One serious problem with the available books on English grammar is that there are so many written by unqualified people. Take this one for instance: A grammar book for you and I…oops me!. The author is a lawyer. He has no special education related to grammar or language analysis. What makes him think he can write a book on the subject? And more to the point, why do people buy things like this? Could I write a book on law and get taken seriously? I should hope not. Why on earth would anyone expect a lawyer to know anything about grammar analysis?
I mean just look at what the first chapter is called: “the eight parts of speech”. This a bad start. When the author says 8, he really means just 8.
every time you reach in, grab a word, and use it in a particular sentence the word comes from just one of these eight compartments.
Amazing, huh? You can compartmentalize the entire English language into just eight categories.
It’s not amazing. It’s wrong. English words don’t have inherent or fixed parts of speech. And eight parts is not enough to capture all of English. And interjections are damn near useless as a category. This post explains everything.
When you reach into your bag of words and plunk them down on paper, you organize them into chunks. This group of words does this thing, that group of words does that thing. Rarely do you pull out just one word and end the writing project right there
This is true, and a point worth making, although I’d like to clarify that this chunking happens in your brain first, and on paper second. The more technical term for these chunks is “constituents“. This is a concept that is basic to syntax. If you don’t understand what a constituent is, you can’t understand what a phrase is. And speaking of phrases…
All groups of words break down into two types: phrases and clauses. The sole distinguishing features of a clause is the presence of a conjugated verb.
One thing I like about this definition is that it’s clear and simple. But despite those positive attributes, it’s still wrong.
Consider this sentence:
I am eating apples with peanut butter.
Inside that sentence is the string eating apples with peanut butter. This string forms a constituent, meaning it behaves as “one unit” for certain purposes. One way you can show this is that you can replace the entire thing with so as in:
I am eating apples with peanut butter and so is Jenny.
As an aside, that word so would be called a pro-verb. This is like a pro-noun, except that it replaces verb phrases instead of noun phrases. More generally words of this type are called “pro-forms”. (This is something not enough grammar books mention.)
Anyway, since eating apples with peanut butter has a ‘conjugated’ verb, by the author’s rules this would either not be a phrase (which is incorrect, it’s a verb phrase) or it would necessarily be a clause (which is also incorrect). I think, judging from his examples, that he would not consider it a constituent at all, and instead call all of I am eating apples a clause. Or maybe the whole thing would be a clause? He doesn’t give a definition of “sentence”, so I’m not sure if there’s any level higher than clause. It’s all a little confusing. It’s a nice looking definition, the simple language makes it more appealing, but it needs some work. This misconceptions about phrases carries on throughout the chapter on nouns.
How do you make a noun possessive? For singular nouns, just add “apostrophe s”; for plural nouns ending in -s just add an apostrophe. The rule is easy to follow but trips up a lot of people
That’s because the rule is wrong. Indeed, I see that the author himself has just been tripped up by it. Possessive is not marked on nouns – it’s marked on noun phrases. For example:
The man in the white coat
The man in the white coat’s passport.
*The man’s in the white coat passport.
The possessive goes at the end of the phrase, on coat, even though the passport doesn’t belong to the coat. It’s ungrammatical to put the possessive right on man, even though the passport belongs to the man.
And the problems go deeper than phrases. Turns out the author can’t reliably identify some specific words either. In discussing the American national anthem, he takes the time to point out something about the line by the dawn’s early light.
Notice that the word dawn’s does not really serve a traditional function as a noun. It’s really acting as an adjective. You can see this feature of our language by recognizing that dawn’s is not the object of the preposition by.
This is just so wrong. So what if it isn’t the object of the preposition? That doesn’t mean it can’t also be a noun. Let’s diagram that phrase out.
But of course, that’s only a picture. You could just as easily write “Adjective” there and prove his analysis correct. The reason that dawn sits inside a noun phrase is because it has a possessive affix on it. And that’s the part that blows my mind – this appears after a section on noun possession. Did he read his own book?
Or maybe he is above his own advice. He does seem to endorse an authoritarian approach to grammar. You should just do whatever the authorities tell you, even if it turns out they are incompetent.
And people in power- bosses, teacher, lovers – know the rules by heart. Or pretend they do. They expect you to follow the rules.
Wait a minute…the author is someone in power, or at least presents himself as an authority. So was that just a tacit admission that he is only pretending to know the rules? This is a terrible argument anyway. It’s letting the crazies win.
This book is filled with appeals to authority and unjustified arrogance. I think the peak moment is his argument that the passive voice doesn’t exist in the future progressive. The reason? Because he wants to feel smugly superior to anecdotal college professors:
Then one day I got a rather nasty letter from some English professor at a small college in a state I won’t name. He tore into me, saying ‘Oh yeah? What’s wrong with the future progressive passive will be being shown?’ I soothingly wrote back:
‘There’s nothing wrong with the construction, sir. It simply doesn’t exist, except perhaps in [name of state].’ Whew. Writing a book on grammar takes some guts.
It should take brains. I don’t see why we should consider this guy’s personal opinion to be special. He is trained to be a lawyer and has no particular qualifications to be writing a book on grammar, whereas an English prof might actually know something about passives. An ad hominem attack on an anonymous college professor is not a persuasive argument, and does nothing to support his contention that the passive is not used in the future progressive. A quick search on Google turns up thousands of results for ‘will be being shown’, so it obviously exists in many places, other than [name of state].
At the time, I couldn’t find an authority for my statement. But now I can cite Thomas Kane.
At the time? So when he replied to the college professor, it was an argument based on…gut feeling? Personal whim? A desire to always be right? Why wouldn’t he do the research part first? After all, the professor wrote to him; it wasn’t a question in a live debate. There was time to go look up a supporting source before replying.
[update: I’ve been contacted by the author of this book, and you can read his reply in the comments section below. I earlier incorrectly stated that he had cited Thomas Katen without providing a reference. In fact, the correct name was Thomas Kane, and a reference does appear. I apologize for this error.]
And who is Thomas Kane? He is listed as the author of the 1983 Oxford Guide to Writing. This is barely “citing” someone, since there are no supporting arguments from Kane reproduced for us to read, or any suggestion of why Kane’s work is relevant here. The mere reference to an authority is apparently supposed to be enough. Moreover, it is unclear that Kane is even an appropriate reference in the first place. I was unable to find a copy of the 1983 “Oxford Guide to Writing”, so I couldn’t check the original source, but I was able to look up Kane’s 1994 “New Oxford Guide to Writing” online. This not a grammar book, as the title makes clear. The main sections of the book are “The Writing Process”, “The Essay”, and “The Expository Paragraph”. There is no section specifically devoted to grammatical voice, and using the Google Books search function, I could find no discussion of the passive that is any way relevant to the claim that the future progressive passive doesn’t exist.
It’s no wonder we lament the public’s poor grasp of grammar. When people as ill-informed and pompous as this can write a book on language and get taken seriously, things really are in bad shape.