Weird grammar

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Grammar is back in the news in Australia, and not in a good way. According to Justine Ferrari, "Grammar guide an 'education disaster'", The Onion Australian 2/20/2010:

ONE of the world's most respected authorities on grammar has written to every school principal in Queensland, warning them of an error-strewn grammar guide distributed by the state's English Teachers Association.

University of Queensland emeritus professor Rodney Huddleston says he was forced to write to schools directly because the English Teachers Association of Queensland refused to acknowledge or correct the 65 errors he had identified in its teaching guide on grammar, printed as a series of eight articles in its magazine.

The whole thing is bizarre. We're talking about a school grammar guide that includes analyses like these:

In The small boy won't eat his lunch,"won't" is an adverb.
In The small boy is capable of eating his lunch, "capable of" is an adverb.
In a set of bowls, "set of" is an adjective.
In Sam's folder, "Sam's" is a possessive pronoun.

There's more about the controversy in a series of LL posts from 2008: "Queensland grammar brouhaha", 6/13/2008; "Grasshoppers and women on horseback as frogs", 6/15/2008; "ETAQ strikes baq: more from Queensland", 6/20/2008; "Twenty selected Coalface errors", 6/21/2008. And a collection of relevant documents is here, including the cited letter from Rodney Huddleston to Queensland school principals.

If the English Teachers' Association of Queensland can't accept help from Rodney Huddleston, they ought at least to call in Dave Barry, whose  approach to grammatical analysis is as eccentric as ETAQ's, but funnier:

Q. Please explain the correct usage of the word "neither."
A. Grammatically, "neither" is used to begin sentences with compound subjects that are closely related and wear at least a size 24, as in: "Neither Esther nor Bernice have passed up many Ding Dongs, if you catch my drift." It may also be used at the end of a carnivorous injunction, as in: "And don't touch them weasels, neither."

Q. Is there any difference between "happen" and "transpire"?
A. Grammatically, "happen" is a collaborating inductive that should be used in predatory conjunctions such as: "Me and Norm here would like to buy you two happening mommas a drink.'" Whereas "transpire" is a suppository verb that should always be used to indicate that an event of some kind has transpired.
WRONG: "Lester got one of them electric worm stunners."
RIGHT: "What transpired was, Lester got one of them electric worm stunners."

An infinitive is the word to and whatever comes right behind it, such as "to a tee", "to the best of my ability," "tomato," et cetera. Splitting an infinitive is putting something between the "to" and the other words. For example, this is incorrect:
"Hey man, you got any, you know, spare change you could  give to, like, me?"
The correct version is:
"… spare change you could, like, give to me?"

Or more historically and systematically:

When Chaucer's poem was published, everybody read it and said: "My God, we need some grammar around here." So they formed a Grammar Commission, which developed the parts of speech, the main ones being nouns, verbs, predicants, conjectures, particles, proverbs, adjoiners, coordinates, and rebuttals.

And, of course:

Q. Please explain how to diagram a sentence.
A. First spread the sentence out on a clean, flat surface, such as an ironing board. Then, using a sharp pencil or X-Acto knife, locate the "predicate," which indicates where the action has taken place and is usually located directly behind the gills. For example, in the sentence: "LaMont never would of bit a forest ranger," the action probably took place in a forest. Thus your diagram would be shaped like a little tree with branches sticking out of it to indicate the locations of the various particles of speech, such as your gerunds, proverbs, adjutants, etc.


  1. jfruh said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 8:49 am

    Dave Barry's right about one thing. "spare change you could give to, like, me?"
    sounds very stilted, whereas "spare change you could, like, give to me" sounds more natural and idiomatiac.

    [(myl) In my opinion, Dave Barry's right about everything.]

  2. Ray Girvan said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 9:03 am

    The horrible thing is that it's probably widespread. I follow the Words and Wordplay topic in Yahoo! Answers, and there are quite often questions relating to weird grammatical diktats from teachers, such as the one telling students "impact" can't be a verb.

