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Modern English Grammar

My post today is uncharacteristically devoid of baseball content. It is about grammar, one of my many unremunerative interests. Specifically it is about modern English grammar. I don’t mean by this (except incidentally) the grammar of modern English. Rather, I mean modern grammar of English. Also, modern grammars of English.

What distinction am I making between grammar and grammars? Grammar is a field of study. The term is often applied broadly to the study of language, but I mean it in its narrow sense: the study of inflections and syntax. (If you just read “the study of of blah blah and blah blah,” don’t worry about it for now. Just go with it.) A grammar, on the other hand, is a model of a language’s inflections and syntax (or, if you prefer, of its “blah blah and blah blah.”) The whole point of a grammar is to model a language so well that, using just this model, you can tell if a word string is grammatical or not. There is more than one model out there, hence “grammars.”

Who gets to decide whether a word string is grammatical or not? That is a big question that leads to shouting matches. I’ll save the shouting for another day and stick here to uncontroversially grammatical or ungrammatical word strings. The important point here is that a grammar–a model–that can correctly identify the grammaticality of more word strings is an objectively better model than a grammar than only do this with fewer word strings.

Furthermore, (here is where I get annoying, rather than merely pedantic) unless you have either received formal training in linguistics or you are an eccentric hobbyist, any grammar, in the ‘model’ sense, that you have learned almost certainly sucks.

A closely related sense of the word “grammar” is of a book laying out a grammar in the ‘model’ sense. These tend to come in two varieties: pedagogic grammars and comprehensive grammars. The former typically are school textbooks, plus the occasional book aimed at the self-improvement crowd. The latter are large, academic tomes with massive tables of contents and indices, and with no expectation that any sane person would read the book cover to cover.

My eccentric habits include collecting old grammars, in the ‘book’ sense. These run from the late 18th to the mid 20th centuries. Most are pedagogic, but the prize of my collection is the mid-19th century Grammar of English Grammars by Goold Brown: a doorstop of a book with tiny print, with Brown delighting in correcting (or, often, “correcting”) other grammarians’ grammar.

An interesting feature of the earlier books is that they don’t merely repeat one another. They constitute a century-long discussion about how to model the English language. They often disagree even on pretty basic points. How many parts of speech does English have? The answers range from seven to ten. How many verb tenses? Somewhere from two to six.

This discussion was a healthy one. Then it stopped in the 1890s, at least for pedagogic grammars. Look at a grammar from this era and it will feel very familiar to anyone who has studied grammar ever since. This is what in the 20th century came to be known as “traditional grammar.”

Modern comprehensive grammars are a different matter. The discussion continued there. We read of Noam Chomsky and the like, but the discussion was not restricted to such esoterica. A book like Randolph Quirk, et al., A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language has much that is familiar, but then goes off with stuff like determiners and adjuncts and so forth.

How do we explain this divergence of pedagogic and comprehensive grammars? I don’t have a fully satisfactory answer, but I do know a bad one: that grammarians of the 1890s finally, after years of fiddling, got it right; and that later grammarians are a bunch of pointy-headed ivory-tower types who can’t leave well enough alone. Many self-proclaimed language mavens hold to this position. Any amendment to traditional grammar is viewed with suspicion as accommodations to the inexorable decline of the English language, and indeed of Western Civilization. I will write about the supposed decline another time. My goal here is show that this explanation is inadequate. I will use a non-controversial construction that traditional grammars are at a loss to explain, yet modern grammars handle easily.

Consider the following four sentences:

(1) John put his shirt on.(2) John put it on.

(3) John put on his shirt.

(4) *John put on it.

The asterisk at (4) is the conventional notation among linguists to denote an ungrammatical construction. And ungrammatical it is. No adult native English speaker would use it. I noticed my daughters (now five and seven) using this construction when they were younger, but this has dropped out about the same time they started getting the hang of irregular verbs.

The task at hand is to, using traditional grammar, explain why (4) is ungrammatical. For all that it sounds just awful, why this is so is not at all obvious.

Traditional grammar has a hard time analyzing any of those sentences. It wants to interpret “on” either as a preposition and find an object of the preposition, or as an adverb modifying the verb. We might analyze the preposition in (1) and (2) as having an implied object:

(1′) John put his shirt on [himself].(2′) John put it on [himself].

So far so good. Invoking implied words is a dangerous game. Go down this road and you end up with torrents of implied verbiage that explain everything and nothing. But in small, carefully administered doses, tacit bits can be useful. But this doesn’t really help us here:

(3′) ?John put on [himself] his shirt.The question mark is like the asterisk, but less decisive. (3′) is awkward at best, but perhaps not impossible. But this still doesn’t explain the last sentence:

(4′) *John put on [himself] it.If you can stomach (3′), then there is no good reason to reject (4′). If you can’t stomach either, then this leaves the problem that (3) is fine while (4) is not.

