Ask Language Log: Roommates at odds over absolutes

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FMA writes (from zip code 02138):

My roommate [MS] told me Christopher Hitchens is a wonderful prose stylist. I was skeptical, so I opened Hitch 22 at random. The first sentence reads:

"My mother having decided that Tonbridge was out of the question for her sensitive Christopher, some swift work had to be done to reposition me in the struggle—the whole aim and object of the five years at Mount House—to make me into a proper public-school boy [sic]."

I have put in bold the part of the sentence that bothers me. Essentially, there is a fragment next to a sentence; there is no predicate for "my mother." I noted that Mr. Hitchens is also missing a comma after "mother," but my roommate believes that's just the thing that would make the sentence wrong. According to him, "My mother having decided that Tonbridge was out of the question for her sensitive Christopher," is a modifier of "some swift work," so he believes there is no problem with the sentence. He also believes there is no problem sentences like

"My mother being very old, I walked in quietly [sic]."

Will you tell the world he's wrong? I tried to come up with analogous examples, but he thinks there's something about the present perfect tense that makes these constructions unique. He claims authority because he is a native English speaker—I, while not a native speaker, do claim native competence.

In this case, I'm afraid, I have to tell the world that FMA is wrong, and his roommate and Christopher Hitchens are right.  Hitchens is using a construction discussed on pages 1265-6 of CGEL, where the followed two examples are given:

His hands gripping the door, he let out a volley of curses.
This done, she walked off without another word.

CGEL explains that

The underlined non-finites are supplements with the main clause as anchor. [The examples shown] contain a subject, and belong to what is known as the absolute construction, one which is subordinate in form but with no syntactic link to the main clause. [...]

In [none of these examples] is there any explicit indication of the semantic relation between the supplement and the anchor. This has to be inferred from the content of the clauses and/or the context.

Absolute constructions are quite common in formal varieties of English, especially in styles influenced by exposure to Latin. Latin writers were especially fond of ablative absolutes, about which Allen and Greenough write

The ablative absolute is an adverbial modifier of the predicate. It is, however, not grammatically dependent on any word in the Sentence: hence its name absolute (absolitus, i.e. free or unconnected).

Confining our attention to maternal absolutes, it's easy to find 19th-century examples:

Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White: Her mother having told me as little about the child as she told me of herself, I was left to discover (which I did on the first day when we tried her at lessons) that the poor little thing's intellect is not developed as it ought to be at her age.

Benjamin Disraeli, Coningsby: Lord and Lady Gaverstock were also there, who never said an unkind thing of anybody; her ladyship was pure as snow; but her mother having been divorced, she ever fancied she was paying a kind of homage to her parent by visiting those who might be some day in the same predicament.

Charles Dickens, Little Dorrit: Mr. Flintwinch taking kindly to the idea of getting rid of him, and his mother being indifferent, beyond considerations of saving, to most domestic arrangements that were not bounded by the walls of her own chamber, he easily carried this point without new offence.

Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist: Your mother being dead, I knew that you alone could solve the mystery if anybody could, and as when I had last heard of you you were on your own estate in the West Indies—whither, as you well know, you retired upon your mother's death to escape the consequences of vicious courses here—I made the voyage.

George Eliot, Daniel Deronda: But Gwendolen, nevertheless, continued to receive polite attentions from the family at Quetcham, not merely because invitations have larger grounds than those of personal liking, but because the trying little scene at the piano had awakened a kindly solicitude towards her in the gentle mind of Miss Arrowpoint, who managed all the invitations and visits, her mother being otherwise occupied.

There are several common idioms of this form, such as "all things being equal" (originally perhaps a translation of the Latin ablative absolute ceteris paribus) and "all things considered".

Here at Ware College House where I'm the resident Faculty Master, we generally have first-year roommates start the semester by drafting and signing an agreement about how they'll share their space and how they'll settle disputes. I don't believe that I've ever seen a roommate contract that specified methods for the arbitration of syntactic disagreements, but in case this sort of thing comes up again, Language Log is here to help.

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67 Comments »

  1. Stephen said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 12:02 pm

    These examples all seem much more natural to me with "with" added (such as With his hands gripping the door, he let out a volley of curses.). Is it clear whether this version is older, or is it just a different attempt to import the construction from Latin, with "X [ablative]" being translated into "with X"?

