Friday, October 22, 2010

Infinitive of purpose

Lori Habermehl, a colleague here in the English Language Centre at Humber, pointed out to me an exception to the textbook descriptions of the infinitive of purpose. This is the infinitive in "I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him." Learners of English often seem to grasp for a preposition to express this and end up, quite reasonably, with for. A decent paraphrase of Mark Anthony's famous line might be "I've come for Caesar's funeral, not for his martyrdom." Unfortunately, "I've come for burying Caesar, not for praising him" is unidiomatic at best, and it is this type of construction that many ESL grammar books are trying to help students avoid in sections on the infinitive of purpose.

Lori then asked, what about sentences like The uranium could be used for making nuclear weapons. I had occasionally noticed that for + present participle could be used to indicate purpose, but I'd never thought properly about it and so I told her I didn't know. Quickly, though, we came up with the hypothesis that it has to do with licensing complements, and a few corpus queries later, we were pretty sure that we were right. In fact, the only verb we could find that allowed this type of construction was use. 

So it seems that infinitives of purpose are adjuncts, while the for + present participle construction is a licensed complement of use. This can be illustrated by the fact that it's common to move the infinitive to the start of the sentence, but rare for a sentence to start with for + present participle.

  • To make changes, go to the edit menu.
  • Go to the edit menu to make changes.
  • Use the edit menu to make changes.
  • ?For making changes, use the edit menu.
  • Use a non-stick pan to fry the eggs.
  • Use a non-stick pan for frying the eggs.
  • To fry your eggs, use a non-stick pan.
  • ?For frying your eggs, use a non-stick pan.
  • Use a non-stick pan to make clean-up easier.
  • To make clean-up easier, use a non-stick pan.
  • Use a non-stick pan for making clean-up easier.
  • ?For making clean-up easier, use a non-stick pan.

(To be honest, I was expecting those ? sentences to sound worse than they do. Maybe I've just talked myself into believing they sound good.)

 I don't think I've ever seen this point addressed by any grammar book.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Reading about academic fraud

The Toronto Star is now including a section of New York Times article in their Sunday edition. That's where I ran into "Rampant Fraud Threat to China’s Brisk Ascent" by Andrew Jacobs. I don't have much to add except that I'll be using this as a reading in my level 7 EAP classes where I've had to deal with a lot of plagiarism this session. I don't know exactly what effect it will have, but it can't hurt.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Taboo words as audience-awareness enhancement tools

Over the weekend I was sitting at the dining room table with a bunch of tests and essays. Everyone else was either outside or off somewhere else. I had music playing and was comfortably settled in for a long slog of marking. After some time, my mother and aunt came in from their gardening and suddenly the music, which had been such a great companion, was awkwardly loud. I jumped up and turned it down because I simply couldn't enjoy it at that volume because I expected they wouldn't enjoy it at that volume.

This reminded me of something I've noticed with my kids' language. The two of them, one in grade 1 and one in 4, will occasionally and unselfconsciously say things like "oh my god!" or "thank god!" I have no compunction against using these exact phrases myself, and I don't even notice when other adults use them. But with the kids, it rubs me the wrong way. And I will ask them not to use those expressions.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

'Worldwide' as a preposition?

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language takes worldwide to be both an adverb and an adjective (p. 568). It occurred to me this morning that it's more like a preposition, but the more I thought about it, the less sure I became. At this point, I'm firmly on the fence.

Worldwide is not exactly a typical adjective. Things don't typically become worldwide. In fact, I can only find one example in the COCA:
1997 MAG AmericanCraft "...was originally invented in Japan about 300 years ago, but its use has become worldwide since the late 19th century."

Thursday, October 07, 2010

The grammatical status quo

In relation to a discussion on the correct classification of ago and before, a correspondent writes,
"I think when it comes to traditional categories, we should err on the side of inertia (or conservatism) because we would otherwise be asking people (admittedly not a large group these days) to change a trusted way of thinking. It's not like we are looking at alternative proposals in a vacuum. If the arguments are equal, I would vote for the status quo."I agree. But in this case, I don't think the arguments are at all equal. 

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Future tense dependent on what?

In today's NY Times, Natalie Angier makes the extraordinary claim that the future tense is dependent on science and math education.

Of course, she doesn't mean it. It would be pointless to argue that we have no future tense to begin with let alone to question how science and math education in America could possibly have anything to do with the (in)stability of a basic grammatical system of English. She's simply not making a point about language at all, so any mention of it is off topic.

But she brought it up. The question is why. Why resort to this odd rhetorical move, what Geoff Pullum calls linguification, when it contains no humour, no clever analogy, no orienting metaphor, and no poetic musicality? Why not simply say, "Our nation’s economy, global allure and future tense all depend on the strength of its scientific spine," which is presumably what she means?