Then there is the interpretation of “on” as an adverb modifying “put.” This doesn’t help us. Indeed, it makes things worse. It does nothing to explain why (3) is grammatical while (4) is not, and it adds the problem of how do we interpret “put on” even apart from the object of the verb? Ordinarily a verb-adverb pair is transparent:

(5) John ran quickly.Go to any standard dictionary and look up “run” and “quickly” and put them together and you have all you need to understand what this sentence is saying. But go to that dictionary and look up “put” and “on” and try to work out from this what “put on” means. It simply won’t work.

The sad truth is that traditional grammar offers no interpretation for this construction. Indeed, when traditional grammar was developed, no one had noticed the peculiarity of the construction. A few decades later there are academic grammars showing an awareness that something was going on, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that linguists figured this out. And the thing is, it turns out that these constructions are all over the place. English is just lousy with them.

The construction is, in modern grammars, analyzed as a “phrasal verb.” A phrasal verb consists of two elements. The first is taken from the general pool of verbs. The second, called a “particle,” is taken from a shortish list of candidates. These are split between words you would ordinarily think of as prepositions (on, off, up, over, etc.) and words you would ordinarily think of as adverbs, specifically spatial adverbs (aside, away, apart, etc.).

We have seen the two peculiarities of phrasal verbs: If the phrasal verb is transitive (it need not be) and the object is a noun, said object can be placed either between the two parts of the phrasal verb or after them, as in(1) and (3). If, however, the object is a pronoun, it can only be placed between the two parts, as in (2). If it is placed after the two parts, as in (4), the result is ungrammatical. (Why is this? Heck if I know. Deep explanations would be lovely, but right now we are just describing the rules, not explaining why they are the way they are.)

The second property is that the meaning of the phrasal verb usually is not transparent. It can’t be derived by looking at the meanings of the two parts taken separately. Here are some examples to show this. In some cases you can work out a possible derivation, but just looking at dictionary definitions won’t do it:

Susan hung up.

Shut up!

We’re just hanging out.

Mike is burning up.

Jane is stressing out.

Fred is thinking it over.

Matilda pulled away.

You can ask around.

The batter struck out.

The pitcher struck out the batter.

You could compile an entire dictionary of these. In fact, this has been done several times. This is because it turns out that phrasal verbs are a bitch for non-native speakers to learn. If you are a native speaker with no connection to ESL/EFL, it is entirely likely that you have never heard of phrasal verbs. They aren’t something that native speakers have any problem with. We at an early age unconsciously internalize their grammar, and we learn the meanings of phrasal verbs individually, without trying to analyze the meanings of the individual parts. But to non-native speakers, phrasal verbs are a big deal. It is like there is an extra dictionary of words to learn. Strike that: It’s not “like” there is an extra dictionary. The extra dictionary is quite real. Search on “phrasal verb” on Amazon and you will find innumerable dictionaries and workbooks and implausible attempts to make learning these fun and easy. If English is your first language, these aren’t aimed at you.

And this is why it matters (Part I). Grammar can seem pretty ivory-tower: a fun puzzle game with no practical application. Sometimes it is. But sometimes it turns out to be very practical. This is one of those times, and in an area where traditional grammar just doesn’t cut it. Fortunately, linguists didn’t stop in 1890, even if people stopped noticing.

Part II will show how bad grammars can trip up native speakers as well. Stay tuned.

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70 thoughts on “Modern English Grammar

  1. Whenever I encounter a particularly phrasal verb, I suspect it’s a very, very old one.

    My favorite example is “I’m going home.”

    Nobody says “I’m going work” (or store or church).

    Heck, it’s such an old/ingrained phrase that I didn’t even notice it until I started studying Ancient Greek (now long since forgotten). The professor pointed out that Greek has the same construction. People go to work, or to the market, or to the temple… but they go home.


    • Dogs, too.

      Home holds self, like John putting on his shirt; without his mother or father there to help him. So I suspect there’s this whole class of words/phrasal verbs were self is implied that are treated very differently from stranded constructions by long lineage of self-aware speakers.

      (And forgive, I’m grammarily challenged; I like the freedom and alliteration of Shakespeare and KJB.)


    • But they do say, “I’m going crazy,” “I’m going out,” “I’m going green.” “Home” in “I’m going home” is not functioning as a noun (as object of a preposition as in “I’m going to church” (which is in a peculiar class of nouns in that prepositional phrase)). They might say, “I’m going to my apartment,” or “I’m going to my house,” (especially if they’ve been staying somewhere else). Many (I would not be surprised if all or almost all) have peculiar idioms relating to “home” or “being at home” as different places or conditions than merely being on one’s property.


      • I will give you “I’m going out”.

        “I’m going green” and “I’m going crazy” will require “How do they say this in (other language)?” before I capitulate.

