Even More on Grammar

In a previous post I suggested it might be helpful to distinguish between grammar and style. Grammar, to recapitulate, is concerned with the ways in which a dialect allows words and sentences to be constructed. It provides us with rules like that which tells us that the past tense of regular verbs is formed by the addition of‘-(e)d’ to the plain form: walked from walk. Grammarians may disagree on various points, but, on the whole, the grammar of any particular dialect is non-negotiable.

Everything else concerns style. Style considers the type of language that might or might not be suitable for use in a particular place at a particular time for a particular purpose. About that there can a wide range of opinions. Long may the discussion of such views continue, so long as it is clear that any such discussion isn’t about grammar.

Relative clauses might serve as an example of what I mean. Integrated[1] relative clauses in which the antecedent is an inanimate object can be introduced by which, that or by nothing. Thus, we can say:

That’s the tree which the storm blew down.
That’s the tree that the storm blew down.
That’s the tree the storm blew down.

What we can’t say is

*That’s the tree who(m) the storm blew down.

It’s ungrammatical. No one would say it. That’s a matter of fact.

Now, there is some dispute, particularly in the United States, over whether an integrated relative clause can be introduced by which rather than that. There is plenty of evidence to show that it can be. For example, Franklin D Roosevelt spoke of ‘a date which will live in infamy’. The King James Bible uses both which and that in a single sentence: ‘Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.’ Whether or not a writer introduces an integrated relative clause with which is up to the writer. Those who don’t like it don’t have to use it, but what they cannot do is say that it is ungrammatical. Grammar describes features of a dialect which no one of us individually can change. What we do within its constraints is a matter of choice and debate.

[1] ‘Integrated’ is the term used by the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’. Others use ‘defining’ or ‘restrictive’.


Filed under English Language, Grammar, Language

8 responses to “Even More on Grammar

  1. Mmm, I don’t think that’s the best example of an ungrammatical sentence; it feels more like a sentence with a clash of fact. If I read it in a story, I’d expect the tree to talk; otherwise, I’d take it as a radical sort of personification.

    A simple example of ungrammaticality (used for a purpose) is the well-known remark “Ten years ago I couldn’t spell ‘engineer’, and now I are one”, which violates number concord. Another, more deeply ungrammatical one that violates negative polarity rules is “Anybody doesn’t live here now” (for “Nobody lives here now”). The former I could say to be funny; the latter, never.


    • You may be right, John, but I wanted a parallel with the use of ‘which’ to introduce an integrated relative clause. I first thought of the ungrammaticality of omitting the relative pronoun when it is the subject of the clause. We wouldn’t expect, for example, *‘That’s the tree was blown down in the storm’, but I found a couple of counter-examples. I trust, nevertheless, that my main point remains sufficiently clear.


    • In explaining these principles to non-linguists (or better yet aspiring linguists), I personally avoid using examples that deal with number agreement, because there’s SO much variation across varieties in terms of what would be grammatical, and I don’t want them to extrapolate more general principles from a claim like “*I are” is ungrammatical that “we is” or “you is” would also be universally ungrammatical.

      I actually usually go very extreme to a system I’ve never seen any great variation in in English: determiner noun order. For example, *Sentence this is ungrammatical. I think this helps to illustrate how what we’re talking about as ungrammatical is quite distinct from the prescriptive notion of ungrammatical, because such a sentence would be completely off the radar of prescriptivists.


      • Yes, that is a much better example than mine of what is ungrammatical, but, as I said, I was looking for an ungrammatical use of a relative pronoun. And I can see the difficulty of using number agreement. I suppose you could explain that ‘we is’ and so on are ungrammatical in Standard English, but grammatical in other dialects, but that probably takes you too far from the basic point.


  2. I wouldn’t say “the tree who was blown down”. But I would say “the tree whose limbs were cut off”.


  3. I’ve copied the table of which wh-words are usable for what purposes from Pullum’s paper “The Truth about English Grammar: Rarely Pure and Never Simple” to this page. It shows that animate and inanimate whose don’t have the same grammaticality conditions: in Standard English, you can say Whose shoes are these? (or I know whose shoes these are), but not *Whose hinges are squeaking? (or *I can’t tell whose hinges are squeaking). At least, not without personifying. What’s more, inanimate whose is pretty shaky in supplementary (aka parenthetical, aka non-restrictive) relative clauses, too: ?I fixed the back door, whose hinges were squeaking. Pullum’s point is that there is simply no explanation of all these brute facts about which wh-words can be used when: you just have to know them. And, if you are an E*L teacher, teach them too.

    This is another of those places where Standard English is more restrictive than other dialects or its ancestor Early Modern English: Shakespeare had no trouble with Who steals my purse steals trash (fused who), and Molly Ivins wrote a book called You Got to Dance With Them What Brung You, (integrated what) but neither is (contemporary) Standard English.


    • Thank you, John, for expanding the field. We can’t have too much Pullum. (The link you gave just goes back to my post. His paper is accessible here.)

      Fused ‘who’ survives in the motto of the UK’s special forces regiment, ‘Who Dares Wins’, but that is arguably formulaic. We can, however, substitute ‘whoever’ for ‘who’, so that anyone who wanted to could today say ‘Whoever steals my purse steals trash’.


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