  3. uberVU - social comments said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 9:25 am

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  4. Q. Pheevr said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 10:03 am

    In a set of bowls, "set of" is an adjective.

    This is sort of like a biology book asserting that the whale and the camel are a marsupial.

    [(myl) My analogy was the claim that equestrians and their mounts, taken together, are frogs; but yes.]

  5. Q. Pheevr said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 10:23 am

    Perhaps that's a fairer analogy, in that at least the equestrian and the horse are adjacent to each other. In any case, I should have recalled that you had already made that point.

  6. michael farris said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 10:51 am

    Is there any way to get to the whole guide on line? The errors pointed out here have a kind of sense to them (in that there's a kind of patterning) even if they're completely wrongheaded.

    It migh tbe a very interesting exercise to go through the whole thing and figure out what the author was thinking.

  7. Dierk said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 10:55 am

    Looks like some teachers will not impact upon their pupils – or studies. Personally, and being someone who really likes Dave Barry's writings, I find the Australian teacher's analyses more hilarious than Barry's.

    BTW, a horse and an equestrian together are neither marsupial nor amphibian [or any other frog] but hiding in the forest behind Hogwarts.

  8. Lee Morgan said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 10:58 am

    "Another example is the phrase "set of", as in "a set of bowls", being described as an adjective, which Professor Huddleston says is not a grammatical unit but a noun followed by a preposition."

    Sometimes I think journalists try too hard to give both sides of a debate.

  9. Rubrick said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 12:10 pm

    Interesting that Barry, in the nonsense portion of his parts of speech list, included "particles", no doubt unaware it was a real part of speech.

  10. Faldone said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 12:20 pm

    And if a guy that says that "bush" is a preposition says the grammar is weird, the grammar is weird.

  11. Amber said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 1:25 pm

    What have the English teachers in Queensland said about this travesty?

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 1:37 pm

    @Lee Morgan: If journalists took one side (the correct one) of this debate, they'd be presenting themselves as competent in grammar.

  13. peter said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 1:45 pm

    Despite once being led by a Premier who translated Dante (Sam Griffith) and despite having the world's first socialist government (in 1899), Queensland has a reputation among Australians for backwardness. This reputation caused one Queensland writer to propose the following as the official State motto:

    "We ain't as dumb as youse think we am. Is."

  14. Alex said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 5:18 pm

    "This is sort of like a biology book asserting that the whale and the camel are a marsupial."

    Or perhaps like a Texas biology textbook?

  15. Nathan Myers said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 5:57 pm

    I wonder if Muphry's law struck Prof. Huddleston, but not enough so to check for myself.

    Dave Barry knows perfectly well what a particle is, and would happily mislead you about it if asked. He has to know in order not to accidentally get it right. "Carnivorous injunction" was the top Barryism of the post, by my lights, but you can never go wrong quoting Dave.

  16. Gordon Campbell said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 8:14 pm

    I went to school in Queensland and completed a postgraduate education degree here in Australia, so I clearly are uniquely expert to speak of such grammatological nonsense.

    A major part of the problem is that teacher education focuses largely on social constructivism and the like — a preoccupation with problematizing metanarratives and deconstructing hegemonic discourses and similar occult arts. Academics get used to such a clear, clever and useful mode of communication and they forget (or never learn) that real scholarship about such things as language exist. They believe that they can say anything and it will be taken seriously.

    Of course, the other part of the problem is that there has been little explicit teaching of grammar in schools for at least a generation. (I don’t want to sound too curmudgeonly here – perhaps there was no golden age of grammar knowledge – but I do know that I was taught next to nothing in the ‘70s and ‘80s). No one else in the staff room knows anything about grammar either, so there’s no one to stop them spouting nonsense. Even so, it’s astounding that these people can be so ignorant and yet feel so confident about pontificating on the subject — a beautiful example of the Dunning-Kruger effect.

