Posts Tagged ‘passive’

The Five Most Misleading Grammatical Terms

As a Linguist and as a college writing teacher, I’ve concluded that much of the grammar terminology used by writing teachers and grammar handbooks ought to be abolished and replaced. This terminology was never designed for pedagogical purposes or for the writing classroom. Instead, it has been passed down through generations of traditional grammarians and philologists. Much of this terminology was molded from the grammar of Latin—not English. Eventually it was adopted rather uncritically by composition teachers and textbook publishers, and not much has changed since.

Writing teachers often overlook issues around grammar jargon, assuming that everything has already been decided from on high. If we were taught the definition of “subject” by our third grade teacher, how could anything else possibly be right? As I mention in another post, we must minimize and carefully consider the grammar terminology that we introduce to students. Because it’s cumbersome and confusing to explicitly define grammar terminology for students, the best terminology comes with intuitive names.

Unintuitive names mislead. Students, teachers, and handbook authors can’t help but to intuit meaning from the names of terms, often in ways that read too deeply and lead them into mass confusion. For instance, when we hear that a sentence is “passive,” we infer that it must be weak and undesirable—a conclusion that seems reasonable but that proves simplistic.

In this post, I will list the five most misleading terms in the teaching of grammar. I’ll contrast the mythology that arises when we read too deeply into the name against the reality that has been discerned from half a century of linguistic research. Then I’ll propose for each term some more intuitive name as a replacement.

Number Five: Subordinating/Coordinating Conjunction

Myth: Coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or, etc.) connect two clauses of equal “importance” or “weight”:

1a. The internet is becoming a huge part of people’s everyday lives and it takes away from precious time with family.

while subordinating conjunctions (although, because, since, etc.) join clauses where the one following the subordinating conjunction carries less “importance” or “weight” than the other:

1b. The internet is becoming a huge part of people’s everyday lives, although it takes away from precious time with family.

Fact: The distinction between coordinating conjunctions and coordinating conjunctions has nothing to do with the importance or weight of the items being joined.

In another post, I explained in detail the real differences between subordinating and coordinating conjunctions. I’ll sum up here: yes, conjunctions join clauses together, but the rest of the myth is a collective hallucination supported by a few carefully manipulated sentences in handbooks that seem to support it.

In the study of linguistics, researchers separate the semantic properties (meaning) of a given word from the syntactic properties (word order and sentence structure). It’s easy for non-Linguists to interchange the two, but these two subsystems of the language need to be examined separately.

Coordinating conjunctions differ crucially from subordinating conjunctions in their syntax. Most notably, coordinating conjunctions allow a robust range of possibilities, joining not just clauses but (almost) any two or more words/phrases, provided they are of the same type:

2a. He ordered us [to eat and to pray].

2b. He ordered us [to eat, to pray, and to love].

2c. He ordered us [to eat, to pray, to love, and to sleep].

On the other hand, subordinating conjunctions are much more limited in terms of the types of things they join together:

3. *He ordered us [to eat although to pray]. (Here and elsewhere, the asterisk denotes the sentences is ungrammatical.)

Further, they only join together exactly two clauses/things, but never more:

4. *The internet is becoming a huge part of people’s everyday lives, it is being used for many games and apps, although it takes away from precious time with family.

The term “coordination” derives from the fact that in many linguistic theories, two or more items conjoined with a coordinating conjunction exist at the same level in the syntactic structure of the sentence:

from p. 226 of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, by David Crystal, 1995

whereas subordinating conjunctions join two items on disparate levels of the syntactic structure:

from p. 226 of The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, by David Crystal, 1995

Beyond that, it’s hard to draw a broad semantic generalization about the set of subordinating conjunctions, the set of coordinating conjunctions, and the “weight” or “importance” of the clauses they combine. The meaning contributed by a conjunction varies depending on the particular word, not the category of conjunction. Interestingly, some coordinating conjunctions share nearly identical meanings with some subordinating conjunctions—for instance, “although” and “but.”

A more intuitive name: get rid of the misleading coordination/subordination distinction. Why not just call them all “conjunctions” and encourage students to use a variety. As another alternative, we could call what are traditionally called “coordinating conjunctions” simply “conjunctions.” What have traditionally been called subordination conjunctions could simply be called “conjunctive prepositions,” since these words are treated as prepositions in many theories of grammar, and some (“as,” “after,” and “since”) actually double as more conventional prepositions:

5a. He strikes us as a con artist.

5b. Tom chased after Jerry.

5c. Since dinner, we haven’t eaten desert.

Number Four: Direct/Indirect Object

Myth: The direct object is the “receiver” of the action named by the verb. The indirect object is the “beneficiary” of the action named by the verb, or answers the questions “to whom?” or “for whom?”.

Fact: This definition depends too heavily on the semantics of the verb to analyze the syntax, and it’s nearly impossible to use when students apply it to the messiness of naturally occurring language.

Leaving aside the troubling fact that the mythological definitions of direct object and indirect object seem to overlap with one another, in the most prototypical examples fabricated in handbooks, it’s easy to figure out what the indirect object and direct object is:

6. John gave Mary a gift.

but when we look at more complex examples, these definitions are confusing and unhelpful for students who apply them to naturally occurring sentences of English:

7a. John had a bath.

7b. For his client, the attorney called the witness a con artist.

7c. I tossed the ball into the window.

The direct/indirect object distinction has been imported from the study of the grammar of Romance languages. In these languages, speakers choose completely different pronouns depending on whether an item is in direct or indirect object position, as we see in Spanish:

8a. Yo le di una galleta.

