The grammar of “With great power must also come great responsibility”

What is the subject of this sentence:

With great power must also come great responsibility!

It’s either with great power or great responsibility.

Think about it again. Are you sure of your choice? Did you change your mind?

I asked Twitter and was surprised at the results.

I’m in the minority here. In my opinion, the subject is with great power. Let me explain. *Thwip*

Spider-grammar

We’re used to noun phrases being subjects, but prepositional phrases can also function as the subject:

Up in front will suit me.

Before midday would be convenient.

The clearest way to test which phrase is the subject is by adding a question tag. These are little questions on the end of a sentence – and they include a pronoun in them that refers to the subject. For example, the subject of the following sentence is “Your mother” and it is picked up in the question tag with “she”:

Your mother was a hamster, wasn’t she?

When we apply this test to our spider-sentence, we get:

With great power must also come great responsibility, mustn’t it?

That’s one point for with great power as the subject.

Another test is that the Subject comes before the finite verb. The finite verb here is must, so that’s another point for with great power as subject.

The Subject also occurs before the finite verb in questions that start with wh-words (who, what, where, etc.) – but only when the wh-word is the subject. For example, in the following question, does is the finite verb and who is the subject (which is placed before it)

Who does whatever a spider can?

Here’s where things get a little interesting. If I try to make a question with a wh-word holding the subject position, I get:

*What must also come great responsibility?

That is clearly ungrammatical. It would need to be With what must also come great responsibility? But it’s debatable whether even that sentence is grammatical. Instead, when we flip things around we can make a grammatical question in which great responsibility is the subject:

What must also come with great power?

So the score is superheroes 2, super villains 1. But more on that last sentence later.

Another test we can make is how the Subject comes after the finite operator in questions which can be answered by “yes” or “no”:

Is it a radioactive spider? (Is = finite operator in this yes/no question)

Do you catch thieves just like flies? (Did = finite operator in this yes/no question)

Again, we’re left with an ungrammatical question when with great power is the subject, but a grammatical one when great responsibility is:

*Must with great power also come great responsibility? (ungrammatical)

Must great responsibility also come with great power? (Spider-grammar approved)

That’s another point for great responsibility. It’s all tied up!

A final test concerns how the Subject also comes after the finite operator in wh-questions in which the wh-word is not the subject:

What price did he pay for the pictures? (What price = Object, did = finite operator, you = subject)

When did Peter get bit? (When = Adverbial, did = finite operator, Peter = subject)

When we apply this to our sentence, we get the opposite of what we just found. If great responsibility was the subject, the test fails and we’re left with an ungrammatical question:

*What must great responsibility also come?

However, if with great power was the subject, the test also fails and gives us another ungrammatical question:

*What must with great power also come?

We would need to move the preposition with to the end and keep it with come. And if we did that then either phrase could be the subject (but more on this below).

What must great power also come with?

What must great responsibility also come with?

This leaves us with the score tied 2-2. How are we going to figure out the subject of this sentence? Is everyone right? Will Spider-Man escape the grip of this grammar goblin?!

Before we answer that, let’s consider how we had to shift things around a bit too much (for my taste) to make great responsibility the Subject in our tests. That doesn’t mean that great responsibility can’t be the subject. Stan Lee could have just as easily written Great responsibility must also come with great power (or even With great responsibility must also come great power). These two phrases are perfectly grammatical, but they do not make much sense because the responsibility is what follows the acquisition of power. In the narrative, Spider-Man (or rather – Spoiler Alert! – Peter Parker) first gets great power and then learns of the great responsibility he has because of it.

Ok, let’s get technical.

Fronting

English grammar has a feature called fronting. This is where some syntactic element (such as the object) is moved to the front of the sentence, which is where the Subject most commonly appears. If this sentence is an example of fronting, then with great power would be a fronted object and great responsibility would be the subject. So is this what’s happening?

Probably not. There’s nothing wrong with fronting an object, but when that happens, the subject and verb don’t change places. Consider these examples of fronted objects:

A web I spin. (A web is object, I is subject, spin is the verb)

Such a blunder I had now committed. (Such a blunder is object, I is subject)

So if great responsibility was the subject, then it should appear before the verb:

*With great power great responsibility must also come

I’m marking that one as ungrammatical, although your mileage may vary.

