Marie Marshall

Author. Poet. Editor.

Tag: grammar

I’m in a subjunctive mood…

I wasted a lot of time recently arguing with a blogger who had ‘learned the rules’ of English at school. My use of English was, according to him, ‘lazy’ because I broke some of these rules. No use my telling him I’m university-educated, that I have spent a lot of time examining historical texts and their linguistic usage, that I’m aware of every rule and rubric that the English language has been saddled with, and that I know full well which ones come from the natural eloquence of everyday speech and which ones were foisted on us despite that natural eloquence. No matter that I have followed and marvelled at the development of modern English from its Medieval roots to its present position as a vibrant, living World Language, with a host of attendant lects and sub-lects that handle every discourse, every social and ethnic specialness, every creative need. No, his schoolmarm knew better, and now so did he!

Aye, right.

Let me examine two of these rules and see how they stand up to scrutiny. Firstly, the question of ending a phrase or sentence with a preposition.

1“We are such stuff as dreams are made on,” says Prospero at the end of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and the euphony of that phrase of feminine-ended tetrameter shines out of the dark of four centuries, reminding the audience of the essentially ephemeral existence of that redemptive fantasy and its characters.* Shakespeare was a genius of language; it was all he had to hold his audience with, in the days when CGI effects were not even dreamt of. And this phrase, shining like a candle, ends with a preposition.

Likewise the roll-call of drowned sailors making this wonderful piece of iambic pentameter:

‘Ten thousand men that fishes gnawed upon.’ (Richard III, 1.4.25)

But I over-egg the pudding, friends. Shakespeare ended sentences this way simply because that’s exactly how everyday English – the English of Kings and commoners alike – was spoken. So when King Henry V, wandering in disguise around the camp of the English army before the battle of Agincourt, is challenged to answer the question ‘Who servest thou under?’ he does not ‘correct’ his challenger’s question. And when, in As You Like It Rosalind asks Orlando ‘Who do you speak to?’ it raises no eyebrows, because it flows off the tongue of a native-speaker like water down a country rill. Moreover, as a king may not quibble at a question, and a well-bred lady may use a preposition as she pleases, a prince may speak of ‘the thousand shocks that flesh is heir to’ in his most famous soliloquy (Hamlet, 3.1.61-62).

2So, where did the rule to the contrary come from? Many consider that the attribution of Shakespeare’s usages not to one-part-observation one-part-inventiveness, but to ignorance and lack of education, started with John Dryden in the late 17c. Dryden was a scholar of Latin, and since in Latin it was impossible to end a sentence with a preposition, he decided it should be improper in English, usage or no usage.** Influential amongst his own circle though Dryden might have been, ‘Dryden’s Rule’ was not codified until the second half of the 18c, when Bishop Robert Lowth produced his A Short Introduction to English Grammar. 3But even he acknowledged that ending a sentence with a preposition was dominant ‘in common conversation’ and suited ‘very well the familiar style of writing.’ So not even Lowth would go as far as saying it should never be done!

Nevertheless, by the early 20c it became the norm amongst teachers of English in schools to preach up the banishment of prepositions from their natural place in colloquial speech. Notwithstanding that, the preposition knew its place better than the teachers did, and kept to it in every discourse except in the speech and writings of pedants. Even Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage referred to the preposition’s banishment as a ‘superstition’!

4At this point in the discussion of prepositions it is usual to cite Winston Spencer Churchill who, it is supposed, replied to a torturous memo from a civil servant, in which prepositions had been engineered away from the end of phrases to the extent that the prose resembled crazy-paving, ‘This is something up with which I will not put!’ However, nice though this piece of ridicule is, the story is apocryphal.

So, is it actually wrong to take prepositions away from the end of sentences? Well, no it isn’t. It is no more wrong than to banish them. As in all things to do with English usage the principle guidelines*** are: clarity, i.e. there should be no confusion, no ambiguity about what is meant; euphony, i.e. it should not sound ugly; emphasis, i.e. the placing of any word depends on how the phrase or sentence is nuanced, thus to say “Where are you going from?” can be used not only because of its colloquial currency, but because it may draw attention to the most important component of the question. 5Equally, when Abraham Lincoln drew the preposition away from the end of a sentence in his address at Gettysburg – ‘increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion’ – he knew precisely where the emphasis should fall in his rhetoric. Thus both are correct, in their own way, according to the context.