    [(myl) You're free to write as you like, of course, and even to send your usage advice to Christopher Hitchens, if you want to. For Charles Dickens, George Eliot, and the other classic authors who have been using this construction for the past few hundred years, it's too late.]

  2. Theodore said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 12:18 pm

    Note that in the CGEL examples, and those from Dickens et al, the main anchor clause is an active construction while Hitchens' is passive. We all know passives are bad.

  3. MJ said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 12:25 pm

    @ Stephen– Greg Stump calls those "augmented absolutes" in _The Semantic Variability of Absolute Constructions_ and argues there are differences; for example, he makes the case that augmented absolutes can be read as conditional clauses in modal sentences, but that free absolutes can't (he contrasts, e.g., "The children alseep, she might watch tv" with "With the children asleep, she might tv").

  4. Debbie said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 12:30 pm

    Ouch FMA! I'm glad to find this prose correct because my MS is littered with it, I believe, due to the influence of the nineteenth century literature I am so fond of reading.

  5. KevinM said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 12:35 pm

    I think the roommate is conflating this construction with a dangling or misplaced modifier. The initial clause does not modify the subject of the following clause. Rather — in what we might call the "Jersey Shore Absolute" — it more generally states The Situation.

  6. Mary Bull said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 12:52 pm

    I love this prose style — probably, like Debbie, on account of 19th century literature's influence on me. My parents had read aloud to me from classic authors such as Dickens and R.L. Stevenson well before I could read them for myself, and so all these examples feel comfortingly like home to me.

  7. Rex said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 1:00 pm

    With the camp fortified, the consul went to Rome…

  8. Debbie said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 1:04 pm

    Stephen…uttered in desperate frustration, 'I can't get a handle on passive tense, please excuse my ignorance.' How would this same sentence read, corrected to the active tense, within this style?

    [(myl) A guides to the perplexed (about passive voice): "How to defend yourself from bad advice about writing". And a tour of some other resources: "Confusion over avoiding the passive".]

  9. MJ said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 1:18 pm

    @Debbie Odds are the agent of the main clause is the mother. If so, then, e.g.: "My mother having decided that Tonbridge was out of the question for her sensitive Christopher, she had to do some swift work to reposition me in the struggle." But it might be another person (context presumably would tell): "My mother having decided that Tonbridge was out of the question for her sensitive Christopher, my father had to do some swift work to reposition me in the struggle."

  10. Melissa Fox said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 1:22 pm

    Put another way, no, it's true that there is no predicate for "my mother" – which is because neither the mother nor her decision is the subject of the sentence. FMA wants the sentence to go "My mother, having decided that Tonbridge was out of the question for her sensitive Christopher, had to do some swift work to reposition me in the struggle …" – or possibly "My mother's having decided that Tonbridge was out of the question for her sensitive Christopher meant some swift work had to be done …". Both also grammatical, but neither what Hitchens meant or wrote. I'm busting FMA down to "native-like competence", since there are certainly plenty of native speakers who wouldn't recognize this stuff either.

  11. Boris said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 1:34 pm

    The original example does seem a bit off to me. All of your examples have the person whose mother is being referenced (i.e. part of the initial clause) as the subject. The only exception, from "Oliver Twist", still has "you" as the subject of a subclause of the sentence close to the start of the main subject.

    Things like "all things considered" obviously don't follow this rule, but I think of them as set idioms or at least a different type of construction.

  12. John said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 1:36 pm

    Perhaps Christopher Hitchens owes his somewhat Latinate prose style to his education: "I often have difficulty convincing my graduate students that I really did go off to prep school at the age of eight, from station platforms begrimed with coal dust and echoing to the mounting “whomp, whomp, woof, woof” of the pistons beginning to turn, as my own “trunk” and “tuck box” were loaded into a “luggage car.” Not only that, but that I wore corduroy shorts in all weathers, blazers with a school crest on Sundays, slept in a dormitory with open windows, began every day with a cold bath (followed by the declension of Latin irregular verbs), wolfed lumpy porridge for breakfast, attended compulsory divine service every morning and evening, and kept a diary in which—​in a special code—​I recorded the number of times when I was left alone with a grown-up man, who was perhaps four times my weight and five times my age, and bent over to be thrashed with a cane." (Hitch 22)

  13. KKM said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 2:07 pm

    It seems to me, my parser ought to be broken by constant abuse, that the sentence no main verb. I read it such that “to make me into etc.” qualifies “struggle” by stating the objective of it, and therefore also part of the absolute:

    “some swift work had to be done to reposition me in the struggle [...] to make me into a proper public-school boy”

    and thus, entire absolute omitted, the sentence reads:

    "My mother having decided that Tonbridge was out of the question for her sensitive Christopher.”

