Tuesday, 1 December 2009

the grammar gravy train

Geoffrey Pullum says

When you set yourself up as a grammar expert it's better than being an expert on plastics. To be an expert on plastics you actually have to know something about plastics. With grammar the analogous thing doesn't hold. Nobody asks, nobody checks, nobody knows enough to get suspicious. You are free as a bird to publish any garbage you might want to type out.

I discovered this myself while in my favourite used bookstore a few days ago. I was in the language section as usual, and I found The Wordsworth Dictionary of Modern English Grammar by Ned Halley. Says the back cover, "Is there a right way to speak and write English? This unique new guide to the language is dedicated to answering the question - in Plain English. Compiled for readers from school age onwards, this is a book of easy reference."

Well it turns out this book contains a few errors. Here are some:

active and passive In grammar a verb is in the 'active voice' when it describes an action by the subject of the phrase; as, "he gave her the flowers." When the verb describes an action affecting the object of the phrase, it is in the passive voice; as, "she received the flowers from him."

Both these sentences are active. The passive voice is formed by a form of be plus the past participle, for instance The flowers were given to her.

ablative In grammar, the 'case' of a noun or pronoun expressed in the context of location, direction, time or other influences. In the sentence "She sat next to him", the pronoun "him" is in the ablative case. As a determinant of word forms, ablative is not a distinct case in English. In Latin, where nouns, pronouns and adjectives are 'declined' into cases, ablative is the final case in the sequence nominative, vocative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative.

If English has no ablative, how can him be ablative?

combat Once a mere noun, combat is now in common use as a verb...

The noun and verb are attested at about the same time.

imperfect tense In grammar the tense of a verb describing the progress of an action in the past. In "he was laughing" the verb 'was' is the imperfect tense of 'be'.

was is the past tense. The past imperfect is was laughing.

mood In grammar, the way a verb is used can always be identified with a 'mood.' There are five distinct ones:
1. Indicative mood expressing a fact: 'He is going'
2. Optative mood expressing a wish: 'Let's go'
3. Imperative mood expressing a command: 'Go!'
4. Interrogative mood expressing a question: 'Is he going?'
5. Subjunctive mood expressing a condition: 'Were he to go…'

Optative mood is at least a mood used by some languages (not English). But interrogative mood? It is to weep.

But that's nowhere near the worst of it. The book covers "the curiosities of current slang" as well. Here is the beginning of the entry for Goth:

Goth A worldwide youth 'counterculture' launched, according to some popular historians, by British pop singer Ziggy Stardust - known for his black clothing and eyeliner, white face and piercings - in 1979.

A black-clad, pierced Ziggy Stardust (scientific name: David Bowie) in its natural environment

[It seems that some languages really have an interrogative mood, including Koasati, Yupik and Cubeo.]


WordzGuy said...

An impediment to producing a published book often appears to be one of self-censorship, along the lines of "Gee, I just don't know enough about xxx to write a book about it" or "Gee, I'm not really comfortable in just making up crap" or "Gee, maybe the world already has enough books about personal redemption via a cute dog or about angels."

Jonathon said...

Welsh (and other Celtic languages, I believe) have different forms for interrogatives and negatives, but I don't know if those would be considered separate moods. But at any rate, it's pretty ridiculous to claim that English has all those moods and cases.

So how exactly is this a "unique new guide" if it is apparently nothing more than a rehash of Latin grammar with some misunderstood English grammar thrown in?

goofy said...

It's possible that some people consider the dependent verb forms of Welsh and Gaelic an interrogative mood. But they're used for negative and dependent clauses as well. I found some more examples of interrogative mood.

vp said...

To be fair, the book doesn't say that English has no ablative, just that it doesn't have a _distinct_ ablative. So I guess the author means that "him" can be ablative, along with accusative, dative, allative, etc...

goofy said...

vp, I see your point. Thanks.

Glen Gordon said...

I really like that quote from Pullum and also WordzGuy's commentary on self-censored would-be authors. Funny with a tangy zest of reality - just how I like my humour.

As for the "errors", I don't think I would classify them as errors. The grammar here merely seems to be described with the layman reader in my mind.

Japanese has a negative form for verbs, as does Proto-Indo-European. If we understand moods to convey in general the certainty, probability or reality of an action or state, then we can understand the negative and interrogatives mood in those terms too.

An interrogative mood conveys something unknown by the speaker (and thus uncertain) while urging an answer from the listener. A negative mood can be thought of as a non-real action or state. All of these grammatical concepts revolve around certainty, probability and reality.

goofy said...

I suppose we could argue about the interrogative mood, but the distinction between active and passive in this book doesn't make sense. Wouldn't you also agree that the classification of "was" as imperfect is wrong?

The Ridger, FCD said...

Negative and interrogative aren't moods, they're modes.

This book - see Arnold Zwicky's three-part (so far) takedown - sounds dreadful in a can't-stop-reading sort of way.