October 16, 2007

New frontiers in WTF grammar

In response to my post about "Would you mind go checking on the laundry?", other people are sending me examples of grammatical variation. Thus Dick Margulis:

Coincidentally, there's a current thread on COPYEDITING-L about constructions like "You need your eyes testing."

UK correspondents report that it sounds perfectly normal to them.

Whether or not it's a regional thing, that construction is certainly out there. To me, on the other hand, it sounds like the output of bad machine translation. But right now I need a lecture preparing, so I'll leave this one for the experts. Arnold?

[Update -- under the Subject line "We don't need our grammar correcting", Sarah McEvoy writes:

Just spotted your LL post; it's quite true that the construction "you need your eyes testing" is perfectly normal in the UK, but, to quote Inigo Montoya, I do not think it means what you think it means. You concluded with "I need a lecture preparing", meaning (I think) that you needed to prepare a lecture. However, the construction is never used in that way here; the meaning is passive. If you had said that out of context, I and other UK readers would automatically assume that you needed to have a lecture prepared on your behalf.

It may be worth noting that at school I was once brought up short by a teacher who said (jocularly!) to another pupil, "You want shot!" This sounded really odd to me. I would have automatically expected "shooting".

What, out of interest, would be said in the States? Would it be "you need your eyes tested"? That is heard over here too, but I suspect "testing" would be perceived by the majority of Brits as more correct.

Yes, we (or at least I) would say "you need your eyes tested". But the issue here is not cases like "you want/need shooting", which (ethical issues to the side) are fine on both sides of the Atlantic, as far as I know. ("Your eyes need testing" is thus a normal and unremarkable phrase for Americans, or at least for me.) The problem is phrases of the form "X needs Y V-ing", where Y is construed as the object of V.

As for the active/passive distinction, I guess I thought it would be more of a middle, along the lines of "my eyes need testing" = "I need my eyes testing". Thus, I thought, "my lecture needs preparing" would correspond to "I need my lecture preparing". I was reluctant to believe that the gerund-participle form, which is normally active in meaning, has become effectively passive in this case.

However, perhaps there is some variation on this point among British speakers. Under the Subject line "You need your grammar checking", Vicky Larmour writes:

the construct that you say sounds like "bad machine translation" does indeed sound perfectly normal to my English ears! I'm wondering what the US-English equivalent would be - "You need your eyes tested"? "You need your eyes to be tested"?

(I didn't even notice your use of "I need a lecture preparing" on the first couple of readings, it sounds so natural to me)

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 16, 2007 09:39 AM