October 14, 2007

He knows you won't call him on it

John Wells writes from London to point out that The Guardian (October 13, page 32; link here) publishes these words of advice on ending business letters (in a piece by John Harris, but apparently quoted from Ben Harris, the editor of The Oxford Guide to Effective Speaking and Writing):

Finishing: useful tips: If you are expecting a response, use the present continuous form of the verb in the last paragraph, ie: "I look forward to hearing your response". If, however, you want to bring the correspondence to a close, let your grammar reflect this: "We regret we cannot assist you further with your query".

Why he believes the exact form chosen from the verb paradigm would influence the likelihood of a letter getting a response I have no idea, but one thing is clear: the person giving this grammar-based advice cannot tell which verbs are in the present tense (continuous or otherwise) and which are not. It is quite astonishing to see that someone whose job involves knowing about grammar and usage and style and telling others about it should be incapable of distinguishing tensed verbs from non-tensed or telling one construction from another, but the evidence that he doesn't know what he's talking about grammatically is clear.

What is meant by "the present continuous form of the verb" here, I think, must be the progressive aspect construction, as in I am waiting. But the example given does not contain an instance of that construction. I look forward to hearing your response has the verb look in the present tense followed by forward and a preposition phrase with the head to. The complement of the preposition to is a subjectless gerund-participial clause, hearing your response. The verb hear is not in the present tense (it is a participle, and thus shows no tense), and it does not form part of a progressive aspect ("present continuous") construction.

My claim that there is no progressive here is not just some kind of intuition about meaning; it can be supported by independent syntactic evidence. Notice that *I am knowing the answer is ungrammatical, or at least extremely hard to imagine being naturally used, because a purely stative verb like know does not normally occur in the progressive; but I look forward to knowing the answer by tomorrow night is fine, because it is not an instance of the progressive.

I don't think there is anything else Harris could have meant to refer to other than progressive aspect.

In A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language by Lord Quirk and his colleagues (Longman, 1985) the index entry for "continuous aspect" just contains an arrow pointing to "progressive".

The term continuative (not "continuous") is used in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (CUP, 2002) for an aspect involving continuation of a situation through a time period and up to the point of orientation, as in It must have been here for a thousand years as opposed to It must have been awful to witness that; but this has nothing to do with the example under discussion.

Henry Sweet, in his New English Grammar, Part I (Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1891, p. 102) does use the term "continuous", but only to refer to a sense of the present tense involving habituality (He lives in the country) rather than recurrency (He goes to Germany twice a year), and again this has nothing to do with the case at hand.

Harris cannot possibly mean that look is the recommended form for the purpose of getting people to write back, because the example he uses for contrast (We regret we cannot assist you further with your query) uses exactly the same form in the main clause, the plain present regret and cannot. There is no potentially relevant contrast between the grammar of the two examples except that the first contains a gerund-participle.

What is going on when the editor of a book on how to write offers grammar advice and opinion in a leading English-language newspaper and gets the relevant grammar utterly wrong?

The first thing to note is of course that the state of grammar knowledge among today's intellectuals is at a low ebb, and linguists must bear some of the blame for not having had enough influence to improve things over the past century.

But the other factor, it seems to me, is that Harris knew he didn't have to haul down The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language or any other reference book, because he knew you wouldn't call him on it. He thought no one would call him on it.

These days, if you make a confident assertion about language and include some technical term like "present continuous form of the verb", people just assume you're an expert and get out of the way. He didn't have to look anything up, because he thought you wouldn't, and no reader of The Guardian would, and he could count on that.

He underestimated us members of the public just a little: he didn't get it past John Wells, and thanks to John's alert, he didn't slip it past Language Log.

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at October 14, 2007 11:30 AM