Clarity. Euphony, and emphasis are only guidelines, however, and I can think of many reasons why, for the sake of artistic effect, even they can be (carefully) discarded.

On to the next issue, the use of the double negative.

The blogger I was discussing my usage with seemed to be too busy reading his own prejudices to read what I was actually saying about this. It all came about because I deliberately used a negative word to negate a negative phrase I had lifted from him. I was in fact using two negatives to resolve to a positive. He couldn’t get his head round that, he couldn’t cope with any idea except that two negatives together were ‘wrong’. Yet the concept of two negatives resolving to a positive is actually straight-down-the-line schoolmarm English! I’ll leave that point there, as it needs no embellishment.

6There is, of course the question of using a double negative as an intensifier. Now, do I need to quote Shakespeare and Milton to anyone? It is usual for anyone who hears a usage in English that they think is ugly, ‘lazy’, or just new, to shake their head, wring their hands, and lament “Oh, the language of Shakespeare and Milton!” The thing is, both of these writers sometimes used double negatives as intensifiers. Oh yes they did!

Viola says of her heart, ‘And that no woman has, nor never none shall mistress be of it,’ (Shakespeare, Twelfth Night, 3.1.156-157) and actually I counted four in there!

‘Nor did they not perceive the evil plight in which they were,’ (Milton, Paradise Lost). This is an interesting example, as it has the common use of ‘nor’ as an intensifier at the beginning of a phrase. And by the way, yes, I spotted where Milton had placed his preposition. As I said, both are correct usage.

The difficulty that some readers have with such intensifiers is that, post-18c and the introduction of books like Lowth’s, their use has been identified with a lack of schooling. Whether that identification is a fair criterion to judge them is another matter. In my discussion with the blogger, I cited ‘African-American Vernacular English’ (AAVE), which is recognised by academic linguists as being a legitimate lect of English. Its usage is so ingrained, that it is not simply current but widely influential. Its origins are unclear, but it is probable that it drew its strongest characteristics not only from African speech-patterns but also from the speech-patterns of early English-American settlers. Certainly a very clear factor in its development was the generations-long deprivation of the African-American societal layer from formal education. However, in no way does that invalidate its legitimacy as a lect, in no way are its users inherently ‘lazy’ for using it. I find it highly ironic that ‘laziness’ should be an attribute so often applied to a people who for generations had to suffer slavery!

6In AAVE, as I said, the use of a double negative as an intensifier is very common. So, for example, when Ray Charles sang “I don’t need no doctor…” it was perfectly clear what he meant. Again – clarity. But my stubborn blogger again could not get his head round the fact that to use or not to use a double negative depended entirely on context, not on a supposed laziness or lack of education. Certainly not on my part.

So, is my own English usage ‘perfect’? Well, should I even be aiming for that? In this essay I have deliberately used colloquial forms which have been frowned at by generations of schoolmarms. I have used the singular they/their, I have ended sentences with prepositions, I have started sentences with conjunctions, I have mixed British and American criteria for double and single quotes, I have sprinkled this essay with all kinds of things that some readers may find questionable. But did you, at any time, not understand what I was saying? I doubt it. That’s because I know my English, I know what it does, I know how it’s used, and I know how to use it.

But no, my English has never been ‘perfect’. I headed this article ‘I’m in a subjunctive mood’. That’s because I have to confess that I wrestled with a particular grammatical issue for many years – the subjunctive.

