The grammar gravy train

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Looking for a job? How about one where you set your own hours, you don’t have a boss, you have nothing to do but write at your own pace, you end up receiving fat royalty checks, and you don’t have to know anything at all about the topic that you write about? The job is to write non-fiction (textbooks and handbooks), only it’s OK if you don’t have a clue about the subject matter.

One word about your new career (and it’s not “Plastics“): grammar! The field where nobody much cares about anything that’s been discovered since the 18th century, and you don’t even need to get the 18th-century stuff right!

I’ll give you some examples over the next few days or weeks — it depends how much time I get (unfortunately I have a real job where I have to attend meetings, teach things that are true, respond to questions, write sensible exam questions, and so on). Here’s just one example for today.

The Collins Good Writing Guide (HarperCollins, 2003; anonymous according to the title page but copyrighted by the estate of Graham King; ISBN-13 978-0-00-720868-5, ISBN-10 0-00-720868-5) is a successor to an earlier book by Graham King called The Times Writer’s Guide (2001). On page 52 it points out that this sentence is an error:

Ask Tony and I for any further information you need.

It follows this up by telling you why the sentence is not acceptable:

To correct this you need to recognise that Ask is the subject and the phrase Tony and I is the direct object, because Tony and I are receiving the action as the result of the verb ask.

That’s right: the verb ask is claimed to be the subject of this imperative clause. Graham King simply didn’t have any idea what “subject of a clause” means! Yet he wrote a best-selling book, republished after his death in 1999! You could do likewise (not dying, I mean publishing a best-seller).

The remark above isn’t a typo or anything. Graham King really was clueless about the notion of a grammatical subject, and so are the editors at HarperCollins. On page 20 of the book, King defines SUBJECT as “what it is” and defines PREDICATE as “what we’re saying about it”, and his first illustrative example is this:

SUBJECT     PREDICATE
My word!

That’s right; he thinks that when you say My word! (as perhaps you do, if you are over about 70 and somewhat conservative of disposition), the thing you are talking about is my, and the thing you’re saying about it is word. And he thinks that means that the genitive pronoun my in this expression (which has the form of a noun phrase) is the subject. This man simply had no idea what he was doing.

Just an embarrassing but isolated slip by an editor, you are thinking? No, he really didn’t get the concept. Lower down on the same page he claims that lots of English sentences have the predicate before the subject. And his first example is this one:

PREDICATE SUBJECT
It gradually became apparent that it was    the odour of death

That’s quite a predicate, isn’t it? (Putting the alleged subject and predicate back in the normal order yields *The odour of death it gradually became apparent that it was. Doesn’t sound so good, does it?) In the sentence as given, of course, the odour of death is a complement to the copular verb be (preterite form was); it is not the subject.

I am not making this stuff up. I am copying it out of a reference book by the highly respectable HarperCollins firm.

Well, when I say respectable, I mean they are respectable in all sorts of subjects; but not in English grammar, obviously, because that’s the subject where nobody needs to know anything to be an expert and respectability isn’t defined.

When you set yourself up as a grammar expert it’s better than being an expert on plastics. To be an expert on plastics you actually have to know something about plastics. With grammar the analogous thing doesn’t hold. Nobody asks, nobody checks, nobody knows enough to get suspicious. You are free as a bird to publish any garbage you might want to type out.

Your only problem, at least with people who have Internet access, will be Language Log, which does have a history of fingering this sort of thing and holding it up to ridicule. Deal with that one awkward stumbling block — the giant Language Log corporation and its tens of thousands of readers — and you could have a career ahead of you in writing grammatical poppycock for the masses. You could get on the grammar gravy train. Best of luck.



53 Comments

  1. Dougal Stanton said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 11:01 am

    I noticed at the weekend that Blackwells are advertising Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style to Edinburgh’s incoming English Lit students. Included free* in a bumper pack of set texts.

    *That’s probably free as in wi-fi rather than free as in beer or speech.

