Category Archives: Grammar Basics

Grammar Basics: Relative Clauses

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A relative clause can be introduced by the relative pronouns who, whom, which or whose, by the subordinator that and by the relative adverbs where, why and when. In some cases the relative pronoun can be omitted, and in some cases it is preceded by a preposition. For the sake of simplicity, in this post I ignore clauses beginning with relative adverbs.

English relative clauses are of two kinds, known traditionally as defining and non-defining or restrictive and non-restrictive, but I use here the terms given in ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’, integrated and supplementary.

An integrated relative clause is an essential part of the meaning of a sentence. This is the house that Jack built is an example. It is true that This is the house on its own is a grammatical sentence and that it has a meaning. But if what we have in mind is a particular house and we want to relate it to its builder, we have to add the words that Jack built. Those words define the kind of house it is. An integrated relative clause can be introduced by both that and which. As well as This is the house that Jack built we can say This is the house which Jack built. Some argue that an integrated relative clause must be introduced only by that and not by which, but they  do so in the face of the evidence. We can also leave out the relative pronoun altogether and say This is the house Jack built.

By contrast, in the sentence Jack, whom my sister married three years ago, built that house, the relative clause, whom my sister married three years ago, is supplementary. The information which it provides is incidental to the matter of who built the house. In writing, it is the convention to place a supplementary relative clause between commas, and that can provide a ready way of identifying it as such.  That is not normally used to introduce a supplementary relative clause, so we wouldn’t say or write *Jack, that my sister married three years ago, built that house. And we can’t omit the relative pronoun in a supplementary relative clause, so we can’t say or write *Jack, my sister married three years ago, built that house.

In an integrated relative clause in which the relative pronoun is the subject of the clause, the relative pronoun must be used. It’s who for a human referent, which for a non-human referent, but that can also be used for both instead. When it is the object of the clause, the relative pronoun may, as we have seen, be omitted, but, if it is used, it is whom for a human referent, which for a non-human referent and that for either, with the provision that who can be, and in practice usually is, used for human referents in all but the most formal contexts. Some commentators think that a clause introduced by that cannot have a human referent. They are wrong. Irving Berlin wrote:

The girl that I marry will have to be
As soft and as pink as a nursery

and Shakespeare had Hamlet say:

By heaven, I’ll make a ghost of him that lets me

In a supplementary relative clause, the relative pronoun is always present, whether it is the subject or the object of the relative clause. When it’s the subject, it’s who for a human referent, which for a non-human referent. When it’s the object of the clause, it’s who for human referents, with whom again being used in formal contexts, and which for non-human referents.

It follows that these sentences are all permissible.

INTEGRATED

I. Relative pronoun as subject

Human Referent

1a. He’s the journalist who spoke to me last week.
1b. He’s the journalist that spoke to me last week.

Non-human Referent

1c. That’s the tree which was blown down in the storm.
1d. That’s the tree that was blown down in the storm.

II. Relative pronoun as object

Human Referent

2a. He’s the journalist whom I met last week.
2b. He’s the journalist who I met last week.
2c. He’s the journalist that I met last week.
2d. He’s the journalist I met last week.

Non-human Referent

2e. That’s the tree which the storm blew down.
2f. That’s the tree that the storm blew down.
2g. That’s the tree the storm blew down.

III. Relative pronoun as possessive

Human Referent

3a. A president whose record in office is unblemished will not necessarily be remembered for it.

Non-human Referent

3b. A tree whose branches are frequently cut will produce more growth.
3c. A tree of which the branches are frequently cut will produce more growth.

IV. Relative pronoun as a preposition complement

Human Referent

4a. Those to whom we normally look for guidance have failed us.
4b. Those who we normally look to for guidance have failed us.
4c. Those that we normally look to for guidance have failed us.
4d. Those we normally look to for guidance have failed us.

Non-human Referent

4e. The tree about which I’m talking about has been blown over.
4f. The tree that I’m talking about has been blown over.
4g. The tree I’m talking about has been blown over.

SUPPLEMENTARY

V. Relative pronoun as subject

 Human Referent

5a. John, who was a brilliant rugby player, has now turned to cricket.

