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The English subjunctive may well be dying, but I am shedding no tears for it. This unconcern is, perhaps, a minority view amongst men of letters, for whom saying if I were instead of if I was is often a marker of a proper education, but I’m comforted by the fact that it is the majority view amongst users of English.

The subjunctive, if you’re not familiar with it, is a verbal mood* that appears in a variety of languages. It’s prominent in Romance languages (if you’ve taken French or Spanish, you’ve surely encountered it), and it exists to various extents in other Indo-European languages as well, including English. The basic idea of the subjunctive mood is that it expresses something counter to reality. For instance, one might say:

(1) If Alicia were the President, she’d get Party Down back on the air.

Normally, you’d say “Alicia was”; “Alicia were” would be a misconjugation. But because we’re talking about a counterfactual situation (Alicia is not really the president), we can use the subjunctive mood instead. And in the subjunctive mood, the present tense of the verb to be is were, regardless of the subject.

Often you’ll see people using the regular present tense in these situations, writing in (1) “if Alicia was the President”. That’s because the English subjunctive is pretty weak. It can be used in counterfactual situations, but it generally isn’t required. Because it’s optional and subtle (it looks just like the plural indicative forms of most verbs), it’s no surprise it’s disappearing.

Many grammarians wail and gnash teeth for this loss, and try to explain how important the subjunctive is.** Some explain that the subjunctive stresses the counterfactual nature of the situation, as though if you saw “if Alicia was president” in (1), you’d be thinking “I don’t know Alicia was president!”. Of course no one thinks this, because the counterfactuality is already established by the use of if.

What’s interesting to me, though, is that are some situations where the subjunctive is obligatory. And I say obligatory here meaning that I don’t get the right meaning out of the sentence if the subjunctive isn’t used. One occurred to me during a little monologue I was having in my head as I walked across campus the other day:

(2a) He’s obsessed with the idea that everybody admire him.
(2b) He’s obsessed with the idea that everybody admires him.

In (2a), with the subjunctive, our nameless character hopes that everybody admires him, suggesting a dearth of self-esteem. In (2b), with the indicative, our nameless character believes that everybody admires him, suggesting an overabundance of self-esteem.*** Here’s another one that just came to me, and here not using the subjunctive seems very awkward (although I’ve found examples of it in the corpus):

(3a) I require that it be done tomorrow
(3b) ?I require that it is done tomorrow

So, you might say, how can I idly declare the subjunctive on its way out while I also declare its necessity? Well, quite simply, if it disappears, we’ll do something else. In the case of (3b), it seems that this indicative form is gaining traction. As for (2a), by just changing the word idea to hope or desire, we get the same irrealis reading as (2a) without requiring the subjunctive. When language change happens, it doesn’t become impossible to say something. It just becomes impossible to say it the old way.

The worst case scenario is that the meanings of (2a) and (2b) get said the same way (with the indicative form admires), that they become a little bit ambiguous, and that we have to rely on context to tell them apart. Even that isn’t a bad situation, since we already do that with so many other things in language. The difference is critical in our current form of English, but it probably won’t be in future forms.

*: The subjunctive is properly called a mood, not a tense, because it exists across tenses; there are past, present, and future subjunctives. This Wikipedia article has some good info on this. The “standard” mood of English is known as the indicative, because it indicates what is really there.

**: I’m especially fond of the Academy of Contemporary English’s thoughts on the matter: “[Not using the subjunctive forms] is so common, in fact, that few people realise that they are using bad English when they mix them up. The difference is of the utmost importance […]”

NB: when only a few people notice a language distinction, it is not important, let alone of the utmost importance.

