Tag Archives: English grammar

Mangled archaisms


[17.08.14. I originally posted this as part of a larger entry on the 26th of February 2006, but decided to extract it from that and make it a separate entry. I have dealt with the topic of archaic English more fully else­where.]

English as she was never spoke.

This one comes from Icewind Dale II by Black Isle Studios (now defunct). It appears that High Priestess Lysara must’ve been a bit drunk or stoned or both when she tried her hand at a little pseudo-archaic English.

  • Hath thee met…? Nay, thou surely would hath no breath upon entering her presence.
  • Cathin…?! Oria…?! Hast thou abandoned me? … I hath failed Thee, yet still Thee beckons me…

Most people won’t have the faintest clue what’s wrong with that little lot, so let’s have a closer look, shall we?

“Hath thee met…?” Is obviously meant to be “Hast thou met…?” I could also read the original as “Has she met thee…?”, but that doesn’t fit the context. Thou is 2nd person singular nominative; thee is 2nd person singular oblique (i.e., the complement of verbs and prepositions). Compare I and me. Hath is 3rd person singular present. In current English, we use has. Hast is the archaic 2nd person singular present form which thou wouldst use with thou, if thou didst still use it.

“Nay, thou surely would hath no breath…” For a start, it should be wouldst, but that’s nothing compared with hath for have. I’d write “Nay, surely wouldst thou have no breath…” with inversion of subject and verb after the adverb.

“Hast thou abandoned me?” Actually, it’s grammatical, but wrong number because the phrase refers back to Cathin and Oria. It should be “Have ye/you abandoned me?”

“I hath failed Thee, yet still Thee beckons me…” If this was a car crash, then the wreckage would have been mangled into a few more dimensions than the usual three. Lysara is now addressing the goddess Auril. She ought to be saying, “I have failed Thee; yet thou dost beckon me still…” The second clause might be read “He/she still beckons me to You” or “He/she still beckons You to me”, neither of which fits the context.


The Party of Dulness

Some people cannot brain today; others cannot brain at all.

I ran into Academics chastised for bad grammar in letter attacking Michael Gove on the Guardian by chance this afternoon. There’s actually a second (meta) article about it, which has all the amateur linguists crawling out of the woodwork and making pronouncements about language which, with a few exceptions, reveal once again that the amateurs need to keep their cake holes shut and leave language to the professionals.

It all began with an open letter to Michael Gove, the nation’s Schoolboy-in-Chief, back in March about standards in education and teaching, which has been criticised for its bad grammar. One passage came in for particular excoriation:

Much of it demands too much too young. This will put pressure on teachers to rely on rote learning without understanding. Inappropriate demands will lead to failure and demoralisation. The learner is largely ignored. Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.

Quite, quite dreadful. Really?

Much was made of the opening sentence by Nevile Gwynne, who was one of the judges in their dubious competition. To quote directly from the Guardian article (since I don’t have the wit to paraphrase this level of genius):

Presumably they mean something like ‘demands too much when children are too young to be ready for so much’, but, as worded, it simply is not English,” he said. “In that sentence as worded, ‘too young’ can only be two adverbs, ‘too’ qualifying the adverb ‘young’, and ‘young’ qualifying the verb ‘demands’, as would, for instance, ‘soon’ or ‘early’. But ‘young’ is an adjective, and cannot ever be an adverb. And it certainly is not doing the work of an adjective in that sentence, because there is no noun that could be ‘understood’ and which would turn that sentence into English.

Let’s have a look at that sentence again with a few simple function labels.

[Much of it]S [demands]V [too much]dO [too young.]A

Let’s then ask Gwynne whether he has any problems with a sentence such as

[Gwynne]S [read]V [a new book]dO [every day.]A

According to his reasoning, this isn’t a possible sentence either because “every day” is an NP, and just as adjectives cannot function as adverbs, so NPs shouldn’t be able to function in the same way.

At worst, the sentence is stylistically clumsy with the doubling of “much”, but there’s nothing wrong with the grammar.

What about

Little account is taken of children’s potential interests and capacities, or that young children need to relate abstract ideas to their experience, lives and activity.