    [(myl) The English Teachers' Association of Queensland is, alas, not the only place where bizarre grammatical analysis is passed off as expertise. As discussed in "The grammar gravy train", the Collins Good Writing Guide asserts that in the expression "my word!", "my" is the subject and "word" is the predicate. Read "Adjective phrases: answer to exercise" for an equally puzzling encounter with the Nelson Grammar Series. And check out the links in "More bad grammar books published" for further evidence that "grammar books are being written by the incompetent and published by the blind or uncaring".]

  17. Tim said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 11:34 pm

    Just found this and did a bit of back reading in the linked articles. It's a fascinating little fight, and though this is just speculation, I think I see what might be going on here. The fact that this happened in Australia provides a big clue – I think the designers of this grammar guide were influenced by the Functional Grammar theories of M.A.K. Halliday. However, they appear to have badly misapplied those theories in this case.

    Halliday's ideas focus on how language functions in social contexts to create meaning. His theories were regularized as Systemic Functional Linguistics (SFL) and popularized in some Australian K-12 schools and universities by scholars like Jim Martin and colleagues.

    SFL looks at language not as isolated words which fit into certain classes (as in the traditional linguistic/grammatical "word-classes" of nouns, verbs, etc.), but as larger "chunks of meaning," so to speak — "functional units" in phrases, clauses, paragraphs, and texts.

    It's important to note that SFL doesn't do away with the older word-class categories; rather it just takes another angle – it's simply looking at different things. It can be useful in certain contexts and when teaching certain populations how a language works.

    Here, somebody seems to have used the insights of SFL to parse some sentences (badly) and then assigned traditional word-class names over them. Ultimately, the problem is that there has been a conflation of the form-function distinction. The word classes refer to the form of each word; SFL describes words, phrases, etc. in terms of their functions.

    For example, three of the common functional groups in SFL are:

    – "Participants" (Who is participating? – The people or things which take part in the action described)
    – "Processes" (What did they do or what happened to them? – the action taking place)
    – "Circumstances" (When/where/how is this happening? – a broad category which covers limitations of time, place, or manner placed upon the Process)

    An SFL analysis of a given sentence, such as The group of teenage boys stared at the passing women in bikinis. would say:

    [The group of teenage boys] all together, is a "Participant"
    [stared] is the "Process"
    [at the passing women in bikinis] is the "Circumstance."

    It's the "Circumstance" category that seems to be causing the most trouble – it's inherently broad and in many ways seems connected to the older idea of an adverb – but they're not the same. In the sentence above, for instance, you could change the last part after "stared" to [at the beach] or [in 1955] or [happily with goofy grins on their faces] and it would all go under "Circumstance" in SFL. Since these types of things seem to connect with the traditional ways in which an adverb was said to modify a noun (when, where, how, etc) I think someone thought they were the same thing.

    That's what probably happened in the examples listed in this post:

    In The small boy won't eat his lunch,"won't" is an adverb.

    In The small boy is capable of eating his lunch, "capable of" is an adverb.

    Both of these only make sense if you are thinking of the verbs [eat] and [eating] as the main "Processes" of the sentence. Someone might (mistakenly) think this if they've been trained in SFL, which asks "what is the action taking place here?" — in this case, answered as eating, and then the words around "eat" and "eating" are seen as the "Circumstances" which describe how or in what manner that Process happened — [won't] or [is capable of]. It's a double-whammy mistake of a misreading of what the central Processes are, along with the conflation of the traditional grammar word-class "adverb" with the SFL "Circumstances."

    This is not necessarily to defend SFL; an earlier commenter said that the errors have a certain sense to them, and I think that's right, and this is the best explanation I can come up with.

  18. grizzly said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 11:52 pm

    What are some good current grammar books? In particular, what are some that describe formal usage accurately without succumbing to antique superstitions? I'm a technical writer whose drafts get corrected (or altered, at least) by engineers who believe you must never split an infinitive but couldn't define one to save their souls. I'd like some authority to cite to them.

