Category Archives: Grammar

Grammar Basics: Morphemes

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The smallest building blocks of meaning in a language are called morphemes. Walk, for example, the basic form of the verb, is a morpheme. We can’t break it down any further in terms of meaning. Wal, for example, doesn’t mean anything in Modern English, and nor does alk. The basic form, walk, is what you’d look up in a dictionary, and it’s used when we say I walk, you walk, we walk, and they walk, and also when there’s no particular person attached to the verb, as in He prefers to walk. When we’re talking about someone other than you and me or you and us or several other people, we add -s to the basic form to produce he walks and she walks.

If we add ed we can create the past tense, they walked. That ending also forms the past participle that allows us to say things like we have walked. Finally, we can add ing and get walking, and that allows us to make constructions like we were walking. It also means we can say things like Walking is good for your health.

So walk can occur in four different forms. Because it can stand on its own it’s called a free morpheme. It contrasts with the morphemes -s, -ed and ing which are of no use on their own. To make any sense they have to be tied, or bound, to a free morpheme, and so they’re known as bound morphemes.

Now, take a word like recalculation. That happens to be a noun, but at the heart of it there’s the verb calculate. We can’t break that down any further in terms of meaning, so we can conclude that calculate is a morpheme, and, because it makes sense on its own, it’s a free morpheme. But we can create a noun from it by dropping the e and adding ation to give us calculation. -ation cannot be further broken down in terms of meaning, so we can conclude that it, too, is a morpheme, and, because it cannot stand alone, it’s a bound morpheme. If the process of calculation happens more than once we can place re- , another bound morpheme, in front and get recalculation.

A final note on bound morphemes. The bound morphemes -s, -ed  and -ing can be added to a verb to show how we want the verb to be understood, but they don’t change its basic meaning. They’re called suffixes because they come at the end of the verb, and because they merely modify the verb, they’re called inflectional suffixes. They contrast with a morpheme like ation, which creates a new kind of word, a noun. Because they allow us to derive one word from another, suffixes like that are called derivational suffixes. When bound morphemes occur at the beginning of a word, like re-, they’re called derivational prefixes.

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Filed under Grammar Basics, Morphology

I’m Going To Report You

Many comments on the use of English amount to little more than the expression of personal preferences and dislikes. We are all, of course, entitled to have them, but it’s a different matter when those who express them insist that their predilections represent The Only True Way, and try to impose them on the rest of us.

I, too, have my irrational prejudices, but I don’t pretend they’re holy writ. I’m not alone. In ‘The Language Instinct’, Steven Pinker confesses his distaste for the use of disinterested to mean ‘apathetic’ (see Caxton’s discussion here). But he redems himself with:

Every component of a language changes over time, and at any moment a language is enduring many losses. But since the human mind does not change over time, the richness of a language is always being replenished.’

I have already mentioned one of my bugaboos, the use of ‘deliver’ to mean ‘provide’. I have taken care to record that my objection to it has no basis in etymology or usage (oh, if only others would do the same).

Here’s another, and it’s in the ‘I was always taught’ category. When direct speech is reported, certain changes occur. If someone says I’m tired, another person reporting what was said will turn it into She said she was tired. I becomes she and ‘m becomes was. The first person pronoun becomes the third person pronoun, and the tense is shifted backwards. As the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ (LSGSWE) has it:

The original speech or thoughts may have been in present tense, but past tense is usually used for the reports.

It continues:

Notice that the circumstances may still be continuing even though past tense is used.

Precisely. In my example, although was is past tense, she may actually still be tired at the time I’m speaking, so we don’t need to say She said she’s tired.

But lo, the LSGSWE also says:

Although this use of past tense in reported speech is common, reported speech also occurs with other tenses. Consider these examples:

She said she feels good now.

Graham said the owls’ messy habit makes them the ideal bird for the study.

Here, the reporting verb (said) is in the past tense, but the verb in the indirect quote remains in the present tense, emphasizing that the circumstances expressed by feels and makes are still continuing.

Hm, perhaps.


Filed under Grammar

Unruly Reflexives

This post is one in a series about The Negative Canon.


In my post of 10 April I discussed the use of myself in place of both I and me. Earlier this month I reported Pam Peters’s desire to reinstate themself to its rightful place among the reflexive pronouns.

Any further examination of the English reflexive pronouns shows they are a right old mess. Just to remind any who may be uncertain, the reflexive pronouns are distinguished by the singular suffix –self and the plural suffix -selves. Apart from the substitution of myself for I and me, they have two uses. They reflect the action of a clause back onto its subject, as in We frightened ourselves. They also emphasise some other element in a clause, as in We weren’t frightened ourselves, but some of the others were.

