When the econs do some lingua, drop it like it’s hot

Last week I did a twitter and it got a big response (for me, that is). It was about a recent paper on language that appeared in an economics journal and it lit a fire under other people as well. The paper is called “Do Linguistic Structures Affect Human Capital? The Case of Pronoun Drop” and it’s by Horst Feldmann. I thought that in addition to dunking on that paper on Twitter, I’d spell out some of the fundamental problems with it. Here goes.

Continue reading “When the econs do some lingua, drop it like it’s hot”

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Why is there no article before “king” in the clause “Oh I just can’t wait to be king!”

This post is inspired by a question my student asked me. The quote in the title comes from a song in the movie The Lion King (sing along here). We might expect a definite article to be used in front of king. But it’s not there. So what gives? Continue reading “Why is there no article before “king” in the clause “Oh I just can’t wait to be king!””

Word Fails Me #9: Neither do me

Ok, we don’t need to get into subject and object prepositions, but it’s bananas that Word is suggesting I write “Neither do me” over “Neither do I”. Come on, Word! Not even the laissez-fairest of linguists (such as me) would say that “Neither do me” is good (enough) English.

MSWord Neither do me

This is an entry in a series of posts I’m calling Word Fails Me, in which I highlight the strange ideas that Microsoft Word has about English grammar. Each post will be a screenshot with a short comment. The intention of this series is to amuse you and make you wonder where Word is getting its ideas. I’m not trying to be condescending to Word’s grammar checker or the people behind it. Word is a fascinating program and the grammar checker can be a lifesaver, even if it leans prescriptivist sometimes. If I come across interesting research into MS Word’s grammar checker, I’ll share it here. You can find all of the entries under the Word Fails Me tag. Enjoy!

Pronoun nonsense on Grammar Bytes

Hi! Greetings from Crazy Grammar Town! We’re still here… We’re still… here. This time we’re going to (again) look at a website called Grammar Bytes (the website is chompchomp.com). This “grammar” site wants to tell you about pronouns. They say that a “possessive noun should not be the antecedent for a pronoun.” What the heck does that mean? We’ll take it piece by juicy piece. Grammar Bytes says:

Possessive nouns function as adjectives. You can drive a fast car, a red car, a dirty car, or Mom’s car. Fast, red, and dirty are all adjectives telling us which car. The possessive noun Mom’s is adjectival too.

Yeah, ok, I guess. Tell me more.

You ruin the clarity of a sentence when the antecedent for a subject or object pronoun like he or him is a possessive noun.

Read this example:

Kevin’s fingers were strumming the guitar when he winked at Donna.

When we read this sentence, we assume that Kevin is the he winking at Donna. But remember that Kevin’s is adjectival, not a noun. If we replaced Kevin’s with agile, quick, or long, we wouldn’t consider any of those adjectives the antecedent for he, so we shouldn’t consider Kevin’s either. And the fingers certainly aren’t doing the winking as they have no eyes!

Hold up! Who the hell would say “Agile fingers were strumming the guitar when he winked at Donna”? Answer: absolutely no one. I mean, did you really misunderstand Grammar Bytes’ example sentence? You knew Kevin was winking at Donna while he strummed the guitar. No problem. You would even understand it if someone said, “Kevin’s fingers were strumming the guitar. Then he winked at Donna.” BECAUSE THAT’S HOW PRONOUNS WORK! You know who is referred to by context. And there is no rule of grammar that says pronouns can’t refer to things across sentence boundaries. Think about how often you use pronouns and how often you misunderstand who the pronoun refers to. The ratio is 1 gajillion to zero.

But wait! Grammar Bytes goes on:

Furthermore, a reader might wonder if the whole Kevin is strumming the guitar or if just his disembodied fingers are making the music. The sentence in its current version is unclear.

Dafuck? Who strums a guitar with their whole body?

There’s more:

To fix the problem, you can replace the pronoun with a specific noun. You can’t have a pronoun reference error if you have no pronoun!

Kevin’s fingers were strumming the guitar when this young man winked at Donna.

