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Grammar like Mother used to make

Day in, day out, Newtonian physics works pretty well. If you are driving in rain or snow, particularly if you are in one of those SUVs the size of a minor suburb, you would do well to remember some things about mass, momentum, and inertia. But, as physicists have discovered over the past century and a half or so, Newton doesn’t always get the job done.

I was reminded of this by a couple of comments on a previous post, “Teach the children well,” explaining why “person, place, or thing” is no longer considered an adequate explanation of what a noun is. (I’ve reproduced the exchanges at the end of this post for your convenience.)

The schoolroom grammar that I learned, and which may constitute the bulk of your understanding of grammar and syntax, can get you through many ordinary circumstances in conversation and even writing, but it is not the most sophisticated understanding of how English works. There is a vast body of research and analysis in linguistics that goes far beyond it.

But what, you ask, are you supposed to do, if you cannot afford (159 pounds) or cart around (1,860 pages) Rodney Huddleston and Geoffrey K. Pullum’s Cambridge Grammar of the English Language?

For you, if you understand its limits, there is the second edition of Grammatically Correct: The Essential Guide to Spelling, Style, Usage, Grammar, and Punctuation by Anne Stilman (Writer’s Digest Books, 342 pages, $19.99).

Ms. Stilman is a proponent of the traditional grammar, and her explanation of the elements—the parts of speech, the verb tenses and moods—is lucid and well supplied with apt examples.

Her advice is conservative but informed: “Many people recall their English teachers issuing a straight dictum to always use the active voice, never the passive. This overly simplistic advice would be better put as, use the active voice as a general rule, and use the passive voice only if there is a specific reason to do so.” As you see, she does not shrink from splitting infinitives. Neither does she fail to note “the persistent myth that a preposition may never come at the end of a sentence.” With these constructions, as with the hopefully bugaboo, she advises that you might choose to honor the superstitions if violating them would upset your readers’ expectations of correct usage and distract them from what you are trying to say.

If the traditional grammar fits your needs, I know of no handbook superior to this one. Ms. Stilman’s book is clear, well organized, straightforward, and accessible. I like her tone, level and reasonable, rather than the dogmatic hectoring of the Lynne Truss school.

If you should decide you want to move from Newton to quantum mechanics, I’m sure that someone will comment to recommend more advanced texts on linguistics.


Extract of comments from “Teach the children well”

lynneguist: We spend the first two years of our degree un-teaching that 'a noun is a name of a person, place, or thing' and 'a verb is an action word'. No one knows what an adverb is, so in tests it's not uncommon to see 'adverb' next to anything that is not a person, place, thing, or action...

Patricia the Terse: And when did a noun not become the name of a person, place or thing?

John Cowan: Lots of nouns, like fist and attitude, have referents that are neither persons, places, nor things, unless you take the view that a thing is anything that a noun refers to, in which case the definition doesn't help.

Picky: Different disciplines, Patricia. I'd guess that Mr McIntyre would be close to overjoyed if his editing students could identify and define the parts of speech using the terms he and I (and you? though evidently not Janne) learned in school.

Ms Lynneguist on the other hand, although the author of an excellently accessible language blog, is a professional linguist who would want/expect her students to have some grasp of the results of modern linguistic scholarship.

In my everyday life I quite cheerfully go along with Newton, but I'm told physics students have to take account of some new kids called Einstein and Planck.

lynneguist: A noun that's not a thing (sometimes) is 'construction'. It can be a thing, as in 'the construction was flimsy', but in a context like 'the construction of the building took two years' it's an event. We can tell it's a noun because it takes 'the', but could paraphrase the phrase using a verb in its place w/out losing much of anything in meaning: 'it took two years to construct the building'. Gerunds are grammatically nouns, but typically refer to actions: 'Jumping is fun'.

A verb that's not an action? That's easy: 'belong', 'resemble', 'be' (e.g. 'I am tall' does not mean 'I act tall'), 'know'. You can tell they're not actions because they're weird in the progressive e.g. "I am knowing French" versus the action "I am learning French".

Which is all to say that the parts of speech are grammatical categories and grammar is in many ways independent of meaning (viz. Chomsky's famous sentence 'Colorless green ideas sleep furiously'. Impossible meaning, but perfectly grammatical sentence). While a prototypical noun refers to a thing, not all do. But every noun can do nouny things like be the object of a preposition or the subject of a sentence or be modified by an adjective; most can be preceded by a determiner (aka an article) and can be made possessive.

To teach grammatical categories on the basis of semantic descriptions is misleading. it's kind of like telling children that birds are the animals that fly, fish are the ones that swim, and mammals are the warm-blooded ones that walk on the ground. It works for many cases, but not all, and so it's not an honest way to teach!