        “I’m going to my house” carries huge distinctions versus “going home”. As someone whose wife recently got on a plane to Canada to visit her relatives, we found ourselves stumbling over the whole “going home”/”going to Canada” distinction in conversations almost unconsciously. (Given that, in a very real sense, “home” is here in Colorado” but, in another very real sense, “home” is back in Canada.)


        • The English distinction between “home” (as a concept) and “house” (as a specific structure or location) is great enough that many songs turn on it.

          Replacements, “Here Comes A Regular” – “Used to live at home / now I stay at the house”

          Wussy, “Acetylene” – “This is not a home / this is an apartment”

          Talking Heads, “This Must Be The Place” – “Home / Is where I want to be, but I guess I’m already there / I come home, she lifted up her wings / I guess that this must be the place”


      • Also, go/have/make/do are words that notoriously encompass a range of different concepts. It’s useful sometimes to think of go in go home and go crazy as being completely different words that happen to be spelled and pronounced identically.


      • “Home” in “I’m going home” is not functioning as a noun

        This. Traditional grammar analyzes “home” here as an adverb. Look the work up in any standard dictionary and you will find it listed as an adverb, as well as a noun and an adjective. It is one of those spatial adverbs that modern grammar analyzes as, in this construction, a particle in a phrasal verb.


        • It is one of those spatial adverbs that modern grammar analyzes as, in this construction, a particle in a phrasal verb.

          Is it? “Go” in “go home” can be replaced without loss of grammaticality by any number of motion verbs: “head,” “run,” “ride,” “fly,” “walk,” “sail,” “drive” (as in “drive a car home,” although in “drive a point home” the combination is a phrasal verb), “bring,” “take,” “send,” etc. In these combinations, it seems more like an adverb than a constituent particle of an unanalyzable phrasal verb. And with each of these verbs, “home” can be replaced with a directional adverb or an adverbial prepositional phrase, e.g., “south” or “to New York City.”


    • The Romance languages I’m familiar with (five or them) do not have a word for home that is different from house. Normally home is translated into Spanish, for instance, as “hogar” and house as “casa”, but it is form over substance. Both hogar and casa are grammatically equivalent (and more equivalent to house than to home) and are used the same way, so “going home” cannot be translated into Spanish except as “ir a (mi) casa” (the possessive mi (mine) can be dropped if it is clear through context), that is, “go to my house”.

      On a more general note, you English speakers would have a much easier time if you had a proper Academy of Language, like we all civilized people do :-)

      With respect to becoming green or becoming mad, the translation is the same, volver(se) verde, or volver(se) loco. The “se” suffix (properly declined for verbal person and number) just indicates a reflexive action (I, we, you am/are becoming myself/ourselves/yourself/ mad ) or non reflexive if it is absent (I am making someone else -the object- mad)


      • But there are numerous idioms involving “casa”: “en casa” is “at home,” but “en la casa…” would refer to being inside particular house (or one of the the other things that “casa” can stand for). Ir a casa means to go home. Ir a la casa blanca means to go to the white house.


      • Right—translating “go home” as ir a casa doesn’t really mean the same thing, does it? Wouldn’t Spanish speakers say volver/regresar a casa to mean “go back to where I live”?


      • My favorite reflexive Spanish phrase is one of those that makes me (as an engineer) say “WE NEED ONE OF THOSE IN ENGLISH!”

        “Se cayo” translates roughly to “it broke itself”.

        While English would tend to say “the server broke” or “the monitor stopped working”, the thing about that phrase is that it heavily implies passivity on the part of the server or monitor.

        “Se cayo” lets you communicate that you know what’s really going on here. It broke itself.


        • We can kinda do that in English, too. Se cayo (I think) literally means “it fell down,” right? People I work with use “it shit itself” as a standard technical explanation for whatever went wrong. (Then I pat them on the shoulder and say “Shat, Nigel. The server shat itself.”)


          • I remember a lot of idiomatic expressions with “fall” in Spanish, Texas/Mexican Spanish at least, though I guess most of them meant “seems to me/strikes me as.”

            Me cae como buen cuate. “He seems like a good guy (to me).” (I can’t remember now if “como” belongs in there, or if that was what gave me away as a non-native bolillo.)
            Me cayo en el hígado. “It got on my nerves.” (lit. “It fell on my liver.” This one too, it could mean “I couldn’t stand it.” It’s been 20 years since I heard anyone say it.)


            • Caer bien/care mal are essentially phrasal verbs. The best translation I can think of right now is “suits with me/doesn’t suit with me”.

              It’s mostly used in two contexts: people and food/drinks. If a meal disagrees with you, la comida cayo mal (in general) or la comida te cayo mal (to you). Same with caer bien. It is not the same as to like. It means that after eating/drinking it there is a noticeable since of wellness or, conversely, you feel indisposed.

