Sunday 23 March 2008

On all and all

A correspondent writes to say that he caught himself saying All I find is idiots, and wondered whether it shouldn't have been All I find are idiots. He was saying to a friend that, when he wanted to find an expert in a particular thing, all he found was/were idiots, and he goes on: 'I realize that if all is used with a plural noun (with or without a partitive genitive) it takes a plural verb, i.e. All (of) the men are idiots, but what happens when all is used on its own? Is it like what, which, according to certain grammarians (Fowler, Gowers), can take a singular or plural verb? Or does it always require a plural verb in sentences such as my outburst?'

Certainly all on its own can be found with either a following singular or a plural verb.

All are welcome
All know the answer.
All are idiots.
All have a role to play.

Usage usually has the all reinforced with a pronoun, such as We all know...

All has gone quiet.
All is not lost.
All's fair in love and war.
All is dreams and sexual madness for Strindberg. (corpus example)

What we have, in other words, is a distinction between countable and uncountable. In (1) all could be replaced by many people; in (2) it could be replaced by everything. As my correspondent's example is plainly countable, the normal usage would thus be All are idiots. All is idiots is ungrammatical in standard English (though I've come across it in some regional dialects).

So why did my correspondent say All I find is idiots? I think it's because the postmodification I find alters the semantics of the subject, allowing an uncountable interpretation. He is right: it is pulling the construction in the direction of what. Fowler spent over two pages in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage trying to decide which way to go. He corrects, for example, What I wish to point out are certain instances... to What I wish to point out is certain instances.... He does not actually have a separate entry on all, but I imagine, if he had, he would have treated All I wish to point out... in exactly the same way.

So my correspondent used the singular because, quite plainly, all the so-called experts out there were being perceived as varieties of a single species, 'idiot'. If there had been a singular uncountable noun to express this notion in English, he would probably have used it. (Compare: All I see are leaves vs All I see is foliage.) But there isn't one, without saying something like All I see is idiocy. The reason he (and Fowler) feels uncomfortable is that there is always a problem when subject-concord concord pulls the verb one way and complement-concord pulls the verb another way. Usage has been split on this one for two hundred years, at least, and doubtless will continue to be, depending on whether the speaker has a unified or diversified meaning in mind (cf. committee is vs committee are and many other examples).

Monday 17 March 2008

On who(m)ever

A correspondent writes to ask why we can say Give it to whoever has the money alongside Give it to him who has the money. Shouldn't it be Give it to whomever has the money. And don't people sometimes write Give it to he who has the money?

The problem is that people have been overinfluenced by the artificial rules of prescriptive grammarians. Let's take he/him first. The basic rule in standard English (it's different in some regional dialects) is clear-cut: a form takes the objective case (if one exists) following a preposition. So it always has to be Give it to him not Give it to he. By extension, we have ... to him who... If the prescriptivists had left the language alone, there would have been no problem. But they didn't.

It started with the insistence that the Latin rule should be followed after the verb to be, so that one should say It is I rather than It is me. The English language has always followed its own non-Latin path, in this respect: It's me has always been the norm, and the same applies to the other pronouns. But the prescriptivists taught generations of kids that only forms such as I were correct. This immediately set up a mental conflict: the fact that everyone naturally used me suggested that this was a correct use of English, but here were grammarians saying that it was wrong. The result was that people who were trying to speak and write in a way that would be called educated (by the grammarians) found themselves forced to do something unnatural. They managed it, of course (otherwise they would have failed their exams), but at the expense of making them worry for the rest of their lives about other constructions where there was a choice between subjective and objective (also called nominative and accusative) pronouns. It's the objective form they chiefly worried about. Maybe me/him/her/us/them are always wrong? Maybe I should avoid them whenever I think to use them? As a result, we find the natural between you and me becoming the unnatural between you and I (one would never say between I and you), and such sentences as Give it to him who has the money becoming Give it to he who has the money. Both forms now exist.

Meanwhile, a second process was underway. Many English words and constructions express a contrast between formality and informality. A famous one in grammar is the choice between contracted and uncontracted forms (You are not vs You aren't). Another is the choice between who and whom: This is the man who I was talking to vs This is the man to whom I was talking. The prescriptive grammarians came down hard in favour of whom and against who, despite the fact that the latter was widespread in speech. So once again there was a mental conflict: people said one thing but the grammarians said it should be another. My correspondent mentions Fowler, and it is worth recalling that the avoidance of the end-placed preposition is one of the things Fowler calls a 'cherished superstition', maintained only by those who have been 'overpowered by notions of correctness derived from Latin standards' (in his Dictionary of Modern English Usage). Pedants nonetheless ignored Fowler's wise advice, kept insisting on whom, and as a result many people, unclear what the grammarians were on about, started using whom in places where it should be who and vice versa. We find such sentences as This is the author whom I know is interesting.