In the English language, strictly speaking, verbs no longer have a subjunctive mood. English does, however, retain a few zombie elements of it, and for a long time I had a big, big blind spot about these elements. Were I to illustrate this by saying that, if I was you, I would read no further, then you would see what I was driving at. I said ‘Were I to illustrate this…’ and that is pure subjunctive, expressing something conditional. I said ‘if I was you’, which was pointed out to me by someone editing my work as being ‘wrong’. To my mind, the word ‘if’ was enough to carry the conditional sense, and the phrase ‘if I was you’ required no subjunctive form of the verb. However, I had never been pulled up on this issue until that editorial process. I checked up on the matter, and I found that ‘if I were you’ was generally regarded as being ‘correct’. Was this another of these arbitrary ‘rules’ that had been foisted on us in the 18c? That didn’t matter to me. What did matter was the question of register and discourse – for whom I wrote generally, and in what context. In that respect ‘if I were you’ would be better received, and actually I had to admit it sounded better to my ear when I spoke each over. It sounded right. It sounded right. It had the benefit of euphony, this use of a double – ha! – conditional.

Wonder of wonders, there’s a grammatical construction that you must double.

Interestingly, though, the way it had been put to me was that ‘if I was you’ was the way the idea was commonly expressed amongst users of English as a second language, in a particular country, and was regarded by many users of English as a first language in that country as the speech of the ill-educated. And there I think we have come full-circle!


7* Humphrey Bogart’s final words in The Maltese Falcon – “The stuff that dreams are made of” – is in fact a misquotation. But that isn’t a problem, because there are many, many misquotes from Shakespeare, from the Bible, from other sources, floating freely out there. The English language is not poorer for them, it is probably richer.

** This is precisely why splitting an infinitive used to be considered incorrect – it was impossible in Latin, so it should be improper in English. See? Modern linguists consider that to be a silly, unnecessary rule, and I’m with them!

*** Inasmuch as rules are for the blind obedience of fools and the guidance of the wise.



Grammar precision: why hasn’t that boat sailed?

woman-writing-letters-by-charles-dana-gibsonOne of the most common memes on Facebook, at least in the circles I frequent, is the exasperated declaration about a point of grammar. Grammatical rules are a sticking point for so many people. Now, I know I’m writing from a position of privilege here (I checked – I often check my privilege, y’know!) inasmuch as my education was grounded in ‘correct’ grammar, and the mode of communication I was brought up with is Received Standard English. However, I am often driven to comment that these rules are arbitrary. They are. They were devised in the eighteenth and nineteenth century, by gentlemen with the benefit of classical education, who observed that the English language was changing.

Changing? Whoa! Who knew?

Languages change. The English language has changed radically in my lifetime and – know what? – by and large no one noticed. We simply went on speaking and writing English. The concerns of those erudite gentlemen in periwigs and britches have been echoed in every generation since then. They made a conscious choice to base their concept of English grammar on Latin grammar, even though the Latin language had had, until then, only a very limited influence on English. Hence, for example, their rule that one should never end a phrase with a preposition. Such a thing is actually impossible in Latin. However, it was current usage in 18c English and remains so, despite them, to this day. You probably noticed I broke their rule (deliberately) in the first paragraph above. Did that bother you? I doubt if it did too much damage to your sensibilities, any more than the many neologisms did that I use in this article.

There is a word for this insistence on the purity of grammatical rules. It is called ‘prescriptivism’. There can be times when its adherents will stick to something even against good advice. Not so long ago I posted a piece about the split infinitive, in which I quoted Fowler at length. Fowler, of course, is the grand-daddy of prescriptivism, the go-to guy, The Man, the settler of arguments on English usage. His advice on splitting infinitives? That people waste their time avoiding them, and in avoiding them produce ugly, unwieldy English. But – if I may begin a sentence with a conjunction – I am still getting feedback on that, from people who insist that to split an infinitive is plain damned wrong, and would go all round the houses to actually avoid doing so.

Let’s take another example – the ‘double negative’, as in ‘Ain’t Got No’ from Hair. The double negative as an intensifier has been around for centuries. It is there in French, which was arguably the single most important influence on the development of Middle and Early Modern English grammar. It is there in many vernaculars throughout the English-speaking world. When Geoffrey Chaucer wrote

He nevere yet no vileynye ne sayde
In al his lyf unto no maner wight

or Joe Tex sang

Ain’t gonna bump no mo’ with no big fat woman

is anyone unclear about what they meant? And yet because a double negative is impossible in Latin it becomes un-passable in English! (By the way, in the examples quoted, Joe Tex uses a triple-negative intensifier, and Chaucer – arguably – a quadruple.)