    [A free copy of Strunk & White! All I can say is, it’s worth every single penny. —GKP]

  2. Amber said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 11:05 am

    Did Graham King just know where the bodies were buried? Or did he have a zealous advocate who knows?

  3. MB said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 11:12 am

    And I thought it was just my undergraduates and their wicked, wanton ways with the parts of speech and their functions.

  4. outeast said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 11:35 am

    the thing you’re saying about it is word.

    Sounds very contemporary, actually. Like, word, dude!

    (Oh, and Dougal Stanton – ‘free as in wifi’ truly made me smile. Word, likewise!)

  5. Jonathan D. said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 11:55 am

    There is Grammar Girl. She seems to know a subject from a genitive.

  6. Marco Neves said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    Someone should write something Sokal-style and try to publish it in some “respectable” publishing house and then blow the whistle as loud as possible.

  7. Picky said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 12:07 pm

    But HarperCollins, although heir to some highly respectable publishing outfits, is owned by News Corps, isn’t it? Well, then, for heaven’s sake!

  8. Phillip said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 12:27 pm

    Silly me, I thought the mistake in “Ask Tony and I for any further information you need.” was that it should be “Ask Tony and me…”. “Ask Tony…” makes sense on its own, as does “Ask me”. But “Ask I” sounds completely wrong.

    [Yes, that is of course the error he is trying to talk about: most Standard English speakers would probably say that Ask Tony and me is the grammatical version. But the point is that while trying to make that point, King reveals that he thinks ask is a subject. —GKP]

  9. Karen said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

    Check out Neal Whitman at Literal Minded. His kid had almost the same notion (Doug thought what was first was the subject). Of course, he’s in the fifth grade…

  10. Victoria Martin said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 12:37 pm

    Sorry, but the “my” in “my word” is surely a possessive pronoun rather than a genitive? (it would have to be “of my word” to be in the genitive).

    [No. The two terms are not in contrast. Genitive is the traditional term for the case (e.g., in Latin) used on noun phrases that denote possessors, but it has various other uses too, so in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language we use the term ‘genitive’ rather than ‘possessive’. In a clause like his having known the answer you can see a genitive pronoun used for something that has nothing to do with possession. —GKP]

  11. Ellen said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 12:49 pm

    Phillip, I imagine the “Tony and I” thing indeed is the “error” which is being corrected in the quote from Collins Good Writing Guide. But in correcting the supposed error, the author makes the error of calling a verb a subject.

  12. empty said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

    Is “ask” also the subject of “Ask Mr Language Person”?

  13. Amy Reynaldo said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 12:57 pm

    Now, I grant you that my fourth-grade son would have a tough time identifying the subject and predicate in those sentences. But I think he might figure out that “My word!” had no predicate at all. Maybe over summer break he can write a grammar book.

  14. dwmacg said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

    Phillip,

    You’ve got the right prescriptivist argument, but really I think that’s a hypercorrection. The fact is for most (maybe all?) speakers of English, at least in their unguarded moments, the case of pronouns used with a conjunction is constant, and not dependent on the rold of the phrase. We say “me and you” whether we’re using the phrase as a subject or an object.

    Of course, most of us have also been told that that’s wrong (using the logic you cite), and that we should always say “You and I” when we’re using the phrase as a subject. But somewhere in our mind we still know that the choice of pronoun case should be consistent and not dependent on the use of the phrase, so we end up using “you and I” as an object (of a preposition or verb).

    [Yes, there are many Standard English speakers who do use expressions like Ask Tony and I, or between you and I. One could hardly say it was characteristic of a lack of education. It occurs in Shakespeare. —GKP]

  15. jo said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 1:23 pm

    I am truly astonished (though I should know better)… The weirdest thing about it for me is the total disconnect between the fact that the author can (must!) have a perfect implicit understanding of English grammar, and yet is utterly incompetent at expressing this same understanding explicitly. Why didn’t it even occur to someone during the writing and editing process to test out the claims using their own grammatical intuition?

