Tag Archives: 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

The Negative Canon: ‘There’s’ + Plural Noun Phrase

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

Many might agree with Peter Harvey’s view in ‘A Guide to English Language Usage’ that ‘a common colloquial mistake of speakers is to use there is with a plural complement’, as in his example There’s four people waiting to see you.

But is it a mistake? If it is, then it has been one continuously for nearly 400 years, as the following citations from the OED show:

I know there’s many worthy proiects done, The which more credit . . . hath won. (1619)

There’s many . . . Whom I have nipt i’ th’ ear. (around 1627)

For modelling brave Cities, and each Town, There’s many women were of great renown. (1652)

There’s many more who slave and toil, Their living to get. (1707)

He’s a wicked auld man, and there’s many would like to see him girning in a tow. (1886)

There’s many places here is gentle (1907)

Records in the British National Corpus show its more recent use:

I think there’s many more women driving now aren’t there? (1992)

I don’t think there’s many of them that go to football anyway is there? (1993)

There’s many factors, many factors, and I’d like to pay congratulations to Councillor X (1994)

Cos I don’t think there’s many people in this room could probably programme a video itself. (1992)

In ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’, Pam Peters reports that:

. . .  the formal agreement is strictly maintained in academic writing. But in narrative and everyday writing, ‘there is’ and especially ‘there’s’ is found with plural nouns, as in:

‘There’s tears in her eyes.’

‘There’s certain ways of getting round it.’

‘There’s lots of new plays being written.’

She notes that ‘in conversation the combination of there’s with a plural noun is in fact more common than there are, according to the Longman Grammar, and gives further examples showing that singular agreement is found:

  • in negative statements;
  • before collective phrases such as ‘a set/handful/crowd of’ with a following plural noun; and
  • when a compound subject follows.

She concludes that:

These various uses of ‘there’s’ with plural (or notionally plural) noun phrases show how the structure is working its way into the standard.

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ reports the distinguished linguist Otto Jespersen’s suggestion that ‘there is or there’s is often out – in speech or on paper – before the whole sentence is formulated. Jespersen also noted that the invariable singular occurs mostly in the colloquial style – speech and speechlike prose – and is generally avoided in the literary style. That accords with MWDEU’s own evidence.

In speech, there’s  + plural noun phrase might be considered what David Crystal here (from 1:03) describes as a blend. Yesterday, for example, I found myself saying something like There’s some more of them along here. The Jespersen conjecture partly explains it, but I wonder if it isn’t also simply that there’s is easier to say than there are.

Writers have time to review what they’ve written and may very well choose, at least in formal writing, to change any instances of there’s + plural noun phrase to there are. However, if Pam Peters is right we can expect to see it more frequently in at least semi-formal writing. She suggests that it may ‘be evolving into a fixed phrase, rather like the French C’est . . .’ She would perhaps have done better to have compared it with French il y a, which is every bit as singular as ‘there’s’, but which is standard with both singular and plural noun phrases.

With so much evidence for the use of there’s followed by a plural noun phrase, it doesn’t seem enough to say that it’s a mistake. What I think it does show is that the grammar of speech is different from the grammar of writing, and that the former has the potential to change the latter.


Filed under The Negative Canon

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

The Negative Canon: Different Ways of Being Different

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

Others have trodden this path before me, and I need do little more than refer readers to Stan Carey’s comprehensive post on different from, different than and different to, and to Mark Liberman’s additional analysis of the corpus evidence, and his examination of the verb differ to, on Language Log.

The use of different than seems to be a problem for many, as Stan has found:

Browsing the internet for opinion on the matter, we meet a mass of peremptory protest, which I must now counter-protest. ‘Different than’ is not grammatically incorrect, nor can it be dismissed as a common grammar error or an eyebrow-raising gaffe, let alone one of the 10 dumbest grammar mistakes. It is neither a nasty and glaring error nor a flagrant grammar mistake that makes you look stupid or dumb. You may call ‘different thanabominable, but this is a matter of taste. You may call it ignorant, but you would be wrong, and unaware of the unfortunate irony.

As Stan shows, the objections do not stand up to rigorous scrutiny.

‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’ concludes that:

Overall the corpus data confirms that grammatical issues are more important than regional differences in deciding what to collocate ‘different’ with . . . ‘Different from’ has no exclusive claim on expressions of comparison. Writers and speakers everywhere use ‘different than’ as well, depending somewhat on the grammatical context.

Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU) neatly summarises the truth of the situation:

These three phrases can be very simply explained: ‘different from’ is the most common and is standard in both British and American English; ‘different than’ is standard in American and British usage, especially when a clause follows ‘than’, but is more frequent in American; ‘different to’ is standard in British usage but rare in American usage.