Of course this is the moment at which modern prescriptivists say, “We know how the English language developed, but that is irrelevant – it has these rules now.” Do they have a point?

Anyone schooled in linguistics will tell you that the proper study of language is into how people use it. From the time of the classically-educated prescriptivists, and in the generations since then during which the grammatical rules were taught by rote, right though to today when prescriptivists fight a keen rearguard action, the English language has gone through a very dynamic period. It has spread world-wide, it has given birth to scores of vernaculars, creoles, and contact-languages, it has lived a life full of action and incident, it has seen an efflorescence of creativity, it has been subjected to the innovations of information technology, it has changed and developed markedly, it has – and this is a very important point to remember – moved far beyond the confines of its traditional bases such as Britain, Britain’s white inheritor-countries (Canada, Australia, and New Zealand), and the United States. In moving away from these it has weakened any right people there have to consider themselves sources of normative power, gatekeepers of the supposed purity of the language.

Prescriptivism has, however, remained a recognisable influence upon the language. Students of linguistics realise this; prescriptivists, on the other hand, need to realise that it is only one influence among many. That’s how it has always been. The developments I cited above all happened despite, not because of prescriptivism. If prescriptivism in how one may use the language had been the be-all and end-all, then there would have been no Finnegans Wake with its stream-of-consciousness, no Catcher in the Rye with its colloquial register, no On The Road with its unedited spontaneity, no A Clockwork Orange with its exuberant conlang. There would have been virtually no poetry!

Prescriptivists also need to scrutinise themselves further, and ask themselves, honestly, whether their concerns are truly governed by matters of language. So often language campaigns, particularly by politicians, have been coded references to other social matters – youth behaviour, class, race, social order, national identity, for example. I’m not standing apart here and pointing a finger; each of us has his or her own cognitive biases, of which we are hardly ever aware. I am sure I do, as much as anyone else.

I’m going to reverse track on this argument and propose that there are ways in which a certain level of prescriptivism can be viewed as natural and beneficial. Whilst personally I don’t care where a preposition is, whether a negative is double, or whether an infinitive is split, I do care about clarity. If I were writing a notice for the benefit of the general public I would want to be sure that as many as possible took as its meaning that which I had intended; this level of consensus ad idem can only be reached if there is an agreed standard between myself and my readership. Narrowing it down further, if I am in a plane, I travel more easily if I can take it for granted that such a consensus exists between the pilot and the air-traffic-controller. Go anywhere and you will find that people like the assurance that what they say today in a conversation across their neighbour’s fence, will mean the same thing tomorrow. In countries where English is a force of new focus – the expanding economy of India, for example – there are prescriptivist movements growing which, though they might trace their origin to the English of the Raj, have their eyes on a particular issue of local or national concern. Even in a dynamic and changing context such as the slang of the young, wherever in the world they may be found, in New York, Singapore, or Bangalore, there are rules no matter how transient they may be. Rules, whether artificial and imposed, or natural and usage-driven, do exist in language in general, and in English in particular.

I believe it behoves us all to realise that the history of the English language is not over. No one could have predicted its state today, and no one can predict its state in the future. It is a beautiful language in which to create. It is a language which, out there in the world, enjoys the dynamism and tensions of a myriad of cultural encounters. It is at the same time a natural thing with a life of its own, which twists in our hands as we try to grasp it, and on the other hand a far-from-neutral political tool in the same hands. It is a child still, and children steadfastly refuse to grow up in our own image.

The split infinitive: advice to and entertainment for writers

To split or not to spilt, that is the question. If the object of splitting is an infinitive, my rule is simple – split it or don’t split it, but have an eye to ambiguity, to the verb you want to qualify, and to euphony. Nobody in her right mind would correct the world’s most famous split infinitive, that of Starship Captain James T Kirk, because to do so would be to disturb its ringing prosody, even though its sense would be as solid as a rock despite the change.

If all fails, say it another way.

