Watch your grammar, young padawan

(Or something more Star Wars-y. Sorry, I’m a different kind of nerd.)

You have to be careful out there with posts on the interwebs about grammar. Case in point: this Medium post that showed up when we were doing a search in class. It ties in to some of my recent posts. The post is called “Yes, Yoda’s Grammar is Technically Correct” and overall it’s correct. Yoda’s grammar is fine (if a bit stilted). The grammar in this post though… not so much.

The first claim of this post is more of the same old:

Every complete English sentence contains a subject and a predicate, with the subject being what the sentence is about (“every English sentence”) […]

Well, not really. Imperative clauses in English do not have overt subjects. The subject is instead implied or retrievable form the context. Yoda uses an imperative in the quote at the top of the article: “Mind what you have learned” – no subject there (The implied subject is “Luke” aka the person that Yoda is speaking to). It’s the same as the signs in London telling you to “Mind the gap”. That doesn’t sound strange. And the sentence before the author makes this claim is “Let me explain”. What’s the subject of that sentence, hmmmm??

On to the next claim from the above quote: “the subject is often what the sentence is about”. Not really. This is a semantic distinction. A sentence’s subject, on the other hand, is a matter of syntax. And syntax doesn’t care who the sentence is about.

As if the author read my mind, the start of the next paragraph is “Ready for a crash course on English syntax?”

You bet I am! The paragraph continues…

The subject of a sentence will always be a noun or a pronoun, and you cannot form a statement without one.

Ruh roh.

The subject of a sentence will NOT always be a noun or a pronoun. It can be a noun or pronoun, but it can also be a finite clause, a non-finite clause, and even a prepositional phrase. And we use the terms noun phrase in linguistics – this covers nouns and pronouns and is better in general for describing languages like English.

More importantly though, you can make a statement without a subject. You don’t even need the Force to do so. You want to know who forms a statement without a subject? YODA DOES!!!

The next paragraph makes the same mistake. Objects do not have to be noun phrases. I literally just posted about this. But it’s been known in linguistics for… decades? My undergrad students learn this in their first year.

And not for nothing, the author marks powerful as an object further down in the article and… powerful is definitely not a noun.

Then the Medium post links to Grammarly – HUGE red flag there. Best to stay away from that site, even if they do every now and then happen to write something true.

After this foofaraw comes a truly odd claim:

All of the examples mentioned above use the subject-verb-object (SVO) order of words. But it’s absolutely possible to accurately use those parts of speech in a different order. Consider the following:

The Millennial Falcon (O) is piloted (V) by Han (S).

Abandoning his training (V), Luke (S) left (V) Yoda (O) on Dagobah.

Is (V) Luke (S) ready to fight (V) Vader (O)?”

What is happening here? The first example sentence is misidentified. The Subject is “The Millennial Falcon”. The second example sentence gives… VSVO as one of the orders? That’s not how this works. Syntactic order describes only necessary elements. The third one is a question, which is a mood that is definitely not included in the syntactic ordering of sentences. Syntactic order describes only active declarative clauses are, or those that are taken as the “unmarked” sentence type in languages.

In the author’s defense, the post links to the World Atlas of Linguistic Structures. This is very much supported. That resource is great. *thumbs up* (For what it’s worth, the WALS chapter on syntactic order shows that deciding on a language’s order can be tricky, and that the traditional labels might not be the best way to go.)

And finally we get to the end of the post, which claims that Yoda speaks in OSV order (or Object Subject Verb). The author claims that since OSV is a syntactic order found in some languages in the world, that means that Yoda’s grammar is correct. That’s a really strange claim to make. Just because something is grammatical in one language, doesn’t mean it’s grammatical in every language. That’s insane.

For example, in English it is grammatical to split an infinitive. I mean, when you think about it, the infinitive is already split – it’s literally two words with a space in between them. But in many languages around the world, the infinitive form of a verb is only one word. And sticking an adverb in there absolutely does not work.

There have actually been a few good articles about Yoda’s grammar. And these came out years before this Medium post, which means that the author is just muddying the waters here. So if you want to know what’s going on with Yoda’s grammar, check these out:

“An Unusual Way of Speaking, Yoda Has” by Adrienne LaFrance in The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/12/hmmmmm/420798/

Two posts by Geoff Pullum on Language Log: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/%7Emyl/languagelog/archives/002173.html and http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002178.html

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