The grammar of “With great power must also come great responsibility”

What is the subject of this sentence:

With great power must also come great responsibility!

It’s either with great power or great responsibility.

Think about it again. Are you sure of your choice? Did you change your mind?

I asked Twitter and was surprised at the results.

I’m in the minority here. In my opinion, the subject is with great power. Let me explain. *Thwip*

Spider-grammar

We’re used to noun phrases being subjects, but prepositional phrases can also function as the subject:

Up in front will suit me.

Before midday would be convenient.

The clearest way to test which phrase is the subject is by adding a question tag. These are little questions on the end of a sentence – and they include a pronoun in them that refers to the subject. For example, the subject of the following sentence is “Your mother” and it is picked up in the question tag with “she”:

Your mother was a hamster, wasn’t she?

When we apply this test to our spider-sentence, we get:

With great power must also come great responsibility, mustn’t it?

That’s one point for with great power as the subject.

Another test is that the Subject comes before the finite verb. The finite verb here is must, so that’s another point for with great power as subject.

The Subject also occurs before the finite verb in questions that start with wh-words (who, what, where, etc.) – but only when the wh-word is the subject. For example, in the following question, does is the finite verb and who is the subject (which is placed before it)

Who does whatever a spider can?

Here’s where things get a little interesting. If I try to make a question with a wh-word holding the subject position, I get:

*What must also come great responsibility?

That is clearly ungrammatical. It would need to be With what must also come great responsibility? But it’s debatable whether even that sentence is grammatical. Instead, when we flip things around we can make a grammatical question in which great responsibility is the subject:

What must also come with great power?

So the score is superheroes 2, super villains 1. But more on that last sentence later.

Another test we can make is how the Subject comes after the finite operator in questions which can be answered by “yes” or “no”:

Is it a radioactive spider? (Is = finite operator in this yes/no question)

Do you catch thieves just like flies? (Did = finite operator in this yes/no question)

Again, we’re left with an ungrammatical question when with great power is the subject, but a grammatical one when great responsibility is:

*Must with great power also come great responsibility? (ungrammatical)

Must great responsibility also come with great power? (Spider-grammar approved)

That’s another point for great responsibility. It’s all tied up!

A final test concerns how the Subject also comes after the finite operator in wh-questions in which the wh-word is not the subject:

What price did he pay for the pictures? (What price = Object, did = finite operator, you = subject)

When did Peter get bit? (When = Adverbial, did = finite operator, Peter = subject)

When we apply this to our sentence, we get the opposite of what we just found. If great responsibility was the subject, the test fails and we’re left with an ungrammatical question:

*What must great responsibility also come?

However, if with great power was the subject, the test also fails and gives us another ungrammatical question:

*What must with great power also come?

We would need to move the preposition with to the end and keep it with come. And if we did that then either phrase could be the subject (but more on this below).

What must great power also come with?

What must great responsibility also come with?

This leaves us with the score tied 2-2. How are we going to figure out the subject of this sentence? Is everyone right? Will Spider-Man escape the grip of this grammar goblin?!

Before we answer that, let’s consider how we had to shift things around a bit too much (for my taste) to make great responsibility the Subject in our tests. That doesn’t mean that great responsibility can’t be the subject. Stan Lee could have just as easily written Great responsibility must also come with great power (or even With great responsibility must also come great power). These two phrases are perfectly grammatical, but they do not make much sense because the responsibility is what follows the acquisition of power. In the narrative, Spider-Man (or rather – Spoiler Alert! – Peter Parker) first gets great power and then learns of the great responsibility he has because of it.

Ok, let’s get technical.

Fronting

English grammar has a feature called fronting. This is where some syntactic element (such as the object) is moved to the front of the sentence, which is where the Subject most commonly appears. If this sentence is an example of fronting, then with great power would be a fronted object and great responsibility would be the subject. So is this what’s happening?

Probably not. There’s nothing wrong with fronting an object, but when that happens, the subject and verb don’t change places. Consider these examples of fronted objects:

A web I spin. (A web is object, I is subject, spin is the verb)

Such a blunder I had now committed. (Such a blunder is object, I is subject)

So if great responsibility was the subject, then it should appear before the verb:

*With great power great responsibility must also come

I’m marking that one as ungrammatical, although your mileage may vary.