Non-human Referent

5b. That box, which just contains a lot of old junk, should be thrown out.

VI. Relative pronoun as object

 Human Referent

6a. The president, whom I had last seen in 1992, had aged considerably.
6b. The president, who I had last seen in 1992, had aged considerably.

Non-human Referent

6c. The old oak tree, which the storm had blown down ten years previously, was starting to decay.

VII. Relative pronoun as possessive

 Human Referent

7a. The president, whose term of office has now ended, will be retiring to his home in the country.

 Non-human Referent

7b. The tree, of which the branches need cutting, gives too much shade.
7c. The tree, whose branches need cutting, gives too much shade.

VIII. Relative pronoun as a preposition complement

Human Referent

8a. The client, for whom we have worked for three years, has thanked us for our dedication to his account.
8b. The client, who we have worked for for three years, has thanked us for our dedication to his account.
8c. The client, whom we have worked for for three years, has thanked us for our dedication to his account.

Non-human Referent

8d. The tree, for which we had a great deal of irrational affection, was finally dying.
8e. The tree, which we had a great deal of irrational affetion for, was finally dying.

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Grammar Basics: Conditional Sentences

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The last post looked at the different kinds of subjunctive. The subjunctive mood of the verb is sometimes confused with conditional sentences. That may be because English can use the were subjunctive in a conditional sentence such as If I were you, I’d ask for your money back, where were expresses ‘unreal meaning’. This use of were is discussed more fully in the earlier post.

The main types of conditional sentence as taught to foreign learners are called the first, second and third conditional.

The first conditional is seen in a sentence such as If you run you will catch the train. The verb in the if clause is in the present tense, while the main clause has the modal verb will followed by the plain form of the main verb. This form of the conditional is used in situations where the action envisaged is quite likely to happen.

In the second conditional, events are far less certain. If we doubt the commitment and perhaps physical state of the person we’re talking to, we might say If you ran, you would catch the train. Here the verb in the if clause is in the past tense, while the main clause has would followed again by the plain form of the main verb. It can also occur more formally as If you were to run you would catch the train, and this can be inverted, without if, as Were you to run you would catch the train.

The third conditional is used in a situation where all hope of catching the train is lost, because it has left the station at the time of speaking. In those circumstances, we might say If you had run, you would have caught the train. To form that conditional sentence we use the past tense of have followed by the plain form of the main verb in the if clause. In the main clause we again use the modal verb would as in the second conditional, but follow it with have and the past participle of the main verb. This, too, can be inverted without if: Had you run, you would have caught the train.

This framework of three conditionals may be helpful to foreign learners, but more advanced students will want to know that it does not entirely reflect the reality, and that several other conditional sentences are also possible. One, sometimes known as the ‘zero conditional’, is used for a statement of what is generally believed to be a fact. For example, If water reaches 100 degrees, it boils. Here both verbs are in the present tense. Several other conditional sentences using combinations of verb phrases are also possible.

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Grammar Basics: Subjunctive

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Bruce Mitchell tells us in ‘An Invitation to Old English and Anglo-Saxon England’ that Old English had a Present Subjunctive and a Preterite Subjunctive and in each there was a singular form and a plural form. For example, singan (to sing) had Present Subjunctive singular singe (identical to the first person singular of the Present Indicative) and plural singen and Preterite Subjunctive had singular sunge and plural sungen.

As Mitchell writes, ‘the subjunctive is now largely obsolete’, and, as David Crystal writes in ‘Rediscover Grammar’, ‘The subjunctive is used very little in modern English’. Indeed, English has never had a full set of subjunctive forms which serve no other purpose in the way that, say, Latin and French (at least for être and avoir) have. It survives in English in formulaic expressions such as God Save The Queen and Heaven Forbid. These are unlikely ever to change, although the same sentiments can be expressed as May God Save The Queen and May Heaven Forbid. It is also present in what is known as the mandative subjunctive. There, it occurs after verbs of proposing, suggesting and recommending, as in The directors recommend that, after many years of loyal service, he retire and I propose that she offer an apology. Here, too, it is possible, at least in British English, to say instead The directors recommend that, after many years of loyal service, he should retire and I propose that she should offer an apology.

