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.

Google doesn’t know what a subject is

Ok, the title of this post is a bit misleading. Google doesn’t “know” anything. It just grabs some text from a website and puts it up top to give people an answer to their question. The problem here is that the answer they give you is wrong. Because the website that Google uses is wrong. But there’s more than that. The answer that Google gives has been called a “massive overgeneralization” by Huddleston and Pullum. And if that’s not bad enough, all of the results in the Google search give you the exact same incorrect answer. What the what?

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Book review: Have You Eaten Grandma? By Gyles Brandreth

Have You Eaten Grandma? is another entry in the list of books that claim to be about grammar, but are mostly about punctuation and spelling. It’s written by Gyles Brandreth, who, like others that write these kinds of books, claims to love language but spends his whole book proving that he actually hates it.

I’m going to start off with good stuff in this book. Then we’ll move on to the meh stuff and end with the garbage fire material.

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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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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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An awful take on the word “like”

Welcome back, language fans. This time we’re traveling over to Grammar.com, where the grammar is… not so good, Al. Specifically, we’re going to look at a PDF that they’re slinging (for free!) called “The Awful ‘Like’ Word”.

This little ditty is 9 pages of nonsense. I would copy the text and comment on it in this post, but that would take forever. Those of you interested in truly awful language commentary can check out the PDF below. I’m gonna warn you, though. This PDF might be, like, the worst thing I’ve read about the word like. If your face likes meeting your palm, then read on!

Here’s the PDF “The Awful ‘Like’ Word” with my comments. I promise it’s not all snide remarks. There’s some good linguistic commentary in there as well. But snide remarks too.

And here it is without my comments if you want to color it in for yourself.

Book review: Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer

Dreyer’s English is not a style guide like the MLA or Chicago Manual. It’s more in the vein of the Elements of Style and Gwynne’s Grammar. Unlike those books, however, Dreyer’s English is fun to read and (for the most part) correct in its language proclamations. One of the reasons this book is good is because Dreyer knows what a style guide is and what it should be. He explains in this quote:

This book, then, is the next conversation. It’s my chance to share with you, for your own use, some of what I do, from the nuts-and-bolts stuff that even skilled writers stumble over to some of the fancy little tricks I’ve come across or devised that can make even skilled writing better.

Or perhaps you’re simply interested in what one more person has to say about the series comma.

Let’s get started.

No. Wait. Before we get started:

The reason this book is not called The Last Style Manual You’ll Ever Need, or something equally ghastly, is because it’s not. No single stylebook can ever tell you everything you want to know about writing – no two stylebooks, I might add, can ever agree on everything you want to know about writing […] (p. xvii)

Sounds good to me. This passage also gives you an idea of Dreyer’s writing style, the conversational nature of it. I’ve broken this review up into the Good, the Bad and the Other. This may seem like there are three equal parts, but really there’s much more good in this book than anything else.

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You can add a genitive ’s to a preposition in English

A couple of weeks ago, Dr. Gwen Rehrig tweeted a poll to ask if this sentence is acceptable to American English speakers:

[Update: The twitter account is locked, so I’m copy/pasting the poll here]

Is this sentence acceptable to other native American English speakers?: “The lady I was just talking to’s mother is a famous author.”
acceptable: 66.7%
unacceptable: 17.6%
could go either way: 15.7%
159 votes

As you can see, over 80% of people said it was either definitely or possibly acceptable. I replied that every single student in my grammar class said “Nooope. No way.” when I asked them. 🙂

But hang on, is that sentence unacceptable in Standard English? Continue reading “You can add a genitive ’s to a preposition in English”