  19. Kenny Easwaran said,

    February 22, 2010 @ 11:58 pm

    peter – does that explain why Queensland license plates (or should I say "number plates"?) say either "The Sunshine State" or "The Smart State"?

  20. Dan S said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 12:47 am

    I was enjoying this post a LOT more before I realized that it was not at all from any version of the Onion. (My iPhone barely rendered the strikeout.)

    Good gravey. It's worse than I thought. And I DO read Prof P's posts.

    Where's the official P.R. team for Linguistics when you need them?

  21. Dan T. said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 1:00 am

    Which Sunshine State is sunnier, Florida or Queensland? And which is smarter and which is crazier?

  22. Faldone said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 8:39 am

    This Functional Grammar might be the reason for the common objection to Professors Pullum and Huddleston's assigning the category of preposition to the word bush in the sentence "On hatching, the chicks scramble to the surface and head bush on their own." This common objection is that bush is an adverb in this sentence.

  23. Acilius said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 9:27 am

    @Tim: It sounds to me like you've come up with an excellent explanation.

  24. Joe said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 1:01 pm

    Here's a link outlining some of the problems and confirming the Functional Grammar explanation (Sorry if I am speaking out of turn, as it is from Professor Pullum's website).

  25. Boris said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 2:26 pm

    @Dan T,

    Florida gets more thunderstorms per unit area than almost any other place in the world, so I think it's a safe bet that most places are sunnier than Florida unless they experience polar night.

    The happy cows are from California after all.

  26. Army1987 said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 4:21 pm

    Faldone, "bush" in that sentence definitely belongs to the class of words Huddleston and Pullum call "prepositions", but I agree that I'm not sure that I would call them that way. By comparison, the difference between their integrated relative clauses and "traditional" restrictive clauses is much smaller, yet they didn't use the traditional name. (Not that I can think of a better name for their prepositions right now, unless you think "generalized prepositions" would be better.)

  27. Faldone said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 5:19 pm

    I think they are objects of prepositional phrases where the preposition is understood. The examples that Prof. Pullum used to establish the existence of intransitive prepositions are, to me, simply prepositional phrases with the object understood.

    "On hatching, the chicks scramble to the surface and head (to the) bush on their own."

  28. Dan T. said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 7:11 pm

    Which Bush do the chicks head for… G. H. W. Bush or G. W. Bush?

  29. Army1987 said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 8:23 pm

    No, because there are prepositions which are always intransitive, e.g. "afterwards".

  30. NW said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 8:38 pm


    The definitive current guide for English grammar is Huddleston & Pullum's _Cambridge Grammar of the English Language_, but at 1850 pages or so and £120 that's out of normal reach, so there's the same authors'/editors' _Student's Introduction to English Grammar_. These use the last thirty or more years of research to update traditional notions; their work largely represents a consensus of modern linguistics.

  31. Faldone said,

    February 23, 2010 @ 10:31 pm

    AHD4 lists afterward(s) as an adverb.

  32. Army1987 said,

    February 24, 2010 @ 5:07 pm

    I meant "preposition" as defined by Huddleston and Pullum, of course.

  33. Faldone said,

    February 24, 2010 @ 5:48 pm

    Which is the very definition that I'm arguing against.

  34. Philip said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 1:15 am

    Having taken a writing class at my province's foremost technical college, I can't say this surprises me in the least.

  35. conrad said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 6:38 am

    You're too kind Tim. I think a higher probability explanation is that they're just fools that still don't want to admit they are wrong and actually fix the guide. If they did this, I'm sure this little incident would be quickly forgotten.

  36. Army1987 said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 7:02 am

    @Faldone: If your objection is that it was a bad idea to call that class "prepositions" because that has a quite different meaning in traditional grammar, I agree. If it is that it makes no sense to have such a class of words, I disagree.

  37. Faldone said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 2:12 pm

    I have no problem with there being prepositions. What I have seen of the Pullum/Huddleston definition strikes me as being similar to defining a spouse as 'the person you're married to, the person sitting next to you on the bus, or a hard cover book with a red spine that is too tall for your book shelf and must be laid on its side to be shelved.'

