You are currently browsing the category archive for the ‘syntax’ category.

I’ve mentioned my fondness for compiling historical grammatical errors as a reminder that we are not, point of fact, destroying what used to be a perfect language. Previously, I’d found unnecessary quotation marks in a 1960 World Series celebration, it’s for its in a 1984 John Mellencamp video, and an apostrophe incorrectly marking a plural in a famous 1856 editorial cartoon. But these were all punctuation-based errors. Today’s is a proper grammatical error, and one that people full-throatedly bemoan nowadays.

I found this error by admitting to myself that I am secretly an old man, and coming to terms with it by spending much of the summer sitting in parks, reading books on naval history and international relations. One of them, Nathaniel Philbrick’s Sea of Glory, tells the story of the U.S. Exploring Expedition, who discovered Antarctica and created the country’s first accurate naval charts for the Pacific islands. It’s a good book, but then it turned great by having two interesting old quotes four pages apart.

In the first, the Expedition is approaching Fiji and takes on another pilot due to the many coral reefs in the area:

“Wilkes felt it necessary to secure yet another experienced pilot at Tonga named Tom Granby. ‘You will find when we get to the Islands,’ Wilkes assured Granby, ‘that I know as much about them as you do.’ Granby smiled. ‘You may know all about them on paper,’ he replied, ‘but when you come to the goings in and goings out, you will see who knows best, you or myself.'”

Myself here is clearly non-standard, as no first-person pronoun has appeared anywhere in the sentence. The standard rule for reflexives, known as Principle A in Government and Binding theory, and discussed in pretty much every introductory syntax class, is that a reflexive must be bound in its governing category. Or, to say it in a more theory-agnostic and somewhat looser way, the coreferent of the reflexive (I/me for myself) has to appear within the smallest clause that contains the reflexive, and structurally “above” the reflexive. The syntactic specifics they depend on which syntactic theory you’re adhering to, but luckily they don’t really matter here; there’s no possible coreferent anywhere within the sentence, so any standard definition of Principle A will label the sentence ungrammatical.

Turning from this syntactic jungle to the Fijian jungle, a few pages later the Expedition lands on an island and hikes to its peak:

“Almost two years at sea had left them ill-prepared for such a demanding hike. ‘I have seldom witnessed a party so helpless as ourselves appeared,’ Wilkes wrote, ‘in comparison with the natives and white residents, who ran over the rocks like goats.'”

Again, it’s obvious that this is a non-standard usage, since no first-person plural noun phrase appears in the sentence to justify the reflexive.

Now, I’ve been marking these as non-standard rather than incorrect, and there’s a reason for this that is more than a desire to be non-judgmental. These supposedly erroneous uses of reflexives are widespread — so much so that I’d argue they’re at least borderline acceptable in many people’s forms of Informal Spoken English. That means that they ought to be explainable, that there ought to be some option in the rules of English that allow you to consider these uses acceptable without having to change much else in the language. I’m going to speculate for the rest of this post, so feel free to bail out here.

But before you bail, let me just brag about where I get to read.

Here’s my idea, which I don’t think is novel.* Reflexives are allowed only when, in some sense, there’s a sufficiently salient coreferent for the reflexive. Salience is standardly assessed syntactically, meaning that a coreferent appears structurally above the reflexive, and close enough to remain salient when the reflexive appears. But there is pragmatic salience as well, for people and things who haven’t been explicitly mentioned but remain prominent in the discourse all the same. And what is more pragmatically salient than the speaker? In both of these cases, it seems that the speaker is thinking of themselves as sufficiently salient to trigger the reflexive.

My intuition is that there are more instances of inappropriate reflexives for first person (myself, ourselves) than second person (yourself), and more of either than for third person (himself, herself, itself, themselves). I did a quick corpus search on COCA for sentence-initial As for *self, and the intuition wasn’t fully borne out; as for myself was the most common, but combined as for him/herself showed up almost as often (64 to 60), and as for yourself only registered one instance. So maybe I’m totally off-base on the specifics.** But something is going on that allows so many people to view reflexives as standard in positions that we don’t expect to see them, and like this or not, that needs explained.


