The words less and fewer are a troublesome pair. There is a lot of variation in the way that people use them, but traditionalists insist that this is wrong and the two words are never interchangeable. What’s the difference? How does one decide which word to use? Let’s ask the grammar books: Continue reading
Tag Archives: parts of speech
Some dialects of English have a feature known as the “double negative”. In these dialects, a negative sentence can contain more than one negative word. For example, a speaker of such a dialect might say “I didn’t see nobody” to express that nobody was seen.
Double negatives are widely perceived to be bad grammar, and virtually all traditional grammar books contain a section condemning them. The same reason is given every time: Continue reading
As you might know, I like to review grammar books. For this post, I decided to look at the grammar advice offered by university Writing Centres. Virtually all universities have something like this. It’s a place for students who are struggling with assignments such as essays and reports. Generally they’re aimed at first language speakers, but some have ESL support as well.
One thing I found was that a number of writing centres offer little or no grammar advice. Instead, their focus is on topics like how to structure essays, how to write for different academic disciplines, how to do a bibliography, and so on. Some offered almost no online advice at all, and their website was mainly a contact page for students looking for in-person help. This is perfectly acceptable, of course, since that’s what the writing centre is for.
Some, however, offered guides on grammar, and these the ones I’m reviewing here. I picked three universities for this post, and focussed on only one or two issues in each case. This is to keep the post a readable length, and to avoid repeating myself too much. Many of the issues that I’ll discuss were not unique to a single university, and I could easily have picked a different three (although the website design for the University of Calgary is something special).
I suppose I should start the post by describing what a gerund is, in order for us all to be on the same page. In extremely non-technical terms, a gerund is a word-type that looks like a verb with an -ing suffix, but also looks like a noun because it can be the subject of a verb. For example, the following sentences contain gerunds (bolded):
Eating is enjoyable.
Reading Chomsky makes my head spin.
I can’t believe Mark’s cheating on the test doesn’t bother you.
These are tricky words to describe, and traditional grammars are often at odds with each other about how to treat them. Some people will tell you these are definitely verbs, but others will insist they are nouns. Some grammarians take a half-way view and say something like “gerunds are verbs that act like nouns”.
It turns out that this is one occasion where I will not be picking apart the traditional view, because things really are messy. Gerunds have weird mixed behaviour that makes them look a little bit like verbs, a little bit like nouns. They also have unique properties of their own that they don’t share with either nouns or verbs.
A morpheme is the smallest unit of language that carries meaning. A word consists of one or more morphemes. For example, elephant is a morpheme, the plural suffix –s is a morpheme, the word elephants is a word consisting of two morphemes.
Morphemes can be “free”, meaning they are used by themselves, (e.g. house, car, walk, eat, from, to, but, him) or they are “bound”, meaning they only appear when attached to another free morpheme (e.g. the plural suffix –s, the past tense –ed, the prefix re-, the possessive ‘s, etc.). The concept of a morpheme is extremely useful in describing any language, and I’ll make use of it throughout this post.
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.
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?