    Am I missing the point? I my main verb back!

    [(myl) Yes, I believe that you're missing the point (or at least the parse).

    The )non-finite) absolute supplement in the cited sentence is: "My mother having decided that Tonbridge was out of the question for her sensitive Christopher".

    The main clause is: "some swift work had to be done to reposition me in the struggle to make me into a proper public-school boy".

    And then there's an interpolated noun phrase, appositive to struggle: "the whole aim and object of the five years at Mount House". ]

  14. Mr Fnortner said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

    Consider this: My mother having decided that Tonbridge was out of the question for her sensitive Christopher, some swift work had to be done to reposition me in the struggle… with an added comma: My mother, having decided that Tonbridge was out of the question for her sensitive Christopher, some swift work had to be done to reposition me in the struggle…. The latter sentence is not grammatical, and may well be the source of the difficulty for MS.

    And I believe there is a predicate for My mother which is having decided that Tonbridge was out of the question for her sensitive Christopher.

  15. Debbie said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 2:38 pm

    John, why wouldn't they believe you-after all, Harry Potter was only eleven? (Sorry, I couldn't resist although I know I should try.(

  16. Twitter Trackbacks for Language Log » Ask Language Log: Roommates at odds over absolutes [upenn.edu] on Topsy.com said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 2:42 pm

    [...] Language Log » Ask Language Log: Roommates at odds over absolutes languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=2563 – view page – cached My roommate [MS] told me Christopher Hitchens is a wonderful prose stylist. I was skeptical, so I opened Hitch 22 at random. The first sentence reads: Tweets about this link [...]

  17. dfan said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 2:48 pm

    Another standard one is "That [being] said, [....]".

  18. Tom O'Brien said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 2:51 pm

    You needn't be a 19th-century author or Christopher Hitchens. Here's ee cummings, using an absolute to talk about relativity: "Space being (don't forget to remember) Curved"

    [(myl) The construction is certainly still alive and kicking, even in relatively informal varieties of English. Thus this passage from "Man Nearly Dies After Putting Pet Rattlesnake Down Throat":

    A man in Oregon nearly died after a pet rattlesnake that he put in his mouth while drinking with some friends bit him inside his throat.

    "Me, being me, I put his head in my mouth," Wilkinson said. "At first, it felt like someone had given me a shot in the mouth."

    Wilkinson's throat began to swell and close as poison rushed through his body.

    Doctors stuck a breathing tube down his throat, injected several rounds of anti-venin and then put him in a medical coma for three days.

    (Ignore the odd punctuation.)]

  19. CS Clark said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 3:08 pm

    If 'My father’s family name being Pirrip, and my Christian name Philip, my infant tongue could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than Pip.' is also a non-maternal example I'd lay dollars to doughnuts Hitchens had that specifically in mind.

  20. Karen said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 3:11 pm

    And here's a nice one from The American Journal of Photography: Being at a great elevation, it was intensely cold ; but the journey being long, we were obliged to start early.

  21. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 3:32 pm

    How about this for a well-known example of absolute construction: "A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed." This, at least, is the version which, according to the Wikipedia article, was distributed to the states for ratification. The version passed by Congress had some extra commas. Could these have been due to the scribe's unfamiliarity with absolute construction?

  22. Karen said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 3:52 pm

    @Coby: More likely it's due to the much greater frequency commas enjoyed in the 18th century. Things written then always look over-comma'd and over-capitalized to our eyes.

  23. Spectre-7 said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 4:17 pm

    While going over one of my manuscripts, I got stuck on the opening line which had an absolute phrase. I couldn't figure out what it was for the life of me, and I was left scratching my head, mumbling something like, "Wait… can I do that? Doesn't that need a copula or two? I don't think I can do that. But wait, can I?"