In the same article, the MWDEU reports this comment from the New York ‘Sun’, quoted with approval by H L Mencken, referring to a debate on the topic in 1922:

The excellent tribe of grammarians, the precisians and all others who strive to be correct and correctors have as much power to prohibit a single word or phrase as a grey squirrel has to put out Orion with a flicker of its tail.

That is a fitting comment on the Negative Canon as a whole.


Filed under The Negative Canon

The Negative Canon: [Noun Phrase] and ‘I’/‘Me’

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

The English personal pronouns are I/me, you/you, he/him, she/ her, it/it, we/us and they/them. The first form of each pair is, in traditional terminology, in the nominative case, and the second is in the accusative case, where the nominative case is used for the subject of a clause and the accusative case is used for the object of a clause and following a preposition. This means that we say, at least in Standard English, She saw him and He saw her rather than *Her saw he or *Him saw she, and He came towards me rather than *He came towards I.

So far, so clear. However, variation can occur when the first person (I/me) is coordinated with a noun or with another pronoun, as in:

(1) They invited my wife and [I/me] to lunch.


(2) There’s a great deal in common between you and [I/me].

I imagine the majority of those who read this will say that what happens when I/me occurs alone must also apply in other circumstances too. We wouldn’t say They invited I, so we can’t say They invited my wife and I. We wouldn’t follow a preposition with I, so we can’t follow a preposition with <…> and I. This argument is put forward by both Harry Blamires in ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’ and R L Trask in ‘Mind the Gaffe’. Blamires cites this example from the former British Prime Minister John Major, commenting that we may see from it ‘how deeply this error has corrupted us’:

It may be that many people would like to invent divisions between he and I, but there are none.

I have myself heard David Miliband, a former British Foreign Secretary and the brother of the Leader of the Labour Party say on BBC radio:

. . . invite Michael Howard and I . .

Trask makes the point about not using I in those contexts where it occurs alone and continues:

The presence of that ‘and’ seems to throw many writers into a panic, a panic which inevitably leads to the insertion of an impossible ‘I’ where only ‘me’ is possible.

However, the OED records I ‘as object of a verb or preposition’ and notes that it is:

Used for the objective case after a verb or preposition when separated from the governing word by other words (esp. in coordinate constructions with another pronoun and and).This has been common at various times (especially towards the end of the 16th and in the 17th century, and from the mid 20th century onwards); it has been considered ungrammatical since the 18th century.

There you are, those 18th century grammarians again. Hypercorrection is the usual explanation, but, as Peter Harvey has commented:

If the usage was ‘very frequent’ 400 years ago, hypercorrection cannot really be the whole reason for its use nowadays.

It could even be argued that and me rather than and I is itself a form of hypercorrection.

The authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ (p. 9) challenge the view that what happens when a pronoun occurs in isolation must determine what happens when it has company:

But why should we simply assume that the grammatical rules for case assignment cannot differentiate between a coordinated and a non-coordinated pronoun?

They cite another example of where the rules make just such a differentiation. We can say I don’t know if you’re eligible, but we can’t say I don’t know if she and you’re eligible. They comment that the sequence you are can be reduced to you’re in the first sentence, where you is subject, but not in the second where the subject has the form of a coordination of pronouns.

This shows us not only that a rule of English could apply differently to pronouns and coordinated pronouns, but that one rule actually does . . .The argument from analogy is illegitimate.

Elsewhere they write that constructions such as (1) are (my emphasis):

. . . used by many highly educated people with social prestige in the community; it should therefore be regarded as a variant Standard English form.

‘Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage’ (MWDEU) records Henry Sweet’s suggestion in his ‘New English Grammar’ of 1892 that you and I occurs so frequently that it comes to be seen as an invariable group in all contexts. This comes close to Chomsky,mentioned later in the MWDEU article, when he claimed that :

. . . [‘between’]can assign the objective case agreement only to the whole compound, which cannot be declined, and the individual words in the phrase are free to be nominative or objective or even be reflexives.

The preference for between you and me over between you and I, at least, seems strong, as shown by the following figures:

British National Corpus Corpus of Contemporary American English
Between you and me 43 183
Between you and I 2 17

Still, the preference is much less marked when the search is narrowed to spoken English, and the two examples of between you and I in the British National Corpus occur in sentences which must be considered as Standard English. The first is from a radio programme:

But at a fundamental level there’s really little difference between you and I struggling to count on our fingers, and the most modern and sophisticated piece of computing wizardry.