Henry Watson Fowler is often granted the last word on the subject, and I’m going to quote him in full here, not because I regard him as authoritative, but because this is one of the wittiest pieces of writing on the subject. I chuckle to myself whenever I get to the place where he uses ‘readier’ and I want to yell “More readily!” – I suspect that he did that deliberately. Although he does come down very heavily against avoidance of the split infinitive where such avoidance is obsessive to the point of fetishistic, he is gracious enough to quote one of the ugliest splittings ever.

Let me give you a word of warning – don’t use Fowler, or any other source, as a bolster for your own prejudices. ‘Magister ipse dixit’ is never a good argument. I try not to, and I’m one of the most consistent contributors to grammar debates on Facebook that I know; I find them difficult to resist. Here he goes:



The English-speaking world may be divided into (1) those who neither know nor care what a split infinitive is; (2) those who do not know, but care very much; (3) those who know and condemn; (4) those who know and approve; and (5) those who know and distinguish.

(1) Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes. ‘To really understand’ comes readier to their lips and pens than ‘really to understand’; they see no reason why they should not say it (small blame to them, seeing that reasons are not their critics’ strong point), and they do say it, to the discomfort of some among us, but not to their own.

(2) To the second class, those who do not know but do care, who would as soon be caught putting their knives in their mouths as splitting an infinitive but have only hazy notions of what constitutes that deplorable breach of etiquette, this article is chiefly addressed. These people betray by their practice that their aversion to the split infinitive springs not from instinctive good taste, but from tame acceptance of the misinterpreted opinion of others; for they will subject their sentences to the queerest distortions, all to escape imaginary split infinitives. ‘To really understand’ is a s.i.; ‘to really be understood’ is a s.i.; ‘to be really understood’ is not one; the havoc that is played with much well-intentioned writing by failure to grasp that distinction is incredible. Those upon whom the fear of infinitive-splitting sits heavy should remember that to give conclusive evidence, by distortions, of misconceiving the nature of the s.i. is far more damaging to their literary pretensions than an actual lapse could be; for it exhibits them as deaf to the normal rhythm of English sentences. No sensitive ear can fail to be shocked if the following examples are read aloud, by the strangeness of the indicated adverbs. Why on earth, the reader wonders, is that word out of its place? He will find, on looking through again, that each has been turned out of a similar position, viz between the word be and a passive participle. Reflection will assure him that the cause of dislocation is always the same — all these writers have sacrificed the run of their sentences to the delusion that ‘to be really understood’ is a split infinitive. It is not; and the straitest non-splitter of us all can with a clear conscience restore each of the adverbs to its rightful place: He was proposed at the last moment as a candidate likely generally to be accepted. / When the record of this campaign comes dispassionately to be written, and in just perspective, it will be found that … / New principles will have boldly to be adopted if the Scottish case is to be met. / This is a very serious matter, which dearly ought further to be inquired into. / The Headmaster of a public school possesses very great powers, which ought most carefully and considerately to be exercised. / The time to get this revaluation put through is when the amount paid by the State to the localities is very largely to be increased.

(3) The above writers are bogy-haunted creatures who for fear of splitting an infinitive abstain from doing something quite different, i.e. dividing be from its complement by an adverb; see further under POSITION OF ADVERBS. Those who presumably do know what split infinitives are, and condemn them, are not so easily identified, since they include all who neither commit the sin nor flounder about in saving themselves from it — all who combine a reasonable dexterity with acceptance of conventional rules But when the dexterity is lacking disaster follows. It does not add to a writer’s readableness if readers are pulled up now and again to wonder — Why this distortion? Ah, to be sure, a non-split die-hard! That is the mental dialogue occasioned by each of the adverbs in the examples below. It is of no avail merely to fling oneself desperately out of temptation; one must so do it that no traces of the struggle remain. Sentences must if necessary be thoroughly remodelled instead of having a word lifted from its original place and dumped elsewhere: What alternative can be found which the Pope has not condemned, and which will make it possible to organise legally public worship ? / It will, when better understood, tend firmly to establish relations between Capital and Labour. / Both Germany and England have done ill in not combining to forbid flatly hostilities. / Every effort must be made to increase adequately professional knowledge and attainments. / We have had to shorten somewhat Lord D——’s letter. / The kind of sincerity which enables an author to move powerfully the heart would … / Safeguards should be provided to prevent effectually cosmopolitan financiers from manipulating these reserves.

