January 21, 2007

Sentence with no subject?

The blogger Callimachus at Winds of Change quotes the Los Angeles Times as saying:

Using the word "surge" to describe President Bush's forthcoming plan for reshaping U.S. efforts in Iraq has ignited a fiery political brouhaha.

and comments scathingly that this attempt to smear the Bush regime for use of the term "surge" overlooks the fact that the media use it more than Bush does; and it fails (Callimachus says) for grammatical reasons: "What's missing there? The sentence has no subject."

Callimachus is wrong. The incident provides an interesting little example of how people who attempt to use grammatical analysis in the service of their rhetorical analysis often lack the necessary grammatical knowledge. The sentence Callimachus quotes (in red above) does have a subject. The sentence as a whole has the form of a declarative tensed clause, and thus must have a subject to be grammatical. And it has one: the subject is a non-finite (gerund-participial) clause, namely using the word "surge" to describe President Bush's forthcoming plan for reshaping U.S. efforts in Iraq. (The predicate following that subject is the verb phrase has ignited a fiery political brouhaha.)

What Callimachus appears to mean is that the non-finite subject clause does not itself have a subject (this is grammatically permissible, of course, where omitting the subject in a declarative main clause would not be). Use of the word "surge" is referred to in a way that does not mention whose use of it we are talking about. It's actually a valid point. Later Callimachus points out that the very same L.A. Times article admits that the Bush regime have been avoiding use of the verb surge in the relevant context, which really does look like a contradiction in the article's argument. But the Callimachus's grammar has let him down.

The fact is that the teaching of grammar in our culture has fallen to such a low ebb that in general even people who write about language, in blogs or for print media, simply cannot tell what the subject of a sentence is, or what a verb is (see here and here), or what a tense is (see here and here), or what a noun is (see here), or whether a clause is in the passive or not (see here and here and here), or whether something is an adjective or an adverb (see here), or whether subjects are being confused with objects (see here)...

Mark usually says when pointing out such things that we linguists ought to blame our discipline. We teach about language, but we do it so ineffectually that hardly any of the general public or the journalistic profession can deploy even the most elementary analytical terms for talking about language.

Well, maybe the blame lies with us. I'm not sure. I'm a part of the discipline, and I'm doing what I can: this quarter I'm teaching a big lower-division undergraduate course on English grammar with no prerequisites. I'll be trying to teach the students to identify subjects of clauses and tell actives from passives and so on. If I fail, we'll have to decide whether the fault lies with me or with them. We'll see how it goes. I'll try to keep you informed.

[Hat tip to Linda Seebach of Rocky Mountain News for a pointer to the Callimachus post.]

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at January 21, 2007 01:39 PM