Well, at most Gwynne can smack them for their rhetorical lapse by not paralleling the grammar of the clauses dependent on “Little account is taken of”, but such lapses aren’t exactly unusual, and when you have to deal with someone as annoying as Michael Gove, you are inclined to yell angrily first and think afterwards.

You could also argue that the that-clause is in apposition to “little account”. I often find I use a similar construction with “reason” where I use a that-clause to state the reason, but feel vaguely uncomfortable about it. If I had to make an educated guess, I’m generalising “that” a complementiser.

Probably CGEL (if you can afford it or find it in your local library [assuming they can afford it]) will have sensible explanation for what’s happening here.

I cannot help but quote Pope yet again:

A fool might once himself alone expose,
Now one in verse makes many more in prose.

Between a marsh and a damp place

Active humidity.

The summer of greyness continues with another dull, hazy day and the imminent threat of rain at any moment. It’s probably raining right now, but just lightly enough to be invisible against such a leaden canvas. The cicadas don’t seem to mind as they all enjoy a singalong in the trees, and when it really starts raining at night, the frogs have their own rasping chorus.

The News of the World is about to pass out and the country of South Sudan is passing in. I can understand why the NoW hacks might be a bit peeved that they’re being punished for events for which they’re not responsible. Would they, though, have shown more scruples than the real culprits did? Paint me sceptical.

Will the newspaper landscape be better or worse off with the departure of the News of the World? I didn’t know that it’d been around for 168 salacious years in the first place and I’m sure something will replace it whether it’s the Sun on Sunday (or whatever it’s meant to be called) or something else. Or has the Internet overtaken such a need?

Let’s leave the News of the Screws behind and turn our attention to some car news. The next gen Porsche 911 will be out shortly. Over on the Top Speed site was a story about one of the new models catching fire during some testing. The part which interested me was

The vehicle testing was a special prototype developed for the Chinese market, but will be finding its way back to the Porsche center in Weissach for further examination. (My italics; if you can see them.)

Is this another instance of American passivophobia (fear of the passive voice)? I would’ve said “The vehicle being tested…” myself. The phrase is not really grammatical in my English because the verb test requires a dO. It could be that this is an instance of the middle voice in American English, which seems to be more widespread in that variety than it is in British English.

Here’s the question, though. Is the middle widespread in American English because it’s an instance of independent language change? Is it widespread because the passive is a bit of English grammar which generations of non-English speaking immigrants to the States preferred to skip? (To what extent might the Romance languages, Spanish in particular, which aren’t exactly keen on the passive, be responsible?) Is it widespread because of those ridiculous injunctions against using the passive from people like Strunk and White are reinforcing an inherent tendency in the language?

What about that business about a special prototype being developed for the Chinese market? That probably means that when the driver crashes into someone, the car says, “My dad’s a corrupt official”. That, or the engine will be specced to produce higher levels of pollution, or it’s been limited to a 0-100kph time of 18 seconds to match the sluggish nature of road users here.

English as she is wrote

Who listens to whom?

I note the following rather odd phrase from a BBC Radio 7 web page:

Sorry, this programme is not available to listen again.

Now as I understand the phrase, “programme” is the subject of “listen”. Wouldn’t it be better to say “It is not possible to listen to this programme again”?

The phraseology is odd to me, but seems reminiscent of the Old English hæteþ gretan “orders [sc. someone] to greet” where we would use a passive infinitive in the modern language.

(Cross-posted from Green Bamboo LJ.)

An impersonal passive?

Style or substance?

Yesterday at our staff meeting, Peter told us that all the PAL students had done CATS, which is a sort of proficiency test measuring verbal and non-verbal skills. It’s apparently used to project exam results at GCSE level and higher, and is supposedly very accurate. We’re going to be sent the results, but the question is how we’re going to use them. My feeling is that they’re useful for revealing who the linguistically incompetent actually are so that I’m not mistaking lazy or inert students for complete cretins.

I was curious to find out more about CATS because they’re not something I’ve heard of before now. That took me to this FAQ page, but what caught my eye was not the information (or how dated it is; internal evidence suggests that the page was posted in 2003 and has never been updated since), but rather a curious instance of the passive.