***: I won’t spoil the minor mystery by revealing which of the two I was actually thinking.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of David Foster Wallace, but truth be told, my antipathy for his work is less about his writing specifically and more about what I consider a fault of a genre, spanning other well-regarded authors such as Don DeLillo and Dave Eggers, who are very smart people obsessed with writing about mundanity in an self-important tone, all the while stressing that a self-important tone is hardly necessary because, really, what we’re talking about is just the mundanity of life; but then again, the mundanity of life is what it’s all about, right?, and there’s so much going on under the surface that we really ought to be paying attention to but no one ever does, and as a result we find it nearly impossible to understand each other because we fail to pick up on the cues we need — so what we ought to do is look at the events of our lives and analyze them and propose explanations for why others act the way they do, even as we know that all such analysis is doomed from the get-go by the fact that we are each of us impenetrable shells to everyone else, even as no one knows and no one can know what goes on inside the black-box of another’s head, and even as trying to understand others will only get us closer to the curse of the human condition, the knowledge that none of us will ever truly know another.*

I find this genre (which may be “hysterical realism“, but I’m not sure) to be infuriating. I usually say that it’s in part because its writing style is impenetrable, and in part because it’s ironic and sincere at the same time but wants its irony to be taken as sincerity. But I have a sneaking suspicion that it’s more that it’s close enough to my own writing style and philosophy for the writing to speak to me, and yet just different enough for me to feel like they’re doing it wrong.**

I’ve tried reading a few of the other authors’ stuff, but I’ve never read any of DFW’s — excepting the generally terrible essay “Tense Present” that pretty much every language blogger loves or loathes and one misguided grammar worksheet from his time as a professor. I wanted to give him a fair shake, since many people I whose opinions I respect find him worth a read. The chance to do so finally presented itself when, at the end of last quarter, I found a box of free books that the bookstore had apparently decided against buying back.

Nestled amongst sociology textbooks, I found McCain’s Promise, a nice short DFW book that arose from his Rolling Stone article on John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign. I quickly realized why this one wasn’t bought back, as it’s filled with pink highlighter and insightful margin notes like “Major fish bowl (sorority)”.***

All the same, it’s been a great read, and I have to apologize for having pre-judged DFW’s writing from his grammar discussions. Writing about a frantic campaign trail excursion fits his legato writing style well, and he’s capable of stating something that you sort of know you ought to care about in a way that makes you realize exactly why it matters and why you need to do something about it as soon as you can. His final section, talking about leadership, is stirring and may have slightly changed how I interact with people.

But, gosh, if the man just can’t go a hundred pages without saying something dumb about grammar. Worse, it’s in the midst of the second-best part of the book, a fascinating analysis of the turning point of McCain’s campaign. He’s talking about the day where Bush goaded McCain into going negative, turning the perception of McCain from the principled anti-candidate to just another mudslinging win-at-all-costs candidate. (Which became an even greater turning point due to the ripples from it we saw in McCain’s 2008 campaign.) I’m reading along, almost skimming at points because I’m so excited about what he’s going to say next, when I slam into this barrier of a sentence:

” […] and then on Wednesday AM on TV at the Embassy Suites in Charleston there’s now an even more aggressive ad that [senior strategist] Murphy’s gotten McCain to let him run, which new ad accuses Bush of unilaterally violating the handshake-agreement and going Negative and then shows a nighttime shot of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.’s famous facade with its palisade of blatantly ejaculatory fountains in the foreground and says ‘Can America afford another politician in the White House that we can’t trust?,’ about which nobody mentions the grammatical problems but Frank C. says that the shot of the White House is really going low with the knife, and that if McCain loses South Carolina it may very well be because of this ad […]” (boldface mine, italics his)

I can’t see a grammar problem in that italicized question at all, let alone the multiple problems that DFW implies.**** The only thing I’ve managed to come up with is that DFW’s claiming the modifier’s misplaced, and that the relative clause that we can’t trust seems not to modify the clearly intended antecedent politician but rather the absurd White House. And if that’s the case, he’s just being an idiot. Here’s the (simplified) tree-diagram for the end of the question:

[NP [NP_politician [N politician] [PP in the White House]] [RC that we can't trust?]]

Politician has two modifiers, each of which has to be trailing (in the White House politician is awful), so one of them is going to have to be separated from politician. But the beauty of human language syntax is that there are long-distance dependencies, connections that can span over intervening material. In the tree above, the relative clause attaches to a noun phrase headed by politician, successfully modifying politician as the ad’s writer intended. The same string of words could also have a different structure, where the RC attaches to the lower White House noun phrase, but pragmatics tell us pretty strongly that there is little chance of this being a correct parse.