              By extension, people also cae bien/mal if other people like/dislike him. Caer mal is more generally used, meaning someone gives repeals me in an almost physical way. Caer bien is milder, it here rally means that others quickly react positively to that person.


      • J_A:

        You might want to consider the French construction “chez” + person’s name (or disjunctive pronoun):

        chez Gabriel: Gabriel’s place/home
        chez moi: [my] home
        chez le dentiste: the dentist’s [office]

        That’s not the same as English “home,” but it’s distinct from merely “house.”

        By the way, I understand that “chez” is actually an evolved form of the Latin “casa.” The “c” [hard K sound] turned into a “ch” sound, the “a” (“ah” sound) turned into an “e” (“ay” sound, without the final vocalic glide), and the “sa” apparently got reduced to “z,” which apparently disappeared from the word as a sound, although it is still reflected in the writing.


        • I’m also pretty doubtful that hogar and casa are really equivalent in any sense beyond just both being nouns. They line up pretty closely with “home” and “house,” but English has an idiosyncratic way of using “home” in an adverbial sense, like “upstairs” or “downtown,” two places that you don’t go to.


          • I’m reminded of a Spider Robinson book, where two people, under mind control, have been ordered upstairs and ‘not to go downstairs’. They manage to mentally parse it as not being allowed ‘to go down stairs’ and proceed to jump out a third-story window and come in from the outside.


          • You are more than half right. Hogar implies that it’s lived by someone, whereas casa is just a house in the street. In that respect it ties with home and house. But they are grammatically used in the same way, and you can always use casa instead of hogar. However the inverse is not always correct, because hogar implies that someone or something the speaker is talking about lives or is based there.


        • I would argue that chez is the possessive case of maison (house). You never talk about a chez, it’s always a maison. But chez Pierre or chez moi is Pierre’s house or my house.

          Out of the top of my head, I can only think of another possessive case example, cal’ (with the apostrophe) is “house of” in Catalonian. Again, you don’t buy a cal’, you buy a casa, but you go cal’Pere ((Peter’s house). Unlike French, you don’t have the “my house” case. it’s casa meva (my house) not cal’me.


      • On a more general note, you English speakers would have a much easier time if you had a proper Academy of Language, like we all civilized people do :-)

        Them’s fightin’ words! But for another day :)


    • I could talk about this stuff all day, which is probably why no one wants to hang out with me.

      In Japanese, there’s a verb kaeru that means “go home” by itself. You can use it with “[to] home” to clarify, or with some other place to show that you’re returning to base, so using it with “office” shows that the office is where you are when you’re not going somewhere. There’s a number of other verbs that mean “go back/return” without the home base aspect.

      Just the use of the article in your “go [to]” phrases are interesting (to me). We N. Americans go to school, jail, college, and work, but Americans go to the hospital, while for other E-speakers, that sounds like you’re delivering lunch there, not getting a gerbil removed from your colon. (Canadians, which do you use? Is it like the pronunciation of either, as in it’s sometimes go to hospital and sometimes go to the hospital?)


        • I think most languages have an equivalent. In English, it happens to be a verb phrase “go home.” Related examples for English/Japanese speakers are “drive” and “read.” English speakers are perfectly happy to answer questions like “How did you get to San Jose?” and “What were you doing when I called?” with, respectively, “I drove” and “I was reading.” These sound weird in Japanese, where people are expecting a direct object after these verbs. It’s not ungrammatical to use them intransitively, but “I drove a car” and “I was reading a book” are the verb phrases that people expect to hear.


  2. English is such a bitch of a language, pulling everything from everywhere — even grammars.
    “you be showing some respect there”

    Do people write grammars for Ebonics? Are we really only writing for Standard English?


      • Implied by your link, but worth noting explicitly, is that the term linguists use is “African American Vernacular English.” “Ebonics” is more of a journalist’s name for it. This is handy, as the use of the word “Ebonics” is a quick indicator that what follows is mostly likely uninformed claptrap.


        • In fairness, the word “Ebonics” was popularized in 1996, when the Oakland School Board issued a resolution referring to “Ebonics”, which it identified as synonymous with “Pan African Communication Behaviors” and “African Language Systems.” Nowhere in the resolution was the word “Vernacular” used.

          Journalists and others wouldn’t have started using “Ebonics” if the Oakland School Board hadn’t used it first.


        • as the use of the word “Ebonics” is a quick indicator that what follows is mostly likely uninformed claptrap.

          I wonder if that’s true. To me, “Ebonics” doesn’t have a bad ring to it. It just refers to a (presumed) language pattern that supposedly correlates to a certain demographic. Of course, others may disagree, and I can see why they would. But “African American Vernacular English” has some of the same problems as “Ebonics,” and takes longer to say.