See, now here’s where things get more confusing. Because to me “this young man” might not refer to Kevin. Because guess what? “This young man” is not specific! It’s arguably less specific than the pronoun. So if you write this, you will be more clear to Grammar Bytes and less clear to everyone else.

Direct object or prepositional object?

This sentence is in the exercises for one of my grammar classes:

My wife always has a good cry over a wedding.

For the assignment, students need to analyze the syntactic elements of the sentence (subject, predicator, objects, etc.). The answer key has Subject(My wife) Adverbial(always) Predicator(has) Direct object(a good cry) Locative complement(over a wedding). But recently a student analyzed the last clause (over a wedding) as a prepositional object. This got me interested. It turns out the answer key is wrong (maybe you already knew that), but the student might be right. Here’s why.  Continue reading “Direct object or prepositional object?”

What the heck is an action verb?

Here’s an interesting post on transitive verbs by the website Grammar Bytes. The author, Prof. Robin L Simmons, says that:

A transitive verb has two characteristics. First, it is an action verb, expressing a doable activity like kick, want, paint, write, eat, clean, etc. Second, it must have a direct object, something or someone who receives the action of the verb.

That first characteristic is news to me, especially since five of those six verbs can also be intransitive (kick, paint, write, eat and clean). But let’s back up a second. A transitive verb is indeed a verb that requires an object. So want is a transitive verb because we can’t just say I want. We have to say I want (something).

But why does a transitive verb also have to be an “action verb”? Lose is a transitive verb in the sentence I lost my keys, but can we say that I’m doing something by losing my keys? Or that losing my keys is some “doable activity”? Another example is have in the sentence He has an inheritance. Not really something he’s done, no action undertaken by him, he just has that inheritance. Or how about I don’t have many clothes? The verb have doesn’t sound very action-packed in that sentence, but it’s still transitive. I’m starting to think that maybe “action verb” is not a very useful grammar term. Some more action-free transitive verbs (underlined):

Lord, it’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar. Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars, it’s been the same way for years. We need a change.

This type of shit happens all the time. You got to get yours but, fool, I got to get mine.

I float like gravity, never had a cavity, got more rhymes than the Wayans’ got family.

If everybody had an ocean across the USA, then everybody’d be surfing like California.

Which hunting on Grammarly

It’s that time again! Time to see what’s going on in Crazy Grammar Town! Let’s visit our old friends, Grammarly. They have a post on relative clauses which is not bad, until they get to talking about that and which (yeah, I know this is more about style than grammar, just stay with me):

Confusion about when to use that and which has arisen for good reason: British and American English have different rules for them. In American English, that is used to introduce restrictive clauses, and which introduces nonrestrictive clauses.

The lamp, which was given to me by Aunt Betsy, is on the bedside table.

The lamp that Aunt Betsy gave me is on the bedside table.

In British English, it is often acceptable to substitute which in restrictive clauses.

The lamp which Aunt Betsy gave me is on the bedside table.

Of course, that could also be used acceptably in British English, which makes it safer, by default, to follow the American rule when in doubt. It also makes it easier to decide whether to insert commas, because if you follow the American rules, you can remember that commas should not precede that, but they should precede which.

Sounds easy, right? Sure… But you’re probably wondering if Grammarly, a company based in San Francisco, US of A, follows their own advice. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. Of course, they don’t, silly.

In their post on nouns, there are four instances of the word which. How many of these appear in restrictive clauses – the kind of clause that Grammarly specifically states should be introduced by that? Let’s count them:

One…

Grammarly which 1

Two…

Grammarly which 2

Three…

Grammarly which 4

Four!

Grammarly which 3

That’s all four! Congratulations, Grammarly! You hit for the cycle! *Applause*

Why is Grammarly so bad at this? Grammarly can’t follow their own advice because either:

  1. They are an editing company that apparently can’t even edit their own writing
  2. Their claim about US English is a hot pile of garbage
  3. They prefer you’d do as they say and not as they do
  4. All of the above

I’ll take Door #4, Monty.

Read more about which hunting and the that/which distinction from Jonathon Owen here and Stan Carey here.