Here’s how they’re a mess. In Standard English, myself, yourself, herself, ourselves and yourselves all use the possessive determiner for the first part, but himself and themselves use the accusative form of the personal pronoun. (OK, herself could be either, because they’re identical.)  Itself could be from the nominative or  accusative form of the personal pronoun (they, too, are identical), or, with only a little adaptation, from the possessive determiner. This leads to the curious situation in which themselves, using the accusative form, is standard, but the analogous meself isn’t. At the same time, theirselves, analogous with ourselves, is also nonstandard. Not only that, but in the third person singular alone, feminine herself taken as if from the possessive determiner, is standard, but mascuiine hisself, also using the possessive determiner, isn’t.

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ refers to Bishop Lowth as regarding himself and themselves as corruptions, preferring instead his self and their selves. In this he had consistency on his side, but others would have none of it. Without referring specifically to the bishop, the OED also notes that there has been a tendency from the 14th century to treat self as a noun (= person, personality), and substitute the possessive his for him and their for them, but adds that this is now nonstandard, except where some other word intervenes to give his own/very/good/true self or their own/sweet/very selves.

So what are the rules for forming reflexive pronouns in Standard English? They go like this.

In the singular, the first and second person reflexive pronouns are formed by adding the suffix –self to the first and second person singular possessive determiners to produce myself and yourself. In the third person, they are formed by adding the same suffix to the accusative form of the masculine personal pronoun to produce the masculine himself; by adding it to the accusative form of the feminine personal pronoun (or to the third person feminine possessive determiner) to produce feminine herself; and by adding it to the nominative (or accusative) form of the neuter personal pronoun (or, if you suppress the final –s, to the third person singular neuter possessive pronoun) to produce neuter itself.

In the plural, the suffix selves is added to the first and second plural possessive determiners to produce ourselves and yourselves. In the third person, –selves is added to the accusative form of the third person plural personal pronoun to produce themselves. An alternative is formed using the singular suffix -self to produce themselfused by those who wish to refer back to, or to emphasise, singular they.

In some nonstandard dialects, some of the rules are different. In the singular, the first person reflexive pronoun is formed not from the first person singular possessive determiner, but from the accusative form of the first person singular personal pronoun, to produce meself. The third person masculine reflexive pronoun is formed not from the accusative form of the masculine singular personal pronoun, but from the possessive determiner, to produce hisself. And in the plural the third person reflexive pronoun is formed not from the accusative form of the third person plural personal pronoun, but from the third person plural possessive determiner to produce theirselves.

Got that?


Filed under English Language, Grammar, Language

Curb Your Smugness

Well-informed comment about language in the popular press is rare, but there are exceptions. In the US, ‘veteran drudge John E McIntyre writes about language, usage, and journalism & arbitrarily chosen subjects’ in the ‘Baltimore Sun’. He does so with good humour and the benefit of long experience in his trade. His column is ‘You Don’t Say’, and he has a Facebook page.

His post ‘The Law of Conservation of Peevery’ on 8 August considers the ‘tradition of lamentation that has wagged its head and clucked its tongue over the precipitous decline of the language virtually since the Norman victory at Hastings’. The peeverein should read it, but of course they won’t. I recommend it in its entirety (it isn’t long), but here are his trenchant comments on some of the tired old grumbles.

Every writer I have ever encountered has at one time or another written ‘it’s’ for ‘its’. So have I. The wrong neuron fires across a synapse; it’s a spelling error, for Fowler’s sake, not a crime against the Holy Ghost.

Complaining about slang is like complaining that the tides keep the ocean from being level.

Linguists describe languages as they exist. It’s pointless to whinge that they do not describe language as you imagine it to be.

Most people write inexpertly. Most people who write always have. Writing is not easy to master. If you have developed a facility for it, good for you. That does not, however, make you morally superior to those who have not, any more than mastery of any other skill, such as pie-making or plumbing, confers moral elevation. Curb your smugness.


Filed under English Language, Grammar, Language

Here, There And Everywhere

The final words of the Beatles song, from the 1966 ‘Revolver’ album, are:

I will be there and everywhere
Here, there and everywhere.

In the last line, here and everywhere are clearly adverbs, and so too is there. However, the use of there in other contexts is not always so straightforward, as comments on my previous post on there’s have shown.

As The Ridger suggested, the English default word order of Subject-Verb-Object no doubt has something to do with the invariable nature of there (i)’s. The full form even makes its appearance in a literary context in these final lines from G K Chesterton’s ‘The Rolling English Road’:

For there is good news yet to hear and fine things to be seen,
Before we go to Paradise by way of Kensal Green.

