Saturday, August 18, 2007

Grammar by gosh and by golly

I have been assigned to teach a freshman writing course using Writing by Choice, by Eric Henderson. I've read most of it now and do appreciate the main theme about choice. I was, however, rather surprised when I came to the grammar section. I understand the need to keep things simple, but it seems to me that, perhaps in his efforts to do so, he has developed a basic framework which has rather too many inconsistencies and outright errors.

We begin with his discussion of "substantives". Though tradition is to recognise pronouns and nouns as separate "parts of speech" there appears to be no good reason for doing so. It seems more parsimonious to simply note that pronouns are a special case of nouns. Henderson follows tradition.

Regardless of what you think of the above point, the definition he provides for each remains problematic because of his reliance on semantic properties to the exclusion of morphology and syntax. To wit,
  • "Noun (nomen: 'name'): name of a person, place, or thing."
  • "Pronoun (pro + nomen: 'in place of the noun'): a word that takes the place of a noun in a sentence."

A punch, for example, is in no natural way a thing. It is an action (and I'm sure you can guess what Henderson's definition of verb is), yet punch can be either noun or verb. He goes on to say that the noun that is replaced by the pronoun is its antecedent and that indefinite pronouns have no antecedent. In other words, they don't take the place of a noun. This means they don't meet the defining criteria for pronouns.

The same thing is true of the "demonstrative pronouns" (which modern grammar deals with much more effectively under the category determiner--or determinative if you take determiner to be a function.) What noun does yonder, for instance, replace? And on p. 371, he notes that all pronouns must match the person of the antecedent, and writes, "all nouns are third-person." If we take the definition to be true, this negates the possibility of first and second person pronouns.

The simple fact that nouns (pronouns included) change for number and in forming possessives can easily be incorporated into a definition. Similarly, verbs conjugate for past tense (must excepted). Other properties can also be brought to bear to increase the level of precision (but at the expense of simplicity).

Another problem lies in Henderson's blurry distinction between parts of speech and functions. Nouns, he writes, have five functions: subject, object, object of a preposition, subjective complement, and appositive. Yet, when a noun modifies another noun, he says it is functioning as an adjective. Why is this not in the list of functions? And when did adjective become a function? In this book it is described as a part of speech, a category, that has the function of modifier. So would it not be more consistent to say that nouns functions as modifiers?

The same can be said of the case on p. 320 where phrases are described as acting as nouns. Rephrasing this as "phrases can function as subjects or objects" makes for a much more coherent grammar.

And, before leaving nouns, as far as I can tell, his system completely overlooks their function in cases like night in "I met her last night" or day in "six days old".

The next issue that caught my attention was the treatment of subject. Although the definition on p. 349 ("The subject of a sentence or clause is the noun or pronoun that performs the action of the verb, or that exists in the state or condition expressed by the subjective complement.") is better than the one on p. 307 ("The subject noun is the doer or performer of the action."), neither of them sufficiently handles stative transitive verbs such as 'have', which denote no action and have no "subjective complement". This is similar to the issues raise above regarding the definition of nouns.

But a more serious problem is that the definitions completely ignore passive sentences. In such sentences, the subject is never, as far as I can discern, the "doer or performer of the action", regardless of how forgivingly you interpret action. (In fact, insofar as I can see, the book ignores passive sentences altogether; at least, there is no index entry for passive or voice and I haven't come across any mention in the text.) And while we're on the subject of subjects, he writes, "prepositions cannot ever be the subject of a clause". This denies the existence of sentences such as "After nine is good for me."

Shifting now to verbs, we have the same kind of defining problems again, but those aside, I was shocked to see that he has conflated intransitive verbs and "linking verbs". While there are good reasons for including linking verbs as a special case of intransitives, I can see no basis at all for calling all intransitives linking verbs. Yet, that is what he's done. I've yet to see another grammar that sanctions this grouping. His choice to ignore other valencies (ditransitives or complex transitives) can be dismissed as an issue of scope, but this choice is much harder to defend.

Then he completely loses it with this bit of analysis. Considering the sentence "He acted splendidly as Hamlet in Shakespeare's play", he writes, "acted is used as a transitive verb--there is a direct object of this activity: 'as [in the role of] Hamlet.'" Direct object is not among the functions he lists for prepositions (and rightfully so, I believe). Indeed, Merriam-Webster's online dictionary gives the following example for INtransitive act: "trees acting as a windbreak".

Seemingly by way of explanation, during this discussion of intransitive/linking verbs, he makes the assertion that "in some verbs, the traditional use of to be has been dropped in speech and informal prose," giving the example of seem (e.g., "She seems [to be] well.") As far as I can tell, seem has been used freely without to be as far back as Chaucer's middle English and likely all the way back to Old Norse. For example, from The Canterbury Tales

The vapour, which that fro the erthe glood,
Made the sonne to seme rody and brood;
But natheless, it was so fair a sighte
That it made alle hir hertes for to lighte,
What for the sesoun and the morwenynge,
And for the foweles that she herde synge;

There are other problems, but I've gone on too long already. By the way, this book was first published last year. What justified it, I have no idea.

1 comment:

The Ridger, FCD said...

I hate to think of his thoughts on the middle voice, like "This bread slices easily". The bread is performing the action?

Thanks for this review, though; I'll stay away from buying or recommending it.