Starting out on the wrong foot

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The most recent guide to "punctuation, grammar, and style" (quotation from the subtitle) to come across my desk is Jan Venolia's Write Right! (4th edition, 2001). "Over 500,000 copies sold", the cover exclaims — but still I'd overlooked it until Wednesday (when I found it for sale at my local carwash, of all places, along with books about cooking, pets, parenting, travel, and advice for businesspeople — a category I'm still trying to wrap my mind around).

The field of books offering to help people improve their writing on the job or at school is crowded, and some of them seem to sell well. But their treatments of English grammar are almost all seriously flawed and not especially helpful. Write Right! is better than some of its competitors, but it really starts out on the wrong foot, in its discussion of what nouns are and how you can tell which words are nouns. (Like most of these advice books, Write Right! begins with the parts of speech, nouns first.)

As a bonus, I'll tack on a wonderful bit about English "subjunctives" that readers couldn't possibly understand unless they already knew what the passage was talking about.

The main show. Venolia starts out (page 4) with a somewhat more complex version of the usual semantic definition ("person, place, or thing") of noun, offers two examples, and then suggests a formal test for nounhood.

Noun: n., a word that names a person, place, thing, quality, or act.

The wise talk because they have something to say; fools because they have to say something. — Plato

If you can put a, an, or the in front of a word, it's a noun.

Oh dear. In this posting, I'll pass on the semantic definition of categories — there's an important connection between category membership and semantics, but denotata do not DEFINE category membership — and focus on the first example (wise) and the test for nounhood.

Wise in "The wise talk because they have something to say" is NOT a noun; it's an adjective, in a NP (the wise) that has no overt noun head. This NP is an instance of an odd construction in English that licenses the + Adj as an NP with generic reference — most commonly as a generic plural referring to human beings, so that it can be roughly glossed as 'Adj people'. Other examples: the soap opera "The Bold and the Beautiful", the Robin Hood slogan "steal from the rich and give to the poor", and a headline from yesterday's New York Times (p. 1): The Decided Go In Droves To Vote Early.

You can see that wise is an adjective in Venolia's example by observing (among other things) that it takes degree modifiers of adjectives, like very ("The very wise talk only when they have something to say") and that it has comparative and superlative forms ("The wisest talk only when they have something to say"). Meanwhile, wise doesn't allow adjective modifiers (appropriate for nouns), even when these could in principle make sense: the intelligent wise cannot be used to convey 'wise people who are intelligent'.

(Of course, dictionaries don't list words like wise as nouns — not even words that are fairly common in this construction, like rich, poor, young, and old.)

There are a lot of interesting details about the the + Adj construction (some of them treated in scholarly reference grammars), but here it's enough for me to point out that Venolia begins her presentation of the parts of speech with an example that's just flat wrong.

Maybe she took her own test for nounhood — ability to follow a, an, or the — at face value. Or maybe she figured that the subject the wise has to have a noun in it, and wise is the only real candidate for the job. (She treats subjectless imperative sentences, like Give me your lupines, as having an "understood subject" in them, so the way would have been open to her to say that the wise has an "understood noun" in it. But that would make the Plato quote a very poor choice to illustrate nouns.)

Now, the test. You can see what Venolia had in mind here, but a reader who takes the test seriously will quickly get into hot water: the wise man has the right before wise, and the very wise man has the right before very, but that doesn't mean that wise and very are nouns. Occurrence with determiners is in fact a test for nouns (ceteris paribus), but "occurrence" has to be understood in a more abstract way than immediate adjacency.

Bonus: the subjunctive mood. Venolia tells us that this mood "conveys situations that are hypothetical, doubtful, or even contrary to fact" and quotes the New York Public Library Writer's Guide description of the subjunctive, which she calls "helpful" ("whimsical" and "confused" would have been my choices):

The subjunctive mood can seem like speaking English in a slightly different universe, where the basic rules of tense are reversed: Present tense is used for past, past is used for present, and be is used for is, am, and are.

To get anywhere in understanding this description, you have to know that there's a tradition for treating English as having one "subjunctive mood", with two tenses: a "present subjunctive" ("I insist that Kim be the speaker" and "I insist that Kim speak") and a "past subjunctive" ("I wish that Kim were the speaker" and "I wish that Kim spoke more often"). The terminology is opaque and misleading: the tense labels "present" and "past" as used here bear little visible relationship to such labels used for indicative forms, and the connection between the two sorts of subjunctives is obscure.

Even so, the "present subjunctive" is not used for past events, or the "past subjunctive" for present events.

We've been over the ground of the "subjunctives" of English several times, but here's an extremely short version, with a lot of the complexities left out. First, in a few contexts, in particular in the complements of certain verbs (like insist), English uses base-form VPs (be the speaker, speak in the examples above); the base form of the verb BE is be, and for all other verbs (for instance, speak), the base form is identical to the non-3sg present form. (Base-form VPs are used in a number of other constructions, for instance, in imperatives, in the complements of modal auxiliaries, and in infinitives marked with to.)

Second, in a different set of constructions (many associated with counterfactual semantics), English has an inflectional form that is identical to the past form for all verbs except BE, for which the form is were (even with 3sg subjects): spoke more often, were the speaker above.

So the forms in these two cases overlap with tensed forms, but they aren't in fact expressions of tense. Instead, they stand outside the tense system of English. 

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