We do, however, hit a problem with this view when we come to look at the past tense. As Peter Harvey asked, ‘Is there was acceptable with a plural complement?’ The answer is almost certainly that it is not, at least in Standard English. Even in a context where we might expect informal language, standard agreement occurs:

There were four and twenty virgins down from Inverness

Even rugby players whose normal dialect is nonstandard would hesitate to begin the line with there was.

Of the following, (1) is the colloquial usage of the kind discussed in my earlier post. Few, I imagine, would say or write (2) (and I will admit that Chesterton’s use of is seems to be dictated by the singular good news that immediately follows it rather than by the coordinated fine things). (3) and (5) are the normal written forms in Standard English. (4) is undoubtedly nonstandard.

(1) There’s three people standing outside.

(2) There is three people standing outside.

(3) There are three people standing outside.

(4) There was three people standing outside.

(5) There were three people standing outside.

A similar pattern emerges when the first word is here. (6) might be normal enough, but its full form (7) seems less likely.  Like (3), (8) is Standard English, but the singular past tense (9) seems every bit as nonstandard as (4), leaving (10) as the standard form.

(6) Here’s many sights to please the eye.

(7) Here is many sights to please the eye.

(8) Here are many sights to please the eye.

(9) Here was many sights to please the eye.

(10) Here were many sights to please the eye.

If (1) and (6) are used frequently enough in everyday discourse to be unexceptionable, it cannot only be because the English default word order means that no attention is paid to what follows. Isn’t it also because in speech there’s and here’s are easier to pronounce and the forms have carried over into some writing, and also because there’s, at least, is, in Pam Peters’s words, ‘evolving into a fixed phrase’?

If that is the case, we have to ask, in Warsaw Will’s words, ‘whether certain idiomatic expressions should be treated as incorrect just because they don’t fit in formal grammar’. My answer is, certainly not. The suggestion that ‘informal is normal’, which Will mentioned, is in fact Geoffrey Pullum’s, made on ‘Lingua Franca’, where he trenchantly and accurately wrote:

Anyone who thinks that writing in Normal rather than Formal style reveals grammatical incompetence is a fool.

One commentator took me to task elsewhere for suggesting that it was French il y a rather than c’ est that might be comparable to there’s. It isn’t, because il y a is followed by an object and not, like there’s, by a complement. The same objection might apply to German es gibt, which Virgil T. Morant mentioned in his comment. But it doesn’t apply to French il est (or to c’est and ce sont) or to German es ist and es sind.

Now, to return to the start of this post, here can readily be seen as an adverb in (6)-(10). It simply means ‘in this place’. Many uses of there are similar, and it often means, in contrast, ‘in that place’, but in (1)-(6) it doesn’t seem to be an exact parallel of here. The OED, while considering it as an adverb, contrasts There comes the train! with There comes a time when . . . , pointing out that, ‘while in the former there is demonstrative and stressed, in the latter it has been reduced to a mere anticipative element occupying the place of the subject which comes later.’ ‘A mere anticipative element’ seems to be exactly what it is in (1)-(6), and, if it is an adverb, it’s a rather unusual use of an adverb. It’s a word empty of meaning, like the so-called ‘dummy’ it in It’s raining.

‘Adverb’ is sometimes referred to as the dustbin category, which is a little unfair on a group of blameless words that perform an important function, and whose use is normally clear. But it does seems to be stretching the bounds of definition somewhat to include there  among the adverbs when, like anticipatory it, it is used as a kind of place-holder. Perhaps there are some words (the particle to before an infinitive might be another) that should be assigned to an entirely new category, or perhaps grammarians should admit that there are some words used in some contexts that don’t comfortably fit into any category.


Filed under English Language, Grammar, Language, Spoken English, Standard English, Syntax

What is Grammar, How Does It Change . . . ?

This is a lightly edited repeat of a contribution I have made to a discussion elsewhere.

Grammar is the set of rules that tells us how morphemes, the smallest units of meaning, may be combined to form words (morphology) and how words may be combined to form sentences (syntax). One rule of English grammar, for example, tells us that regular verbs form their past tense and past participle by the addition of -ed. We have to say, in modern Standard English, he walked and not *he wolk. Another tells us that determiners precede nouns. We have to say my house and not *house my. If you want something a little less obvious, then consider the fact that in English an anaphor may not both precede and command its antecedent.

