Linguistic commentary from a guy who takes things too literally

Archive for the ‘Prescriptive grammar’ Category

Too Much

Posted by Neal on November 28, 2011

Back in October, I wrote about the opinion that thank you much is ungrammatical. I quoted a comment I left on one website where the issue came up:

“Thank you much” IS a complete sentence, at least if you accept “Thank you” as a complete (albeit noncanonical) sentence in the first place. If you object to “much” instead of “very much”, note that it appears alone in questions and negative sentences, e.g. “he doesn’t talk much”, “Does he talk much?” If you’re objecting to the use of plain “much” outside these “negative polarity contexts”, that’s a different matter, because that does sound odd in present-day English.

In the course of writing the thank you much post, I came across this video for learners of English as a foreign language:

In it, a teacher named Valen explains how to use much, many, and a lot of. Her explicit message is that much goes with mass nouns; many goes with count nouns; and a lot of goes with either. But in her examples, she seems to send the message that unadorned much is a no-no. Valen’s first two examples with much are:

I drank too much water.
Our teacher gave us too much homework.

Then she moves on to an example with many: Many cars are equipped with GPS systems. After that, she illustrates the mistake of putting many with a mass noun:

*I drank many coffee.

She then reiterates that since coffee is a mass noun, it can’t go with many, but can go with much. She erases many from the sentence, and replaces it not with much, as she seemed to be getting ready to do, but with too much:

I drank too much coffee.

Never a word of explanation why she’s doing this. (Also noted: She pronounces /str/ as [ʃtr], at least in the word abstract.)

Since that post last month, I’ve been thinking more about whether much is becoming (or has become) a negative polarity item (NPI). Whatever its status, it’s certainly not purely an NPI, since there are so many positive polarity contexts in which it sounds OK; for example, in the company of modifiers such as very (as in Thank you ~ much) and too (as in the video), much doesn’t sound bad at all.

As it turns out, Ji Won Lee at SUNY Buffalo has been looking into the question of NPI much, using an arsenal of corpora to find out. On her web page are handouts from several presentations on this topic. Her findings include that the development of much as an NPI was followed by the rise of a lot of/lots of, and that the shift to mostly-NPI much (and to some extent many, too) happened pretty quickly, between the late 1890s and 1940.

UPDATE, Nov. 29, 2011: Joe Kessler (in the comments) and JillianP (via Twitter) and Ji Won herself (in a polite email) have made me aware that I chose the wrong gendered pronouns to refer to Ji Won in the post. I have made the corrections, and apologize for the error. I’m also embarrassed that I didn’t remember meeting Ji Won at LSA 2011; she reminded me that she had come to look at my poster, and I see in my notes that indeed she did.

Posted in Language learning, Mass and Count Nouns, Morphology, Negative polarity items, Prescriptive grammar | 11 Comments »

The Witch Mary

Posted by Neal on November 25, 2011

Grammar Girl is running a guest script I wrote today (that is, she’s running it today; I wrote it some time ago), on difficult syntax in Christmas carols in general, and in particular in “What Child Is This?” The script was inspired by a real-life misunderstanding that Doug had seven years ago, and which I blogged about at the time. I’ve also been thinking about that song because Adam has been practicing playing it on the piano, and he sounds really good!

As I wrote in that blog post and in today’s Grammar Girl podcast, part of the difficulty is due to the perennial confusion between lie and lay (which I also wrote about in this post about the song “If I Just Lay Here”). For a while, I considered concluding the podcast with a sentence or two about how other traditional Christmas carols can serve as good models of for using lie and lay in the way that is currently considered the standard:

  • Where the snow lay round about, deep and crisp and even
  • the little lord Jesus laid down his sweet head
  • the stars in the sky looked down where he lay
  • how still we see thee lie
  • …certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay

I decided against it, because I didn’t want to give the impression that the whole episode was just about lie vs. lay. But as my wife and I were thinking about other Christmas songs, she started running through “God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen” (which I wrote about last year). The second verse goes like this:

In Bethlehem in Israel this blessed babe was born,
And laid within a manger upon this blessed morn;
The which his mother Mary did nothing take in scorn.