    To attempt a partial answer to my own question, I suppose that if the author believed that grammar is a set of arbitrary rules that must be learned, rather than it being the linguistic system in someone’s head, then the fact that his claims were (to put it mildly) counterintuitive would have been of no importance to him.

  16. Mr Fnortner said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

    Let’s not do the “you and I” thing all over again, please. My hair still hurts from that last time. (Maybe that should be “Let’e”, short for “Let we”.)

  17. Philip said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

    Not that anyone–except me–cares, but the prescriptivist Phillip with two ls is not the same person as this Philip with one l.

    –One l Philip

  18. Ginger Yellow said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 1:38 pm

    I am copying it out of a reference book by the highly respectable HarperCollins firm.

    HarperCollins ceased to be respectable when Murdoch bought them. This became plainly apparent when they spiked Chris Patten’s book about China, if not earlier.

  19. Forrest said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 1:39 pm

    You’ve talked me into it, but can I use a Markov chain to write my grammar book for me? If my gravy train book is supposed to not make sense anyway, it seems like I should be able to busy myself with something more interesting while the computer generates prescriptivist drivel on my behalf?

  20. D. Sky Onosson said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 1:40 pm

    Wow. Just wow.

    just=subj
    wow=predicate

  21. titmouse said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 1:59 pm

    Grammar quackery! Who knew it could sell books?

    I suspect that some people lack the self-monitoring or self-insight that allows a link between the feeling of grammatical correctness and the meta-language we use to talk about it. They might be like the face-blind –people capable of seeing but not recognizing without a lot of effort.

    Now I’m curious to learn more about Graham King. It’s one thing to be tone deaf. It’s quite another for the tone deaf to compose a symphony resulting in a public performance.

  22. Nick Lamb said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

    It’s not just (natural language) grammar. Suppose you would like to be asked to appear on a TV news channel to speak about an outbreak of cholera. You might think you’d need years of medical school, or if you’re a bit sharper you might think getting elected to political office would do it.

    But no, the real players just make up a laughably wrong hypothesis and appear as the “balance” that media editors believe is expected in current affairs coverage. So a doctor tells the audience that germs cause disease and they should wash their hands properly, and then a guy who thinks Elvis is alive is given equal time to explain that you can’t get sick if you eat enough peanuts and do sit-ups.

    Go into a bookstore and you can find books written by people who have no idea what they’re talking about on every possible subject. For example, computer programming. You’d think that’s a deeply technical thing, no room for idiots who don’t know the subject to write a book and have it sell well enough for the publishers to invite more of the same, right? Nope. For years one of the best selling books on the C language was crammed with errors just as bad as “My is the subject of the sentence ‘My Word'”. Again, these were not typographical mistakes, or goofs introduced during editing, they reflected the authors poor grasp of the subject. No serious programmers were recommending this book, but Kernighan & Ritchie (which is the authoritative text) is a rather thin unillustrated book, and expensive too. So presumably beginners would go into a store, see a more cheerful volume at half the price for twice the pages and think they were getting better value for money.

  23. Rubrick said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 2:22 pm

    And to think I spent all those years getting my Ph.D in Lifecoachery so I could write self-help books! I’m such a fool!

  24. Back of beyond said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 2:25 pm

    @ Victoria Martin

    — Sorry, but the “my” in “my word” is surely a possessive pronoun rather than a genitive? (it would have to be “of my word” to be in the genitive). —

    My peevish hackles rise sharply when I see words such as “my” in this example described as possessive “pronouns”. Pronouns are specified as things which take the place [prefix “pro”] of nouns. As such, they do not redundantly occur with nouns: the “my” in “my word” is a possessive (or “genitive”) ARTICLE.

    There exist a full set of possessive articles in conjunction with the set of possessive pronouns as follows:

    Pronouns: mine thine his/hers/its ours yours theirs
    Articles: my thy his/her/its our your their

    That the form “his” and “its” occur in both lists is evidence that a given wordform may have more than one function. Or, conversely, that a given part of speech such as “article” may have many more members than just the set “the, a, an”. As one example, in the phrase “three books”, the numeral “three” is acting as a plural article as well as being simply a numeral.