Posted by John McIntyre at 10:49 AM | | Comments (9)


Speaking of lynneguist, I should have added a link to Lynne Murphy's excellent website, Separated by a common language:

Re the noun/verb definition problem:

William Frawley, in Linguistic Semantics (Erlbaum 1992), after giving several counterexamples like construction or smoothness, adds:

".. curiously, when the traditional notional definition is reversed, the definition turns out to be true. Nouns are not always persons, places, or things, but persons, places, and things always turn out to be nouns!" [sic]

This is in chapter 3, "Entities"; in chapter 4, "Events", he makes a similar remark about verbs:

".. if the traditional definition of verb is reversed, as is possible for that of noun, then the notional definition of verb goes through. Not all verbs are actions, but when actions are expressed, they overwhelmingly tend to surface as verbs."

"... Nouns represent entities, a cover term for all relatively atemporal regions or individuals, including persons, places, and things. Verbs encode events: a cover term for states or conditions of existence (e.g., be sad), processes or unfoldings (e.g., get sad), and actions or executed processes (e.g., sadden)."

Note - These are not definitions of either noun or verb. These indicate what nouns and verbs mean.

To define them, you have to use syntax, not meaning. English nouns can take definite and indefinite articles; English verbs have singular/plural agreement with subjects; and so on.

Anyone desirous of an all-in-one English syntax book who doesn't want to lug Huddleston and Pullum around can try Jim McCawley's The Syntactic Phenomena of English (Chicago; 2nd ed 1992). It's all there in only 800 pages, and there's a paperback, which there never will be with H&P; it's too big.

I'm glad I don't teach 3rd grade. All I can say is that I generally know a noun when I see one, and ditto a verb. Does anyone diagram any more?

I teach at a small independent elementary school. The first graders are taught that a noun is a "person, place, thing, or an idea" The children insisted on adding "or animal". I guess animals are neither persons or things in their young minds. I think they are taught that a verb is an action word. An adjective is a describing word. I'm not sure that adverbs are introduced in first grade, but I guess they would be words to describe verbs.

Comparing CGEL with any other book on English grammar (except the Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by Quirk et al.) is comparing apples — whether sweet and juicy, tart and crisp, dried, or wormy — with watermelons. And unquestionably CGEL, much though I love it, is a watermelon: sweet, but heavy and hard to get open.

However, Huddleston and Pullum have also written a much smaller and more accessible textbook based on CGEL, A Student's Introduction to English Grammar. I have not read this myself, but the reviews at Amazon are generally positive, with one mentioning that it begins with a chapter debunking school grammar and its "semantic definitions" of grammatical terms.

What I do know is that it's a 300-page paperback and costs about $20 from any of a variety of fine booksellers (of whom I like best). In fact, I think I'll go buy it now....

it's kind of like telling children that birds are the animals that fly, fish are the ones that swim, and mammals are the warm-blooded ones that walk on the ground.

This reminds me of when our older son was a baby. His first animal word was dog and we beamed with pride as he pointed out one doggy after another. Then when he was just about a year old we took him to an aquarium. He pointed to the nearest fish and said "Dog!"

Dahlink: I was going to bring up that exact point, but you beat me to it!

The statement "telling children that birds are the animals that fly," etc., is "not an honest way to teach" seems to disregard how the acquisition of language and information really works in the developing mind.

A child learns that the four-legged hairy animal that lives in her house is a "dog." Naturally, then, the first time she sees a horse, she points to it and says, "dog!" An adult corrects her, and she learns that the class of four-legged hairy animals can be divided into "dogs" and "horses."

As time goes by, the child learns more and more fine distinctions that exist in the category -- she may even grow up to become a biologist or a veterinarian, but the cognitive basis for her body of mammalian knowledge exists in that original, overly broad concept of "dog." Without that, she would have had no way to form a mental map organizing such random words as "cat," "cow," "ferret" and "ocelot."

Likewise, the idea that a noun is "a person, place or thing" may not tell the whole story -- but it provides the young student with a broad cognitive basis for acquiring more abstract concepts such as gerunds and constructs.

This richer understanding will emerge as the student matures in her understanding -- and it will do her no good to wait until she's ready for Proust before reading Dr. Seuss.

My granddaughter, aged eight, is being introduced at school to nouns and verbs. Of course she is told that nouns are thing words and verbs are doing words. To tell her that nouns are the objects of prepositions would be rather pointless at the moment.

Okay, the Student's Introduction arrived and I'm working my way through it.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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