Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Archive for the 'Syntax' Category

Is the Medium Still the Message?

Wednesday, December 9th, 2015
One of the Good Word editors, Luciano de Oliveira, caught this sentence in the New York Times:
“The particular ‘narrative’ of political journalists tended to emphasize the process dynamics — who’s up, who’s down — in addition to what the media itself are doing.”
Apparently the writer, Mark Leibovich, couldn’t make up as to whether to treat media as a singular mass noun or a plural noun. Most Americans treat media as a singular mass noun these days, though it is actually the plural of medium.
Oh, how I miss the old NYT.

Attending to the Business of ‘Attendee’

Monday, October 6th, 2014

Aubrey Waddy recently wrote:

“Your use of the word attendee in today’s discussion of pied prompts me to ask whether you’ll do a piece on this somewhat ugly word, and discuss its tail.”

“Surely the way the suffix is employed in attendee is wrong, and strictly speaking: the form should be attender. The sad thing about this is that people [speakers of English] no longer know their -ers from their -ees, and these days -ee is appended incorrectly to all sorts of words.”

In fact, the rule that is ignored it this: –er is added to transitive verbs to mark the subject of the action; -ee is added to transitive verbs to indicate the object of the verb’s action (employer – employee). -Ee is added to intransitive verbs to indicate the subject of the intransitive verb. Whether this was a historical rule, which no longer holds, or a confusion of the syntactic and semantic levels, I don’t know. But there are traces of this rule in the derivation of “personal” nouns.

Escapee, standee, enlistee are some of the verbs that follow this rule: you can’t escape anything (though things can escape you); someone escapes from prison. The sense of enlistee is “someone who enlists in the army”, not enlists the army.

Attendee can be explained as one of these historically. Originally, it could be used intransitively with the preposition to: attend to, which was reduced to tend to. We still use this intransitive sense when we say, “attend to business”.

There was always confusion as to whether attend was a transitive or intransitive verb. Intransitivity won out in the grab for a personal noun ending; transitivity seems to be winning in the struggle to control the verb itself.

Arguably this Word is Misused

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

A long-time subscriber to our Good Word series and e-friend, Jackie Strauss of Philadelphia, recently wrote the following:

“I’m curious about the word arguably. People seem to use it to mean that what they’re saying is unarguable, that the fact they’re espousing is iron-clad and exactly correct in their opinion, e.g. “She is arguably the best tennis player the world has ever known.” Are they daring you to argue with that statement or saying it cannot be argued with?”

I think you heard people simply misusing the word. Arguably is what is known as a “sentence adverb”, an adverb that modifies the whole sentence. Sentence adverbs usually may be paraphrased as “It is arguable that (sentence)”. Further examples: Apparently (it is apparent that), he missed the boat. Surprisingly (it is surprising that), he arrived early.

Hopefully is little off key because it doesn’t paraphrase this way; the paraphrase of this word is something like “It is (to be) hoped”. But all languages are strewn with exceptions to every rule of grammar. The same problem faces thankfully. However, this rule applies nicely to all the other sentence adverbs, like basically, certainly, clearly, conceivably, curiously, etc.

Hopefully, this has helped.

Nouns Modifying Nouns

Tuesday, June 10th, 2014

Today Alleen-Marie Coke asked two interesting questions which I thought deserved a broader audience.

Today’s word, yes, is tricky. In your example, “yes vote”, wouldn’t yes be an adjective?”

“When I taught ESL, I taught the response, “Yes, I do”, “Yes I can”, etc. I have noted, however, that these days many people respond with a simple, “I do”, or, “I can”, abandoning the use of the yes altogether. What do you make of this?”

My response was this:

In the phrase the “yes vote”, yes is not an adjective. English is a language that allows nouns to appear in attributive position without an adjective suffix. In Russian you would have to add an adjective ending if you want a noun to modify another noun. While English allows machine language, Russian requires a “relational” adjective suffix: mashin-nyi yazyk. Whenever doubt arises whether an attribute is a noun or adjective, noun is always chosen if the attribute may be used—without a suffix—as a noun.

Yes in English is first and foremost a “sentence adverb”, which means it may replace an entire sentence. An appropriate response to the question, “Will you do that” is simply, “Yes,” which replaces “I will do that.”

Another way of shortening the answer, is to repeat the subject and the auxiliary, “I will”. You may combine the two answers to affirm that you will do it as “Yes, I will,” though there is no penalty if you don’t.

In Britain, by the way, this response requires the default verb do. This is also the proper response in Britain to any yes-no question, “Did you bake the cake?” : “(No, but) I will do.” This is why do is called the default verb (or pro-verb); it can replace any verb.

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.)


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.