These are real rules, which no normal adult native speaker of English will break. That’s why grammar is a matter of fact. It contrasts with style, which is a matter of opinion. There is no rule of English grammar that prohibits what is known inaccurately to most people as a split infinitive. It follows that whether a writer chooses to write ‘to suddenly realise’ or ‘to realise suddenly’ is a matter of style, of opinion. Nor is there any rule of English grammar that requires ‘that’ to introduce a restrictive relative clause. So an American president may choose to say ‘a day which will live in infamy’ or ‘a day that will live in infamy’ (and we know what he did choose). Both choices in each case are grammatical.

The rules of Standard English are codified in scholarly works of grammar. The early ones were little more than a reflection of the writer’s own preferences, but the past 30 years have seen the publication of grammars that go far beyond that approach, and they have been enormously improved by the availability of the evidence found in vast electronic corpora. The three monumental works during this period are ‘A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language’ by Quirk and others, ‘The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ by Biber and others and ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ by Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey Pullum. They are based on a thorough examination of the way modern English is actually used, for, as Henry Sweet wrote in 1891:

In considering the use of grammar as a corrective of what are called ‘ungrammatical’ expressions, it must be borne in mind that the rules of grammar have no value except as statements of facts: whatever is in general use in a language is for that very reason grammatically correct.

The same thought has been expressed in our own day by the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’:

Grammar rules must ultimately be based on facts about how people speak and write. If they don’t have that basis, they have no basis at all.

As long ago as the early sixteenth century, John Colet saw that this was also true of Latin, as indeed it is of any language:

In the beginning men spake not Latin because such rules were made, but, contrariwise, because men spake Latin the rules were made. That is to say, Latin speech was before the rules, and not the rules before the Latin speech.

It would take a major piece of research to compare these three very long (and expensive) books, although all three have shortened versions.  The authors of the ‘Cambridge Grammar’, at least, do have a different approach to some topics. They use the terms ‘integrated’ and ‘supplementary’, where others use ‘restrictive’ (or ‘defining’) and ‘non-restrictive’ (or ‘non-defining’) to describe the two types of relative clause. They do not consider what most others call the ‘were-subjunctive’ to be subjunctive at all, giving it instead the term ‘irrealis were’. Where most other linguists recognise only two English tenses, present and past, they speak of the perfect as ‘a past tense that is marked by means of an auxiliary verb rather than by inflection’. They class as prepositions words that other grammars class as adverbs or subordinating conjunctions.

The ‘Longman Grammar’ draws heavily on evidence from the Longman Spoken and Written English Corpus, and concentrates particularly on the grammatical differences between the four registers of Conversation, Fiction, News and Academic Prose. The stripped-down version, the ‘Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English’ is one of the best general introductions to English grammar.

I suspect that there is much more agreement than disagreement in all three. They are concerned only with Standard English, and, as Huddleston and Pullum have written:

[There is] remarkably widespread agreement about how sentences should be constructed for such purposes as publication, political communication, or government broadcasting. This widespread agreement defines what we are calling Standard English.

So much for the rules of grammar themselves. The answer to the question ‘How are they changed?’ the answer is that, unlike style, they generally change very slowly. The erosion of inflections, for example, has been going on for centuries, and it continues. Our pronouns are pale shadows of their former selves, and it looks as if the remaining inflections will reduce further, with the growing merging of I and me, for example, and the loss of  whom in all but the most formal contexts. The subjunctive, too, at least in British English, is all but extinct. These changes are not to be regretted. They are part of the very essence of language, and they occur because the needs of a language’s speakers change. Like the Sabbath, language was made for man, and not man for language. As Michael Halliday, the linguist most closely associated with Systemic Functional Linguistics, has written, ‘Language is as it is because of what it has to do’.

There is no single Standard English, but each major English-speaking state has its own standard. Any changes to those standards following the technological developments of the past few decades are likely to be in vocabulary rather than in grammatical structures. At the same time, the English used in computer mediated communication is developing its own grammatical forms. John McWhorter describes one aspect here. I would say that the most likely outcome is that the language of the web and texting, where it has its own identity, will grow alongside other varieties, rather than replace them.


Filed under English Language, Grammar, Language, Standard English

Singular Noun, Plural Verb

It is sometimes thought that one of the grammatical differences between AmEng (American English) and BrEng (British English) is the way in which the latter allows certain singular nouns to have plural agreement. Data for two examples from the COCA (Corpus of Contemporary American English) and the BNC (British National Corpus), as presented in the following table, shows the difference. The COCA contains 4.5 million words, the BNC 1 million words, so I have adjusted the COCA figures to produce results comparable to those from the BNC. The raw COCA figures are in brackets.