There is another possibility with fronting though. An adverb particle, or the other word in phrasal verbs (more on these in a bit) can be fronted for rhetorical purposes when it has a directional meaning, such as in

The rain came down >> Down came the rain

This might answer the question. We could say that the with in our clause is an adverb particle with directional meaning (at least the verb come implies directional movement). The phrasal verb would then be come with.

However, with does not seem to be a particle in the normal sense, but rather a preposition. We know this because when the object of a transitive phrasal verb is a noun phrase, it can follow the particle. This fulfills the principle of putting new information at the end of the clause and is exactly what we see if we modify our sentence a bit.

Great responsibility must also come with great power.

However, when the object is made into a pronoun, things change. Pronouns in phrasal verbs follow the preposition, but precede the particle.

Spider-Man webbed up the criminals.

Spider-Man webbed them up.

In our case, it would be ungrammatical for a pronoun to precede with:

Great responsibility must also come with it.

*Great responsibility must also come it with.

This would imply that with is a preposition, which means that we’re not dealing with an adverb particle being fronted.

Phrasal verb, prepositional verb or free combination?

You’re probably used to the term “phrasal verb” for those two or three-word units like get up and get down and rock out. But there are actually (at least) three different types of grammatical units which fall under this term. Following some linguistic grammar books, we’ll call them phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs, and “free combination” units.

Phrasal verbs consist of a verb + an adverb particle. Examples are get up and switch it off. Prepositional verbs consist of a verb + a preposition. Examples are look after, rely on and laugh at. In clauses with prepositional verbs, a specific preposition is needed to make the clause grammatical. Changing the preposition will either make things ungrammatical or will change the meaning. Free combination multi-word verbs consist of a verb + a particle. Examples are go in and come back. Free combination multi-word verbs are very frequent, especially with the verbs come and go.

We’ve already seen that come with is not a phrasal verb because with is not an adverb particle. So it has to be either a prepositional verb or a free combination verb. But the line between these two is drawn with chalk rather than a magic marker. Some verbs are more like prepositional verbs and others are more “free”.

We can use semantic criteria to figure out which kind of verb we have. The meaning of a prepositional verb can’t (usually) be predicted by the meanings of each of the parts (the verb and the preposition). Free combination verbs, on the other hand, can usually be figured out by considering the meanings of the verb and the other word. This would make our example more like a free combination form because the meaning can be predicted from the individual parts (come + with = accompany, travel in the company of, etc.).

So what we have is something in between a prepositional verb and a free combination verb. Our example does not allow for movement of the particle (with), but it maybe allows for fronting. But with great power is not a fronted object (as we saw above), so it must be the subject.

Full disclosure

Ok, I know you’re spider senses are tingling because the sentence in the comic book is actually

“And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come — great responsibility!”

Spider-man_With_great_power

Whatever. The analysis is (probably) still the same.

But even with all that grammaring I just did, I’m not above someone pointing out any mistakes I made or points I failed to consider. So let me know if you know something I don’t know!

For what it’s worth, this page claims that great responsibility is the Subject. They are only answering the question of whether the sentence is grammatically correct, and the first answerer offers some plausible advice on grammar. But the answerers fail to consider the grammar points that we just went through. They are also looking at a slightly different clause, which does not have the modal verb must: “With great power comes great responsibility”. I think this is actually important because flipping that clause around to make great responsibility fill the usual Subject place at the start of the sentence also makes the clause sound more “normal” semantically and pragmatically, but does not follow the points from the previous paragraph.

References

The relevant page numbers and sections in the grammars I used for this post are:

Downing, Angela & Philip Locke. 2006. English Grammar: A University Course (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

Pages 43-44, 61-62 and Section 23.8

Biber, Douglas, Stig Johansson, Geoffrey Leech, Susan Conrad & Edward Finegan. 1999. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: Pearson.

Pages 403-4, 407, 900, 932, 1029 and Sections 5.3, 5.3.1, 5.3.1.1 D, and 11.2.4.4

Notes on MAPACA18

I attended the 29th annual conference of Mid-Atlantic Popular & American Culture Association (MAPACA) last week in Baltimore, MD. I’ve been to this conference before and it has always been a fun time, full of interesting talks and learning about things I didn’t know. It’s also nice to catch up with scholars that I know (some of whom I know mostly through social media) and meeting new people (some of whom I can’t believe I don’t already know). Below are some of my notes on the conference. Enjoy! Continue reading “Notes on MAPACA18”

The Tornado Twins Merger

The Flash’s kids have the same name if you have the Don-Dawn merger.

Over on the tumblr The Chronological Superman, “Calamity” Jon Morris says

Some genuinely weird stories appear in the catalog, such as “Superman’s Lost Century,” the epic Mordru arc beginning in Adventure Comics vol.1 No.369, and the debut of Barry Allen’s immediate offspring Don and Dawn Allen a.k.a. The Tornado Twins in Adventure Comics vol 1 No.373 (Oct 1968). Who in the world would give their twins a homophone for a pair of names? I mean, the answer is Barry Allen and his wife Iris, but I pose the question rhetorically.

He’s right – the Mordru arc is a genuinely weird Superman story. No, I kid. He’s also right that the names Don and Dawn are pronounced the same by many speakers. It’s called the low back merger and it’s also what makes people pronounce the words cot and caught the same. Without the merger, the word Don is pronounced /dɑn/, while the word dawn is pronounced /dɔn/. So it’s only the vowel that distinguishes them, with the first vowel being more open and farther back in the mouth than the second vowel. But in the merger, the vowel in the word dawn shifts down to the vowel in Don and they become homophones.

Adventure_Comics_373_Tornado_Twins
First appearance of the Tornado Twins in Adventure Comics #373 by Jim Shooter and Win Mortimer (1968).

So who has this merger? Well, according to the Atlas of North American English, the merger is “is characteristic of a very large part of the geographic terrain of North America” (Lobov, Ash & Boberg 2005: 60). The Atlas gives this map, where people who are inside the green line have the merger and the green dots represent people who both hear and speak the words Don and dawn identically.

low_back_merger_map_9_1_Atlas
Map 9.1 from the Atlas of North American English by Labov, Ash & Boberg (2005).

It makes sense that the names of the Flash’s kids could be Dawn and Don. Barry Allen, aka the Flash, is from Iowa, which falls outside of the merger boundary in the image above. And he operates as the Flash in Central City, Missouri, another place outside of the low back merger area. The only thing is that the Tornado Twins Don and Dawn were born in the 30th century, which proves that the low back merger will never fully sweep across North America. Even 10 centuries from now there are places where Don and dawn are pronounced differently. Now you know.

Captain Code Switch!

On a not-so-recent episode of the Black Tribbles podcast (ep. 302, airdate: Sept. 29, 2017), the hosts were discussing the DC comics superhero Black Lightning. Host Len Webb (aka the BatTribble) mentioned that in the original Black Lightning comics, the character not only donned a mask (and fake afro) to avoid detection of his true identity, he also spoke differently. He used “slang” and “jive”, as Len put it. Another one of the hosts, Kennedy Allen (aka That Mikey Chick, aka Storm Tribble) said “He’s Black Lightning aka Captain Code Switch!” (occurs at 33:50 in the episode)

And she’s right! Take a look at the very first page of the first Black Lighting comic:

Black Lightning Vol 1_1_title
Source: BLACK LIGHTING Vol 1 #1 (April 1977) by Tony Isabella (w), Trevor von Eeden (p), and Frank Springer (i), Liz Berube (c) and P.G. Lisa (l).

On the next page, Black Lightning describes his intentional code switching as “street-style patter” in the narration and we can see some more of it in the word balloons. This is really cool.

Black Lightning Vol 1_1_cs3
Source: BLACK LIGHTING Vol 1 #1 (April 1977) by Tony Isabella (w), Trevor von Eeden (p), and Frank Springer (i), Liz Berube (c) and P.G. Lisa (l).

Black Lightning’s alter ego, Jefferson Pierce, is a teacher by day and he speaks standard (comic book) English. Tony Isabella, the creator of Black Lightning and writer of these books, puts just enough code switching into Black Lightning’s dialogue to show a difference between his personas, not overdoing it anywhere. It’s mostly slang and dropped g’s. As the issues go on Black Lightning’s code switching seems to get less detectable, but the character does talk to more non-baddies who wouldn’t know his alter ego, such as Jimmy Olsen and Superman, so the lack of code switching with these characters is probably intentional on Isabella’s part. Here’s Black Lightning speaking to Tobias Whale (the big baddie) in issue 3:

Black Lightning Vol 1_3_cs
Source: BLACK LIGHTNING Vol 1 #3 by Tony Isabella (w), Trevor von Eeden (p) and Vince Colletta (i).

The Black Tribbles have mentioned code switching in other episodes, but this time it really made me notice. I don’t know of any other superheroes who code switch to disguise their identity, so this makes Black Lightning super awesome. If anyone knows of other characters that do this, please post it in the comments below.

Black Lightning, aka Captain Code Switch, is starring in a new show on the CW (or Netflix for international people). He’s played by Cress Williams. I’ve watched the first two episodes, but there hasn’t really been any detectable code switching between his superhero persona and his alter ego. That might have to do with the fact that in the show Black Lightning is in his 40s and was retired from crime fighting. He’s getting to old for this code switching nonsense!

Finally, check out these awesome panels from BLACK LIGHTNING Vol. 1 #3. When you just spent a night fighting crime, but you still have English papers to grade. Black Lightning feels you.

Black Lightning Vol 1_3
Source: BLACK LIGHTNING Vol 1 #3 by Tony Isabella (w), Trevor von Eeden (p) and Vince Colletta (i).

Kryptonian is Superman’s second language

I never realized this before, but Superman is an L2 speaker of Kryptonian! And in SUPERGIRL #8 we learn that he is self-conscious about his accent around native speakers, such as his cousin Supergirl.

Screenshot_2018-02-10-20-53-37

Screenshot_2018-02-10-20-54-03
Superman telling Supergirl that he’s shy about his dialect in Kryptonian. Source: SUPERGIRL Vol. 7 #8 by Steve Orlando (w), Matías Bergara (p & i), Michael Atiyeh (c), Steve Wands (l).

This doesn’t matter much in terms of story, but it’s representation on the page for L2 speakers. Dialect shaming still happens every day. Linguistic discrimination (of which dialect shaming is only just a part) is unfortunately still publicly acceptable in a way that other forms of discrimination, such as racism and sexism, are not. Of course, racism and sexism still happen in public, but open displays of these are largely shunned and in some cases illegal, unlike linguistic discrimination. For example, it is illegal to deny someone a job on the basis of race, gender, etc. It is not illegal to deny them a job based on their dialect.

The tables get turned later in the issue when we hear more about Supergirl’s struggles with English, her L2. For example, contractions don’t exist in Kryptonian. Uh…, ok. I can’t think of another language that doesn’t contract words, but I’ve seen enough crazy stuff about language to not be surprised by anything anymore. (Besides, Kryptonian = 100% fictional)

Screenshot_2018-02-10-20-56-02
Contractions don’t exist in Kryptonian? Whatever you say, Super Cousins. Source: SUPERGIRL Vol. 7 #8 by Steve Orlando (w), Matías Bergara (p & i), Michael Atiyeh (c), Steve Wands (l).

That raises another point – Krypton seems to have been a planet with one language. One language! That’s even more bananas than the “no contractions” thing. I can’t remember any other languages being mentioned (help me out, fellow comic nerds!). They do have dialects though, as Supergirl explains to Batgirl. But one language?! Bonkers.

Screenshot_2018-02-10-21-27-57
Super-linguistics is one of Supergirl’s lesser known superpowers. Source: SUPERGIRL Vol. 7 #8 by Steve Orlando (w), Matías Bergara (p & i), Michael Atiyeh (c), Steve Wands (l).

I wonder if Supergirl is the only person that Superman is self-conscious around with his Kryptonian. I mean, she is also his older cousin (who ends up being younger than him when she gets to Earth – comics are weird), so maybe he’s worried about her kidding him. What a boy scout. There are approximately 4,576 other living Kryptonians who speak Kryptonian as their first language, but I think 99.9% of them are super evil, so Superman probably doesn’t care what they think of his accent. There are also a handful of Kryptonian animals, who don’t speak. Or haven’t spoken yet. Comics are weird/awesome. Give ’em time and we’ll get there.