The second is from a piece of dialogue in a Mills and Boon novel:

I felt as if I knew you, and you knew me — almost from the beginning of time. It was as if, between you and I, the ordinary processes of — what shall I call it… courtship? — were totally superfluous.

If you think a citation from a Mills and Boon novel too down-market to count, Shakespeare had Bassanio say in ‘The Merchant of Venice’:

Sweet Bassanio, my ships have all miscarried, my creditors grow cruel, my estate is very low, my bond to the Jew is forfeit. And since in paying it, it is impossible I should live, all debts are cleared between you and I if I might but see you at my death.

We can take from all of this that both you and me and you and I in object position and following a preposition, particularly between, occur in the speech of speakers of Standard English, but that it might be unwise to use the latter variant in formal prose. As Pam Peters very sensibly comments in ‘The Cambridge Guide to English Usage’:

The vacillation over ‘me/I’ is symptomatic of shifting case relations among pronouns generally . . . But because between you and I seems to have become a shibboleth it’s to be avoided in writing. In fact a confidential between you and I is unlikely to occur to anyone writing a formal document, because of the impersonal nature of the style that goes with it.

MWDEU comes to a similar conclusion:

You are probably safe in retaining ‘between you and I’ in your casual speech, if it exists there already, and you would be true to life in placing it in the mouths of fictional characters. But you had better avoid it in essays and other works of a discursive nature.

We could say the same about the constructions in sentences (1) and (4). More adventurous writers might like to use and I, but they must be prepared to have attention paid to the grammar of their writing at the expense of its content. There is, however, no reason to chastise its use in speech, or even in speeches. As is often the case, two forms exist side by side until one ousts the other. As Jean Aitchison once wrote:

Language lamenters mostly haven’t understood how language works. In language change, new variants grow up alongside existing ones, often as stylistic alternatives.

Differences between the forms of pronouns are less distinct than they once were (look at who and whom). That is only natural. Just as the three numbers, four cases and, in the third person, the three genders, of the Old English personal pronouns have eroded to what we have now, our present system seems to be in the process of reducing further.


Filed under The Negative Canon

The Negative Canon: ‘Who’ and ‘Whom’

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

Relative clauses modify noun phrases. They can be introduced by the relative pronouns who, whom, which, whose and by the subordinator that. In some cases, the introductory word may be omitted altogether.

The relative pronoun used as the subject of a relative clause and referring to a person is who, as in:

(1) That’s the journalist who interviewed me last week. (This is a defining relative clause, and in such cases that may be used instead of who.)

When the relative pronoun is the object of the relative clause, defenders of the negative canon will insist that it should be whom, so they would have us write, or even say:

(2) That’s the journalist whom I met last week.

Similarly, they claim that whom is also required after a preposition, so it has to be:

(3) That’s the journalist to whom I gave an interview last week.

In ‘Mind the Gaffe’ (2001) R L Trask writes that ‘the word whom is all but dead in English, even in formal English’, but the OED might be more accurate in saying that it is ‘no longer current in natural colloquial speech’. Both seem closer to the truth than Harry Blamires in ‘The Penguin Guide to Plain English’ (2000), where he gives the examples:

There’s a new couple down the road who I’d love to meet.
There’s a man at work who I fantasize about.
You need to know who to contact.

‘In each of these three sentences,’ he writes, ‘who should be whom, for in each case the pronoun is the object of a verb: whom I’d love to meet; whom I fantasize about; whom to contact. Who is appropriate only where the pronoun is the subject of the verb.’

That’s as bad as Nevile Gwynne, who wants us to say Do you see whom I see? 

This approach ignores how people actually use the language. In the case of (1), the relative pronoun would probably be omitted in most contexts altogether to produce:

(4) That’s the journalist I met last week.

and (3) would occur most naturally as:  

(5) That’s the journalist I gave an interview to last week.

Only in the most formal contexts would (2) and (3) be required.

Whom still has, for the time being, a place in formal contexts (and for the difference between formal and informal contexts, and the kind of language appropriate to each, see Geoffrey Pullum’s article in Lingua Franca). As Trask concedes:

‘there is just one circumstance in which whom is usual in formal writing, and that is as the object of a preposition which immediately precedes it.’

Similar considerations arise in the case of interrogative pronouns.

(6) Whom do you mean?

is laughable. The normal form of the question is:

(7) Who do you mean?

There is a particular case in which the choice between who and whom, for those who insist on using the latter at all, is not obvious. That’s where the relative pronoun seems to hover between being subject and object, as in the sentence:

(8a) That journalist, who(m) some people think is arrogant, was really rather nice.

