Traditional analysis of English has a heavy focus on words. The eight parts of speech, which is a core concept in traditional grammar, is all about classifying individual words. Many prescriptive rules are concerned with which words to avoid: Don’t end sentences with prepositions. Don’t start with conjunctions. Don’t say ain’t. Don’t use singular they. Nearly every “improve-your-grammar” book has a list of commonly confused or misused words: their/they’re/there, who’s/whose, that/which, principal/principle, etc.
However, languages are not just big bags of words. Words work together, and they can be grouped into larger units called “phrases”. Phrases are an essential part of any theory of grammar. It’s impossible to properly describe a language without at some point needing to talk about groups of words, instead of just individual words. The most obvious example of such a unit is the “sentence”, which is actually just a very large phrase.
Traditional grammar is not totally phrase-free, there’s some discussion here and there, but I think there should be a greater emphasis. One of the most common misconceptions that arises from a lack of awareness about phrases is this one: pronouns replace nouns. What pronouns actually do is replace noun phrases. This is simple to demonstrate:
(1) I ate an enormous maple syrup pie.
(2) *I ate an enormous maple syrup it.
(3) *I ate an it.
(4) I ate it.
If pronouns could really replace nouns, then sentences (2) and (3) would be grammatical. But you can’t just replace the noun pie with the pronoun it, because that’s not how pronouns work. You have to replace the entire noun phrase an enormous maple syrup pie.
All grammar books should be referring to phrases, not individual nouns, in their definition of pronouns. This is not a complicated concept, it is extremely easy to demonstrate to readers, and would only take adding one word. Best of all for a grammar author, adding this one word instantly improves the accuracy of your work. So why is anyone still using the old definition? The cynical part of me says it’s because some of the people dispensing grammar advice are more interested in selling books than analysing English syntax.
But I digress. What I really wanted to bring up in this post is that pronouns are not unique in their ability to replace phrases. Linguists have a general term for this class of words: “pro-forms”.
The pro-forms that replace noun phrases are, appropriately, called “pronouns”. There are also such things as “pro-verbs” which can replace verb phrases. Here’s an example from English:
- Alice washed the dishes and Bob washed the dishes.
- Alice washed the dishes and so did Bob.
The words “so did” replace the entire verb phrase “washed the dishes”. That first
verb “do” will always carry the same tense as the original verb being replaced.
- Alice plays tennis and Bob plays tennis.
- Alice plays tennis and so does Bob.
If the verb is in the progressive, then “is” is repeated and “do” is not used:
- Alice is writing an e-mail and Bob is writing an e-mail.
- Alice is writing an e-mail and so is Bob.
- *Alice is writing an e-mail and so does Bob.
If the verb is in the perfect, then “have” is repeated:
- Alice had been eating and Bob had been eating.
- Alice had been eating and so had Bob.
- *Alice had been eating and so is/did Bob
If there are modal auxiliaries, then they are repeated:
- Alice could have been a millionaire, and so could Bob.
- Alice’s coffee might have been poisoned, and so might Bob’s
That second example has some very complex syntax: the verb is in the passive voice, and there is a possessive.
You might have noticed that the subject comes last in these proverb constructions. It is possible to change the word order around so the subject comes first, although I find it easier to do with if I add the word “too” or re-introduce the verb “do”. I’m not exactly sure how the syntax works here.
- Alice is writing an e-mail, and so is Bob.
- Alice is writing an e-mail, and Bob is (doing) so too.
- Alice will fly to Europe, and so will Bob.
- Alice will fly to Europe, and Bob will (do) so too.
That word ‘so’ is quite versatile, and it can even serve as something of a pro-adjective, in the expressions “more so” and “less so”:
- It’s red like a tomato, only more red.
- It’s red like a tomato, only more so.
It’s possible to have pro-forms for bigger units too. The word “that” can be a pro-sentence, referring to some previous sentence in the discourse:
- I don’t like Aaron. That is the reason I’m not going to his party.
Some people have even analysed the words ‘yes’ and ‘no’ as being pro-sentences, which replace whatever sentence was being asked about in the original question:
- Is Albanian an Indo-European language?
- Yes. (referring to the sentence ‘Albanian is an Indo-European language’)
I was going to finish up this post with some pun about proverbs, but everything I could think of was terrible. So I’ll just let a pronoun end it.