This one isn’t so good for helping you remember the difference between lie and lay. Sure, you could parse it as was [born and laid], the standard way, but if you don’t already know that’s how it’s supposed to be, you could easily just parse it as [was born] and [laid], with laid used nonstandardly as an intransitive verb.

However, that wasn’t the part that grabbed my attention. Before my wife could move to the third verse, I was interrupting with, “Mary, a witch?!” Then: “Oh, which!”

Two changes in English created this misunderstanding. First is the simplification of the consonant cluster [hw] to [w] for many speakers, as highlighted in this Family Guy clip that I learned about from Language Log a few years ago.

Having the last name I do, I think I still have the [hw] cluster in my language. Sometimes when I give my name over the phone, the person on the other end will hear it as “Quitman”, because they don’t have [hw] in their speech and figure that I must have been saying [kʰw] instead of [hw]. On the other hand, other times they’ll simply not hear the [h] at all, and think my name is “Wittman”, which makes me wonder if I actually pronounce [hw] as consistently as I think I do.

The second change is the loss of the which as a relative pronoun. I never knew about it until I listened to this verse. The which is in the Oxford English Dictionary, though. It’s sure enough archaic now, but was showing up in the 1300s, as in this OED citation:

How god bigan þe law hym gyfe Þe quilk the Iuus in suld life.

Their last citation is from 1884, from Tennyson:

He holp the King to break down our castles, for the which I hate him.

There have to be kids who got all confused when they learned Jesus’s mother was a witch. Any of you know of any?

Posted in Christmas songs, Diachronic, Morphology, Phonetics and phonology, Prescriptive grammar | 9 Comments »

Let’s Hear Some New Grammar Songs!

Posted by Neal on November 8, 2011

“You know there’s a helping verb song, right?” Doug asked. “One of Mrs. M’s students wrote it years ago. Mrs. M. taught it to us in fifth grade, and now we all remember all the helping verbs.”

“Really?” I asked. I’m teaching a college ESL class this fall, and had noticed that choosing the right helping verb was a problem in many of the students’ written sentences. Doug had asked how the class was going, so I’d told him. Doug then obliged me by singing the song, to the tune of the chorus of “Jingle Bells”, into my phone’s microphone:

Helping verbs, helping verbs, there are 23!
Am, is, are, was and were, being, been, and be,
Have, has, had, do, does, did, will, would, shall and should.
There are five more helping verbs: may, might, must, can, could!

I figured I could play it for the class, but later, I got a better idea and looked for the song on YouTube. I found at least half a dozen versions, so I’m not sure I believe Mrs. M’s student really did write it. But it’s possible that someone right here in our town was the source of the meme, so I’ll withhold judgment. This video is the one I played for the class:

They loved it, and had me play it several times. I hope it helps them, and I’m not going to say anything to these students about how this song (and various other grammar resources) always leave out the verb having, as in Not having finished his homework, Doug wasn’t allowed to go play with his friends. It doesn’t help to form any of the verb tenses, active or passive voice, so why inflict this complication on English learners at this level? (I did tell Doug and Adam about it, though.)

My students told me I should use more music in the class, so I tried to figure out some way of putting into a song the rules about which main verb forms go with which helping verbs. I eventually settled on “Red River Valley” (or as I was introduced to it in summer camp, “When It’s Hog-Killing Time in Nebraska”). Here’s what I came up with:

Helping verbs need to go with a main verb.
But which form of the main verb is right?
Use the plain form with all of your modals:
Can, could, shall, should, will, would, must, may, and might.

Use the plain form with do, does, and did, too.
Use the past participle with have, has, had.
Use the -ing form with all of your be verbs.
When you know your verb forms you’ll be glad.

