August 06, 2005

A field guide to grammar

I swear, I'm not one of those people who thinks that Western Civilization is entering its Last Days. At least, not in general. I've defended modern students, writers and others from Camille Paglia's charge that "interest in and patience with long, complex books and poems have alarmingly diminished not only among college students but college faculty in the U.S.". I've defended email and cellphone usage against shoddy pseudoscientific indictments. But there are a few areas where I'll agree that civilization has indeed been overwhelmed. In particular, when it comes to elementary usage of linguistic terminology, intellectuals have joined the general population in untroubled ignorance, and even the sacred groves of academe have been clear cut, strip mined and used as a landfill.

Here at Language Log, we've noted example after example of this. Arnold Zwicky documented another one yesterday, and it's a doozy. William Howarth, writing about Rachel Carson in The American Scholar, mis-identified progressive verbs ("eels were leaving the marshes") as "passive gerunds". The walls of the city have fallen, and some Visigothic looter, swilling cognac, complains to his companions that the scotch tastes funny. But this is not a kid sounding off on his blog, or even a journalist mis-using terminology that he doesn't care to check: William Howarth is a professor of English at Princeton University, and The American Scholar is the "literary and intellectual quarterly" of the Phi Beta Kappa society.

What to do? We could simply abandon the terminology to the vagaries of current usage. For example, we could admit that the word passive just doesn't mean "passive" any more, but has developed two new senses, one for phrases whose subject is not an agent, and another for phrases involving a form of "to be" anywhere in the vicinity. Then we would have to make up new terms, like "perispectual verboid", to replace the old ones.

But I'm not ready to give up yet. Another option is suggested by Geoff Pullum's recent post on his sighting (well, hearing) of an aux-initial clause with complex subject, and Arnold Zwicky's old post about his search for first-mention possessive antecedents. Both pieces resonate with the joy of a birdwatcher adding a rare species to his Life List.

So what we need is a new social phenomenon: verbwatching. There would be books ("The Verbs of North America", "Geoff Pullum's Field Guide to Predicative Adjuncts", "Preterites of the Central Brazos Valley"), web sites, clubs, field trips, videos, ...

Well, it could happen. Seriously, although there are excellent books on English Grammar, I don't know any that entirely solve the access problems sketched in this overview of field guides, so perhaps there is a niche for a Field Guide to English Grammar. And someday, the editors of intellectual periodicals will have learned enough from their field trips to correct a Princeton professor who submits a piece identifying robins as warblers.

[Update: Linda Seebach emails

Heh. Try Googling "passive tense."

The presence of some form of "to be" isn't even necessary. I used to be on a listserv for writers, all professionals and many highly regarded -- the person who organized it, Jon Franklin, has won two Pulitzers -- and he, as well as another list member who taught journalism, were both convinced that "she looked sad" was a passive sentence.

Well, that comes under the "subject is not an agent" heading, I guess.

For other examples, see this earlier post and those it links to.]

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 6, 2005 12:10 PM