Saturday 27 September 2008

On ordering adverbials

A correspondent cites these sentences from a grammar book:

I'll meet you _____.
(a) on Sunday at 8 o'clock at Heathrow Airport
(b) at Heathrow Airport at 8 o'clock on Sunday
(c) at Heathrow Airport on Sunday at 8 o'clock

Apparently his key says that only (b) is acceptable. He asks if the others are ungrammatical.

Not in the slightest! Though that isn't to say that they would all be equally frequent. Grammar books point out positional preferences governing adverbials of place, time, manner, and so on. But all options will be heard - including the other three possibilities.

(d) at 8 o'clock on Sunday at Heathrow Airport
(e) at 8 o'clock at Heathrow Airport on Sunday
(f) on Sunday at Heathrow Airport at 8 o'clock

Which will be used, on any particular occasion, depends on many factors. Here are a few:

- the preceding context: e.g. if the preceding question had been 'Where shall we meet - and when?' that would privilege reply (b) or (c), whereas 'When shall we meet - and where?' would privilege (a) or (d).

- rhythm: the strong stresses on 'Heathrow Airport' disturb the underlying stress-timed rhythm less if they are in final position.

- weight: longer elements tend to occur later in the sentence, which motivates the use of 'Heathrow Airport' in final position.

- emphasis expressed by tonicity, usually on the last content word: this could push any of the three elements into final position, depending on which meaning is most in mind - time, day, or place.

- tone-unit divisions, which would allow a distribution of emphasis onto more than one element, if the speaker wanted to draw attention to two of the elements, or all three ('Now listen carefully: At 8 o'clock / On Sunday / At Heathrow Airport'), in which case any sequence is equally possible.

- semantic bonding between the verb and the following adverbial: the locative element in the meaning of meet is stronger than the temporal, and would pull 'Heathrow Aiport' towards the verb.

- other stylistic factors: for example, whether there is structural parallelism between this sentence and others in the surrounding discourse, or whether a rhetorical contrast of some kind is being made.

These factors pull our intuition in different directions, of course. We must expect considerable usage variation here.

Friday 26 September 2008

On contacting

A correspondent writes to ask whether I've heard the usage to contact someone with someone. He had come across it on the Jajah website, as follows:
'I use JAJAH to contact my clients with overseas developers' - a comment made by someone from California.

No, I've not come across this, as an equivalent to 'put in contact with'. It feels like a usage which could easily grow, though, as it's a natural semantic extension and it has succinctness on its side (one word instead of three). But it will certainly arouse controversy. Indeed, contact aroused the disapproval of usage pundits from the moment it was first used as a transitive verb, in its sense of 'be in communication with', in the USA in the 1920s. So this new usage will certainly attract the critics, if it catches on. Has anyone else seen or heard it?