Those two verses, including that rather lame last line, were all I wanted to give my class. (If someone has a better last line, I’ll take it!) But I felt compelled to write a final verse, lest someone take the first two verses too much to heart, and be afraid to use past participles with be when they’re more advanced. So here’s verse 3:

This last verse tells about a complication.
Sometimes past participles can go with forms of be.
When they do, it’s a big change in meaning.
Who’s performing the action is key.

Creative Commons License
Helping Verbs and Main Verbs by Neal Whitman is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.
Based on a work at

It occurred to me that teachers could probably use some other grammar points put into popular song formats, and that’s what brings me to the latest Grammar Girl book giveaway contest that I promised in my last post. The rules:

  1. Between now and 11:59PM November 14, take an existing melody and write some new lyrics for it, explaining some area of English grammar.
  2. Post the lyrics in a comment, giving the title of the original song and your new title.
  3. If you wish, you can make a video of the song and link to it.
  4. Grammar topics can cover the same areas as existing songs about English grammar, or present topics that haven’t been put into song yet.
  5. Be linguistically responsible. Prescriptive rules are OK (they’re what this contest is about), but make sure they’re in line with what good writers actually do when writing in standard English. For example, saying that the third-person singular present tense is formed with an -s or -es suffix is OK, but saying that whose is only for animate or human referents is not.
  6. Don’t plagiarize!
  7. Don’t give me something you already published, on the Internet or elsewhere. I want this contest to generate some new and hopefully useful teaching resources.
  8. I’ll wait until it’s November 15 all over the world to make the cutoff, and the writers of the two best songs (in my judgment) will each receive a copy of Grammar Girl’s 101 Words to Sound Smart (thanks to Mignon Fogarty for providing them!).
  9. As far as I’m concerned, you retain all rights to your song, but in the spirit of making new teaching resources available, I hope you’ll put them under a Creative Commons license, as I did with mine.
  10. All other things equal, I will give preference to:
    • Songs whose melodies that are in the public domain.
    • Songs linked to a video.

So let’s hear your grammar songs! If you need some inspiration, allow me to suggest “The Forgotten Helping Verb”.

Posted in Language learning, Morphology, Prescriptive grammar | 5 Comments »

Thank You Much

Posted by Neal on October 18, 2011

Jessica Hagy’s webcomic Indexed makes frequent use of Venn diagrams. This one from July has the sets Nouns and Verbs intersecting in a set labeled Heinous Business Speak. So, according to this diagram, every noun that can be used as a verb or verb that can be used as a noun is an example of heinous business speak. This would mean that (as one commenter hinted) speak is heinous business speak, as are run, walk, and swim. Moreover, this diagram states that every example of heinous business speak is something that is both a noun and a verb. This would mean that going forward, at the end of the day, think outside the box, and pick the low-hanging fruit are not heinous business speak. They may be heinous, or they may be business speak, but not both.

I know, I know, it’s just a frickin’ joke; why don’t I have a sense of humor? Part of the humor of using technical language, concepts, or methods for silly things is doing it accurately. When Tom Lehrer put the names of all the known elements to the tune of “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major General,” it was funny because he didn’t make up stupid element names; he used real ones, and all of them that existed as of 1959. When the Roman guard corrects Brian’s Latin grammar, it’s funny not only because we don’t expect that as a reaction to an act of graffiti, but also because Romanes eunt domus really should be Romani, ite domum (at least in Classical Latin). As the saying goes, “It’s funny because it’s true.” Furthermore, Jessica Hagy is contributing to a sloppy understanding of various math concepts by people who laugh at her comics but aren’t entirely clear on how Venn diagrams work. xkcd pulls this kind of thing off better.

But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. In the peeve-fest that followed in the comments, one commenter wrote:

What gets me is that now people are using the phrase “Thank You much” instead of “Thank You very much” or just “Thank You.” It just sounds so wrong and annoys me every time I hear it.