The sentence brings together two clauses. One occurs as the main clause:

(8b) That journalist was really rather nice.

If the relative clause is seen as a transformation of:

(8c) Some people think him arrogant

then whom is required.

If it’s seen as a transformation of:

(8d) Some people think he is arrogant

then who is required, because when it occurs in (6a) some people think can be considered as being in parenthesis.

Geoffrey Pullum considers the matter here, and concludes that both who and whom are possible.

I’d use who myself simply on the grounds that the less we use whom the sooner we will get rid of it. Its decreasing use is no more than a continuation of the erosion of inflections that began hundreds of years ago. Those who would mourn its loss should bear in mind that it has its origin in Old English hwæm, the dative, singular and plural, of hwa, which meant who? and anyone or someone (and wasn’t actually used as a relative pronoun at all in Old English). So on etymological grounds it might be justifiable to use whom after a preposition. But the accusative singular, masculine and feminine, of hwa was hwone, so perhaps, in the interest of preserving what the negative canon warriors see as the purity of the language, they should think of saying and writing:

(9) That’s the journalist whon I met last week.

A final thought:

The word ‘whom’ was invented to make us all sound like butlers.


Filed under Language

The Negative Canon: Introduction

A fellow contributor to the LinkedIn group Grammar Geeks, Bessel Dekker, has suggested the term negative canon for those features of English that are frequently the object of the attention of those in various Facebook groups and elsewhere who seek to tell us how to use our own language. They complain about current developments in the language, oblivious to the fact that such developments are sometimes far from new, and that English contains features that have come about through the type of changes in the past that they condemn in the present. We are asked to accept what they say because that’s their opinion or what they’ve always been taught.

A prominent characteristic of the negative canon is that it consists of a relatively small number of features which come up time and again, and are often of the kind that Geoffrey Pullum has called ‘the most intellectually trivial details of standard written English’.  As an example, Bessel has listed the following salient features of Afro-American Vernacular English:

(1) the multiple negative.
(2) nonstandard forms such as aks.
(3) absence the forms of be when it is a copula.
(4) uninflected be when it is an existential verb.
(5) word order which is different from that in Standard English.

His point is that of these five, only the first two are habitually seized upon. Other instances include sentence adverbs, where hopefully is often disdained, but all the others are ignored. Similarly, the pronunciation mischievious is thought to be an indication of moral decline and the end of civilisation as we know it, but, as Bessel has said, it is not the first, let alone the only, case were epenthesis has caused language change.

Bessel has therefore made an important distinction between the negative canon and what he has called the negative pool. While the latter consists of all instances that could be objected against, the former comprises the usual suspects which are in fact singled out. Thus, sadly as a sentence adverb, for example, would be in the negative pool only, while hopefully has made the negative canon. The composition of the negative canon, it seems, is quite arbitrary, which suggests that no that no systematic study underlies it.

Bessel has suggested a few criteria which give an item a good chance of being included in the negative canon. They are:

(a) the intelligibility criterion: objections against it should be easy to understand.
(b) the beaten path criterion: it should have been discussed before, the more frequently the better.
(c) the authority criterion: it should have been rejected or challenged by such writers as Lowth, Murray, Fowler, or Strunk.

(d) the criterion from logic: it should be vulnerable to the argument that it flies in the face of ‘logic’.
(e) the criterion from semantics, including etymology: it should be demonstrably subject to meaning shift (the ‘etymological fallacy’).
(f) the criterion from syntax: it should be demonstrably at variance with syntactic behaviour elsewhere.

It might, as Bessel has also suggested, be illuminating to compile an inventory of items that make up the negative canon and to trace each to its first source. That may be a little ambitious for Caxton, but in a series of forthcoming posts I plan to examine some of the usages in question in an attempt to disentangle fact from fiction, truth from prejudice, reality from fantasy. They can for convenience be considered under the headings of grammar, vocabulary, and orthography and punctuation. Negative canon posts will not be in any particular order, and not necessarily uninterrupted by unrelated posts.


Filed under Language, The Negative Canon

The Grammar of Speech

As a supplement to my post yesterday, it might be of some interest to mention that Ronald Carter (‘Grammar and Spoken English’ in ‘Applying English Grammar’) has listed some of the ways in which the grammar of spoken English differs from the grammar of written English. They include:

‘Heads’ and ‘tails’. Heads ‘occur at the beginning of clauses and help listeners orient to a topic’:

The white house on the corner, is that where she lives?

That girl, Jill, her sister, she works in our office.