20. My KS3 indicators show that 10% of pupils are indicated to obtain level 3 or below in English. However, no individual pupil has an in­dic­at­ed level 3 for English. How is this explained? (My italics.)

What on earth is going on? Is this an occasional use of the passive? Is this a passive which the writer thinks imparts formality and sophistication? Is it something else?

I’m not sure what it is. Keeping the various elements of the original sentence intact, I’d write, “My KS3 indicators show (that) it is indicated (that) 10% of pupils will obtain etc.” Not keeping everything, I’d write, “My KS3 indicators show that 10% of pupils will obtain etc.” When I rewrite the sentence my way, I instantly see that the writer was trying to avoid saying, “indicators indicate”, which isn’t exactly a cognate accusative (e.g. “plan plans”; actually more like a cognate nominative), but is the sort of construction English prefers to avoid. Saying, “My KS3 results indicate that etc.” would have been even better still.

To me, the original statement would seem to be on the margins of grammatical English with the past participle almost behaving like an adjective such as “possible” in sentences such as “It is possible that this statement is grammatical”. On the other hand, Google spits out 685,000 results for the string “are indicated to”, and 1.26 million for “is indicated to”, which reveals that this may not be such an odd fish after all. However, a straw poll of the results suggests that this construction is mainly to be found in medical texts, although this is from a very superficial survey.

I might’ve used the construction myself, although I don’t recall ever have done so. I found it noticeable because I found it a little odd.

In forme of speche is chaunge

Would the five-hundred year rule have applied?

We were reading an excerpt from Robinson Crusoe in class this morning, which included an exercise in converting early 18th century English into contemporary English. One of the quotations, which come from near the start of the novel, was “crying everyone according to his usual note”.

I thought it was interesting for two reasons (and perhaps a third, although that’s a matter of editing). One is the use of “everyone”, which seems to be on the border between being a full-blown pronoun and simply a compounding of “every one”. It looks appositional to me, but I’m wondering whether this is an instance of a phenomenon which I’ve read about elsewhere in which some languages (e.g. Italian) tend to place indefinite subjects after the verb. Defoe only uses “everyone” a few times and only on this occasion in this particular construction.

However, some (most?) texts have “every one”, and most appear to have “crying, and every one according to his usual note”, but the text we’re using omits the conjunction. So it seems that I might’ve stumbled across some (incautious) editing, but I’m sure that our text lacked “and” at that point. [Later: checked the text; it does have “and”, but I think it does readers a disservice by treating “every one” as a single word.]

The other point was the use of “his” where we would have “their”, and a few zealots might have “its”, which prompted me to write a note on the board about the development of “its” in English, and how it took some time for the form to become established. I’ve read somewhere that Shakespeare used “it” for “its” on at least one occasion, although I’ve never been sure whether that’s a claim which can be substantiated.

But in turn, this had me recalling Chaucer’s famous line from Troilus and Criseyde about the mutability of language, which then made me wonder about my five-hundred-year rule. That is, the form of a language more than five hundred years ago is no longer fully comprehensible because the grammar and lexicon have undergone sufficient changes to render a lot of it meaningless. To me, for example, late Middle English looks like Modern English with brain damage, and Shakespeare is already largely incomprehensible, not because the plays were mostly in verse, but because the language is almost five hundred years old.

That had me wondering whether anyone in Chaucer’s day could’ve understood the Old English of the second half of the 9th century at all, or the effects of the Norman Conquest on the English lexicon, as well as the simplification of the inflectional system had so cut the English language off from its past that the older form of the language really was foreign. Mind you, I also have a theory that English didn’t exist as a truly separate linguistic entity from its Continental cousins until the Middle English period.



How many hornets?

I’ve just looked at the cover of The Girl who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest and wondered whether the apostrophe, which is an orthographic marker of the genitive, is in the wrong place, being to the left of the inflection, indicating a single hornet, instead of the right, indicating a whole nest of them.

The Swedish title is Luftslottet som Sprängdes which seems to mean something like “The castles in the air which got destroyed”, which is no doubt a reference to the illusion of the decency of Sweden and its government. (Recent reports about immigrants in Sweden being targeted by gunmen seem to continue that demolition.)



In forme of land is chaunge, too.