            • My point is not that “Ebonics” is offensive, but that it isn’t the term used by the people who actually study the dialect. Its appearance might occasionally come from someone who studies the dialect adopting it as a more accessible term. I suppose this happens sometimes, but more often it is used by journalists. There are some journalists who are not completely ignorant of linguistics, but they are rare. Much more common are journalists who think they are experts on language because they write all the time. Language Log has made a cottage industry of mocking journalists who rail against the passive voice without having the faintest clue what the passive voice is.


                • Decent-ish shorthand for what? “Drop this class immediately: this guy is an ignorant blowhard!”? Yes, it serves admirably as a concise expression of that sentiment.

                  Really, this guy has learned somewhere that passive constructions (usually) involve some form of ‘to be’ and has taken away from this that all uses of any form of ‘to be’ are passive. He is sufficiently satisfied with this quarter-understood factoid to use his position as a college instructor to spread it around, presumably with an injunction against using the passive voice, and in all likelihood therefore marking down anyone use uses any form of ‘to be’ in a paper (at least whenever he happens to notice it). Who needs this?

                  The irony is that he will miss some true passives. While the passive voice in formal writing uses ‘to be,’ in informal English it often uses ‘to get’ as in “John got hit in a car accident.”


                  • I wouldn’t be too harsh on the instructor (it was actually a she, and not a him). The class was an introductory level creative writing class at a public university whose average students tended not to have a lot of training in grammar or writing. I suspect–but don’t know–that the instructor actually knew better but wanted to come up with something simple to drive home a more useful (to the students) point.

                    I think she was wrong (and you’re right). Her advice was oversimplifying something that shouldn’t be simplified. That said, sometimes instructors have to oversimplify some things to draw out a point or permit students to see the forest instead of getting mired down in the trees. It’s one of the many compromises instructors have to make at least sometimes.

                    Again, though, I think you’re right, and the instructor shouldn’t’ve done that.


  3. I love the modern grammars. One of my favorite things is how the Cambridge crowd analyze (most) subordinate clauses as a special flavor of a prepositional phrase, which might explain why it seems so natural to use “like” as a subordinator.

    Anyway, yeah. This stuff is really cool.


  4. In Spanish, “Put on it” is actually the standard construction: “Pongaselo”. “Ponga” (put) “se” (on oneself) “lo” (it).

    I think it’s hard to argue against the idea that grammar is arbitrary, and that insisting that common constructions are “ungrammatical” is a kind of chauvinism. Whether or not a sentence is “grammatical” is a kind of non-question, better re-asked as whether the speaker and listener share the meaning. Do your daughters understand each other when they say “put on it”? That should probably be the end of the analysis.

    I would actually be surprised if, given all the different dialects of English out there, no native English speaker had ever uttered “put on it”. I mean, even speakers of newscast American English might say “put on that”, and “it” and “that” are considered the same parts of speech, and so should theoretically be grammatically interchangeable.


    • There’s two overlapping meanings of “grammatical,” one meaning “constructed according to the language’s underlying framework” and one meaning “correct according to somebody.” It’s the first one that tells us that Mr. Spock is misanalyzing the way intensives are used in 20th century English when he replies to “What the hell are you doing with my whales?!” with “I’m communicating the hell with them.”


    • Whether or not a construction is grammatical and whether or not its meaning is clear are not quite the same things, though there is considerable overlap. The meaning of “I see she” is clear enough, but it is not grammatical. A large body of litigation is based on language that is perfectly grammatical but ambiguous. Humor, too.

      “Put on it” is ungrammatical because adult native speakers of English don’t say is. This could change. If people started using the construction, then it would become grammatical. I never told my daughters that this was wrong. I save my paternal lectures for other subjects. They figured it out for themselves, I’m sure unconsciously. This is the hallmark of a real rule, as opposed to a bullshit rule. We don’t get self-righteous lectures about how we can’t place a personal pronoun as the direct object of a phrasal verb after the particle. We simply internalize this. Contrast this with the bullshit rule the we can’t end a sentence with a preposition. This has been floating around since Dryden dreamed it up in the 17th century. It is an evergreen because, being a bullshit rule, people break it constantly unless they are consciously working not to. As soon as the attention slips, back those prepositions go ending those sentences. No such concentration is required to form grammatical constructions of phrasal verbs.

      Is it arbitrary? Of course it is! I don’t know any purpose served by the restriction of pronominal objects of phrasal verbs. Should the rule disappear in the future, the glorious edifice that is the English language will sail on unperturbed. But in the meantime, that’s present-day English for you.


  5. I enjoyed the post and look forward to the next installment, but it’s a little odd to see the development of this notion of “phrasal verb” as some kind of novelty.