There is another possibility with fronting though. An adverb particle, or the other word in phrasal verbs (more on these in a bit) can be fronted for rhetorical purposes when it has a directional meaning, such as in

The rain came down >> Down came the rain

This might answer the question. We could say that the with in our clause is an adverb particle with directional meaning (at least the verb come implies directional movement). The phrasal verb would then be come with.

However, with does not seem to be a particle in the normal sense, but rather a preposition. We know this because when the object of a transitive phrasal verb is a noun phrase, it can follow the particle. This fulfills the principle of putting new information at the end of the clause and is exactly what we see if we modify our sentence a bit.

Great responsibility must also come with great power.

However, when the object is made into a pronoun, things change. Pronouns in phrasal verbs follow the preposition, but precede the particle.

Spider-Man webbed up the criminals.

Spider-Man webbed them up.

In our case, it would be ungrammatical for a pronoun to precede with:

Great responsibility must also come with it.

*Great responsibility must also come it with.

This would imply that with is a preposition, which means that we’re not dealing with an adverb particle being fronted.

Phrasal verb, prepositional verb or free combination?

You’re probably used to the term “phrasal verb” for those two or three-word units like get up and get down and rock out. But there are actually (at least) three different types of grammatical units which fall under this term. Following some linguistic grammar books, we’ll call them phrasal verbs, prepositional verbs, and “free combination” units.

Phrasal verbs consist of a verb + an adverb particle. Examples are get up and switch it off. Prepositional verbs consist of a verb + a preposition. Examples are look after, rely on and laugh at. In clauses with prepositional verbs, a specific preposition is needed to make the clause grammatical. Changing the preposition will either make things ungrammatical or will change the meaning. Free combination multi-word verbs consist of a verb + a particle. Examples are go in and come back. Free combination multi-word verbs are very frequent, especially with the verbs come and go.

We’ve already seen that come with is not a phrasal verb because with is not an adverb particle. So it has to be either a prepositional verb or a free combination verb. But the line between these two is drawn with chalk rather than a magic marker. Some verbs are more like prepositional verbs and others are more “free”.

We can use semantic criteria to figure out which kind of verb we have. The meaning of a prepositional verb can’t (usually) be predicted by the meanings of each of the parts (the verb and the preposition). Free combination verbs, on the other hand, can usually be figured out by considering the meanings of the verb and the other word. This would make our example more like a free combination form because the meaning can be predicted from the individual parts (come + with = accompany, travel in the company of, etc.).

So what we have is something in between a prepositional verb and a free combination verb. Our example does not allow for movement of the particle (with), but it maybe allows for fronting. But with great power is not a fronted object (as we saw above), so it must be the subject.

Full disclosure

Ok, I know you’re spider senses are tingling because the sentence in the comic book is actually

“And a lean, silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come — great responsibility!”

Spider-man_With_great_power

Whatever. The analysis is (probably) still the same.

But even with all that grammaring I just did, I’m not above someone pointing out any mistakes I made or points I failed to consider. So let me know if you know something I don’t know!

For what it’s worth, this page claims that great responsibility is the Subject. They are only answering the question of whether the sentence is grammatically correct, and the first answerer offers some plausible advice on grammar. But the answerers fail to consider the grammar points that we just went through. They are also looking at a slightly different clause, which does not have the modal verb must: “With great power comes great responsibility”. I think this is actually important because flipping that clause around to make great responsibility fill the usual Subject place at the start of the sentence also makes the clause sound more “normal” semantically and pragmatically, but does not follow the points from the previous paragraph.

References

The relevant page numbers and sections in the grammars I used for this post are:

Downing, Angela & Philip Locke. 2006. English Grammar: A University Course (2nd ed.). London: Routledge.

Pages 43-44, 61-62 and Section 23.8

Biber, Douglas, Stig Johansson, Geoffrey Leech, Susan Conrad & Edward Finegan. 1999. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: Pearson.

Pages 403-4, 407, 900, 932, 1029 and Sections 5.3, 5.3.1, 5.3.1.1 D, and 11.2.4.4

Another day, another wild ride on the wheel-o-language opinions

So the New York Times has another opinion piece about language and (surprise!) it’s a stinker. Not as bad as it could’ve been, but still not good. Let’s take a walk through it, shall we?