*: If you know of any references to discussions about this issue, please share. I’m not primarily a syntactician, and didn’t see anything in a cursory search of the literature, but I really doubt this discussion hasn’t been had before.

**: I think the as for *self construction may be a special case. Most of the third-person uses look to be about how some third party views themself, and while one can state one’s own introspections and speculate about a third party’s, it’s a little bit weird to tell someone their own introspections. That could artificially deflate the second-person counts.

I think the best explanation of this construction may be as an indicator that we are switching mental spaces, if you’re familiar with that theory. Saying as for Xself establishes a new mental space focused on X and their inner workings or opinions, rather than the more generic mental space of the rest of the conversation. Sorry, I’m really going down a rabbit hole here.

Some time ago, I wrote up a piece on why the reason why isn’t ungrammatical, no matter how much some grammarians despise it. But in that piece I ignored a related construction that leads to approximately as much head-shaking and teeth-grinding: the reason is because. If you noticed and had been wondering when I would tie this loose end, well, your day has come. And if you hadn’t noticed, well, that’s for the best.

Let’s start with the obligatory examples from everyday usage:

(1a) Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said the reason is because we are too busy dealing with the unimportant things […]
(1b) No, and the reason is because we don’t control the hiring needs of our clients.

If you base your decisions about what’s grammatical on usage guides, then deciding whether these are ungrammatical is a no-brainer. All but one of the usage guides on my shelf object to it, and the one that doesn’t still suggests its usage be restricted. And among Internet grammarians, it seems everyone hates it. The best phrased put-down comes from Fowler’s Third:

“Though often defended, the type the reason … is because (instead of the reason … is that) aches with redundancy, and is still as inadmissible in Standard English as it was when H. W. Fowler objected to it in 1926.” (because, B5, pg. 100)

That end part is definitely right: it’s only as inadmissible as it was in 1926. And, as it turns out, it wasn’t inadmissible in Standard English in 1925. Here are a few examples from that time period, taken from the MWDEU entry on it:

“If the fellow who wrote it seems to know more of my goings and comings than he could without complicity of mine, the reason is because he is a lovely old boy and quite took possession of me while I was in Boston” [1915, Robert Frost]

The reason why all we novelists with bulging foreheads and expensive educations are abandoning novels and taking to writing motion-picture scenarii is because the latter are so infinitely the more simple and pleasant.” [1915, P.G. Wodehouse]

“… one of the reasons why I am not particularly well read today is because I have spent so large a part of the last twenty years rereading Dickens and Jane Austen.” [1932, Alexander Woollcott]

Two of these examples come from letters rather than edited writing, but I find it difficult to accept any definition for Standard English that leaves out Frost, Woollcott, and Wodehouse. (Just to clarify, I’m not saying that the reason is because isn’t informal, only that it isn’t nonstandard.) It goes back to at least Francis Bacon in 1625. If you remain unconvinced that this is a standard expression, the MWDEU entry is chock-a-block with examples from accomplished writers, so read through it until you’re satisfied.

[Portrait of John Adams.]

John Adams, second President of the U.S. and user of both the reason why and the reason is because.

Lots of people, including well-known and respected writers, use the reason is because. But, one might argue, maybe there’s some mass delusion of grammaticality that’s going on. Maybe it really is ungrammatical, even though so many people use it, and it should still be opposed.* Let’s consider that hypothesis by analyzing the two main reasons why it’s supposed to be unacceptable.

The first argument, I have to say, is pretty cute. The reason, obviously, is a noun phrase.** A phrase starting with because is not a noun phrase. Is is a linking verb, and thus its subject and object ought to match, but they can’t match in the reason is because. QED.