香榭路 seems to be under complete redevelopment, although no one’s being stopped from using the street as a thoroughfare in spite of its resemblance to a building site with fencing at either end and gateposts (though no gates). The trees at this end have been heavily pruned and, I assume, are going to be removed. They’ll probably be replaced, but whether anyone has the wit to have the pavement run inside the line of trees rather than down the middle is for future revelation. In addition, the car park has been completely ripped up and some large holes dug in it. Anyone using the street is, however, deterred from falling into the holes by a line of small cones. Yes, it’s safety first in the imperium sericum.

Aierma appears to have been mothballed, and again, only posterity knows whether that’ll be a supermarket again. No sign that the place was going to be refurbished.

The houses down at the other end of the street have almost all gone, and a digger has been in creating a huge heap of dirt for no apparent reason. On the other side of the street the Jiulong Hotel has been gutted, although I’m not sure whether they’re going to demolish the building or it’s being stripped to the absolute bones.

[A few days later (06.11.10). 香榭路 has now been completely cut off apart from access at this end for the shops on the west side of the street and access to the flats behind them; and a break where the street which runs along the south side of the school intersects with 香榭路. The rest seems to have been cut off to cars, although pedestrians, electric bike jockeys, and cyclists can still get through. (Added while I was editing the formatting of this entry after it, the formatting, mysteriously vanished.)]

In other construction news, the bridge which was built to these two new buildings east of my place doesn’t just have coloured lights. No, for the amusement of the local spectators, it also squirts jets of water. Someone seems to have had the idea of combining a bridge and a fountain. Still don’t know what the new buildings are going to house, and the work over there has yet to be completed.

Sic transit Encarta

Is that your actual English?

The Register has a story about the plug being pulled on Encarta, which has a most curious verb form:

In a message posted on the MSN Encarta website, Microsoft said the sites worldwide will be discontinued on October 31, with the exception of Encarta Japan, which will be stayed until the end of December. (My italics.)
I know that stay can be a transitive verb in certain senses, but if this is one of them, then I don’t recognise the sense at all. The more obvious choice of words would be something like “will remain operating” or “will continue”. The active form of the verb makes more sense: “…Encarta Japan, which will stay until the end of December”, but if you convert the sentence “Encarta Japan will be stayed until the end of December” to its active form, the resulting sentence sounds ungrammatical: “[Someone] will stay Encarta Japan until the end of December”. Stay in this apparent sense really wants some kind of time expression as a complement (“until the end of December”) and for Encarta Japan to be the subject.

The post on the MSN Encarta website says

On October 31, 2009, MSN® Encarta® Web sites worldwide will be discontinued, with the exception of Encarta Japan, which will be discontinued on December 31, 2009.
This phraseology is repeated further down as well. Did El Reg’s hack simply lift this phrase, but, not wanting to repeat discontinue, substitute stay instead?
A search via Google for will be stayed gets 66,700 results. Most of them appear in reports of legal proceedings. In a number of instances, the sense of the verb is clarified by a following word or phrase in brackets. In my mind, stay is prototypically intransitive, but as a transitive verb, it may largely be confined to legal circles and, therefore, be regarded as jargon which has the potential to baffle the uninitiated. I note that the story from The Register eventually appears on the eleventh page of Google results and seems to be the first where the verb isn’t being used as a legal term.

Chinglish and the strange case of “though”

Where did the article go?

This afternoon, Amrita in Class 5 asked me about the answer to the following question

11._______, he does not know the answer.
A. As he is a teacher
B. As he is teacher
C. A teacher as he is
D. Teacher as he is

This is one of those typical Chinese questions about English. A. might be the correct answer in context and would mean to me that because the person is a teacher, he doesn’t know the answer to a question (perhaps about some other job). B. is ungrammatical for want of an article. I’d also regard C. and D. as ungrammatical because the conjunction as is a barrier to the fronting of NPs. My first inclination (pretending that there was nothing untoward about the utterance) was to opt for D. (which is the correct answer according to the answer key), but I then thought about it, and wondered about C. because of the absence of the article in D. when “teacher” was fronted.