For the sake of argument, we could swap the RC and PP, but we’re still going to have ambiguity; if it’s another politician that we can’t trust in the White House, there’s the unintended meaning that we specifically can’t trust the politician to be in the White House — as though Bush would be a trustworthy senator or governor but suddenly scheming as a president.

Actually, there were two untrustworthy periods for the White House: when it was burnt in 1814 by the invading British (pictured above), and in Truman's time, when it was almost completely rebuilt due to poor maintenance in previous years.

In fact, although the difference in these last two meanings is subtle, I’d say that’s the only possible ambiguity, not the one Wallace suggests. The ambiguity between an untrustworthy politician and an untrustworthy building is illusory; only a structural engineer is likely to meaningfully distrust a building. On the other hand, it’s entirely possible to have a politician who’s good at one position but not another; I often think of Taft here, who I was taught in school was a bad president but a great Supreme Court Justice.

But the key point here is that if even if this truly was a problem, it’s a problem that DFW himself commits a few pages later. Discussing the people at McCain’s town hall meetings, he refers to one group as:

“[…] ancient vets in Legion caps who call McCain ‘Lieutenant’ […]”

The relative clause is of course supposed to modify ancient vets, but due to the interceding prepositional phrase, it’s conceivable that it could modify Legion caps instead. Of course that’s absurd. Even in hysterical realism, caps don’t talk. But I don’t see any more absurdity in talking caps than in untrustworthy presidential mansions. It’s beyond me why one has grammatical problems and the other doesn’t.

Neither of these is ambiguous. Sure, the possibility exists that they could be ambiguous in the right context, and likewise the possibility exists that an inattentive reader might briefly be tripped up by these sentences. (In fact, I was briefly tripped up by the latter, but only because the former primed my brain to analyze later sentences.) But a child could read these sentences and tell you that it’s the politician who’s untrusted and the vets who’re calling McCain “Lieutenant”.

The problem is that these supposed ambiguities are often in the eye of the beholder; DFW presumably found nothing wrong with his sentence, because he knew what he intended, and that knowledge makes it difficult to see the structural ambiguity. But as merely a consumer of the McCain ad’s sentence, DFW has no foreknowledge of its meaning, and thus the structural ambiguity becomes detectable.

In the end, calling attention to a syntactic ambiguity that is rendered unambiguous by semantics just feels petty and snotty, the educational equivalent of name dropping, an “oh of course I know this thing that a professional writer doesn’t”. But it’s a weird thing for DFW to make a point of in this essay, as he spends much of the rest of it slagging the veteran reporters (“The Twelve Monkeys”) for being a bunch of pompous and insular snobs slavishly concerned with appearances and looking down their noses at everyone else. DFW sets himself up as the people’s champion, gushing over the minor insights of the audio-video crew in a show of underclass solidarity, only to go out of his way to remind the reader that he is only a tourist in Bluecollarburg, that he belongs with The Twelve Monkeys, if only they’d have a thirteenth.

Summary: Sometimes a noun phrase has two modifiers following it. If one ordering is less ambiguous than the other, you should probably use the less ambiguous one, assuming both orderings sound okay. But you only have to worry about real ambiguities, not ones that require mental gymnastics to misinterpret.

*: I’m following Wallace’s style here, and will be profusely footnoting as a minor homage.

**: Having gone to a Dr. Seuss exhibition at a La Jolla gallery the other night, I can’t help but draw parallels to the situation of his “The Butter Battle Book“. Likewise, sports and college rivalries.

***: I’m not being entirely sarcastic, as the notes were insightful into the mind of the modern American undergraduate. I’m skewing the sample by choosing that note as my example; many of the notes were clear attempts to map what DFW was talking about into the reader’s own life in a way that I expect brought her a deeper appreciation of the text. If I were doing the same, a subsequent reader would probably find “like converting a 4th & long” and “cf. obscure song from the 90s” and no doubt make snarky remarks about my intellectual depth as well.

****: I asked you on Twitter about this, and all the responses seemed to agree that the problem, such as it is, has to rest on an attachment ambiguity or that/who(m) choice. I’m going to focus on attachment ambiguity here because the “people need who(m)” claim is obviously untrue, and it’s something that many others have already discussed. Thanks to everyone for your help!