More like BS. Linking verbs don’t require grammatical identity between the two constituents being linked; the reason was unknown is perfectly fine despite a noun phrase and adjective being linked. Some writers formulate their objection a bit more carefully, and note that the predicate can be either a noun phrase or an adjective phrase, but that a clause starting with because isn’t either. But this can’t be right either. Such a restriction would also rule out the reason is that, because the that-phrase would be a clause.

In an attempt to keep refining the difference so that the thing we don’t want allowed isn’t, one might object that that-phrases can be sort of like nouns sometimes. So let’s just cut to the end, with the coup de grace from Evans 1957. It is because is uncontroversially accepted (and even used by Fowler, who’s opposed to the reason is because) despite the supposed mislinking of NP and clause. As an aside, it’s worth noting that, according to the MWDEU, this mismatch-objection is a recent one, apparently developed post hoc to explain the distaste for the reason is because, rather than the original source of the distaste.

The second objection is a golden oldie: redundancy. I already quoted Fowler’s Third on this, and almost all of the complaints I read mention redundancy somewhere. Back when I discussed reason why, I pointed out that redundancy isn’t inherently bad, because language is a noisy system. A mild amount of redundancy improves the likelihood of the message being transmitted correctly. The problem is when there’s too much redundancy, slowing down the rate of communication. (A common problem in children’s conversations, for instance, or a boring person’s stories.) Using because instead of that here doesn’t slow anything down, though — aside from the couple hundred milliseconds the additional syllable might cost the speaker — so I’m pretty unsympathetic to this complaint as well.

In a similar vein, some claim that because because usually means something like “for the reason that”, you’re really saying “The reason is for the reason that” when you say the reason is because. But this sort of redundancy comes from applying an inappropriate analysis; such “redundancy” can be found in non-redundant contexts as well. Suppose we have the following sentence:

(2a) The boxer fights today.

Now let’s replace boxer with its definition in the Oxford English Dictionary:

(2b) The person who boxes or fights with his fists fights today.

Now let’s replace boxes with its definition:

(2c) The person who fights with fists or fights with his fists fights today.

Either “The boxer fights today” is extremely redundant, or simple-minded definition replacement isn’t a good argument. (Furthermore, if you see a word being consistently used in a way that doesn’t fit its standard meaning, then that meaning is inappropriate for that use of the word.)

I have some other stuff to say on this, but you’ve already been quite polite to have stuck around this long, and I’ve hit the major points, so I’ll stop here and resume at some later point.

Summary: The reason is because is a standard English phrase, one coming from the pen of good writers (Bacon, Frost, Wodehouse) for 400 years. It’s grammatically fine, and its supposed redundancy is at worst mild. You’re welcome to use the reason is that instead, as both are standard, but there’s no good reason to oppose the reason is because.

*: Of course, if most speakers of a specific language (or dialect, or register within a language/dialect) consistently use and understand a construction, then it is grammatical in that language, regardless of whether it seems like it should be. But in case you (or someone arguing with you) don’t believe that, let’s continue.

**: This is not, technically speaking, obvious — nor necessarily true. Most generative grammarians, I believe, would regard this as a determiner phrase headed by the, rather than a noun phrase headed by reason. But “noun phrase” is good enough for jazz/blogs.

If English words were Norse gods, perhaps than would be the best candidate to play the role of Loki, the trickster god.* It causes confusion not only due to its similarity with then, but also by raising the question of what case the noun phrase it governs should have. Of course, there’s no confusion if you are a brilliant grammaticaster, as in this example from a list of peeves:

12. I/Me: We had several different takes on this, with one correspondent nailing it thus: “The correct choice can be seen when you finish the truncated sentence: He’s bigger than I am. ‘He’s bigger than me am’ actually sounds ridiculous and obviates the mistake.”**

Now, there’re two questions one should be asking of this explanation. First, can you just fill in the blank? By which I mean, does a sentence with ellipsis (the omission of words that are normally syntactically necessary but understood by context) necessarily have the same structure as a non-elided sentence? There are many different types of ellipsis, so this is a more complex question than I want to get into right now, but the short answer is no, and here’s a question-and-answer example:

Who drank my secret stash of ginger-grapefruit soda?
(1a) He/*Him drank it.
(1b) Him/*He.