    As most of you probably are aware Old English was similar to German and Latin in that it was declined. Modern English is positional. German also has some positional characteristics, particularly ones involving cognates of the English words that sometimes function as adverbial particles – or parts of these so-called “phrasal verbs” – and sometimes as prepositions which, just like the word says, are pre-positioned before a noun or noun phrase. In German, the particles sometimes get joined directly to the verb and sometimes get placed elsewhere in the sentence. In prepositional phrases the nouns will be declined, thus reducing any likelihood of confusion. In English, however, we will tend to depend on the assumption that an “on” in the middle of a typical sentence is very likely a preposition.

    So, in 1 and 2, the particle is at the end of the sentence, and there is no possible confusion or frustrated expectation. We know we are dealing with the particle in its adverbial mode.

    I don’t find 3 very hard to interpret, because put+on is such a short and familiar phrase when joined to an article of clothing: I put on my best suit for my hot date with the undertaker. It’s quite common in the imperative: Put on these glasses to block out the sun!

    It is interesting that the pronouns sometimes read unnatural, but might not at all in instances where, presumably, we were referring to a real object. I’m confident there is a linguistic term for the difference between a pronoun referring to an absent antecedent and one that’s more gestural or directly indicative or emphatic (In some languages the difference is embedded in other verbal forms or “aspects”): Put on them looks a little weird, but wouldn’t be in a conversation where the items in question were ready at hand, or already referred-to. Okay, now try putting on them. Meanwhile, Put on these seems fine, presuming that “these” are things I have right here in my hand and am showing to you.


    • CK MacLeod: As most of you probably are aware Old English was similar to German and Latin in that it was declined. Modern English is positional.

      I’ve always thought of Chinese as having a very primitive grammar, since it’s fairly simple and almost entirely analytic. But now that you mention it, Latin is quite old and has a complex, highly synthetic grammar, whereas modern languages derived from Latin are less so (e.g., no declension in Spanish). And English has become more analytic over time as well.

      Maybe I had it wrong. Maybe Chinese is ahead of its time.


      • What do you mean by “synthetic” and “analytic”? There’s a bit of declension left in English (with pronoun cases) and rather more in Romance languages like Spanish, if we’re both talking about the same thing.


        • A linguist could explain it better (or just check Wikipedia), but a synthetic language is one where words change to reflect tense, relationships to other words in the sentence, etc. I think they’re called that because words are synthesized based on productive grammatical rules.

          An analytic language is one where the same function is determined by word order or the use of prepositions or similar words. There’s not a clear dichotomy, as natural languages exist on a gradient, having elements of both.

          I guess English and Spanish do have declension for pronouns and plurals, but not nearly to the extent Latin does, in which all nouns and adjectives had several cases.


          • As an undergrad, I took a course in the history of the French language, and the professor explained the evolution from Latin to French as one where people relied on simpler (in this case, “analytic”) styles of speaking. This meant that even during the classical era, Latin speakers had started to assign word order a greater importance and started to get confused on their noun/adjective cases.

            The professor explained this as the natural tendency of people to follow the path of least resistance. My problem with that was, how did the language become “synthetic” in the first place if it was “harder” for people. I never got a good answer, perhaps because my French wasn’t good enough to phrase the question (the class was taught in French).

            One explanation I think I’ve heard (forget where, and don’t know how good an explanation it is), is that languages back and forth between “synthetic” and “analytic” features. In this sense, it’s possible primitive Latin had, say, post-positions (like prepositions, but they come after, not before the nouns), and those post-positions became more and more attached to whatever word they governed so that they became part of the word itself. Therefore, “-m” presumably came from a post-position ending in something like “m” that implied a direct object relationship, for example. On this theory, perhaps Spanish is evolving something like a “pre-prepositional” direct object case system, in the way that in some constructions, it’s not uncommon to precede some types of direct objects with the preposition “a.”

            Again, I don’ tknow how valid this theory is, but if it’s supported, it would help explain the puzzle.


            • This makes sense. Japanese doesn’t have prepositions for the simple fact that verbs come after their objects, as in a lot of languages. Prepositions are simply postpositions, because they come after the noun/pronoun they modify. They aren’t assimilated into the noun itself, but it’s imaginable that in the future they would be.

              English has glimmers of this. Where I grew up in Texas, it was perfectly natural to use -wards with other directions besides back. Sidewards, frontwards—none of these words set off my spellcheck. Heavenwards, Houstonwards, herwards—these all seem eminently understandable and adoptable within the wider English-speaking world, to the point that they’d become part of the language.


            • It seems that your professor accepted the old prejudice that Latin is good, and therefore any other language is judged by how similar it is to Latin. And by “Latin” we mean the Classical Latin of Cicero, not the Latin used by ordinary people, a/k/a “Vulgar Latin” (with “vulgar” originally meaning merely ‘vernacular’ but then taking on all the classist baggage is carries today).

              The Classical Latin was a quasi-artificial dialect of Latin, completed in the late Republic period. It served both as a marker of an a barrier to entry into the upper class. Wealthy Romans (whether in Rome itself or elsewhere in the Empire) spent a lot of money on schooling for this children, much of which was devoted to perfecting their dialect.