I hate when someone starts a monologue by needlessly invoking a dictionary definition for some word. Few openings can ruin a graduation speech faster than “Webster’s defines ‘scholarship’ as …”. (Even the Yahoo! Answers community knows this.) For most common words, the dictionary definition is just a simplified, neutered form of the rich definition that native speakers have in their heads. There’s no need to tell me less about a word than I already know.

Unfortunately, I simply can’t come up with another way to start today’s post. I recently ran across this analysis of can’t help but, an idiom that (if you can believe it) the author finds illogical:

“Try to avoid the can’t help but construction. While it has been around for a while, most grammarians agree that it’s not the most logical construction. It’s considered to be a confused mix of the expressions can but and can’t help.”

Before we try to “logically” analyze idioms, let’s reflect for a moment what an idiom is. Here it comes — The Oxford English Dictionary defines an idiom (in its third noun sense) as:

A form of expression, grammatical construction, phrase, etc., used in a distinctive way in a particular language, dialect, or language variety; spec. a group of words established by usage as having a meaning not deducible from the meanings of the individual words.”

I’ve bolded that last bit because that’s the key point: an idiom is an idiom when its meaning is well-known among users of the language but does not come from strict interpretations of the words themselves. If you say someone has idiomatically kicked the bucket, there’s no bucket, there’s no kicking motion, and it actually means they died. Logical analysis of kick the bucket won’t get you anywhere near the actual meaning.

With that in mind, let’s look at can’t help but. Surely, most fluent English speakers — including those who disparage it as “illogical” — know what it means. If that meaning can be deduced from the words and syntax of the construction, then hooray, it’s fine, because it’s grammatical. If that meaning cannot be deduced from the words and syntax of the construction, then hooray, it’s still fine, because it fits exactly the definition of an idiom. It doesn’t matter if the meaning is deducible or “logical”, whatever that means. (For some thoughts on why I put “logical” in quotation marks when talking of grammatical logic, see Emily Morgan’s post on the logic of language.)

You might think that I’ve done some rhetorical sleight-of-hand in the last paragraph by saying that can’t help but either makes sense or is an idiom. What if it isn’t an idiom, but just an illogical corruption of can help but? I’ve got two thoughts on that.

The first is a simple matter of history. The OED records the use of can’t help but starting in 1894, but I’m finding it in Google Books further back than that. Here are examples from 1852 [Uncle Tom’s Cabin], 1834, and 1823. Similar investigation antedates can help but around the same time, 1842 and 1834. There’s no clear evidence that one form predates the other, so there’s no evidence that cannot help but is a corruption of the correct form.

The second point is that the supposedly logical alternatives can help but and can’t help make no more sense than cannot help but. I don’t understand the above claim that can’t help but is “not the most logical construction”. Maybe it isn’t; I’ll grant that it’s not as immediately interpretable as “I am walking” or something. But if can’t help but isn’t logical, why are the alternatives can help but and can’t help logical? What meaning is there for help that makes can’t help eating the cake mean “can’t stop myself from eating”? Whatever it is, it’s strictly idiomatic; you couldn’t, for example, write “I am helping eat the cake” with the meaning “I’m stopping myself from eating the cake”. In fact, it means exactly the opposite!*

For confirmation, I checked in the OED, and this meaning occurs only in these idioms. So can help but and can’t help aren’t “logical” either; they’re the result of people applying idiomatic knowledge to the interpretation of the construction. As soon as you expect help to mean something other than its standard aid-related usages, you’re going idiomatic, and logic pretty much goes out the window.

This is a long way of arguing that can help but and can’t help but are both grammatically reasonable. Shouldn’t we decide on one form over the other? Well, no. I know that prescriptivists love doing that, but it’s not the way language really works. The fact of the matter is that both are common, and in the opinion of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, both are standard.

But if that still won’t placate you, if you simply must be told which one is better, the perhaps surprising answer is that it’s the “illogical” can’t help but. The Corpus of Historical American English has 243 examples of can not help but to a mere 6 of can help but, and Google N-grams shows cannot help but dominating since 1840. (And personally, can help but doesn’t exist in my idiolect.) If you want to write the more common form, go with can’t help but. If can help but seems better to you, go with that.