  25. Paul said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

    My word!

  26. Słowosław said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 3:04 pm

    This grammar book writing job sounds good! Where do me apply?

  27. Sili said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 3:19 pm

    Looking for a job? How about one where you set your own hours, you don’t have a boss, you have nothing to do but write at your own pace, you end up receiving fat royalty checks, and you don’t have to know anything at all about the topic that you write about? The job is to write non-fiction (textbooks and handbooks), only it’s OK if you don’t have a clue about the subject matter.

    No thanks. I’d rather be a linguist.

    One word about your new career (and it’s not “Plastics”): grammar! The field where nobody much cares about anything that’s been discovered since the 18th century, and you don’t even need to get the 18th-century stuff right!

    Health, Science, Diet and Selfimprovement would work equally well – not to piss in your oats or anything. (And I don’t mean to contrast linguistics with science – I just had to stick to the one-word formula. S’pose I shoulda gone with Physics.)

  28. Jason Eisner said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 3:31 pm

    Nick Lamb wrote:

    It’s not just (natural language) grammar. Suppose you would like to be asked to appear on a TV news channel to speak about an outbreak of cholera. You might think you’d need years of medical school, or if you’re a bit sharper you might think getting elected to political office would do it.

    But no, the real players just make up a laughably wrong hypothesis and appear as the “balance” that media editors believe is expected in current affairs coverage. So a doctor tells the audience that germs cause disease and they should wash their hands properly, and then a guy who thinks Elvis is alive is given equal time to explain that you can’t get sick if you eat enough peanuts and do sit-ups.

    Getting off-topic, but here’s a Daily Show clip where Jon Oliver nails that phenomenon. (A colleague of mine showed this to his students when teaching them basic probability. Best joke is at the end.)

  29. Picky said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 4:33 pm

    Rumour is (according to the blurb in Amazon) “Graham King was formerly a senior marketing manager with News International, where he developed an understanding of the need to express oneself with clarity.”

    So there you are. I refuse to make jokes about senior marketing managers and their need to express themselves with clarity.

  30. Anna Phor said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 4:37 pm

    @Titmouse:

    I suspect that some people lack the self-monitoring or self-insight that allows a link between the feeling of grammatical correctness and the meta-language we use to talk about it.

    Knowing the meta-language that we use to talk about grammar doesn’t come from self-insight, though–it comes from learning the metalanguage. When I teach Linguistics 101, I always use the example of a ball’s trajectory. If I throw a ball weighing 50 grams with a force of 10 newtons at an angle of 40%, can you calculate in less than a second where the ball will be? No? Then I throw a ball and watch someone catch it–clearly the human brain can calculate this, but without having a metawareness of doing so.

    You can perform complex feats of language or physics without actually knowing anything about how to describe them.

  31. James Parkin said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 4:58 pm

    @Back of beyond

    You can put your hackles down Friend. You’re clearly mistaken. Compare these two sentences:

    (1) I gave Brian Brian’s book.

    (2) I gave him his book.

    Clearly, both “him” and “his” are PRONOUNS. It’s hard to argue that an article would stand in for a proper noun in the genitive case, i.e., Brian’s. The “his” is not redundant, anymore than the proper noun “Brian” is redundant when used with the noun “book” in the phrase “Brian’s book”, unless you’d like to argue that “Brian’s” has somehow been magically converted to an article. To make this perfectly clear, let’s try talking like the incredible Hulk:

    (1) “You give Hulk Hulk’s book, or Hulk smash puny humans!”

    In contrast I would be inclined to say:

    (2) “Give ME MY book, or I will smash puny humans!”

    Me, My & I: Pronouns all.

  32. Acilius said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

    Graham King sounds quite a bit like Publius Vergilius Maro the Grammarian. He was the Vergilius who lived perhaps 500 years (or perhaps much longer) after his celebrated namesake and wrote a guide to the twelve kinds of Latin, of which the Latin attested in texts is merely one. Vergilius’ writings are so bizarre that debate still goes on as to whether he was a quack, a parodist, or something else altogether.