Most grammarians also see the subjunctive in conditional sentences such as I’d tell the truth if I were you and If he were a gentleman, he’d apologise’, where it expresses a hypothetical or unreal meaning, even though it is evident only in the first and third persons singular, where were takes the place of was. However, was is sometimes mandatory, as in If I was rude, I apologize. That has a different meaning from If I were rude, I would apologize, but even there, little seems to be gained by not using the indicative If I was rude, I would apologize. Those who argue otherwise must explain how we are able to differentiate between the two meanings in the second person and in the first and third persons plural. (Those who also wish to preserve the mandative subjunctive must answer a similar question.)

I had a reason for beginning the previous paragraph with the words ‘most grammarians’. The authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’, Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum, describe the use of were in the first and third person singular not as a subjunctive form, but as ‘irrealis’ were. In a sentence such I was rude to you yesterday and I apologise’, was has a temporal meaning, but in If I was rude, I would apologize’, even though it takes the same form, it has a modal one. It is certainly possible to replace was in the second sentence with were, but doing so makes the sentence more formal. It does not make it any more grammatical.

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Grammar Basics: Active and Passive

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The previous posts give a very broad overview of the nature of English grammar, but they omit many important topics. I would urge anyone seeking more information to consult some of the books listed on the References page. However, I will, in this and in subsequent posts, look at some particular grammar topics which, for the sake of simplicity, I have left out of earlier ones. In the first few, I’ll consider some further points about verbs, starting with what are called the Active and the Passive Voice, although not all linguists use the term ‘voice’.

An example of the verb in the active is Picasso painted my portrait. That’s a sentence, on the SVO pattern. We can express the same idea in another way. We can say My portrait was painted by Picasso. Here something rather peculiar seems to have happened. The Object in the first sentence, my portrait, has somehow become the Subject in this sentence. It’s on the pattern SVA, Subject-Verb-Adverbial, the Adverbial being by Picasso, because it tells us something about the way in which the portrait was painted. The verb has changed, too. The past tense painted has become the past tense of be, followed by the past participle of paint: was painted. Although my portrait is the Subject of the sentence, we still have the sense that something is being done to it, rather than that it is doing something itself. In other words, it’s being, well, passive. Be is a copulative verb and that means that it acts rather like an ‘equals’ sign. So, my portrait = painted and the past tense ‘was’ tells us that it happened some time ago.

We can conclude from this that the English passive is formed by taking the object of the sentence as it appears in the active and placing it at the beginning of the passive sentence, thus making it the subject of the new sentence. We change the verb from the active to the passive by taking its past participle, painted in this case, and placing it after the appropriate tense of the primary auxiliary verb be. My portrait was painted by Picasso happens to contain, as we have seen, the Adverbial by Picasso. Such a constituent of the sentence is called the Agent or the  Instrument, the latter because it tells us who (or sometimes what) was, yes, instrumental, in bringing about the action described. Note, though, that an Instrument is not always necessary in a passive sentence. We can say, for example, My house was broken into without saying who by, perhaps because we don’t know.

An important point to notice about the formation of a passive sentence from an active one is that the process is possible only when the active sentence has an object, that is, when it is on the pattern SVO, SVOO or SVOA. That’s because, as we have seen, the Object of the active sentence becomes the subject of the passive sentence. If the active sentence has no Object, then there can be no passive version.

Functional Grammar analyses a sentence like Picasso painted my portrait rather differently. Picasso is a Participant, known as the Actor in this kind of sentence, painted is the Material Processand my portrait is another Participant, known as the Goal. When it’s made passive the Participants remain the same: My portrait [GOAL] was painted [MATERIAL PROCESS] by Picasso [ACTOR].

Geoffrey Pullum, Professor of General Linguistics, University of Edinburgh, has written a full and authoritative exposition on ‘The Passive in English’ on Language Log. He also shows how little those who comment on it actually know about it in his paper ‘Fear and Loathing of the English Passive’.