(4) Just as those who know and condemn the s.i. include many who are not recognisable, since only the clumsier performers give positive proof of resistance to temptation, so too those who know and approve are not distinguishable with certainty. When a man splits an infinitive, he may be doing it unconsciously as a member of our class 1, or he may be deliberately rejecting the trammels of convention and announcing that he means to do as he will with his own infinitives. But, as the following examples are from newspapers of high repute, and high newspaper tradition is strong against splitting, it is perhaps fair to assume that each specimen is a manifesto of independence: It will be found possible to considerably improve the present wages of the miners without jeopardizing the interests of capital. / Always providing that the Imperialists do not feel strong enough to decisively assert their power in the revolted provinces. / But even so, he seems to still be allowed to speak at Unionist demonstrations. / It is the intention of the Minister of Transport to substantially increase all present rates by means of a general percentage. / The men in many of the largest districts are declared to strongly favour a strike if the minimum wage is not conceded.

It should be noticed that in these the separating adverb could have been placed outside the infinitive with little or in most cases no damage to the sentence-rhythm (considerably after minersdecisively after powerstill with clear gain after besubstantially after rates, and strongly at some loss after strike), so that protest seems a safe diagnosis.

(5) The attitude of those who know and distinguish is something like this: We admit that separation of to from its infinitive is not in itself desirable, and we shall not gratuitously say either ‘to mortally wound’ or ‘to mortally be wounded’, but we are not foolish enough to confuse the latter with ‘to be mortally wounded’, which is blameless English nor ‘to just have heard’ with ‘to have just heard’, which is also blameless. We maintain, however, that a real s.i., though not desirable in itself, is preferable to either of two things, to real ambiguity, and to patent artificiality. For the first, we will rather write ‘Our object is to further cement trade relations’ than, by correcting into ‘Our object is further to cement …’, leave it doubtful whether an additional object or additional cementing is the point. And for the second, we take it that such reminders of a tyrannous convention as ‘in not combining to forbid flatly hostilities’ are far more abnormal than the abnormality they evade. We will split infinitives sooner than be ambiguous or artificial; more than that, we will freely admit that sufficient recasting will get rid of any s.i. without involving either of those faults, and yet reserve to ourselves the right of deciding in each case whether recasting is worth while. Let us take an example: ‘In these circumstances, the Commission, judging from the evidence taken in London, has been feeling its way to modifications intended to better equip successful candidates for careers in India and at the same time to meet reasonable Indian demands.’ To better equip ? We refuse ‘better to equip’ as a shouted reminder of the tyranny; we refuse ‘to equip better’ as ambiguous (better an adjective?); we regard ‘to equip successful candidates better’ as lacking compactness, as possibly tolerable from an anti-splitter, but not good enough for us. What then of recasting? ‘intended to make successful candidates fitter for’ is the best we can do if the exact sense is to be kept, it takes some thought to arrive at the correction; was the game worth the candle?

After this inconclusive discussion, in which, however, the author’s opinion has perhaps been allowed to appear with indecent plainness, readers may like to settle the following question for themselves. ‘The greatest difficulty about assessing the economic achievements of the Soviet Union is that its spokesmen try absurdly to exaggerate them; in consequence the visitor may tend badly to underrate them.’ Has dread of the s.i. led the writer to attach his adverbs to the wrong verbs, and would he not have done better to boldly split both infinitives, since he cannot put the adverbs after them without spoiling his rhythm? Or are we to give him the benefit of the doubt, and suppose that he really meant absurdly to qualify try and badly to qualify tend?

It is perhaps hardly fair that this article should have quoted no split infinitives except such as, being reasonably supposed (as in 4) to be deliberate, are likely to be favourable specimens. Let it therefore conclude with one borrowed from a reviewer, to whose description of it no exception need be taken: ‘A book … of which the purpose is thus — with a deafening split infinitive — stated by its author: “Its main idea is to historically, even while events are maturing, and divinely — from the Divine point of view — impeach the European system of Church and States”.’

A Dictionary of Modern English Usage.