Finally, we get to whoever. English has such sentences as Whoever knows the answer should shout it out as well as the intensifying Who ever would have thought it! Note that whom is not possible in these cases. We also find such sentences as I asked whoever knew the answer to shout it out, where whoever is the subject of knew and the whole clause whoever knew the answer is the object of ask. It is the uncertainty over who/whom which makes people sometimes think the form should be whomever in such sentences. But the sentence does not analyse like this:

I asked whoever / knew the answer/ to shout it out

but like this:

I asked /whoever knew the answer / to shout it out (cf. I asked / him / to shout it out)

That is why we have Give it to whoever has the money. The whoever form here is the subject of has not the object of to:

Give it to /whoever has the money. (cf. Give it to him)

Having said all that, the fact is that the prescriptive influence has been strong, so that many people (I have no idea how many) have begun to treat the contrast between whoever and whomever like that between who and whom. For them, Give it to whoever has the money is informal, and Give it to whoever has the money is formal. Similarly, Give it to he who has the money is formal, and Give it to him who has the money is informal. It will be interesting to see whether this relatively new stylistic distinction survives once the prescriptive legacy disappears entirely.

Thursday 13 March 2008

On parallelism

A correspondent writes to say that he has had his writing criticised by his boss for 'faulty parallelism' and he wonders what it is.

It's a somewhat vague term, I have to say, but I imagine what the boss is concerned about is the kind of thing which Fowler called 'parallel-sentence dangers', and which has thus attracted especial attention from stylists over the years. Any piece of discourse can be said to show structural parallelism (as it's usually called) if it uses the same construction more than once in succession. There's a discussion of it in The Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language (section 19.7) and also at various places in my Making Sense of Grammar (see the index).

Parallelism is most obvious at sentence level (In the north it will be sunny. In the south it will be wet.). Here are two famous examples:

I came. I saw. I conquered.
One Ring to rule them all. One Ring to find them.

But it is also to be found within the sentence (e.g. Like father, like son), where often the parallelism is signalled by particular words (e.g. not only ... but also) or by a distinctive string (I left my new and fashionable coat in an old and unfashionable cafe).

Parallelism goes wrong when someone attempts to introduce a parallel construction, but doesn't quite make it. Here are some examples:

I want a new car and to sell my old one.
The paper described both the London marathon and New York.
We like to swim in the sea and surfing the waves.
The critics have been more critical, nasty, and angrier than I have noticed before.
The weather in Spain is drier than Portugal.
The answer is either right or an error.

Notice that most cases involve comparisons or lists. The easiest solution, accordingly, is to check that each element has the same structure.

I want
a new car
to sell my old one.

better rewritten as:

I want
to buy a new car
to sell my old one.

Developing an ear which is sensitive to unbalanced structures is part of the process of acquiring a mature style. I always find that reading a sentence aloud can help, as genuine structural parallelism is usually reinforced by a balanced rhythmical structure.

On whatever will be will ... be

A correspondent from Finland writes to say that 'in a recent English test, the pupils were supposed to demonstrate their ability to use the will-future by forming questions to a fortune teller. My daughter wrote: What will be my husband's name? which the teacher corrected to What will my husband's name be?, deducting one point for the mistake.' She feels her daughter's word-order was correct. What do I think?

Both word-orders are certainly possible. Try typing the string 'what will be' into Google (using inverted commas around the string) and you will get many examples. Here are two (the first from the New Scientist):

What will be the biggest breakthrough of the next 50 years?
What will be the quality of these jobs?

The examples point to one of the reasons for this word-order: the length of the complement construction which follows the verb. If this is short, there is no problem with inserting text between the auxiliary and be, but as it gets longer, such an insertion becomes much less likely. Compare:

What will the breakthrough be?
What will the biggest breakthrough be?
What will the biggest breakthrough of the next 50 years be?
What will the biggest and most dramatic breakthrough of the next 50 years be?

There comes a point where the distance between will and be is so great that the sentence starts to be difficult to process. The solution is to keep the verb phrase united.

When the complement is very short, the end-placed be is normal and natural. The principle applies to a whole raft of sentences, such as:

What could the matter be?
Who will the captain be?
What will the outcome be?

But the alternative word-order is also possible:

What could be the matter?
Who will be the captain?
What will be the outcome?