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Grammar Basics: Sentence Structure (3)

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The structure Subject-Verb-Object-Object, or SVOO is similar to the basic SVO. It occurs in a sentence like William gave his sister the key. In some contexts, William gave the key on its own, on the SVO pattern, might make sense, but in most cases it isn’t enough, and nor is William gave his sister. We want to know both what it was that William gave and who he gave it to. William’s sister is on the receiving end of gave, but not in the same way as the key is. We mark the difference by saying that the key is the direct object and his sister the indirect object. In that way we can justify the description SVOO.

In the same way that we can add another Object to the SVO structure and get an SVOO structure, we can add a Complement, and get a Subject-Verb-Object-Complement structure, or SVOC. An example would be William thought his sister stupid. Although this sentence has a Subject in William, a Verb in thought and an Object in his sister, it cannot stand on its own as *William thought his sister . It needs something to complete it, in other words it needs a Complement, which in this sentence is supplied by stupid.

The last of the seven structures is Subject-Verb-Object-Adverbial or SVOA. We have already seen all of these terms used to describe one or other of the preceding structures, so all that is new is the way in which these four components can be put together. They occur in the sentence William drove his car to the beach, in which William is the Subject, drove the verb, his car the Object and to the beach the Adverbial.

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Grammar Basics: Sentence Structure (2)

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If we say William drives carefully we have created a sentence on the Subject-Verb-Adverbial pattern, or SVA, carefully being the Adverbial. It describes the manner in which William drives. Carefully itself is an adverb, but Adverbials do not necessarily have to be adverbs. Consider the sentence William drives too fast for his own good. The whole of the phrase too fast for his own good constitutes an Adverbial in that it too tells us something about the manner of William’s driving.

The fourth sentence structure is Subject-Verb-Complement, or SVC. At its most basic level, a Complement completes a clause or a phrase, so you might say that a Complement is anything that follows the Verb, but that would not allow us to distinguish the different ways in which a sentence can be completed. What we refer to as a Complement very often follows verbs like be and seem. These are known as copulative verbs because they join two parts of a sentence together rather in the way that an ‘equals’ sign joins together two parts of an algebraic equation. Consider the sentence William seems happy. Seems doesn’t actually tell us that William is doing anything and happy is not on the receiving end of anything he is actually doing. What we can very nearly do is replace seems with an ‘equals’ sign: William =  happy. We could perhaps more readily do so if the sentence was William is happy, because is gives us a more reliable indication of William’s emotional state than seems does.

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Grammar Basics: Sentence Structure (1)

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The way we put words together to make sentences is known as syntax. It’s easiest to consider the  basics of syntax in terms of canonical sentences. A canonical sentence is a sentence of the simplest, and possibly commonest, kind. An example might be William drives. Simple enough. No negation. No question. A simple statement. Three non-canonical versions, just to give an idea of the difference, would be Does William drive? William doesn’t drive and Doesn’t William drive? There are seven ways in which canonical sentences can be structured  in English. The first two are Subject-Verb and  Subject-Verb-Object.

In the sentence William drives we can identify what each of the two words does by giving them names. William is the Subject and drives is the Verb, so we can say the sentence has the structure Subject-Verb or S-V. William does something and drives describes what he does. In this sentence, drives is known as an intransitive verb. The sentence is complete in itself. As far as the structure of the sentence is concerned, William doesn’t need to be driving anything in particular.

Now, contrast that sentence with William drives a Mercedes. We can already identify the first two words as Subject and Verb. What of the next two words, a Mercedes? Well, they clearly tell us the make of car William drives, and we can perhaps see that in a way William does something to a Mercedes. He drives one. Where the sense of the verb carries over to a further part of the sentence in this way, we say that the verb is transitive. This structure is known as Subject-Verb-Object, or S-V-O.

We find the same structure in the sentence The dog bit the man. That tells us something about the effect of aggressive canine behaviour on a male member of the human race. If we said The man bit the dog, that would not mean the same thing at all. That is because English is an analytical language. That means it shows the relationship between words by their order in the sentence. It contrasts with an synthetic language like Latin, which shows such relationships not by word order, but by different endings, or inflections on words. Another language that did the same thing is Old English, the language of England roughly from the fifth to the eleventh century. We see the most extensive remnants of the Old English reflectional system in Modern English pronouns.

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