              The modern Romance languages don’t descend from Classical Latin. They descend from Vulgar Latin. This is why a horse in Spanish is “uno caballo,” not “uno equo.” By the late Empire period Vulgar Latin (or, more accurately, many versions of Vulgar Latin) was using prepositions where Classical Latin used case endings. French merely continued the trend.


              • I don’t think my professor shared that assumption, not that you would have any reason to know otherwise, given how I described him. I do think there’s a difference between assuming that classical Latin was a rough approximation of how common people spoke (at least at one time and one place) and assuming that Latin is good and the gold standard for judging other languages. My professor might have believed the first. I don’t think he believed the second. (Again, though, from my description, there was know way to know that about him.)

                For what it’s worth, while I’ prepared to believe that classical Latin wasn’t really lingua populae, I wouldn’t be surprised if it came from or was a (pretentious) modification of, a highly inflected/synthetic language that for whatever reasons–the passage of time, an evolving class structure, spreading the language to more and more diverse, non-Latin speaking people–became increasingly analytic.


            • I found this Metafilter thread on the topic.

              One observation I found particularly interesting was the one in the first link: While languages may become more analytic over time, language features only go from analytic to synthetic, never in the other direction. That is, a proposition or postposition can evolve into an affix, but an affix will never break off and become an independent word.

              Obviously that’s a historical trend and not a law of physics, but according to that guy it’s consistently true.


              • I remember reading, and hearing, from linguists that the level of inflection indicated how “advanced” a language is. That is, the less inflectional a language — the more analytic, and less synthetic — the more advanced. English and Mandarin were always propped up as very advanced, while the Romance languages were significantly less so, and Native American and Pacific Island languages positively primitive. I don’t think this is generally thought of as a reasonable measure of “advancedness,” or that “advancedness” even makes that much sense in this context, anymore, but I could be wrong.


              • Thanks, Brandon. I didn’t read that thread yet, but I looked at it.

                Maybe, in the beginning there really was THE WORD :)

                More seriously, there’s gotta be something about synthesis that’s appealing or useful or works on some level for people to adopt or maintain it in the first place.

                But then, I’m not a linguist.


            • In Spanish the prepositions “a” and “para” mark indirect object complements. In Spanish grammar (not completely sure about English) the indirect object answers not only the “to whom” or “for whom” question but the “where to” question,

              Voy para Francia (I go to France)
              Voy a Francia (I go to France)
              Voy a Francia en el juego (I go for France in the game, meaning I support France in this game)
              Hice el juguete para Gabriel (I made the toy for Gabriel)
              Di un juguete a Gabriel (I gave a toy to Gabriel)


              • @j_a ,

                I have noticed in spoken Spanish, at least in the US, that sometimes “a” is used to preceding a direct object. You’ll sometimes hear something like

                “Busco a mi esposa”

                That’s what I was referring to.


                  • We are probably splitting hairs in this particular example of what/who we are looking for. but I was tought that “a mi esposa” in your example is indirect object because it answers who are you looking for. You would never say “Busco a mi carro” but “busco mi carro” (I look for my car) because carro is a thing (a what) and not a person (a who)


                    • You seem to know more about the language than I do, and maybe I am splitting hairs. But to me the difference seems to be what type of direct object it is (a person vs. a non-person, or perhaps an animate being vs. an inanimate one), not that it’s a direct object in one case and not a direct object in another.

                      Here is where my (lack of) linguistics training fails me. Maybe there’s some meta sense in which a + person functions semantically (is that the right word for what I mean?) as a direct object but functions syntactically as an indirect object. Hence, maybe I/we are splitting hairs.


        • Analytic, or more commonly isolating, and synthetic are descriptive terms used to indicate a continuum from no inflection (Mandarin; English has very little inflection) to “You could write an Eco novel in one word” level of inflection. English is highly analytic, whereas German is pretty synthetic. You know the joke about how German has words that convey entire English sentences? That joke is about how synthetic German is. Though German is only moderately synthetic, for linguists. Some languages actually do convey whole sentences or perhaps even multiple sentences in a single word through morphemic inflection.

          Using increasingly unreal English words to illustrate a range from analytic to synthetic:

          We went to the bank on Thursday.

          Wentwe to the bank on Thursday

          Thursdaywentwe to the bank.



          • I always thought that languages that convey information by adding morphemes to and modifying a word were agglutinative languages, like German and Turkish. How agglutinative is German, really? Whenever people chortle about superlong German words, they never seem to be words that express a sentence with a verb and everything, but rather formal names for concepts and things. Like, for a completely made-up example, “International Committee for Unifying Standards and Measurements” in English would look totally normal as one or two words in German. Or in Japanese as well, for that matter.