  33. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 5:47 pm

    Referring back to Anna Phor: Your point and your illustration are so good that I really shouldn’t be pedantic—but I will be anyway. For someone to know where the ball is going to go, you’d have to specify the time you’re exerting the 10 N on it. But really what the student catching the ball observes is the velocity you give it, not the force you put on it.

  34. MJ said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 6:51 pm

    @James Parkin

    Can’t you both be right? I mean, by the same substitution test:

    I gave Brian THE book.
    I gave Brian HIS book.
    I gave Brian BRIAN’S book.

    It looks like ‘his’ is both a determiner (or in back’s terminology, an article) and a pronoun, cuz it takes the place of both.

    AFAIK, many linguists take the possessive morpheme POS to be a determiner and DPs like ‘Brian’ and the 3sg morpheme of ‘his’ to be specifiers. So ‘his’ is a fusion of, on the one hand a pronoun and on the other hand a determiner. No?

  35. titmouse said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 8:29 pm

    Knowing the meta-language that we use to talk about grammar doesn’t come from self-insight, though–it comes from learning the metalanguage.

    Yeah, it’s possible the guy just had a bad education.

    But Mr. King didn’t keep his incompetence and delusional sense of self-importance under a bushel like the rest of us. In fact he let it shine like a beacon unto the world.

    How does a man make it through the lengthy process of writing a book and sealing a deal with some publisher without once barking his shins against reality? Surely reality had time enough to make an effort.

    I can’t explain a story like this without invoking the crazy. It must be there, either in Mr. King’s brain or among his special, presumably insular, circle of friends.

  36. Arjan said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 8:59 pm

    Is there any English writing guide you could recommend (to a non-native speaker)? I love these blog posts on ‘prescriptivist poppycock’, but I’m sure I could benefit from some well-informed advice to improve my writing (for academic purposes)…

    [(myl) The local recommendations are this for usage and this for style.]

  37. Mark Liberman said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 10:43 pm

    titmouse: I can’t explain a story like this without invoking the crazy. It must be there, either in Mr. King’s brain or among his special, presumably insular, circle of friends.

    In cases like this, I favor the Bar Bet Theory.

  38. titmouse said,

    November 2, 2009 @ 11:53 pm

    The crockus! My word what a great story.

    Did “crock o’ shite” ever come to mind as you puzzled over the origin of “crockus”?

    [(myl) In the U.S., the crock would be full of shit, but yes, this is certainly one of the first ideas that comes to mind. It’s part of the zany charm of the story — or what would be zany charm except that schoolteachers’ groups around the country have been paying to expose their members to stuff like this, and not as comic relief.]

    Speaking of teh sciency, you might enjoy the “physics of homeopathy” video making the rounds and being eviscerated at http://www.sciencebasedmedicine.org/?p=2366 .

  39. Peter T said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 12:04 am

    I like the bar bet theory myself. But I have noticed that, whenever some egregious example like this is produced, the comments tend to assume that this is some aberration – that whatever happens in linguistics (or climate science, or computing, or…) the corruption is not general. I know a little history, and I am always amazed at what people get away with there. An example is Gavin Menzies – who was invited (by the administrators) to speak at one Australian university, and whose book 1421 has sold over a million copies.

    [(myl) It’s true that Menzies is pretty egregious. But I do think that there’s a difference — if you were an intelligent but ignorant person, you might think that Menzies was onto something; but the Collins Good Writing Guide seems to achieve the level of random transcendent inventiveness that tells us we’re in the presence of the Great Con, the true High-Church Crockus.]

    Eric Auerbach, in Mimesis, contrasted the sober factuality of Tacitus with the emphasis on quasi-magical prowess and exaggeration in language of the late 4th century Ammianus Marcellinus (see the chapter titled “The Arrest of Peter Valvomeres”), ascribing the latter to the defensiveness of a civilisation out of options. I sometimes think the parallel apt. But then at my age, Sturgeon’s Law is more visible than it used to be.

