Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Heading in the wrong direction

Richard Firsten writes a column called "Grammatically Speaking" in Essential Teacher a quarterly TESOL publication. The premise is that English language teachers write in with their grammar questions and Richard answers them.

Although some of his answers are fine, it's not uncommon that he gets it wrong, sometimes shockingly so.

In his most recent column, the first question is why you can say "how good a student he/she is!" but you can't use the same construction with plurals "*How good students they are!"

Richard answers, basically by saying, 'well it doesn't work with plurals,' (more specifically, it works only with countable singulars) which is fair enough. The actual whys behind many of these questions are opaque even to linguists. But it would be helpful to elucidate, pointing out, as the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language does, that you run into the same issue with so/such.

Not so bad! But then he blows it with the next question: [or not. Update: here]
"In the sentence I'm headed for the beach, what part of speech is 'headed'?"

Richard answers in part,
"Some verbs have given birth, so to speak, to adjectival forms that have distanced themselves from the original meaning of the verbs they come from. For example, when you say She's determined to finish the job on schedule or She's very determined, you’re describing the subject, so you can clearly view determined as an adjective. The use of determined in this context doesn't rely on the verb to determine. Similarly, to head for is obviously a verb, but to be headed for can be viewed as an adjectival phrase in that it will describe a person or thing (If the company doesn't change its fiscal policies, it's headed for bankruptcy)."

In "He is Fred" and "He is running", you're also describing the subject, but that doesn't mean there's anything adjectival about them. The test of an adjective is that it share most of the following properties:
-can be graded
-can be modified by 'very'
-can appear both attributively and predicatively
-can appear in a fused head construction (e.g., the *rich* get richer)

All are true for 'determined'.
they're more determined.
they're very determined.
the determined people / they are determined
the determined are hard to beat

All are false for 'headed'.
*they're more headed
*they're very headed
*the headed people / they are headed (for the lake)
*the headed will arrive sooner

Clearly, 'headed' is a verb.

The second part of the question is, "I think that I'm headed for the beach and I'm heading for the beach mean basically the same thing, which is very strange. I can't think of another sentence where you can use the present participle and the past participle and have the meaning be the same."

Richard brings up rumored for some reason I can't seem to fathom (maybe I'm missing something) but doesn't offer any other verbs that follow this pattern. Anyhow I would say that all of the following are at least as similar as the headed/heading pair:
  • When the Northern hemisphere is pointed/pointing towards the Sun, the days are longer,
  • The hemisphere that is tilted/tilting towards the Sun is warmer because sunlight travels more directly to the Earth’s surface
  • Position the hearing aid so that it is faced/facing towards the. sound chamber speaker.
I think now that classes are finished and I'm headed for the holidays, I'll have some more time to blog so you can look forward to a few more posts on the problems with this column.


Anonymous said...

Hi. I'm just catching up on your blog so I realize I'm really late with this response. I was just struck by the idea that you can't use the "how good a student he/she is" construction with plural. However, for some reason, it does work with plurals when the construction is slightly rearranged. "How smart she is." "How beautiful they are."

I'm always struck by this construction because of a contemporary Christian song often sung in our church which has the line "How great is your love, O Lord." However, instead of ending with a period (or even better an exclamation mark) to indication a declarative or exclamatory sentence, it is always printed with question mark - makes me feel rather odd singing a "praise" song which questions the greatness or extent of God's love... But that get's me into another whole topic of how so much of this genre doesn't use any punctuation at all, or uses it incorrectly, so that it doesn't really end up saying what you have to assume (or guess) it was intended to say ...

Adrian said...

"In "He is Fred" and "He is running", you're also describing the subject, but that doesn't mean there's anything adjectival about them."

Er, well, yes, there is something adjectival about saying what someone's name is, or describing their state. I think you've missed that obvious fact in your rush to make your point! As with any taxonomy, the groupings we make in grammar aren't arbitrary, but they are leaky.

The fact that parts of verbs often have adjectival force first struck me when I was learning German and French. When Germans say "Ich bin gegangen" they are describing themselves: "I am gone". I mention this in class to help my pupils learn something which many of them find wildly illogical. (It is, of course, much less logical to say "I have gone".)

Although I don't mention this to pupils, since they don't need much help to learn a construction that exists in English, the regular type of verb could be said to have nominal force: "Ich habe gespielt" > "I have played." ("I am played" would mean something else entirely.)