Summary: Can’t help but is a perfectly standard idiom, meaning “can’t stop myself from”. It’s also the more common choice, historically and contemporarily, over can help but, even though both options are grammatical and standard in English. (Can’t help Xing is fine too, of course.)

*: Furthermore, doesn’t can’t help Xing have the potential to be even more confusing than can’t help but? If I say “I can’t help putting together your bike today”, am I saying that I can’t do it or I can’t stop myself from doing it?

I was scanning through Paul Yeager’s book, Literally, the Best Language Book Ever, and, as with most all books of peeves, I found myself at times slightly at odds with the author. It wasn’t that I thought his preferred usages were wrong, or even that they weren’t my preferred usage (they often were), but that I felt like he never bothered to explain what was wrong with his dispreferred usage.

And then I read one claim that made me understand his linguistic philosophy, revealing that the incompleteness of his arguments was intentional, and indicative of a deeper misunderstanding of language. The claim was in a discussion of how one should make the past tense of forecast, and in arguing that only forecast (not forecasted) is correct, he reveals a crucial (and misguided) assumption in his argument:

Language doesn’t work like the local supermarket; there are no buy-one-get-one-free deals: one word, one past tense.

I immediately thought of an exchange from Arrested Development, when Lindsay Bluth, rich philanthropist, tries to convince Johnny Bark, a nature activist, to stop protecting a tree from her family’s bulldozers:

Lindsay: Look, I’m an activist, too, and I appreciate what you’re doing for the environment. But we’re not the only ones who destroy trees. What about beavers? You call yourself an environmentalist. Why don’t you go out and club some beavers?
Johnny Bark: You don’t really get nature, do you?

This is the problem with many peeveologists; they don’t really get language. In Yeager’s case, he adheres to the axiom of One Right Way: there is a single correct form of each word, a single correct way of saying any given thing. Once you determine that one usage is right, all the others must be wrong by extension. But any linguist can explain to you that is one wrong way of looking at language. Just to hammer home the point, let me offer some examples of Multiple Right Ways:

Pronunciation. People will pronounce some words differently depending on context. For instance, I vary my pronunciation of either and neither and route and homage and caramel, because sometimes one way sounds better than the other in a given situation. Most people, I would wager, have a set of words with similarly variable pronunciation. I’ll bet you do.

Numbers. This is really a subpoint under pronunciation, but how do you say 1387? “One thousand three hundred and eighty-seven”, “thirteen hundred and eighty-seven”, “thirteen eighty-seven”, and “one three eight seven” are all standard in some contexts.

Word choice. There are tons of these. One example: kid and child are two words for the same thing, differing primarily in tone. Or damp and moist, or bother, annoy, and irritate.

Morphology. When I was a math major, I had to write a lot of either formulas or formulae, and my choice of plural varied with the context. People and persons are each acceptable in different contexts as well. Looking specifically at past tenses, I wrote a few months ago about variation in the past tense of shine, and similar variation appears in dreamed/dreamt, dived/dove, and lighted/lit, among others.

Syntactic structure. Syntactic alternations give you multiple ways to say the same thing. The dative alternation lets one say either I gave him the gift or I gave the gift to him; the genitive alternation offers the friend of the president and the president’s friend; the needs doing alternation yields the house needs to be cleaned and the house needs cleaning. Because in some cases one sounds better than the other (e.g., I gave John the gift he always wanted vs. I gave the gift John always wanted to him), this sort of alternation is really useful.

It’s essential to note that in these alternations, the alternate forms are not identical in meaning or use. The point is instead that in many situations, one form is no more right than the other(s). In other situations, one form might be more right than another, but the other(s) still might not be wrong.

Sure, there’s something to be said for consistency, for using specific words in consistently prescribed ways. And sometimes you can do that, but not always. The trouble is that the world rarely submits to sharp definitions. The world rarely has one right way to do something, and so neither does language. That’s a fact that every language commentator needs to understand. Unfortunately, few of them do.

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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.

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