    It took a few hours of research (and a bit of slamming my head into my desk) to figure out I was using the absolute and that it was perfectly alright. A post like this one could've saved me a whole afternoon of frustration. :)

  24. Coby Lubliner said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 4:51 pm

    Since I brought up the Second Amendment in my previous comment, I would like to raise a point about the semantics of the absolute. I think that it often represents a condition. "Other things being equal," for example, doesn't usually mean "since other things are equal" but rather "if and when other things are equal" or "to the extent that other things are equal." It has always seemed to me that the absolute phrase in the Second Amendment is of this nature, and that once it's determined that "a well regulated militia" is no longer "necessary to the security of a free State," the main clause doesn't apply. It surprises me that proponents of the "liberal" interpretation of the amendment (i.e. of gun control) have not used this linguistic argument.

  25. Craig Russell said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 4:59 pm

    @John

    If Hitchens' Latin education had really been any good, he would know that you conjugate verbs (Latin or otherwise); you decline nouns and adjectives.

  26. Xmun said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 5:14 pm

    @Craig Russell

    A forgivable error, it seems to me.

    It used to be said that adjectives "qualify" nouns, while adverbs "modify" verbs or adjectives, but nowadays "modify" is used of both. I don't like it, but I've got used to it.

  27. MJ said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    @Cory –See Visser, An Historical Syntax of the English Language, vol. 3, 1152-55 for his categorization of absolutes, which is based on relations of time, attendant circumstances, and reason, as well as condition.

  28. john riemann soong said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 5:28 pm

    I've always had to consciously avoid this construction in my high school essays and I do believe this type of construction is forbidden by CollegeBoard

    I am liberated to know that this habit is in fact justified but how will my superiors perceive it?

  29. Janice Byer said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 5:30 pm

    I second and third the emotions expressed here toward 19th century writers. If Hitch is guilty of sounding like them, that explains why, even when his ideas are irksome, I love reading and hearing them.

  30. Neal Goldfarb said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

    @Melissa Fox: "it's true that there is no predicate for 'my mother' – which is because neither the mother nor her decision is the subject of the sentence."

    There is in fact a predicate for my mother. It's having decided that Tonbridge was out of the question for her sensitive Christopher.

    While my mother isn't the subject of the sentence, it is the subject of the absolute clause.

  31. Mark P said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

    @john riemann soong: My advisor was pleased with himself when he corrected such a construction in my dissertation. I disagreed, but I had no inclination to argue with him about it.

  32. Nathan Myers said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

    Sure it's grammatical, but "some swift work had to be done to reposition me in the struggle" is leaden. Zero points for style, there.

  33. empty said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 9:33 pm

    Yeah, OK, I am happy to be one of the sophisticated people who like this absolute construction, and I think I agree with Nathan about the "reposition" bit, but mostly I really really wish that the good Professor Liberman had spared us the thing about the rattlesnake. I can't get it out of my head.

  34. Adrian Morgan said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 11:44 pm

    There are several common idioms of this form, such as "all things being equal"

    I don't immediately recognise "all things being equal", but "all else being equal" is certainly a common idiom. The latter is also more popular in Google.

    I'm wondering – in real time, as I write this – whether there's a difference, however subtle. (For example, I could hypothesise that "things" works better when the comparison is less explicit. All else being equal, Language Log is more enjoyable than most other blogs. All things being equal, I'll still be reading Language Log this time next year.) Or are they exactly the same?

  35. Tom said,

    August 18, 2010 @ 11:56 pm

    @Mark's rattlesnake example. I agree it's probably an oddly punctuated absolute construction, but it's not impossible the comma is right. Imagine him saying, "My pal Rutherford, he wouldn't touch the critter. Me, I put his head in my mouth." Now suppose he slips in a participial phrase: "Me, being me, I put his head in my mouth."

  36. empty said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 1:21 am

    Surely the ultimate authority for any grammar or punctuation question related to putting venomous snakes in the mouth would be Mr. Language Person.

  37. "Debbie said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 1:27 am

    Mark thank you for the links. Karen said, '…the journey being long we were obliged…' Is this passive? Have I got a handle on passive construction? I've read about ten percent of Mark's blog links and I'm hoping my subconcious is working through the information. …was inclined, was read, was recessed-passive? What if the word obviously is inserted between the verbs? Thanks for your patience.

  38. "Debbie said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 1:41 am

    Thanks Mark for the links regarding passive construction. I've read about ten percent and I'm hoping to absorb the information subconsciously. Karen said, '…we were obliged…' Is this passive? What about, 'was read, was interested, was recessed'? What if obviously was placed between the verbs?

  39. Debbie said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 1:52 am

    Mark, thanks for the passive voice links. I've read about ten percent and I hope that I'm beginning to understand or at least, to absorb them subconciously. Karen said, 'we were obliged…'. Is this passive voice? How about, 'was read, was interested, was recessed'? What if obviously was placed between the verbs?

  40. Spectre-7 said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 2:48 am

    @Debbie,

    If I may be of assistance (and hopefully, I won't bone anything up here)…

    Karen said, 'we were obliged…'. Is this passive voice?

    Yes (sort of*).

    How about, 'was read, was interested, was recessed'?

    Yes, and two sort-ofs*.

    What if obviously was placed between the verbs?

    Also yes.

    If you have a transitive verb (that is, a verb that acts directly on another word), and you arrange things so that whatever the verb acts on becomes the subject, you've used the passive voice.

    For example, given the active voice sentence below:
    Jack kicked the cat.

    We can rephrase it in the passive voice like this:
    The cat was kicked.

    And it really doesn't matter what else is jammed in there.
    The cat was kicked.
    The cat was viciously kicked.
    The cat was viciously kicked by some jerk.
    The cat, a lovely calico, was viciously kicked by some jerk.
    All of the above still have verbs in the passive voice.

    As a counter-example, when you have an intransitive verb (one that doesn't act directly on another word), you can't form the passive voice with it at all.

    For example, we can say:
    The cat breathed.

    But it doesn't work if we try to say:
    The cat was breathed.

    *About those sort-ofs: With interested and recessed, it's very likely that the construction is an adjectival passive, rather than true passive voice. What this means is that the verbs are being used like adjectives. It's a sort of fiddly distinction, and it's not always clear whether something is a true passive or an adjectival passive.

    Anyway, I hope that helps, and I doubly hope I didn't make some egregious mistake, because this is surely the wrong place for it. If I have, I'm sure some helpful person will come along and correct me.

  41. Spectre-7 said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 2:55 am

    Gah. Breathe has a transitive sense. Replace it with died in the examples above.

  42. Claw said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 5:22 am

    Hmm… when I looked up absolute construction in the index of CGEL, it said pp. 1255-6 rather than 1265-6. I think an addition to the errata is in order.

  43. Jongseong Park said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 5:30 am

    I had no idea before reading this post that anyone would object to the absolute construction. People 'correct' others who use it? Really? Although I hadn't known it by name, I feel like I've been hearing or reading it for as long as I've been speaking English, and I make frequent use of it myself.

    Having said that, it is not the most common construction in English, and it does have a slightly literary ring to it now that I think about it.

  44. Karen said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 7:51 am

    The manager of my building has a habit of sending out memos in a two-part structure. First she describes some situation or problem, and then she tells us the action she is taking (or we are to take) to remedy it.

    The odd thing is that she consistently introduces the second part with: "Having that been said,". Not "that having been said", "having that been said."

    That seems so odd to me.

    [(myl) Definitely a WTF construction for me as well -- but a surprisingly common one.]

  45. empty said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 9:37 am

    @Karen: Send her a two-part memo. The first part can explain what's you find so odd about the phrase she uses …

  46. Craig Russell said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 10:30 am

    @ Jongseong Park

    But your own example — "having said that" — is not really the same kind of absolute construction. All of the examples of absolutes we've seen have both a subject and a predicate — which is usually some participial form.

    I would classify your "having said that" as more of a dangling modifier though. It begins the sentence by suggesting that it will agree with the subject, e.g. "having said that, I don't consider this the most common construction in English." Here the participle "having said" agrees with "I" (in other words, has "I" as its subject) and is not an absolute.

    But in the sentence as you wrote it — "having said that, it is not the most common construction in English" — there is no noun to be the subject of "having said". Hence the participle is "dangling". I imagine many would call this "grammatically incorrect" or something, but especially with this particular expression, it's understandable enough and common enough that maybe it has gained/is gaining some acceptance?

    Anyway, if you had said "that (having been) said, it is not the most common construction in English," you would have a "true" absolute construction, with a subject (that) and a predicate ([having been] said), both of which are absolute (i.e. syntactically separate from) the rest of the sentence.

  47. Lane Greene said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 11:25 am

    What got my goat was FMA's assertion that Hitchens was not a great writer, and trotted out only a (false) bit of grammar gotcha to disprove it. As if grammatical writers are all great by definition, or the existence of a single grammar error, even if legitimate, could rule someone out of that category.

  48. Ray Dillinger said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 1:35 pm

    I have the impression that this is one of the points on which the grammar of, eg, Basic English differs from the grammar of English. Also, it's a point a bit too esoteric for most first and second year ESL courses to bother with as far as I know. Certainly you will have seen it a lot if your reading habits encompass much literature of the Victorian or Edwardian era.

    The construction having been used for many years by many writers and speakers, it behooves us to consider it grammatical.

  49. Thomas P said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 2:34 pm

    Having that been said about absolutes, wouldn't one capitalize mother in Hitch's sentence?

  50. chris said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 2:44 pm

    Breathe has a transitive sense.

    True, but a cat is highly anomalous as the object of that transitive sense. You can breathe fumes, breathe fire, or even metaphorically eat, drink, and breathe political intrigue, but I don't think anyone anywhere has ever breathed cats.

  51. Mary Bull said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 2:50 pm

    I, for one, would not capitalize "mother" in the sentence quoted from Hitchens. Reason: It's modified by "my." It is therefore not being used as a proper name here, but rather it's a common noun expressing a relationship — similar to "brother," "sister," "uncle," "aunt," "cousin," and so forth.

  52. groki said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 3:29 pm

    Karen "having that been said"

    very interesting construction, with several interpretations apparently wrestling for control. the original is not grammatical for me, but each of the following is (though all are awkard):

    1) "having that being said":

    been is incorrectly replacing being, with an assist of near rhyme. having isn't the perfective auxilary, it's possession. what we possess in this case is the state of affairs which "that being said" (a standard absolute) points to.

    2) "having that be said":

    be is getting incorrectly made past participle been because having is present earlier in the sentence. ("having that get said" is one translation of this interpretation.)

    3) "having that [having] been said":

    the second having is getting elided by sort of being absorbed into the first. the elided having is auxilary have, and the first having is again possession.

    (that absorption thing in 3 is familiar: for example, I feel as though adverbial "in a likely manner" should be likelyly, though I usually say "likely" because the standard adverbial -ly is already present.)

  53. groki said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 3:51 pm

    Spectre-7: Breathe has a transitive sense. Replace it with died in the examples above.

    passive and transitive can get tricky. I liked Spectre-7's explanation of passive, though also note be suicided. ("be died" hasn't yet made the jump to "be made to die," but it may.)

    chris: I don't think anyone anywhere has ever breathed cats.

    my allergies say otherwise! :)

  54. Jerry Friedman said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 4:05 pm

    @Chris: I think the problem is that The cat breathed the fumes has a perfectly grammatical passive sentence that corresponds (or whatever the word is) to it: The fumes were breathed [by the cat].

  55. Jongseong Park said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    @Craig Russell: I actually had 'that having been said' at first before hitting on 'having said that' as a more colloquial and familiar construction. I neglected to modify the rest of the sentence, though.

    I now see your point about 'having said that' not being the same kind of absolute construction we've been talking about, with both a subject and a predicate separate from the rest of the sentence. My example is basically something like 'Wandering, I stumbled upon a clearing', only in past perfect form. The constructions we've been talking about are instead like 'The sky darkening above, I sat down to make camp'.

  56. Felix said,

    August 19, 2010 @ 5:41 pm

    Perhaps that construction is "correct", but it's unreadable.

  57. JV said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 4:20 am

    This is one of the most amazing posts on Language Log, in that it, along with its comments, demonstrates how much trouble people have with constructions that are really quite commonplace.

    Or rather, one of many such amazing posts on Language Log. :)

  58. Ben Hemmens said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 4:32 am

    My translator's two cents: it all depends who you're writing for. This is fine for native speakers, especially British ones. It would be better to avoid this in a document aimed at non-native speakers.

    Even for native speakers, I'd say the sentence is laboured. But then, the content is so banal that dressing it up in mock sophistication is probably the only way to make it amusing enough to read. Maybe the avoidance of straight language is also Hitch maneuvering around a personal sore point.