1a. the government is 628 (2827) 742
1b. the government are 28 (124) 303
2a. the committee is 37 (169) 79
2b. the committee are 5 (23) 18

This clearly shows that plural agreement in these two cases is indeed more frequent in BrEng than in AmEng. In both varieties singular agreement is more frequent than plural agreement, but it is more frequent by a greater factor in AmEng than in BrEng. In the case of 1, singular agreement is 22 times greater than the plural in AmEng, whereas it is only 2.5 times as frequent in BrEng.

More examples would be required to allow a definitive conclusion, but BrEng does seem, in these two instances, more sympathetic than AmEng to notional than grammatical agreement. In ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’, Pam Peters gives the examples

The family has decided to celebrate on Sunday
The family have decided to celebrate on Sunday

and suggests that ‘The singular verb implies an official consensus of the group, whereas the plural makes the reader / listener more aware that individual members assented to the suggestion.’ Much the same could be said for a comparable sentence using ‘the government’ or ‘the committee’. Peters provides a list of other words which, at least in BrEng, allow a choice between singular and plural agreement. They include, among others, audience, assembly, board, company, congregation, council, group and panel.

Why BrEng should be more adaptable in this respect is not clear. With government, at least, plural agreement isn’t new, for the OED has three citations showing its use in the nineteenth century. Perhaps the question to ask is why AmEng is so averse to it.


Filed under English Language, Grammar, Language, Syntax

How We Spoke Then

In a previous post, I discussed Evelyn Waugh’s ‘A Handful of Dust’. I’m now re-reading his ‘Sword of Honour’ trilogy. It was first published in the 1950s, so it is perhaps unsurprising how dated many of the words and expressions his characters have become. It is set in the era of RAF-speak, satirised in the Monty Python banter sketch:

Top-hole. Bally Jerry, pranged his kite right in the how’s-your-father; hairy blighter, dicky-birded, feathered back on his sammy, took a waspy, flipped over on his Betty Harpers and caught his can in the Bertie.

They include, with, for those below a certain age, approximate translations:

blighter – an unpleasant person, a bastard, but can be used in a neutral sense as well
tight – drunk, pissed (also mean)
the balloon going up – things going wrong, all hell breaking loose, sewage hitting the air conditioning
a lot of rot – nonsense, rubbish, a load of crap
– flirty
– catch on, understand
flap – a
state of worry or excitement, particularly in a military sense
goner someone who is dead or someone or something in some other way lost
decent kind, accommodating, pleasant, opposite of beastly
beastly – of behaviour or speech unbecoming polite society, oppsite of decent
the blower telephone
a bit thick– too much of some kind of unacceptable behaviour
topping – great

I was surprised to find that two, the balloon going up and a lot of rot, have citations in the OED as late as 2004. Of the rest, none is later than 1961 (although not all entries have been subject to the OED’s latest revisions). On the other hand, the contemporary Corpus of Web-Based Global English has 22 records for the balloon goes up, and 115 for blighter.


Filed under English Language, Grammar, Language, Literature, Syntax, Vocabulary

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

More on Pronouns

I commented yesterday on Gary O’Donoghue’s use of him in subject position. On the same programme today, someone else said it was her who where we might expect it was she who. The GloWbE (Corpus of Web-Based English Global), indeed, suggests an overwhelming preference for the nominative form in the string [it] + [is/was] + [personal pronoun] + [who], although there is a slight preference for it was me who over it was I who. We might conclude that there is a universally applicable rule here, but we’d be wrong. Further examination of the GloWbE shows that the same degree of preference is not apparent when is is contracted to ’s, as is usually the case in speech. Thus, there are ten times as many records for it’s me who than there are for it’s I who. There is not such a large variation with the other personal pronouns, but the instances of nominative and accusative are much more evenly balanced than when they follow is and was.

Now, here’s another instance where our tentative rule doesn’t apply. On listening again to Gary O’Donohugue, I found that he also said Ministers are throwing their weight around a little bit, and here’s them saying actually, that’s not true. If we follow our rule, that would have to be here’s they saying, but would any speaker of Standard English actually say that? The samples in the GloWbE for here’s them and here’s they are too small to draw any conclusions from them, but in the first person singular there are 8 records for here’s I against 188 for here’s me.

Any readers still with me will perhaps have noticed that the preference for the accusative in it was me who, it’s me who and here’s me all occur with the first person pronoun. It is here that we see the greatest variation, as when, in object position and in coordination with a noun or another pronoun it can occur in either the nominative or the accusative form. There’s something about talking about ourselves which surely merits further investigation.


Filed under English Language, Grammar, Language