(The asterisks indicate ungrammatical forms.) The second question to ask here is whether there even is an elision. We know that “He eats faster than I do” is a valid sentence, but does than necessarily trigger a clause after it? Could it be that “He eats faster than me” is not an incomplete version of the above structure but rather a different and complete structure?

This boils down to the question of whether than is strictly a conjunction (in which cases the conjoined things should be equivalent, i.e., both clauses) or can function as a preposition as well (in which case the following element is just a noun phrase, with accusative case from the preposition). It’s pretty easy to see that than behaves prepositionally in some circumstances, pointed out in the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, via Language Log:

(2a) He’s inviting more people than just us.
(2b) I saw no one other than Bob.

But this prepositional usage has become frowned upon, save for instances like (2a) & (2b) where it’s unavoidable. Why? Well, it’s an interesting tale involving the love of Latin and the discoverer of dephlogisticated air. It all starts (according to the MWDEU) with Robert Lowth, who in 1762 claimed, under the influence of Latin, that than is a conjunction and noun phrases following it carry an understood verb. The case marking (e.g., I vs. me) would then be assigned based on the noun phrase’s role in the implied clause. So Lowth’s grammar allows (3a) and (3b) but blocks (3c):

(3a) He laughed much louder than I (did).
(3b) He hit you harder than (he hit) me.

(3c) *He laughed much louder than me.

Lowth’s explanation was not without its wrinkles; he accepted than whom as standard (possibly due to Milton’s use of it in Paradise Lost), and worked out a post hoc explanation for why this prepositional usage was acceptable and others like (3c) weren’t.

Lowth’s explanation was also not without its dissenters. Joseph Priestley, a discoverer of oxygen, argued against it in his Rudiments of English Grammar (1772 edition). Priestley noted that the combination of a comparative adjective and than behaved prepositionally, and that good writers used it as such. Regarding the Lowthian argument against it, he wrote:

“It appears to me, that the chief objection our grammarians have to both these forms, is that they are not agreeable to the idiom of the Latin tongue, which is certainly an argument of little weight, as that language is fundamentally different from ours”

Another pro-prepositionist was William Ward, whose 1765 Essay on Grammar argues that than in phrases like to stand higher than or to stand lower than is akin to prepositions like above or below, and thus that the prepositional usage of than should be allowed. That’s not much of an argument, because semantically equivalent words and phrases don’t have to have the same syntax — consider I gave him it vs. *I donated him it. But then again, Lowth is basing his argument on a completely separate language, so this is a slight improvement.

The real key, of course, is usage, and the MWDEU notes that Priestey and Ward are backed by standard usage at the time. Visser’s Historical English Syntax strengths the case with examples of prepositional than from a variety of estimable sources, including the Geneva Bible (1560), Shakespeare (1601), Samuel Johnson (1751, 1759), and Byron (1804). And of course prepositional than continues in modern usage — why else would we be having this argument?

Despite the irrelevance of his argument, Lowth’s opinion has stuck through to the present day, reinvigorated by new voices repeating the same old line, unwilling to concede something’s right just because it’s never been wrong. It’s the MWDEU, not the commenter mentioned at the top, who nails it:

“Ward’s explanation [that both conjunctive and prepositional uses are correct] covered actual usage perfectly, but it was probably too common-sensical—not sufficiently absolutist—to prevail.”

So in the end, we’re left with this. Than I and than me are both correct, in most cases. Than I is often regarded as more formal, but interestingly it’s the only one that can be clearly inappropriate.*** Using the nominative case blocks the noun phrase from being the object of the verb. I can’t write The wind chilled him more than I to mean that the wind chilled me less than it chilled him.