  59. Chris Travers said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 2:35 pm

    "Perhaps that construction is "correct", but it's unreadable."

    I think the tmesis is a bigger issue than the absolute ;-)

  60. Barbara Partee said,

    August 20, 2010 @ 6:40 pm

    I really really recommend Greg Stump's book, referenced by @MJ in one of the first comments. He took a domain in which semantic variability seemed rampant — I thought it was a swamp of a domain and probably hopeless — and really made sense of it. He pinned down the points of variability, and showed how if you divide them into two main classes depending on the semantic nature of the predicate inside them (this was the origin of the distinction between "stage-level" and "individual-level" predicates, a distinction that has proved useful for understanding many constructions in many languages), then the variation you find within each class can be described very effectively.

  61. David Fried said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 6:08 am

    "That having been said" is grammatical and (to my ear) idiomatic. But I studied classical Greek and got very used to the accusative absolute (Greek has no ablative.)

    I'm half embarrassed to admit that it's part of my active vocabulary. But my sense of correct English, like that of several other commenters, is largely formed by 19th century authors, and that sort of prose even colors my everyday speech. When the year 2000 arrived, I joked that my prose style, previously only a century out of date, was now two centuries out of date.

  62. David Fried said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 6:12 am

    Actually I have a question. One could easily substitute "That said. . . " for "That having been said. . . " Can the grammarians among us distinguish between the two? Is the second a mere ellipsis of the first?

  63. David Fried said,

    August 21, 2010 @ 6:20 am

    Whoops! I see CGEL is quoted in the original post as discussing this very elliptical construction: "This done, she walked off without another word." The quoted explanation says that there is no semantic link between the two parts of the sentence. But surely most native speakers would assume that the person who did this was the same as the one who walked off without a word?

  64. Jongseong Park said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 8:58 am

    David Fried, 'this done' does not include any mention of whoever it was that has done it. It's up to the listener to fill in the missing information in the most logical way.

  65. Debbie said,

    August 22, 2010 @ 4:08 pm

    @Spectre-7 and LL readers, sorry, after my post in triplicate (a computer error that caused me to believe that each message hadn't been sent and eventually left my system hung) I left my computer to do some reading and decompress! As for the lovely calico cat, is it passive construction to say that: 'she had breathed' and as for dying, 'the cat had died'? (If so, I have an elementary grasp of passive construction and therefore offer my thanks!)

  66. groki said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 4:09 am

    Debbie: 'she had breathed' … 'the cat had died'

    [I'll add my two cents here, in the hope that multiple perspectives might help.]

    unfortunately, your examples are not passive. ("breathed" and "died" are distracting you, I think: they're not the right kind of verb–at least in your examples.) passive involves a verb of the kind where A does something to B, while also letting B, the recipient of the action, be the subject of the sentence. (B "passively" takes what A does to it.)

    some examples may help. consider the following active sentences, in Subject-Verb-Object form:

    1) Pat tossed the salad. the verb here is "tossed": Pat (A) did the tossing, and what Pat tossed was the salad (B).

    2) That dog chews my picket fence. the verb is "chews": that dog (A) does the chewing, and what the dog chews is my picket fence (B).

    3) The sun lights up this room. the verb is "lights up": the sun (A) does the lighting up, and what it lights up is this room (B).

    the active form of a standard "Subject Verb Object" sentence can be made passive by transforming it into "Object is-or-was Verbed by Subject." take a look at passive equivalents of the above:

    1) The salad was tossed by Pat.

    2) My picket fence is chewed by that dog.

    3) This room is lit up by the sun.

    the B has taken over subject position in the sentence, but the underlying meaning has remained the same, with B still being understood to be the recipient of the action (tossing/chewing/lighting up).

  67. Debbie said,

    August 23, 2010 @ 6:27 pm

    @Groki,@Spectre-7, 'the cat breathed' cat=subject/breathed=verb/it's last breath=object. Assuming that's correct, is this passive: 'The last breath of the cat was breathed in agony.'?
    'The cat died…' (active) becomes passive: 'In its sleep died the cat, with nary the comfort of a kind word.'
    or, 'The cat breathed a secret…' becomes passive 'The secret was breathed by the cat.'
    'the cat died leaving kittens' becomes passive: 'By dying, the kittens were left unnursed.'
    Thanks for all your help. This is now in my writers resource folder for future reference.

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