Update: Steve Orlando, the writer of the Supergirl comic in question, hit me up on Twitter and said that the language stuff in the story was intentional:

That’s awesome! Language is a recurring theme in the story before and after this issue (issues also written by Steve). Supergirl’s foster parents are trying to learn Kryptonian and it’s going… about as well as learning Finnish did for me. And Supergirl’s trouble with contractions coming from the influence of her first language is actually quite clever – speakers of one language often encounter similar problems when they are learning language (say, Finnish L1 speakers learning English). The difficulties can be phonetic or syntactical, but they are commonly due to an interference from the speakers’ native language. The cause of the difficulty isn’t important here (Kryptonian is made up, after all), but it’s neat to see the problem echoed by Superman who went from English (has contractions) to Kryptonian (doesn’t have contractions). Comics are awesome!

Update 2: Important info here. According to Darren Doyle over at Kryptonian.info, Krypton does indeed have only one language. This language, Modern Kryptonian, was created by the government in order to promote planet-wide unity. Before this, there were five languages on Krypton – all of which belonged to the same language family. That’s crazy, I hear you say. Nothing shocks me, I say…

stan-carey-indo-european-jones-meme-nothing-shocks-me-im-a-linguist1

Update 3: Reader fidelita chimed in below to note that this isn’t the first time Supergirl has commented on Superman’s accent. Indeed, In SUPERGIRL Vol. 6 Issue 2 (from the New 52 run), Supergirl has this to say after meeting Superman for the first time:

This guy’s accent sounds like he learned Kryptonian from a textbook. No way he’s from Krypton.

Supergirl_Vol6_Iss2_zoomed
Source: Supergirl, Vol. 6 #2 by Michael Green and Mike Johnson (w), Mahmud Asrar (p), Dan Green (i), Dave McCaig (c) and John J Hill (l).

For some background: In this version of Supergirl, she has just crash landed on Earth and she has no memory of when or why she was sent there. She doesn’t even know that she’s on Earth. She is already a young adult (she doesn’t speak any Earth language yet) and her powers have manifested all at once and overwhelmed her. On top of that, she was attacked by some government(?) people in mech suits right after she got out of her spaceship. Supergirl knows no one, has no idea where she is, and doesn’t understand what’s happening to her. And then Superman shows up speaking Kryptonian… but not like the people from Krypton. Superman says he’s Kryptonian, but he doesn’t sound like the people from Krypton. So she’s understandably a bit put off by everything. And Superman probably did learn Kryptonian from a textbook. Or a robot or a hologram – he’s got some pretty wild technology up there in his Fortress of Solitude.

But wait, there’s more! In issue #14, Supergirl again comments on someone else’s Kryptonian. This time it’s Dr. Shay Veritas, a super-genius scientist who helps out the good guys. Supergirl says that it’s strange to hear a human speak Kryptonian and that both Superman and Veritas have the accent of someone who hasn’t lived on Krypton or wasn’t raised there. At this point in the story, Supergirl still doesn’t know much about the other characters and she’s very skeptical of everyone (because everyone she meets tries to kill her). She’s not even sure Superman is her cousin, partly because he was a baby the last time she saw him and now he’s older than her. See? Even Supergirl thinks comics are weird.

Supergirl_Vol6_Iss14_zoom
Source: Supergirl, Vol. 6 #2 by Mike Johnson (w), Mahmud Asrar (p & i), Dave McCaig (c) and Rob Leigh (l).

Then on the next page of issue #14, Supergirl speaks Kryptonian with Siobhan Smythe, aka Silver Banshee. Because of Smythe’s “special talent with sounds” (she’s literally a super-banshee), her accent is more Kryptonian-like (more like Supergirl’s?) than Superman’s. No word on how Smythe picked up the vocabulary so quickly.

Supergirl_Vol6_Iss14_siobhan
Source: Supergirl, Vol. 6 #2 by Mike Johnson (w), Mahmud Asrar (p & i), Dave McCaig (c) and Rob Leigh (l).

That’s all for now. If I come across some more characterization using native/non-native Kryptonian accents, I’ll make a separate post. Again, language plays a role in the current Supergirl series (Volume 7).