Sometimes this can be used to disambiguate; I love you more than him is ambiguous while I love you more than he isn’t. This only matters for clauses with objects, and in general, these tend not to be ambiguous given context, so the benefit of disambiguation must be weighed against the potentially over-formal tone of the nominative case. (I, for instance, think the second sentence above sounds less convincing, even though it’s clearer, because who talks about love so stiltedly?)

I’m branching a little off topic here, but I’d like to conclude with a general point from Priestley, a few paragraphs after the quote above:

“In several cases, as in those above-mentioned, the principles of our language are vague, and unsettled. The custom of speaking draws one way, and an attention to arbitrary and artificial rules another. Which will prevail at last, it is impossible to say. It is not the authority of any one person, or of a few, be they ever so eminent, that can establish one form of speech in preference to another. Nothing but the general practice of good writers, and good speakers can do it.”

Summary: Than can work as a conjunction or a preposition, meaning that than I/he/she/they and than me/him/her/them are both correct in most situations. The latter version is attested from the 16th century to the present day, by good writers in formal and informal settings. The belief that it is unacceptable appears to be a holdover from Latin-based grammars of English.

*: Interestingly, and counter to the mythology I learned from the Jim Carrey movie The Mask, Wikipedia suggests that Loki may not be so easily summarized as the god of mischief.

**: I’m pretty sure the use of obviate is a mistake here. I can just barely get a reading where it isn’t, if thinking of the full version of the sentence causes you to avoid the supposed mistake. But I suspect instead that our correspondent believes obviate means “make obvious”, in which case, ha ha, Muprhy’s Law

***: Is there a case where than me is undeniably incorrect? I can’t think of one.

I’m a huge fan of NBC’s show Community, and over the last few months I’ve managed to get my entire family and core friends into it as well. That means going back and watching old episodes over and over again, which I can’t say I mind, especially since the show is forever on the verge of cancellation and there are likely precious few new episodes that I’ll be able watch over and over again. #SixSeasonsAndAMovie

In one episode, the study group that comprises the seven main characters is trapped in their group study room while a puppy parade goes on outside. The problem is that someone has stolen Annie’s pen and she won’t let anyone leave until it is returned. As tempers flare and the desire to see adorable becostumed puppies grows, Jeff attempts to reason with the unknown thief.

But what pronoun can Jeff use? The group is evenly split between men and women, so how will he handle English’s unfortunate lack of a singular ungendered human pronoun? Watch the video below, starting at 0:18, to find out (or just scroll to the transcription I put below it).

JEFF: Someone in this room is hiding your pen. Wanna know why? They feel terrible. They made a mistake. They waited too long to come forward and now they feel bad.
BRITTA: They should.

After all I said above about how awesome this show is, you might think this a kind of boring scene, and surely not a good one to convince you to watch it. But it’s the grammatical point that I’m concerned with, and it’s the mundanity of the dialogue that’s crucial to that. There’s nothing odd about this dialogue, despite all the singular theys in it, and we even see that Britta goes along with Jeff’s singular they in her response. It’d sound terrible with he or she replacing every they, and it’d sound like Jeff knew none of the women did it with he replacing every they.

Yes, singular they has shortcomings. So does he or she or “genderless” he or the various invented ungendered personal pronouns people have created. But singular they is natural in a way that the other options aren’t, and it’s the only reasonable solution in this dialogue.

Of course, I’m probably preaching to the choir here, so I hope you’ll forgive me if I’ve wasted your time.

Post Categories

The Monthly Archives

About The Blog

A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



@MGrammar on twitter

Recent Tweets

If you like email and you like grammar, feel free to subscribe to Motivated Grammar by email. Enter your address below.

Join 967 other followers

Top Rated

%d bloggers like this: