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.

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Google doesn’t know what a Direct Object is

After my recent discovery that a whole ton of sites online don’t know what a Subject is, I couldn’t resist looking at their idea of what a Direct Object is. Surprise! They get that one wrong too. And for almost exactly the same reasons. Womp womp. I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised.

So if grammar is something that interests you and if actually want to be right about it, read on to learn what a Direct Object is – and also what it is not.

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Adding ‘s to a pronoun

In the episode 18 of the seventh season of the tv show The Flash, the main character said a very interesting thing:

That’s future us’s problem.

Barry Allen using a phrasal genitive on The Flash s07e18

This line is said by the main character on the show, Barry Allen, who is also the superhero The Flash (played by Grant Gustin). It caught my eye right away because I wrote about something similar a couple of years ago. In that article, I discussed the genitive ’s being added onto prepositions at the end of a noun phrase, such as “The woman who I was just talking to’s mother is a famous author.”’ Microsoft Word doesn’t like it, but me and my students found some examples of it in movies, TV and online language use.

What’s happening here is that the genitive is being tacked onto a pronoun. That’s wild. I don’t know if this was in the script, but it seems like it could have been. I mean, this doesn’t seem like a line to improv, but I’m not an actor. This show has been on for 7 seasons, so maybe the actors are able to just wing it. Either way, I love this show even more now 😊

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CGEL) discusses the genitive ’s being put on pronouns (in Ch. 5, §16.6). They call it a phrasal genitive and they give some other examples:

  • the man opposite me’s facial expression
  • a friend of mine’s father

CGEL also says that these phrases show double case marking. In the example from The Flash, there is inner case marking on the pronoun us and outer case marking shown by ’s. Pronouns are the only part of speech that can show internal case marking in English.

In Brinton’s The Structure of Modern English, we get a little bit of history about what’s going on here. Brinton says:

Historically, this has not always been so: prior to the sixteenth century, such phrases had internal modification in the possessive, as in kings crown of England (=‘king of England’s crown’), which has the possessive ending –s on king. Then it became possible to add the possessive ending to an entire phrase, a construction called the “group genitive”. What precedes the possessive ending need not be a single-word compound but can be a phrase, as in my neighbor next door’s dog, or even a clause, as in a woman I know’s niece.

The line could be phrased in standardized English as something like “That’s a problem for us (to deal with) in the future”. But the phrasal genitive makes total sense, especially in a show that deals with time travel a lot. The characters are constantly running into their future or past selves.

Patrick Stewart on his Yorkshire speech

NPR recently re-aired their interview with Sir Patrick Stewart and he makes some comments about language. These reminded me of some comments he made when he was on “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” Both of these are about Stewart’s regional variety (aka dialect or accent). So let’s hear Professor Jean-Luc X. Picard in his own words!

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What does the word origin mean today?

What does the word origin mean today?

There was a recent post on the blog Science-Based Medicine which discussed the changing meaning of the word organic. I think the author hits the nail on the head, but misses the mark slightly. How’s that for a mixed metaphor?! Let’s dig in.

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HAWKEYE and prepositions

I was re-reading the HAWKEYE book by Matt Fraction and David Aja and wouldn’t you know it, in issue #3 there is some dialogue relevant to this blog. The character Clint Barton (aka Hawkeye) scolds the character Kate Bishop (also Hawkeye… don’t ask) for dangling a preposition. Check it out:

HAWKEYE #3 (2012) by Matt Fraction (w), David Aja (a), Matt Hollingsworth (c) & Chris Eliopolous (l)

But wait a minute! Is that really a preposition? Haykeye Barton is talking about the word “to” at the end of Hawkeye Bishop’s sentence:

‘Cause I’m about to.

So is that a preposition? It depends on who you ask.

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Is you guys really a gender-neutral term?

Recently, a colleague pointed me to this 2018 article by Grace Jennings-Edquist on the word guys. The article discusses whether guys is gender-neutral these days, especially in regard to using it at the workplace. This topic is something that’s been on my mind for a while since you guys is the second-person plural pronoun where I come from. I’ve been actively trying to use other terms when addressing my classes – and not just because most of my students are women.

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The subject is not (always) the “doer” in a sentence

Here’s some advice on grammar that I’ve seen a lot, both online and in print: the notion that the subject is the person or thing that is the “doer” of the verb in a sentence. Turned around a bit, this advice is given as a way to find the subject in a sentence. Just figure out who or what is doing the action in the sentence et voila! You’ve found the subject.

But this is wrong. Let’s find out why.

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Walt “Clyde” Frazier’s words and phrases

The podcast On The Media recently ran an interview with Walt “Clyde” Frazier, who is a former professional basketball player and current color commentator for the New York Knicks. As the interview shows, he has a way with words. But I found his commentary on how he developed his voice really interesting. He told host Brooke Gladstone:

Frazier: To improve my vocabulary, I used to get The Sunday Times, the arts and leisure section when they critiqued the plays.

Brooke Gladstone: Oh, the plays?

Frazier: Yes. Riveting, mesmerizing and provocative, profound. People think I’m a voracious reader but I have books and books of words and phrases. When I first started, I just studied these books over and over. Ironically, you can use cliches and no one will ever say anything, but if you use ubiquitous twice, they’ll go, “He used that word twice already.”

[laughter]

Frazier: Then all of a sudden, I fell in love with words. Words are like people, the more you see them, the more you relate to them. Even today, just like fashion, I’m always looking for new words and how I can incorporate them into my style.

[applause]

That’s a pretty good point about ubiquitous. People love to nitpick when that word is used. But it’s an even better point about cliches. Even though the style guide will tell you to avoid cliches, using one is often the best way to go. Check Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage if you don’t believe me.

This part of the interview starts at around 12:30 minutes in. Go listen to the interview with Frazier. That page also has the transcript of the interview.

More political scientists doing bad linguistics

There’s a new article out that uses faulty methods to study the linguistic complexity of politicians’ speech. It makes many of the same mistakes that I criticized Schoonvelde et al. (2019) for – and even references that article. But it somehow comes to the right conclusion… for the wrong reasons. I know, it’s strange. Let’s check it out. Continue reading “More political scientists doing bad linguistics”