Monthly Archives: August 2012

The IPA: Consonants Part II – Manner of Articulation

This is part of a series. The other posts are here. You can get your copy of the IPA here. It is helpful for following along.

In the last post I covered voicing and place of articulation for consonants. In this one, I’ll go over the other major feature: manner of articulation.
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Estimates for delivery has/have stopped

I just watched this video at pros write on verb-subject agreement. Worth watching if you think you have trouble with agreement. It nicely explains that native speaker of English don’t normally have any trouble with agreement rules when the subject is immediately next to the verb. Problems only crop up when the subject has a modifier that ends with a noun. An example given in the video is:

Accurate estimates for delivery has stopped

The error is that “has” should be “have”. The video simplifies things a little at this point and identifies the subject as estimates, which is why the verb should be plural “have” instead of singular “has”. This is a perfectly acceptable simplification too – the actual story is more than business writers need to know about.

But we’re all grammar lovers here, so let’s dig a little deeper. Here’s the simplified syntax tree:

NP stands for “noun phrase”, VP stands for “verb phrase”, PP is “prepositional phrase” and AdjP you can probably guess is “adjective phrase”. Aux is an auxiliary verb.

When you look at the sentence structurally like this, you can see that delivery is not really “next to” the verb at all. It’s tucked away inside a much larger noun phrase, and it isn’t in the right position to act as subject all by itself. When we plan sentences in our heads, we’re not planning linear strings of words, we’re planning something more hierarchical, like that tree, and I bet this agreement problem crops up less in speech (although that’s an empirical question I suppose).

Anyway, the point I want to get to is that the subject is not a word like estimates but a position in the sentence. In particular, it’s the noun phrase daughter of the sentence. So the true subject here is the entire noun phrase accurate estimates for delivery.

It has always struck me as odd how much attention agreement gets in prescriptive grammars. Why is this such a big deal? There’s almost no agreement to speak of in our language. First, agreement is limited to verb-subject agreement. Second it’s limited to the present tense. Third, with the exception of to be, verbs have only two present tense forms: -s for “third person” vs. no suffix for “everything else”. Look at an Athabaskan language for goodness’ sake. The fact that English speakers need a ten minute video on have/has starts to look a little absurd.

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Vague doesn’t mean passive

The passive voice is famous for its vagueness. It lets us say what happened, without mentioning who did it. In fact, this is often the only thing that people know about the passive, and it leads to anything vague being labelled as passive.

But ‘passive’ refers to a very particular grammatical construction, and I think we should get our terms straight. So in the interests of public education, here is a list of ways that we can be vague about agency without using the passive. The next time someone says something is ‘passive’, check here to see if it really is.
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Not everything is grammatical

This is a follow-up on my last post about grammatical rules. There I argued that we should figure out the grammar of a language by observing how native speakers use that language. One of the replies to that post argued back that this approach seems to dispense with grammar all together. If grammar can be inferred from usage, then whatever anyone says is correct. In other words, anything goes and grammar becomes a free-for-all.

I can see how someone might draw that conclusion, and in fact this is probably the most common response I get to this idea. But adopting a usage-based approach doesn’t mean that a sentence is correct just because someone said it. Continue reading

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Being a skeptical grammarian

So the grammarian tells you that you shouldn’t put prepositions at the end of sentences. And you say sure, this guy’s a grammarian, he knows what he’s talking about, I’ll try to do what he says.

But suppose you’re more of the skeptical type. You find something fishy about the claim. You demand evidence. How would you go about fact-checking this? The best evidence comes from observation of native speakers. And if you go do some observation, it turns out that people are ending their sentences with prepositions all over the place. The supposed rule is quite at odds with how people actually talk. Something’s up. Do people have bad grammar? Or is the rule wrong? This is a rhetorical question of course: obviously the rule is wrong. Let’s think about it.
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Problems with parts of speech

I just came across this book How to Use Parts of Speech. I’ve been meaning to write about the many problems with the traditional method for defining parts of speech, and seeing this book just tipped me over the edge. Sorry J.L. Smith. It’s nothing personal, nearly every grammar book gets this wrong. You just happened to be there today. Continue reading

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Filed under Book Review, Prescriptive

Pronouns don’t replace nouns

This is a small point, but I see it so often that I feel it needs to be addressed. Pronouns don’t replace nouns. They replace noun phrases (or determiner phrases, if you’re doing that kind of syntax). That means other stuff like the article and the adjectives. For example:

A fat greasy American guy sat next to me on the bus.

Suppose I want to replace the subject with the pronoun he. If it were true that pronouns replaced just nouns, then it would be grammatical to say this:

*A fat greasy he sat next to me on the bus.

But that’s clearly wrong. Instead, we’d say:

He sat next to me on the bus.

And replace all of a fat greasy American guy with he.

Sometimes the noun phrase can contain entire clauses and the pronoun would still replace the whole thing, as in:

[A dolphin [who had been rescued from an oil spill] [which occurred near Japan]] performed a trick.
She performed a trick.

And similarly, I find it odd when people say that adjectives can be used to modify pronouns. This can’t be so, because the adjectives are replaced along with the noun, so they can’t stick around to modify the pronoun. And even if you try and add adjectives, it doesn’t work.

The yellow car crashed.
It crashed.
*The yellow it crashed.
*Yellow it crashed.

The tall woman is famous.
She is famous.
*The tall she is famous.
*Tall she is famous.

(Click here if you don’t know what the * symbol means)

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