    [(myl) But there’s crud, and then there’s, well, the Collins Good Writing Guide, which (from a grammatical point of view at least) seems to be glutinous floods of stinking sewage. On the other hand, maybe it’s a brilliant satire on the catastrophic decline of humanistic learning, or (following the suggestion by Acilius above) a cheerily nonsensical appeal for intellectual pluralism. Whatever the explanation, the book is certainly a jaw-dropper.]

  40. James Parkin said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 2:36 am

    @MJ

    I’m happy to accept the fusion theory, based on those facts. Unless, of course, somehow has other evidence to adduce. I suppose that I objected less to the argument than to the the original peevish tone, which seemed to suggest that the pronoun label was an obvious non-starter, even though Prof. Pullum seems to find the term congenial enough. (And no, I don’t mean to invoke authority as an argument.) I suppose the take away is that labels matter less than having a clear idea of the actual functions involved.

  41. peter said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 3:26 am

    “[Yes, there are many Standard English speakers who do use expressions like Ask Tony and I, or between you and I. One could hardly say it was characteristic of a lack of education. It occurs in Shakespeare. —GKP]”

    Lest anyone think the final sentence here is evidence for the penultimate sentence, William Shakespeare, as best we can ascertain, had relatively little formal education.

    [Yes; the juxtaposition was not intended to imply otherwise; it was based on the notion that when people insist that some usage is a sign of being an ignorant lowlife from the working classes who should straighten up and learn proper English, the language of Shakespeare and Milton and Sir Winston Churchill, it usually takes at least some of the wind out of their sails if you can show that either Shakespeare or Milton or Sir Winston used the expression type in question. So we do tend to try that on, as a rhetorical move. Logically, it shouldn’t matter: you don’t have to talk or write like Shakespeare or Milton or Sir Winston, and it would be stupid to imagine that they never committed linguistic errors. —GKP]

  42. dwmacg said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 9:35 am

    “[Yes, there are many Standard English speakers who do use expressions like Ask Tony and I, or between you and I. One could hardly say it was characteristic of a lack of education. It occurs in Shakespeare. —GKP]”

    [Yes; the juxtaposition was not intended to imply otherwise; it was based on the notion that when people insist that some usage is a sign of being an ignorant lowlife from the working classes who should straighten up and learn proper English, the language of Shakespeare and Milton and Sir Winston Churchill, it usually takes at least some of the wind out of their sails if you can show that either Shakespeare or Milton or Sir Winston used the expression type in question. So we do tend to try that on, as a rhetorical move. Logically, it shouldn’t matter: you don’t have to talk or write like Shakespeare or Milton or Sir Winston, and it would be stupid to imagine that they never committed linguistic errors. —GKP]

    You seem to be accusing me of prescriptivism. Them’s fightin’ words. To clarify, I never meant to imply that “you and I” is “characteristic of a lack of education” or “a sign of being an ignorant lowlife”. My hypothesis is that it’s often an overcorrection that reveals something interesting about the English language, namely that the case of a pronoun used in a conjunctive phrase tends not to be determined by the role it’s playing. I’d like to have more time to investigate that hypothesis and see if it’s true in other languages as well; perhaps when I write my next dissertation.

    Apologies if I misread your point, or if my original post wasn’t clear on the issue. But let me be perfectly clear: I am not a prescriptivist.

  43. Sili said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 11:24 am

    I’m not sure the barbet is correct in this case – “Never attribute malice where incompetence may suffice” an’ all tha’.

    I suspect this is Dunning-Kruger territory.

  44. MJ said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

    On the traditional view that has “my” as an adjective: if it’s anything, it’s not an adjective. For example, it doesn’t coordinate with adjectives:

    *The my and scientific book was good.
    Cf. The scholarly and scientific book was good.

    It can’t appear in predicate position:

    *I feel my.
    *I am my.
    Cf. I am happy.

