, 2006) Good Word. The offending passaage reads, “…Europeans generally colonize areas inhabited by nations less advanced than them.”  Now Carolyn Whitaker has written in agreement with Mary Jane, so I feel that I must place my neck publicly on the grammar-rule chopping block.  Here goes.

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 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 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.

This is not an uncommon practice, in fact. Prepositions come from a wide variety of sources: verbs (save, except), adjectives (near, nearest, like), adverbs (aboard, outside, out), participles (following, concerning), conjunctions (before, as), even prepositional phrases (instead, alongside).

The British try to keep than as a pure conjunction but the examples in the OED, drawn from various sources over the centuries, show, not even they can resist this fairly recent change. I see nothing wrong with using than as a preposition, given the motley origins and histories of prepositions in English.

A Rip-Snortin’ Knock-Down-Drag-Out Million Dollar Comma Fight

Thursday, October 26th, 2006


Objects do not have to be large to be expensive.  Paul Ogden just alerted me to an article in the NY Times on a contractual dispute that centers around a single comma that is worth a million dollars (Canadian).

The dispute is over this sentence: “This agreement shall be effective from the date it is made and shall continue in force for a period of five (5) years from the date it is made, and thereafter for successive five (5) year terms, unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party.”

The second comma has the effect of cutting the final condition (“unless and until terminated by one year prior notice in writing by either party”) off from the definition of the extension period.  If it is not directly related only to the extension period, then it must equally apply to the basic and extension periods.

The issue was brought before Canada’s telecommunication regulators by Rogers Communications of Toronto, Canada’s largest cable television provider, when Atlantic Canada attempted to cancel a contract governing Rogers’ use of telephone poles after the first year in which the contract was in force.  The regulators concluded that the meaning of the sentence is clear and Atlantic Canada need not wait until the extension period to terminate the contract.

I tend to agree but the point is fine enough that someone should make an attempt to discover the intent of the those who negotiated the contract. However, it does make you wonder why companies pay lawyers $350 an hour for a job that a good English teacher would be happy to do for no more than, well, let’s say, $250 an hour.


Tuesday, October 10th, 2006


Joy Aloisi recently asked me to explain the difference between transitive and intransitive verbs. I am sure a lot of nonlinguists have wondered about the same thing so it occurred to me that I might do a short note about this distinction here that I can refer to in the future.

The problem in explaining this difference is that you have to know two other grammatical functions in order to understand this one: Subject and Object. The subject is usually the first noun or noun phrase in a sentence, the thing that the sentence is about. In the sentence John ran, John is the subject. In the sentence, The big girl in the ragged jeans left, The big girl in the ragged jeans is the subject. John and the big girl are what their respective sentences are about.

John and the big girl . . . are the subjects because that is their relationship to the verbs in their respective sentences (ran and left). “Subject” and “Objects” are relationships to the verb. So what is the “Object”?

The Object of a sentence is the noun that refers to something that the subject does something to. In the sentence, John bit the dog, John, again, is the Subject and the dog is the Object. In the sentence Sarah sipped the soda, the soda is the Object.

Now, if you know what Subjects and Objects are, you are in a position to understand what transitive and intransitive verbs are. All verbs in English have Subjects. You can’t say simply Rains in English (you can in Russian) because all verbs demand a Subject in English. The default Subject in English is it, so we have to say It rains or (is raining).

Objects are different, however. A few verbs MUST have Objects, e.g. devour and interject: you can’t say Mabel devoured or Fred interjected without an Object somewhere in the sentence. These verbs are strictly transitive.

Other verbs CANNOT have Objects. You cannot, for example, arise anything; something just arises. You can’t inquire anything; you just inquire or inquire about something (prepositional phrase). These verbs are strictly intransitive and intransitive verbs are often associated with a particular type of prepositional phrase that behaves a lot like an Object.

Other verbs may or may not have Objects. So you can just walk or you can walk the dog, you can just eat or you can eat supper. These verbs are ambitransitive: transitive when they have a direct object, intransitive when they do not.

This is all there is to it—well, the basics anyway.


Do Crystallized Similes Give Animals a Bad Rap?

Wednesday, September 27th, 2006


Every language has a set of crystalized similes that help speakers emphasize common qualities. A simile is a metaphor that compares, e.g. clumsy as an ox, black as soot, and so forth. These are ‘crystalized’ because they have become clichés, used by everyone all the time. There are hundreds of them that we all memorize in the process of language acquisition:

All the languages I have ever studied prefer comparing human qualities with those perceived in animals. In fact, psychologists know that, when testing, they must control for words referring to animals since human reaction to these words is always emotinally stronger than to inanimate words.

However, it would seem that humans perceive animals as reflecting only the bad traits we exhibit. The most common animals get a consistently bad rap from English similes:

clumsy as an ox
crazy as a loon (but sane as you are)
dirty as a pig (but clean as a whistle)
fat as a pig (but skinny as a rail)
greedy as a pig to hog something
mean as a snake
slow as a snail
stubborn as a mule
stupid as a cow
yellow as a chicken

There are exceptions, however; similes that suggest positive attributes among our furry friends:

brave as a lion
faithful as a dog
fast as a rabbit fierce as a tiger
funny as a monkey
innocent as a lamb

Similies even identify human targets occasionally:

old as Methuselah
sane as you are (I love this one—who would argue with it?
soft as a baby’s bottom

There seems to be a case for a preference for animals in English similes and a culturally determined prejudice against those animals. The case is bolstered by a large number of positive similes that choose inanimate objects as their targets:

pretty as a picture
smart as a whip
sweet as sugar
sharp as a tack
white as snow
black as soot
pure as the driven snow
hot as hell/a firecracker/a pistol
warm as toast
cool as a cucumber
quick as a wink, flash
cold as ice
high as a kite
hard as a rock

Admittedly, there are a few negative inanimate similes:

slow as molasses on a cold winter morn
sour as a lemon
ugly as homemade sin
guilty as sin
dumb as a stump, post, sack of hammers

Still, I would submit, there is a distinct pattern we need an explanation for.

We have many ways to interpret this pattern. I won’t plough through all of them. The important points are that humans identify more closely with animals than with anything in the inanimate world and we project our frailties on them. We see our imperfections in the animals around us and our ideals in a world that is a bit colder and more distant. Familiar animals come off as ‘scape goats, beings that can carry our sins away with them, making similes a vehicle of atonement, among its various other functions.