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
A little while ago, someone on Twitter shared a link to a Grammarly blog post on the subjunctive, which I foolishly clicked on. This is not the first time that I’ve talked about Grammarly, and if you read my earlier post it probably won’t surprise you that nobody over there understands what the subjunctive is. Here’s how the blog post starts out:
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).
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?
This is an unusual one. It’s a grammar book, but it’s written in a narrative style. And just look at that cover.
To give you a flavour of the book, here’s a little passage:
“You see, a noun is a word that – ”
Just then my body froze because a truly enormous, hairy spider was crawling up the table leg. I let out a scream that must have been heard for miles around. Tarzan was momentarily startled, but when he spotted the creature he grabbed a knife and slit the thing in half. Then he carried both halves outside.
When he came back in and sat down I seemed to be breathing normally again, so I continued, “Basically a noun is a word that names something. It can name a person, place, an idea, or an action”.
Sometimes on this blog I do sentence diagrams, and they always have a tree-like structure to them like this:
I don’t just label all the parts of speech like this:
I thought it might be interesting to talk about why that’s done. Why draw upper and lower levels? Why can’t sentences be “flat”?
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.
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.
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