    And it can’t be modified by adverbs:

    *A recently my book came out. (on the intended reading where ‘recently’ modifies the book’s being mine.)
    Cf. A decently interesting book came out.

  45. Robert E. Harris said,

    November 3, 2009 @ 11:32 pm

    “Ask Tony and I …” is perfectly correct mid-Missouri grammar. Forty years ago I told my wife (the family linguistics expert) that the “and” converts the objective case marker into a nominative case marker.

  46. Levi Montgomery said,

    November 5, 2009 @ 8:56 am

    Almost completely off the subject, but I had a sixth-grade teacher (maybe – might have been fifth – either one was way too many years ago) who attempted to teach us that “me” was simply never used with any other pronouns. On account of it was “impolite.”

  47. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 1:44 am

    @MJ: Thanks for giving reasons not to consider “my” an adjective. I’d been wondering.

    No doubt someone has suggested that “my”, “your”, etc., are determiners plus adjectives, or that their function is determinative plus adjectival, as suggested by their occurrence in parallel with such items:

    Do you want my book or the red book?

    That would get around the tests you mention above, as “the red” can’t appear predicatively and can’t be modified by an adverb. These possessive/genitive words are very rarely coordinated with a determiner plus an adjective, but it does occur, as here:

    “He could hardly expect a panel of white planters to take that claim seriously
    if his and the ‘best’ houses of the settlement by that time were simple log structures.”

    Like “the worst and the best houses”, “his and the best houses” refers to different houses: his house and the best houses.

    Another point that interests me is that the CGEL (p. 458) says of the distinction between “my” and “mine”, “We take this to be a relatively minor matter, and regard my and mine as variants of the genitive case.” That leads me to wonder if instead one could take them as variants of an adjective. “Mine” is a lot like an adjective—it can occur predicatively, and it can be modified by adverbs (such as “recently”, though not “very” or too). Between them, “my” and “mine” can do a lot of what an adjective (or adjective plus determiner) does.

    The CGEL also takes “maiden” in “maiden voyage” to be an adjective, though it passes only one of their tests (p. 537). Maybe it’s not unreasonable to suggest that “my” and “mine” are or function a lot like adjectives, despite failing some tests.

    I’ll be interested to see what people think.

  48. Acilius said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 9:29 am

    @Jerry: I think you’re onto something.

  49. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 6, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

    @Acilius: Thanks!

  50. Will said,

    November 7, 2009 @ 1:49 am

    I tend to think of my as sort of a way of saying the speaker’s. Assuming we understand speaker to refer to the person uttering/writing the sentence, this phrase can be substituted for my in any sentence and the result will be both grammatically correct and unchanged in meaning (though possibly stilted-sounding). I can’t think of a counterexample anyway.

    And, correct me if I’m wrong, but the speaker’s is a determiner plus a genitive. So that’s what I would say my is as well.

    Mine is more difficult.

  51. Jerry Friedman said,

    November 8, 2009 @ 1:04 am

    I’m not correcting anybody, but I think the question is what a genitive is. The CGEL (p. 56) says, “Genitive NPs characteristically function as subject-determiner in a larger NP. That is, they combine the function of determiner, marking the NP as definite, with that of complement (more specifically subject).”

    If I understand this, which I might not, the noun phrase “the speaker’s” is just like “Jerry’s” or “Will’s” in being both a determiner and a complement. “The speaker’s catamaran” is like “the catamaran of the speaker”, where “of the speaker” is a complement. And “my” in “my catamaran” has the same functions.

    What I was saying above has some resemblances to this, which may be why Acilius said I was onto something (meaning groping toward the reinvention of the wheel). But there’s still a lot here I don’t understand.

  52. Copernicus said,

    November 17, 2009 @ 6:54 am

    *The odour of death it gradually became apparent that it was.

    Surely that should be the Yoda of death?

  53. Lynsey said,

    November 26, 2009 @ 10:21 am

    Oh that’s appalling. I’m only in English Language Level 1 at Glasgow and Clauses are my kryptonite, but even I know that that’s a howler.

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