Tails ‘occur at the end of clauses, normally echoing an antecedent pronoun and help to reinforce what we are saying’:

She’s a very good swimmer, Jenny is.

It’s difficult to eat, isn’t it, spaghetti?

Ellipsis ‘in which subjects and verbs are omitted because we can assume our listeners know what we mean’.

Discourse markers. Anyway, right, okay, I see, I mean, mind you, well, right, what’s more, so, now.

Vague language. Words and phrases such as thing, stuff, or so, or something, or anything, or whatever, sort of.

Deixis. ‘The “orientational” features of language and includes words and phrases which point to particular features of a situation.’

Modal expressions. Modal verbs, but also words and phrases such as: possibly, probably, I don’t know, I don’t think, I think, I suppose, perhaps.

Carter quotes this piece of speech from ‘The Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English’:

Sure we got there um at seven actually around six fifteen and class starts at seven and I went up in this building that was about five or six stories high and I was the only one there and I was the only one there I was. And I yeah I was thinking gosh you know is this the right place or may be everyone’s inside waiting for me to come in there’s nothing said you know come on in knock on the door and come in or anything like that.

That is very different from what we’d expect to find in a piece of formal writing, but isn’t it still Standard English?


Filed under Dialects, English Language, Language, Spoken English, Standard English

Questioning the Standard

My post of 22 June, followed by my comments on 24 June, placed some Standard English variants alongside some nonstandard forms to show the difference, but the grammatical structures of Standard English are not generally all that difficult to recognise. There is, as the authors of ‘The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language’ write,

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.

Native speakers, for example, will instantly know that He’s a grandfather now, I was about 13 at the time and They did well are Standard English and that  He be a grandfather now, I were about 13 at the time and They done good are not.

In his paper on Standard English, Peter Trudgill writes ‘grammatical differences between Standard English and other dialects are in fact rather few in number’. He lists eight of what he calls the idiosyncrasies of Standard English, which include its failure to distinguish between the forms of the auxiliary forms of the verb do and its main verb forms, its lack of multiple negation and its irregular forms of the verb be. Nevertheless, there are some features of Standard English that are disputed. The ill-informed are eager to pounce on things like they referring to a singular antecedent, stranded prepositions and word placed between to + the infinitive, but these have existed in English for centuries, and have been part of Standard English for as long as the concept of a standard has existed. What may be less clear is the way in which Standard English can deploy different styles depending on the degree of formality required. Trudgill illustrates the point with these three sentences:

Father was exceedingly fatigued subsequent to his extensive peregrination.
Dad was very tired after his lengthy journey.
The old man was bloody knackered after his long trip.

All three employ the grammatical structures of Standard English, but different degrees of formality are indicated by the words used. Some might question the third, but Trudgill has no hesitation in saying that it ‘is clearly and unambiguously Standard English’, on the grounds that it allows swearing (in this case mild) and slang.

But it’s not only through the choice of words that Standard English can show degrees of formality. It can do so through different grammatical structures as well. Examples of grammar indicating an informal style are who in complement position or following a preposition, the indicative If I was you . . . rather than the subjunctive (or ‘irrealis’), If I were you . . . , There’s + [plural noun phrase] and the use of this in place of the indefinite article (There was this man at the bar, and he’d got this dog). Warsaw Will, the creator of the blog Random Idea English , has also commented on my post of 22 June that me in subject position and coordinated with a noun phrase (Me and the others are off to the pub if you fancy a pint), might also be an example of informal Standard English.

The fact that some of these features might also be found in nonstandard dialects should not prevent us from acknowledging their admissibility in the standard as well. But it does suggest that the dividing line between Standard English and nonstandard dialects might not be as sharply drawn as some might think. As the authors of ‘Linguistics: An Introduction’ have written,

Sociolinguistic research has demonstrated that the speech of most people is, at least in some respects, variable, combining, for example, both standard and non-standard sounds, words or grammatical structures.

What all this suggests is that the varieties of English can be understood as a continuum. At one end there are the most formal written texts, found in areas such as academic writing, the law and public administration. These are incontestably written in the dialect of Standard English, although that does not guarantee that all native speakers will understand them. At the other end there are nonstandard dialects, mostly spoken, which, at their most extreme, are as impenetrable to outsiders as the most complex statute drafted in Standard English. In between there are varieties of the language which shade off imperceptibly one into the other. What really matters is not whether any piece of discourse is standard or nonstandard, but whether it meets the communicative purpose of the writer or speaker, taking account not only of the efficiency with which it conveys meaning, but also the extent to which it is received in the manner which the originator intends.


Filed under English Language, Language, Standard English

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