            I’m really asking here, as I know next to nothing about German. The Wikipedia articles on analytic/isolating/synthetic languages have a lot of seemingly neither-here-nor-there examples. Agglutinative languages seem wonderfully complex and alien to us English speakers, but that’s sometimes partly because breaking down all the parts of a sentence makes them seem weirder than they really are. You can do something similar with English, I guess:
            The chairwoman revoked our memberships.
            (“known-to-me leader-female-singular back-call-past first-person-plural-genitive part-of-group+state-of-being”)


            • Whenever people chortle about superlong German words, they never seem to be words that express a sentence with a verb and everything, but rather formal names for concepts and things. Like, for a completely made-up example, “International Committee for Unifying Standards and Measurements” in English would look totally normal as one or two words in German. Or in Japanese as well, for that matter.

              I can’t speak to Japanese, and my German is pretty weak, but I agree with that sentiment. Part of the chortling from English speakers comes from the fact that English does have superlong words. We just separate them by spaces (when we write) or by linking words (e.g., “of”) when we say them. But grammatically, they seem to work like “words” similar to the superlong German ones.


            • You’re right, I’m unnecessarily (and confusingly) eliding distinctions in the type of synthetic combinations that languages can make. German is, however, pretty inflectional, while English is very uninflectional (if that’s a word, and even if it’s not, I can create it through a type of non-inflectional synthetic combination, agglutination, which is common in both English and German).


    • it’s a little odd to see the development of this notion of “phrasal verb” as some kind of novelty.

      To clarify, I intended no claim about the antiquity of the construction. I was describing the novelty of the analysis. Do grammars of German describe the analogous construction similarly? How about grammars of German written a century ago?


      • I’ve never looked at a 100-year-old German grammar, but the common term for the German verb form along with its particle is “compound verb”: “Kommen” is the simple verb; “ankommen” is the compound variant with several particular meanings not immediately apparent from the conjunction of “to come” and “to/on/upon.” (Here’s a discussion of it I just came upon https://yourdailygerman.wordpress.com/2012/03/07/meaning-of-ankommen/ ) In English we have the idiom “to come to,” in which the second “to” is not a preposition – but might conceivably have once been one.

        I don’t think the real question is whether “come to” is a verb or phrasal verb or compound verb. My own view is that “come” is the verbal root, and the question is whether in composing your grammar, you are able to make better sense of how the language works by creating a category of compound verbs, or by handling the particles and fragments and idiomatic expressions separately in their own category, and recognizing the natural tendency for peculiar usages to develop.

        German has an additional set of emphatic directional particles than can be further compounded with the simple directional particles. So you can komm an, you can komm her, and you can also komm heran (“her” ~= “to here”). Something can kommt darauf an (literally, something like “it comes upon-there to” – a common idiom for “on this basis we can say…” or some such..) You can’t (well I suppose you could but it would be weird) kommt hinan, but you or something can kommt aus and can also kommt hinaus and something can even (less often) kommt darauf hinaus.

        We have echoes of those in English. Most educated English speakers recognize hither, thither, and yon, and they still appear in certain familiar expressions – “come-hither look.” In German herkommen is the common expression, but it’s not clear to me how different Komm her! (which uses the particle form, not the common simple adverb form “hier“) really is from “Come here!” In a German grammar you might come across herkommen as a “compound verb.” Do the new English grammarians call “come here” a “phrasal verb”?


        • Do the new English grammarians call “come here” a “phrasal verb”?

          Probably. But I’m not sure how much it matters in practice whether this is analyzed as a phrasal verb or a verb+adverb. Where the distinction matters is with transitive verbs and, to a lesser extent, intransitive verbs where the meaning of the construction is not transparent. (Analyzing it as a phrasal verb at least tips you off that for semantic purposes you should be treating it as a single word.) Neither applies to “come here” so traditional grammar is up to the task in this case.


  6. The rule that reveals the discrepancy in sentence order is not related to phrasal verbs as such; it has to do with the proper positioning in the sentence of the pronoun vs. the noun it refers to. Like much else, the rule corresponds to modern German grammar still today. Simply put, the pronoun immediately follows the verb, adverbs and/or prepositions coming before or after that construction. While the “not splitting a phrasal verb with a pronoun” might be helpful in a quasi mnemonic sense, knowing where it comes from is more comprehensive, and it is simpler to teach ESL learners the broader application.

    Indeed, non-native speakers do not need to know whether or not they are dealing with a phrasal verb or a noun-preposition combo to effectively use the correct order. Think: He put it on the table.

    So, whether you have a phrasal verb or not, the pronominal objects come directly after the verb:
    phrasal: She ate him for lunch.
    literal: He ate it quickly.
    phrasal: He put it on.
    literal: They put it on the table.
    phrasal: They put them on the table. (their cards)
    phrasal: He was putting her on the whole time.


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