Saturday, September 04, 2010

Richard Firsten is back and less than helpful

When TESOL stopped publishing Essential Teacher, I thought we had seen the end of Richard Firsten's "Grammatically speaking" column. But the column lives again in an online version, which will be published every two months. Long-time readers will know that I've often disputed Firsten's grammatical claims. Well, it's that time again.
I'll take up the first few questions another time. For now, I'd like to look at the last one:
Hi, Richard.

I came across the following sentence when I was reading a book. I know what it means but I could not understand what grammar rule was used. Is it an inversion? I consulted many grammar books, but I could not find an answer. I would like to know why the sentence is formed like this so that I can explain it to my students. The sentence in question is, “The job of the linguist is to reveal and make explicit this knowledge about meaning that every speaker has.” (from An Introduction to Language)

Thank you for your time.

Sincerely Yours,
Niigata, Japan 
Hi, Chikako!

I’m afraid that you’ve misinterpreted the role of certain elements in the sentence ― which is perfectly grammatical, by the way. There’s a verb (reveal) and a verb phrase (make explicit) that both precede their one direct object (this knowledge about meaning), which is followed by a relative clause. It’s really as simple as that.

I hope that clarifies this for you. Thanks for sending in the question.
How could that possibly clarify anything? The question she's asking is something like: "Why is the order make explicit this knowledge instead of make this knowledge explicit? Sentences like *Please, make happy me or *She held her breath until she made red her face are ungrammatical, so why is this OK?"

But there are other grammatical examples:
  • Mr. Bush making clear his top priority: the war on terrorism. 
  • To take only one example, the administration had made clear its interest in devising a " school to work " transition system in the 
  • President Cardoso has made clear his determination to pursue strong economic reforms, and certainly it's clear from 
  • there is rejoicing among us. We have made our prayer, and we have made good our humanity in the process. 
  • Google generally makes available the full text of books in the public domain and limited portions of copyrighted 
  • I would like to thank Dieter Schwarz for making available to me the many relevant documents and interviews with Lawrence Weiner that he has 
And these constructions are not limited to make.
  • the First Amendments establishment clause; and Abington v. Schempp (1963), which declared unconstitutional a Pennsylvania statute that provided for compulsory Bible reading in public classrooms. 
  • that approximately 65-80% of the sample approved of, intended to participate in, and believed effective the protest meetings or marches permitted by the authorities
  • Vela strives to kept alive the memory and inspiration fostered by his one-time boss. 
This phenomenon is called object postposing. In general, English has a tendency to delay long (or "heavy") constructions and new information until later in the clause. In the example above, the delayed object is indeed a heavy NP (i.e., this knowledge about meaning that every speaker has). The same is true of all the examples I found.

The other problem is that you've got coordinated VPs, reveal + this knowledge... and make + this knowledge... + explicit. Only make takes a predicate complement (i.e., the AdjP explicit). Postposing the object, allows this stucture: [[reveal and make explicit] the knowledge]]. With the standard order, the natural interpretation would be reveal the knowledge explicit.

I hope that's a little more helpful than Firsten's answer.

It turns out, though, that this was actually Firsten's final column. From now on it will be written by T. Leo Schmitt. Let's hope that he does a better job than Firsten has.

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