Literal translation: I gave him (indirect object) a cookie.

8b. Ella lo amaba.

Literal translation: She loved him (direct object).

In English, there’s no difference in the pronoun choice between direct objects and indirect objects, like there is between subjects and objects (“I” versus “me”). In teaching English writing to native speakers, I see no scenarios where students need to explicitly distinguish between direct and indirect objects. In other words, writing teachers should consider the direct/indirect object distinction a matter of grammar trivia, rather than something worth teaching.

A more intuitive name: Writing teachers would do best to circumvent this mountain, rather than try to scale it. If a definition is called for, grammar definitions that depend heavily on semantics are unwieldy and slippery. I would prefer clear-cut syntactic definitions that fit with the facts of English (rather than Romance languages) and that map straightforwardly onto a string of words. In this view, we could refer to objects of the verb as either “prepositional objects” and “non-prepositional objects”, depending on whether they occur within a prepositional phrase. Amongst non-prepositional objects, we could talk about the “first (non-prepositional) object” and the “second (non-prepositional) object”:

9. Gustavo bet Mercedes ten dollars on the game.

Number Three: Run-on sentence

Myth: A run-on sentence error occurs when a sentence goes on for too long.

Fact: It has nothing to do with length and everything to do with proper punctuation.

A run-on sentence is a punctuation error that occurs when two complete sentences are next to one another, without being joined by a conjunction (and, although, etc.) or being separated by an ending punctuation (period, semicolon, etc.):

10. I used this skill all through high school there is a particular time that sticks out in my mind.

While it’s true that many run-on sentences stretch out over a great length, that’s not their defining feature. A sentence stretched over an entire page, if punctuated properly, avoids being a run-on (though it raises questions of style). Conversely, you can have a very short sentence that’s a run on, such as:

11. I napped I awoke.

A more intuitive name: “run-together sentence error” or “fused sentence error.”

Number Two: Passive Sentence/Active Sentences

Myth: Passive sentences are weak and should be avoided. Use active sentences instead.

Fact: Sometimes that’s true, but passives serve important functions as well.

A passive construction differs from its non-passive counterpart primarily in terms of word order. Passive constructions occur when you start with a verb that both takes an object and allows the agent (or experiencer) role to be expressed as a grammatical subject:

12a. The policewoman smacked the kid.

To passivize it, add a version of the verb “be,” followed a verb in the past participle form. The subject position is filled by an argument canonically expressed by one of the verb’s objects, while the agent role either goes unexpressed, or is expressed in a prepositional phrase beginning with “by”:

12b. The kid was smacked (by the policewoman).

A significant part of my master’s thesis dealt with passive constructions, and I’ve come to appreciate their utility for speakers and writers. Some version of the passive construction exists in every language I’ve studied, and there’s a good reason. Speakers strongly prefer to select certain types of material as the grammatical subjects of their sentences, such as pronouns, phrases that refer to people, phrases that refer back to recent discourse, or phrases that are very brief.  Passive constructions allow speakers to reorder the canonical order to fulfill these desires. Thus, the subject selection in 13a provides a more natural way to express oneself compared with 13b:

13a. When I got off the bus, I was hit by a huge icicle .

13b. When I got off the bus, a huge icicle hit me .

Furthermore, speakers can often omit the agent of a verb when they desire to be concise or the agent can easily be inferred by speakers. To illustrate, compare the following:

14a. In Math class, homework was given. (passive)

14b. In Math class, the teacher gave homework. (active)

Passive sentences work fine in many contexts, but they can degrade the clarity and style of the writing when overused, or when used in the wrong situations. When misused, passive constructions can produce vague writing laden with bureaucratic evasiveness:

15. With regard to the oversight committee, it appears that mistakes may have been made and a procedures review will now be undertaken.

Interestingly, some people overgeneralize and even label sentences as “passive” just because they sound empty or impersonal for other reasons, rather than actually containing a passive construction:

16. Downsizing may or may not occur.

A more intuitive name:  “subject/object reordering.”

Number One: Subject

from p. 128 of Real Skills with Readings by Susan Anker, 2nd ed., 2010

Myth:The subject is what a sentence is about, or the subject is the doer of the action named by the verb.

Fact: Often the myth proves true, but I’ve never seen a worse name for a piece of grammatical terminology or one more riddled with ambiguity.

The term “subject” has countless meanings to everyday people. To people who study literature and philosophy, “subject” carries even more meanings. None of these have much to do with it’s grammatical meaning.

To linguists, a “subject” is strictly a syntactic and morpho-syntactic category, and it has little to do with the semantics of the verb or the meaning of the sentence. It’s a position in the syntax of a sentence. That’s all. Almost always, the subject position is a noun phrase that’s before the verb, and almost always, the verb morphology agrees with the subject in number.

17a. The guys walk  into the store.

17b. The guy walks into the store.

Although it’s frequently the case that the subject is the doer of the action named by the verb, this not always the case, such as with passive constructions.

18. The boy on the skateboard was barked at.

Further, a huge number of sentences lack a “doer,” yet they still have a grammatical subject:

19a. There is a problem with this file.

19b. Two plus two equals four.

19c. It rained out here last night.

Finally, the definition where a subject is what a sentence is “about” is vague to the point of meaninglessness, and it will drive students crazy. Clearly, most sentences are “about” many things all at once.

A more intuitive name: “initial position” or “pre-verbal position”