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.

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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Some strange language claims in Kaplan’s book on monsters

Matt Kaplan’s book Medusa’s Gaze and Vampire’s Bite is about the science behind monsters, or how we can trace the origins of some of our most classic horrible creatures. The book does a good job in that regard, but it also makes some interesting claims about language. One of these seems to be a simple slip up, while a second follows some unfortunate tropes of describing languages that aren’t in the Germanic or Romance families. The third one is a side note about a claim made by Carl Sagan and it’s very interesting. Let’s look at these in turn.

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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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Language achievement: UNLOCKED!

TFW Merriam-Webster is writing about the same thing you wrote about:

It’s a discussion of no problem and other phatic expressions which are more informal than you’re welcome and also seem to imply that saying thank you was not necessary. M-W didn’t pick up on my predating of you’re welcome but that’s probably for the best. They’re the professionals, after all. Check the M-W article here.

In other news, this morning my 9-year-old texted “no problem” to me after I thanked him for something. Kids these days. Pssh.

Patriotic grammar scolds puh-lease

A recent article (blog post?) by Mary Wilson in Slate discusses the language used by the Russian trolls who were indicted for subverting the 2016 US presidential election. But perhaps unsurprisingly in an online article about grammar, the writer gets grammar totally wrong. Let’s take a look at the grammar “mistakes” that the writer points out.

One political ad placed online by the Russians apparently read, “Hillary is a Satan, and her crimes and lies had proved just how evil she is.” Just a Satan, not the? Is there a class of Satans of which Hillary was just one example? If so, why capitalize the S? [italics original]

1. “a Satan”. Fine, but Mary Wilson suggests using “the Satan”. Sorry, I meant to write the Mary Wilson suggests using “the Satan”. See how weird that sounds? That’s because proper nouns do not usually take any articles. In fact, adding the definite article is what would make this construction seem like there is a class of satans. Compare: That’s not the Satan I was referring to. Maybe that’s what Wilson was going for, but I doubt it.

In one email to a Trump campaign official, a disguised Russian agent reportedly wrote: “We gained a huge lot of followers and decided to somehow help Mr. Trump get elected.” Is a huge lot a Walmart-size amount? Costco? Not to mention the awkwardly deployed somehow.

2. I agree huge lot is not a common construction, but what is grammatically wrong with it? Not to mention “the awkwardly deployed somehow” has nothing to do with grammar.

As noted in the Washington Post last year, “A revealing characteristic of the Russian language, the absence of the definite and indefinite article, is evident in statements such as ‘out of cemetery’ and ‘burqa is a security risk.’” But, the article goes on to say, these mistakes are harder to take notice of given how sloppily written the average social media discourse is.

3. This whole paragraph. A revealing characteristic of the Russian language is the Russian language. The sentence should read “a revealing characteristic of English mistakes made by people whose L1 does not have articles is the misuse of articles in English. Russian is one such language, but there are thousands more.” This one is also on the Washington Post. The next sentence describes social media discourse as “sloppily written”. This is a bunch of shit. Language written online isn’t supposed to follow standard English norms. That’s part of what makes it funner than standard written English. People know that they don’t have to follow the rules of standard English when they write online, so they don’t. But somehow – somehow! – they are still understood. Could it be that the rules of standard English aren’t as important to clarity and understanding as grammar scolds would have us believe?

The Mary Wilson tells us that these grammar “mistakes” imply “that we were wrong to ever let it become uncool to fixate on bad grammar and slack syntax, no matter what the venue”. If it’s uncool to fixate on bad grammar, that’s because many of the grammar scolds don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. They’ve commandeered the word grammar to mean “any stylistic feature that I internalized in high school, in either speech or writing, and have decided to apply system-wide across the language”. It’s a catch-all condemnation for people who want to point out their superiority. Don’t believe the hype.

Wilson ends the post by saying that paying attention to sentence fragments and dangling participles is “patriotic”. I wonder why she didn’t mention sentence fragments and dangling participles in her scolding of the Russian trolls. Is it because sentence fragments and dangling participles are not part of grammar? It is.

Two thoughts on two recent OED Words of the Day

1. The OED’s word of the day for January 24 was doryphore (subscription to OED required):

doryphore, n.
One who draws attention to the minor errors made by others, esp. in a pestering manner; a pedantic gadfly.

If only this word was more common, we’d have the perfect term to describe 99% of internet commentors.

xkcd

2. The OED’s Word of the Day yesterday (Jan. 29) was green man. I think the first definition is the most appropriate in this day and age:

green man, n.
1. a. In outdoor shows, pageants, masques, etc.: a man dressed in greenery, representing a wild man of the woods or seasonal fertility. Now hist.

“Now historical”? Like many, many thousands of green people from history times? Class.

Book Review: Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter

John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue is one of the most interesting books about the English language that I have read. That’s saying a lot since books about the English language is all I seem to read. I don’t review them enough since they’re usually textbooks (fun!), but Tongue definitely deserves a review, even if it’s just me telling you to go out and buy it.

Go out and buy Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter.

Done!

Tongue attempts to answer a few questions about English that have either been overlooked or brushed aside by linguists. One of them is the mysterious nature of our meaningless do in phrases such as Do you realize…?. R.L.G. at the Economist’s blog Johnson has described Mr. McWhorter’s stance much better than I could, so I’ll link to that post (Hint: the existence of meaningless do in Welsh and Cornish, as well as English, is not a coincidence).

McWhorter also takes on the Viking impact on English and the pesky notion that our words channel our thought, but what I liked best about his book is when he points out that there is a problem when linguists focus solely on one aspect of one language. He says,

The specialization endemic to modern academia means that few of these scholars do their work with grammar sketches of all the Germanic languages and their histories in their heads, much less of languages around the world. They write mostly about English alone and, as often as not, just single features of its grammar.

It’s an unfortunate reality. Specialists in any field can’t be expected to know everything about their field (which is why they’re called “specialists”). So I enjoyed how McWhorter refrained from going on a witch hunt and faulting the linguists who overlooked the topics of Tongue.

As I said before, you should read Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue. It is well written and well researched. Moreover, it’s a great book for people who can’t be bothered to read linguistics textbooks and journals – or for those of us who wish to read something in between the textbooks and journals.

Up next: A Gun for Sale by Graham Greene and Under the Black Flag by David Cordingly