The hundreds of thousands of Americans descending on Paris during this year’s tourist season are in for a shock: The city’s waiters, bakers and taxi drivers — and practically anyone else they encounter — will mostly speak to them in eager, serviceable and occasionally even near-perfect English.

What is “near-perfect English”? English that this writer can understand? This is a shot across the bow at Europeans – some of them may sometimes speak as good as moi, but usually their language would best be described as “serviceable”. It’s also a slight to linguists, or the group of people who study language for a living and would never describe instances of it as “near-perfect”. I think we’re in for a ride full of hot takes. Continue reading “Another day, another wild ride on the wheel-o-language opinions”

Book review: The Happiness Dictionary by Dr. Tim Lomas

This post sort of continues on from my earlier post about “untranslatable” words.

The Happiness Dictionary (2018, Piatkus) by Tim Lomas is a book which has good intentions, but it makes some startling and incorrect claims about language. My main contentions with Lomas’ claims are:

  1. He plays fast and loose with semantics. Describing the meaning of a word with other words does not give the meaning of that word, but Lomas seems to claim it does.
  2. You can’t check his sources because they’re not there.
  3. He misrepresents some linguistic terms.
  4. He uses research on one language to make claims about a family of unrelated languages.
  5. He fails to see the logical conclusions of his claims about language.

Continue reading “Book review: The Happiness Dictionary by Dr. Tim Lomas”

Tom Freeman on Lionel Shriver on semantic drift

Over on the Stroppy Editor blog, Tom Freeman has written a response to Lionel Shriver’s article in Harper’s complaining about semantic drift. You should go check Freeman’s article out here.

I want to point out two especially great part’s in Freeman’s post. First, Freeman starts his post by boiling down what these language complaints are really about:

The remarkable thing about language change is that it only started happening when I started noticing it. For centuries, English was constant and true, but as soon as I was old enough to have an appreciation of good standards of usage, people around me started falling short. Since then, there has been an alarming, unprecedented surge in rule-breaking.

Neither I nor anyone else really believes any such thing, of course, but some of us sometimes talk as if we do. One such person is Lionel Shriver.

I tell my students something similar. The people who complain about language change are often the same people who are no longer in their 30s with their lives ahead of them. They’re in their 50s or 60s now and they’re recognizing that they are being replaced whether they like it or not. Life in your 20s and 30s seems great – you don’t have as many responsibilities, you still have your youth – of course the world and everything in it should stay the same, including the language rules that you learned. But it doesn’t. You get older. The world changes. And language changes. How dare they?

Freeman also gives the idea that dictionaries should be thought of as guidebooks, not gospels:

For Shriver, a dictionary should be a rulebook of almost scriptural immutability. She wants usage to adhere to the rules that she spent time and effort internalising; any deviation, whether by the ignorant masses, by trendy literati or by dictionaries themselves, is to be fought.

The better way to view a dictionary is as a guidebook. It describes the features of the language as you’re likely to encounter it, and it thereby helps you find your way around. To do this, a dictionary needs to record differences in usage and it needs to be able to change.

That’s a very good point. Go read the rest of Freeman’s article here: https://stroppyeditor.wordpress.com/2019/07/31/how-do-you-cope-when-everyones-usage-is-wrong/

The sociolinguistics of speaking Spanish in America

Here’s a good article on the politics of language in America today. The article talks about how Democratic presidential candidate Julián Castro does not speak Spanish fluently. They make an excellent point of what this can mean to people:

The matter has become something of a litmus test from reporters whom Castro says ask him repeatedly why he doesn’t speak Spanish as though that were essential to being authentically Latino*.

The article also uses the word fluent a couple of times in the beginning, but then makes a good point about how this idea is a misnomer:

Proficiency in Spanish, and in any language, is more of a continuum than a box you can check, said Belem López, an assistant professor in the Center for Mexican American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.

“People have these constrained ideas that you have to speak English perfectly and Spanish perfectly,” López said, “but really that doesn’t exist.”