  38. Army1987 said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 5:58 pm

    I agree that there are large differences between "transitive prepositions" and "intransitive prepositions", and I used to agree that it made little sense to class them together, but this article by Pullum convinced me that that differences are smaller than those between "intransitive prepositions" and adverbs, and that there are many features they share, after all.

  39. Faldone said,

    February 25, 2010 @ 7:35 pm

    @Army1987: Thanks for the article. I might be some time before I can fully digest it. I have briefly scanned the section on telling prepositions from adverbs but I don't read complex matter well on the screen and my printer is not working, so I'll have to wait till I can print it out at work tomorrow before I can respond at length.

    I will say that I have been reading Greg Morrow's Frothing at the Mouth entry on this grammatical question. If we say, e.g., "I gave the book to George" with "to George" as a prepositional phrase and we re-order the sentence as "I gave George the book" by his analysis it would seem that he is claiming that "George" has become a preposition.

  40. Kurt said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 6:23 am

    Tim, I think your explanation is plausable. I studied a grammar based on Pullum/Huddleston's and have had little exposure to SFG. But as a teacher here in Australia I know what a large impact it's had. The sad thing, almost without exception, is that proponents of SFG working in education will say they are not experts and only have 'some' knowledge of it. The problem then becomes that they have 'some' knowledge of SFG (invariably getting it wrong) and no knowledge of modern grammars and so we end up with a teaching profession whose knowledge of both consists of half-truths and misconceptions. It's been a real dog's breakfast (to use an Australianism). Hopefully, the new national curriculum will straighten things out a bit but I have to admit I'm not holding my breath.

  41. Bloix said,

    February 26, 2010 @ 3:47 pm

    My son's 3rd grade teacher was teaching the different kinds of animals – mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, amphibians. Then the kids had to put different animals in the right categories.

    Teacher: And what is a spider?
    My precocious son: I know! It's an arachnid!
    Teacher: No, Timmy. It's a reptile.

    True, I swear.

  42. Szwagier said,

    February 27, 2010 @ 8:34 am

    On the subject of weird grammar, I maintain that I have "too much legs". Anyone who's ever seen me contorting myself behind the wheel of a small car can attest to this. In addition, and for completeness' sake, I should say that I'm absolutely certain that I don't have too many legs – I have two, which is, admittedly, slightly higher than the average, but nevertheless not overly extravagant.

    So, is the formulation "too much legs" grammatical, or not?

    There's a serious point behind the question, but this is a humorous post, right?

  43. Randy Alexander said,

    February 28, 2010 @ 1:57 am

    @Szwagier: Your phrase is a little odd, but nothing so strange that one doesn't hear things like that sometimes. You are using "legs" as an uncount noun here, where it normally is count. It is similar to saying something like "The American Heritage Dictionary is a lot of book for one worm to chew its way through". "Book" is normally count, but here it is given an uncount usage.

    But there is something else that is odd. "Legs" is plural, but you are using it as a plural uncount noun, like clothes. "Too many clothes" is the norm, but you can certainly find many examples of "too much clothes".

    A good wake-up call in understanding modern grammar would be to take a popular magazine like Maxim or a fashion magazine and analyze all of the sentences in one of the articles. Can you do it? Can your grammar school English teacher do it? How about your college writing teacher?

    You can't say the stuff in edited magazines like that is ungrammatical.

  44. Faldone said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 8:26 am

    I've now read the Pullum article Army1987 suggested and I have to say that I agree with much of what he says about prepositions and adverbs. I have never claimed that the bush in "On hatching, the chicks scramble to the surface and head bush on their own" is an adverb. On review of my comment on "I gave George the book" I have come to the conclusion that the contentious bush is, quite simply, a noun. Defense of this would involve some discussion of the concept of case.

  45. Szwagier said,

    March 1, 2010 @ 12:37 pm

    @Randy Alexander.

