Casting the first ice pick

This tweet by Prof. Daniel Drezner of the Fletcher School came across my feed last night.

Teachers, don’t make fun of your students. It’s not funny. It’s shitty.

Besides that, the distinction between its and it’s is so insignificant that only people who don’t know much about language would cling to it like it’s some ancient secret. Arguing about its/it’s (or picking on your students over it) is like arguing over who the best Robin was, Dick Grayson or Tim Drake*.

As it turns out, Ammon Shea (the author of Reading the OED, which you should totally read) did some digging and found out that Prof. Danny mistakenly used it’s for its in his dissertation. Because of course he did.

I wonder how he’d feel if his supervisor joked on twitter dot com about stabbing him with an icepick.

* If you didn’t get this reference, don’t worry. It doesn’t matter. Just like misusing its/it’s doesn’t matter. If you did get this reference, then you know the answer is Tim Drake**.

** Fight me.


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!””

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 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.

Every kind of language has rules

Yes, even the ones that you don’t like. Here’s a quote from Spoken Soul by John Russell Rickford and Russell John Rickford (2000: 92). It’s perfect in expressing the point that all language varieties have rules:

Every human language studied to date – whether loved or hated, prestigious or not – has regularities or rules of this type [i.e. conventional and systematic ways of pronouncing, modifying, and combining words]. A moment’s reflection would show why this is so. Without regularities, a language variety could not be successfully acquired or used in everyday life, and this applies to Spoken Soul, or Ebonics, as much as to the “Received Pronunciation,” or “BBC English,” of the British upper crust. Characterizations of the former as careless or lazy, and of the latter as careful or refined, are subjective social and political evaluations that reflect prejudices and preconceptions about the people who usually speak each variety.

That is so good. The book that it appears in is about Black English (also called African American Vernacular English), so of course Rickford and Rickford had to address the (uninformed) idea that Black English is just “English without rules.” It’s not and it never was.

You don’t get to claim that some specific group(s) of people don’t have any rules to the way they speak. Because if you claim that, it will say more about your judgment of those people than it will about your assessment of their language. (Well, it will also say that you’re not very good at making assessments about language.)

Every language variety follows systematic rules. Every single one. Not some. Not most. All of them. They may not follow the same rules as each other, but they follow rules nonetheless.

#Themself all the way

Oxford Dictionaries has a great blog post called “Is ‘themself’ a real word?” After showing that themself is indeed a really real word, they note that it’s still not quite acceptable in Standard English. I really wish it was though. It’s so perfect. Check out the post to see more!