And, of course, there are different standards for different people:

Latinos are expected to speak impeccable Spanish, while non-Latinos are showered in praise for speaking imperfect Spanish. When white Americans learn Spanish, “it’s seen as enrichment,” a sign of high social status and education, Tseng said. In part, Tseng added, this is because their “American-ness” is never up for question.

“If Tim Kaine goes out on the street and speaks Spanish, no one is going to shout at him, ‘Speak English, we’re in America!’ ” Tseng said.

But it ain’t all bad. Many Latino parents who did not learn to speak Spanish as a first language at home are encouraging their children to learn the language. And despite the ridicule that people have had to face for daring to speak a language other than English in the US, it seems the Latino community considers it important for future generations to know Spanish.

Guess what? It’s going to be important for non-Latino people too.

Check out the rest of the article here: https://wapo.st/2JNt5LU.

 

* The WaPo uses Latino throughout the article, which is why I’m using the word here instead of Latinx, the gender-neutral form of the word. If you want to know more about Latinx, see Merriam-Webster, Wikipedia and the Huffington Post.

The Y’all-Star Movement and the politics of y’all

There was a recent episode of the Trillbilly Worker’s Party podcast (ok, not so recent, but I’m getting caught up) where they talk about y’all. Not y’all reading this, but the use of the pronoun y’all. The episode featured journalist Brendan O’Connor, who asked what hosts Tarence Ray and Tom Sexton thought of the word. Specifically, O’Connor wanted to know what the hosts thought of his use of the word since it was not part of his dialect growing up, whereas it was for both of the hosts (who are from Kentucky and Texas). O’Connor feels that the word is great because it’s gender-neutral, it rolls off the tongue and it’s fun to say. The hosts agree.

In this discussion, however, co-host Tom Sexton lays down some sociolinguistics about the word y’all:

What I’m saying is, yeah, you’re right: I think in terms of gender neutrality and all that stuff, [y’all is] good. There’s a phenomenon in this sort of, like – you know, me and Tarence refer to it as the Y’all-Star Movement, but it’s sort of this, like, this New South thing where all these James Beard Award-winning restaurants that pay their dishwashers $2 an hour and, you know, they’re reviving the cuisine of the Geechee peoples of South Carolina that were brought here to work the rice and sugar cane fields and all this shit. And those people do something I call the Gratuitous Y’all, where they’ll just try to inject it as much as they can in a sentence. And it just sounds so jarring to me. Like, to me a good y’all should be like the intrusive R that English people use – it just helps the sentence flow better, you know?

After that, Tarence discusses how some people naturally use it, but there are people and businesses in the US South that try to use it to sound more authentically southern. And when they do, it comes off as the opposite – like they’re trying to be something they’re not. It seems obvious that the spread of y’all is (or would be) a bottom-up change, but I’ve never thought about that politics of bottom-up linguistic changes in this way. That is, the upper classes are being immediately recognized and critiqued for adopting y’all into their planned/edited language (their marketing, etc.) – at least by some of the people who use y’all spontaneously.

Check out the discussion of y’all at minute 1:11:06 here: https://soundcloud.com/user-972848621-463073718/episode-81-rich-people-are-deeply-diseased-w-special-guest-brendan-oconnor#t=1:11:06.

Dictionary.com on the word “mistress”

I’ve been harsh on Dictionary.com’s blog in the past, but they’re stepping up their game over there. For example, they have a post about how the word mistress is sexist. There’s no real equivalent for the man in an affair and the use of the word makes the woman in the affair seem immoral and the one to blame. The post cites others talking about the word and how journalists should probably stop using it (or be very careful when they do), and it quotes the AP Stylebook as saying that, instead of mistress, “phrasing that acknowledges both people in the relationship is preferred.”

But the post is also great because it discusses other words “used to describe women, particularly when it comes to sex and relationships, that don’t have a male equivalent,” such as spinster, tramp, housewife, and bitch. You should go give it a read. Follow the links in the article for more discussion. And think about how language can reflect culture – it’s not a surprise that the words used to describe women have more negative connotations than the ones used to describe men. People are and have been sexist. Time to change that nonsense.

Check it: https://www.dictionary.com/e/mistress-and-other-words-that-have-no-male-counterpart/