    Yes, thanks. I'm a linguist by university education, and was a teacher of ESL and teacher trainer for many years, and one of the things that always used to annoy me about the textbooks we used (I think I can throw caution to the winds and say all of them) was that nouns were categorised absolutely as count and non-count. I wasn't/am not sure how much this has to do with linguistic observation, and how much to do with tradition.

    In any case, it's always seemed to me that countability is a spectrum rather than a black-and-white matter. Some nouns are almost always used in countable senses at one end, while others are almost always used in non-count senses at the other. Nevertheless, there are occasions, such as the ones you and I gave, where the 'traditional' rules break down, and so it seems rather dubious to me to teach foreign learners of English a 'rule' which isn't a rule.

    I was just curious as to what other linguists thought about it. Thanks for answering!

  46. Aaron Davies said,

    March 5, 2010 @ 11:31 pm

    there's a language log post from several years back discussing count/mass as ways in which nouns are used, exactly as you say. perhaps someone can point you at it, as i haven't got the time to dig for it right now…

  47. richard mullins said,

    December 8, 2010 @ 2:06 am

    (We're talking about a school grammar guide that includes analyses like these:

    In The small boy won't eat his lunch,"won't" is an adverb.
    In The small boy is capable of eating his lunch, "capable of" is an adverb.
    In a set of bowls, "set of" is an adjective.
    In Sam's folder, "Sam's" is a possessive pronoun).

    Lenore Ferguson is not the first person to make claims like these. They are, I think, fairly standard for "functional grammar" as the term is used by followers of Halliday.

    This allows analysis to be done by the language learner, and does require someone to have a Ph.D from Oxford or Cambridge before they are allowed to give their opinion.

    Nobody is saying that there is anything wrong with traditional grammar, only that there are other ways of looking at the data.

    See the recent article by Camille DEBRAS,
    ENS‐LSH de Lyon,
    How is there a gradient between the two"?, Cercles, occasional papers series, 2010.

    Traditional grammar defines prepositions as a closed class of relational words assigning case to the NPs they take as complements. However, not only is the class of prepositions an open‐class gradually including new members through a process of grammaticalization of some expressions, but it stands in a continuum with several other word classes, namely verbs, adverbs, adjectives, and above all, particles.

    I am not competent to assess this paper at present – I will need to look at it very carefully to form an opinion.

    However, there seems to be a war at present between sects of grammarians. Witness a debate in recent years between Huddleston and someone associated with "Education Queensland". Hopefully this paper, probably or possibly by an "ESL" speaker, sheds new light on the subject.
    Studying linguistics 30 years ago, I learnt that complex construction can be nouns, e.g. a sentence can be a noun, and we might put the word "that" before then sentence to mark this.

    After reading Debras' paper, it seems intuitively obvious that we should allow prepositions, adverbs, adjectives, to be more than single words.

    If you accept this, you can accept the analyses in Ferguson's paper as at least "trial analyses". The analysis could be made by someone who is learning the language and has a limited knowledge of the language.

    e.g. "they don't surf" could be seen to parallel "they rarely surf", "they never surf", "they often surf", etc. On this evidence, "don't" looks like an adverb.

    I don't know what Ken Pike would have said about this analysis.

    It seems clear that Ferguson offers an approach that can be used by language learners. Pike's approach was also usable by language learners (e.g. people learning a language by immersion, and at the same doing a write-up for academic credit).

    I think that Ferguson is right. But it doesn't matter if she is right or wrong, her ideas are interesting and should be experimented with.
    I suspect that Debras, above, and many others over the past 20 years, have put forward similar ideas.

    An interesting question would be, can we find any academic supporters of this idea from earlier times?

  48. richard mullins said,

    December 8, 2010 @ 2:08 am

    ooops – I meant to say "does not require someone to have a Ph.D before they can give their opinion". But in any case, Ferguson does have a Ph.D, though not from Oxford or Cambridge.

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