But the conjunction which I felt ought to be used here is though; and it’s clear from other questions in the set that they’re all about fronting of the sort in the question above. Though A. is actually the only grammatical answer (as far as my grammar is concerned), the sentence obviously isn’t supposed to mean “Because he’s a teacher etc.”, but is, rather, adversative.[1] It was when I was thinking about this in the shower (where I do all my best work) that I realised that something may go missing when an NP in a though-clause gets fronted, namely the article, hence “Teacher though he is etc.” beside “A teacher though he is etc.”[2] I can only say “Though he is a teacher”, but not *though he is teacher.

There are very few instances of this construction to be found via Google[3], which suggests that it’s literary. The only instance of this phrase which I can recall is from Chapter 6 (Out of the Frying-Pan into the Fire) of The Hobbit:

Now you can understand why Gandalf, listening to their growling and yelping, began to be dreadfully afraid, wizard though he was, and to feel that they were in a very bad place and had not yet escaped at all. (My italics.)

Now if I put “wizard” back where it came from, I end up with the ungrammatical *though he was wizard. Has the article vanished, and if so, why? Was the article never there in the first place, and if it wasn’t, why would my grammar allow this ungrammatical intermediate stage? Not being a syntactician, I have no answers to offer. I do note, though, that this construction sounds less natural when the conjunction is although.


  1. This may be a common error in the peculiar world of school-quality Chinglish. A search for the phrase “teacher as he is” yielded “Teacher as he is, he cannot finish task in an hour” from another Chinese source.
  2. I have a preference for the former, but find nothing objectionable about the use of the article in the latter.
  3. Unfortunately, Google ignores punctuation, which yields a large number of useless results. A brief search through a few pdf documents has proved fruitless, although I’m not surprised because of the apparent rarity of the construction in the first place.

“Humider and humider,” Cried Mr Bamboo

(He was so much surprised, that for the moment he quite forgot how to speak good English).
I remember that it was still warm this time last year, but I don’t recall it being so humid. I sweated my way through both classes this morning in a room which has only one working ceiling fan, although that doesn’t help me at all at the front of the class. In fact, the ceiling fans are little more than medium-sized fans and give a poor range of coverage.
On top of that, I spotted a trail of water from the air con running across the floor of our office, which means that the rats have been gnawing on the pipes again. The newspaper on which the cleaner had put out some bait to kill the vile rodents (clearly not effective stuff) was also saturated.

“It’s a determinative.” I see. But it still looks like a good old English adverb to me.
I had no idea that the use of once as a subordinating conjunction[1] caused fits o’ th’ vapours in certain members of the English-speaking world until I read this post on Language Log. I also had no idea that once is allegedly no longer an adverb but is a determinative.[2] Yeah, right. I have no way of reading the article in which this claim is made, but I’m not wholly convinced. Or even slightly.

Sentences like Once is enough are clearly somewhat problematic for the traditional view: they appear to have an adverb as subject.

But I don’t think it does. I think the sentence is a circumlocution which has become idiomatic. Question: How often should I do this? To do it once is enough; or Doing it once is enough. Note that the subject has to (always?) be a verbal noun. I can say Applying it once is enough, but not, I think, ?Application once is enough.[3] You’d more naturally say A single application is enough. All right, I’d more naturally etc.

2. Singulative once. We separate this use off because it is limited to certain contexts where it means “even one single time”: Not once did he speak to me, or If you once let him in, he’ll never leave.

It’s not whether once is an adverb or determinative, but what’s going on in that second sentence. I don’t believe I’d ever place once in that particular locale. I might say Once you let him in etc. or If you let him in once etc. I could do it if once is introducing a parenthetic statement such as If, once you let him in, he doesn’t leave… (Though ’tis not quite the same thing.) Is it some American idiom? Is it a Victorianism or some other antique usage?

4. Term-of-office once. There is yet another use of this word of many disguises, and it occurs in such phrases as the once mayor of New York David Dinkins.