The difference is stylistic: the latter is somewhat more literary and formal. Perhaps this is why the teacher did not like it. And certainly, in a context where the sentences are generally colloquial (as would probably have been the case in an intimate chat with a fortune-teller), the will be usage might easily have sounded anomalous. However, it is perfectly possible to make will sentences informal, by using a contracted auxiliary; and when one does so, it turns out that the will be construction is actually preferred. Here are the stats for two quick searches on Google today:

Who'll be the captain? 5 hits
Who'll the captain be? 0 hits
What'll be the outcome? 2260 hits
What'll the outcome be? 204 hits

Tuesday 4 March 2008

On non-ambiguities

A correspondent writes that he is worried about the potential ambiguity in such sentences as (the first one from Graham Greene):

(1) He did not dare to go up to where she slept, feeling that if he saw her face again he could not leave her.
where the feeling clause relates back to he, and
(2) He did not dare to go up to where she slept, dreaming of her new life in France.
where the dreaming clause refers back to she.
He wonders whether it is possible to interpret sentence (1) as referring back to she and sentence (2) as referring back to he. 'The participles are in the same place', he observes, so 'how can it be that they go with different subjects in each case'? How does one make it clear who is doing the action, in such cases?

Examples of this kind need to be discussed with reference to the distinction between finite and nonfinite. The above sentences contain participial clauses, which are literally 'not finite', i.e. they do not limit the action of the verb - by contrast with finite clauses, which do limit the action (typically by specifying the number, person, and tense involved). This means that there is always the possibility of grammatical ambiguity whenever a nonfinite clause is used. If I begin a sentence with Walking down the street... it is unclear whether the action is taking place now, or has taken place, or is yet to take place, and who or how many people is/are walking. Once the sentence continues with a finite verb, these matters are resolved: Walking down the street, I saw..., Walking down the street, she sees..., Walking down the street, they will see..., and so on. That is what finite verbs are for, to resolve ambiguity of person, time, and number.

So, faced with examples of the kind mentioned above, the only way to obtain the desired clarity is to go for a finite construction. In (2), for example, it would be more explicit to say: where she was dreaming of... - though the repeated wheres are not particularly elegant. And if it was he the writer had in mind, something like as he was dreaming... would make that clear.

However, such rewriting is hardly required in such cases, for our contextual awareness of the relationship between sleeping and dreaming makes the 'she' interpretation far more likely than the 'he'. Or, putting this the other way round, any writer who wrote sentence (2) wanting to convey the fact that it was the 'he' who was dreaming is doing something perverse - going against our normal contextual expectations. A restructuring of the sentence (such as He was dreaming of her new life in France, so he did not dare...) would be much clearer. Similarly, because we know that when people are asleep they are not 'feeling' in the sense of sentence (1), we are likely to rule out an interpretation in which the feeling refers to the sleeper.

My correspondent worries about how to resolve the question, but the answer is revealed in a telling phrase he uses: 'It is clear (if only from the context) that the participle 'feeling' describes the subject of the sentence'. That parenthensis is rather dismissive, and therein lies the root of the problem. Context is actually everything. Anyone who tries to analyse grammar as if it was somehow separate from the rest of the linguistic world is going to end up in trouble - seeing ambiguities everywhere! Grammar is never separate from meaning (semantics) and use (pragmatics), and all sentences have to be taken wholistically, with reference to these factors. In the vast majority of cases, potential grammatical ambiguities are avoided because our semantic and pragmatic knowledge tells us how to interpret them.

If you want to see this viewpoint developed in my own writing, take a look at Making Sense of Grammar (Longman, 2004), which applies the semantic/pragmatic perspective to English as a whole. I should perhaps add that prescriptive grammars and purist pedants are of no help whatsoever in such cases, as they condemn all so-called 'dangling' participles, regardless of context. So a sentence like Driving in from the airport, the flags were fluttering proudly - an illustrative sentence from John Humphrys' Lost for Words - elicits the comment 'What accomplished flags they must have been'. That is what happens when you let grammar govern your thinking to the exclusion of everything else. You lose all touch with reality!

Sunday 2 March 2008

On well good

A correspondent writes to ask where the intensifying use of well, as in well good, comes from. He comments: ' I certainly do not use it in this way and didn't when i was a child.'

Nor did I - but I did use well aware and well able, as I expect my correspondent did, so the intensifying usage isn't as new as we might think. In fact the OED has examples of well being used with adjectives that go back as far as Old English, such as well many and well sharp- see the entry at well (adv.) IV.16). And what do we find in 1297? Robert of Gloucester saying 'Engelond his a wel god lond' - England is a very good land. Later uses include well old, well long, and well happy. There are even instances of well being used with comparatives, such as well better and well faster.

The OED calls such uses 'rare', apart from in such cases as well aware. So the puzzle is not why the new usage has appeared again, but why it went out of fashion in the first place. The new generation that has 'discovered' well good are simply renewing their connection with a very old usage. I wouldn't be at all surprised to see it flourish, therefore, as it did once before. Stand by for well better!