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!