This is another weird sentence in my grammar. Here I’d use one-time. If I say the title of T.H. White’s The Once and Future King, I normally omit the article and find the utterance just acceptable because once is being kept away from the noun. Another antique usage?
As I said, I’m not convinced that once is anything but an adverb for the most part and a subordinating conjunction (otherwise known as a preposition) now and then.[4] Do these claims have any cross-linguistic support? (Especially in related languages or more generally among the IE languages of Western Europe.) What about the history of the word and the fact that it started life as the gen sg masc/neuter of Old English ān “one”? (Thus does it behave like alike and one or two other words in English which are derived from prepositional phrases and don’t conform to the patterns of their current word class?) Although I might find If you once let him in… to be rather odd, if once isn’t an adverb, then what’s it doing in a classic location for adverbs? (Yes, I know. If you all let him in etc.; not that that’s exactly the same.) If once isn’t an adverb, then why is it the answer to an interrogative adverb? (How often…?)[5]
But who am I to argue the toss with their Lordships?
1. Though the fashionable term is preposition, but one that takes a clause.
2. Presumably a general class label where determiner was regarded as too specific. 不知道 for certain.
3. Doesn’t sound completely ungrammatical, but I don’t think I’d ever use a deverbal noun in this sort of construction.
4. In my grammar. I can’t really speak for others.
5. It’s not clear whether once is a determinative with an adverbial function; but even if it is, I’d still call it an adverb.

What are pronouns these days?

Or, what’s in a name?

A recent visitor was looking for information about pronouns in Sicilian, a subject which gets very few hits via Google, although there seems to be some information out there. I was tempted to give a brief outline of the matter, but Bonner’s (2001:80, 81) section on indefinite pronouns is not only long, but also complicated. Take the following sentences, for example.

Manciu anticchia e vivu anticchia “I eat a little and I drink a little.”

Mi mancianu assai li manu “My hands itch a lot.”

Are anticchia and assai really pronouns? They’re really behaving like adverbs. However, consider the the phrase “every day” in the following sentence:

I clean my teeth every day.

In the old parlance, “every day” is a noun phrase (NP), but it has an adverbial function. Therefore, the pronouns above are still pronouns, but have an adverbial function in those sentences. I might conclude that a pronoun is a very compact NP which is, therefore, likely to have the same sort of functions as NPs of the more familiar kind. 

But just to play around with language a little, I’d expect that if you asked someone with a modest amount of linguistic knowledge what a pronoun is, they might split the word into pro+noun and paraphrase it as “something that stands for a noun”. (All right, in my mind that seems to be a reasonable hypothesis.) But in English we say

The man was reading the paper → He was reading the paper.

The pronoun replaces “the man”, and not just “man” alone. I can’t say *The he was reading the paper, although there might be a language in which that’s possible. In other words, pronouns don’t stand for nouns alone, but rather the whole phrase starting with the determiner.

Suddenly, it seems, pronouns should probably be lumped together with determiners and shouldn’t even be regarded as a distinct word class. After all, the number of pronouns which can’t function as specifiers is probably quite small[1]; and vice versa.[2]

Getting back to Sicilian, what might we say about anticchia when it’s used in conjunction with some noun?

Mi manciu anticchia di pani e mi vivu anticchia di vinu “I eat a little bread and I drive a little wine.”

At least in languages like Sicilian, there are certain specifiers which can’t take complements directly. It may be a historical thing. In English, I’d say a lot (of) is really a quantifier, but because it’s derived from a noun, it still demands what is required by one noun when joined with another. But in the example above, a little in English modifies the noun without any intervening element, although the language isn’t as big on partitives as the Romance languages are.

I assume I’m not the first person (well, really I am the 1st person, but that’s another matter) to come to this conclusion. If you’re a member of Save the Pronoun, you should blame the person who was looking for pronouns in Sicilian and got me thinking about all this.


1. I’m racking my brains to think of any unequivocal examples. Even (some) personal pronouns can be used as specifiers (e.g. You robots are a bunch of idiots; We robots aren’t going to tolerate you anti-robotism any longer). Perhaps the relative pronoun who and certain indefinite pronouns such as anyone, someone, somebody etc. But this latter set isn’t that surprising since they’re derived from compounds. You can’t, of course, say *some body woman because the position containing a noun is already occupied. I suppose “body woman” is a potential compound, but can’t think what it might mean.

2. The articles a(n) and the instantly spring to mind, followed by every. I suppose the possessive specifiers (not forgetting that his goes both ways because the two forms are identical) fall into this group. I’ll leave the business of classifying these things to those who really care.