Another commenter responded:

It just sounds lazy – they’re obviously so appreciative that they can’t put the effort into a complete sentence.

The idea that Thank you much is bad grammar or not a complete sentence can be found elsewhere on the web:

its makes them sound stupid because its not a sentence they forgot the very part. (link)

The sentiment isn’t limited to people with poor punctuation skills, either. From a thread on

“Thank you much.” is not correct English.

You can say “thank you very much” or even “thank you so much”.

I responded to the Indexed commenter:

“Thank you much” IS a complete sentence, at least if you accept “Thank you” as a complete (albeit noncanonical) sentence in the first place. If you object to “much” instead of “very much”, note that it appears alone in questions and negative sentences, e.g. “he doesn’t talk much”, “Does he talk much?” If you’re objecting to the use of plain “much” outside these “negative polarity contexts”, that’s a different matter, because that does sound odd in present-day English.

Suppose the commenter really was objecting to this use of unadorned much as a positive polarity item (PPI). In fact, there are times when PPI much sounds just fine without a very. It can modify comparative adjectives or adverbs: much better, more more quickly, etc. It also works if it has a too before it: I ate too much.

OK, so let’s suppose the commenter was more specifically objecting to use of PPI much without a too or very, and not as a modifier of a comparative adjective or adverb. Even looking at just this narrow set of circumstances for much, you can find other attestations in COCA:

  • North Korea’s ability to launch another conventional ground invasion is much degraded from even a decade ago.
  • There is much commotion and merrymaking these days in our community
  • Shooting a handgun is much like shooting a bow in this respect,

And of course, there’s this song from Janet Jackson, though you could argue that she chose the title in part to make her listeners pause for a moment.

So maybe the commenter is not trying to make any wider claim about the usage of much; it’s just that when it appears after thank you, for whatever reason, there has to be a too or a very. Well, what do you think? Is it actually ungrammatical, or just somewhat old-fashioned sounding to say Thank you much? If you believe it’s ungrammatical, let us know why in the comments.

Posted in Music, Negative polarity items, Prescriptive grammar, You're so literal! | 20 Comments »

If I Just Lay Here

Posted by Neal on October 13, 2011

First of all, I think I have a pretty good handle on the currently standard system for English conditionals. I wrote about them most recently in July in this post. In my grammar, a sentence like If I sit here, my pants will get wet suggests that me sitting here is a possibility that I’m considering (though I may be leaning toward rejecting it). The past-tense form sat in If I sat here, my pants would get wet suggests that I’m not seriously considering the possibility.

Second, I got straight many years ago on the workings of lay and lie–though I’ve also learned that lay and lie have flip-flopped and varied in their usage over the centuries, and that it’s more or less accident that the system currently considered standard was settled upon. This Grammar Girl piece lays it out (get it?) pretty clearly, with a nice diagram. This Language Log post goes into more detail. For what it’s worth, I say lie in the present tense, lay in the past tense, and lain in the perfect tenses to talk about being recumbent. (Or lied if I’m talking about telling untruths.) I say lay (something) in the present tense, laid (something) in the past tense, and lain (something) in the perfect tenses to talk about putting something down carefully. At least, I think I do.

Now with those two points made, consider the refrain from the song “Chasing Cars”, by Snow Patrol:

If I lay here,
If I just lay here,
Would you lie with me and just forget the world?

Even though I am accustomed to hearing past-tense verbs in if-clauses to introduce remote conditions, and even though I accept lay as the past tense of lie, I still, still, just can’t parse these lyrics as the hypothesis and conclusion of a remote conditional. Instead, I find myself just figuring that the singer uses both lay and lie to mean lying down, sometimes saying one (“If I just lay here”) and sometimes the other (“Would you lie with me?”). Why is that?

Other grammar-watchers have had the same difficulty I have. Benjamin Barrett brought up the lay/lie verse on the American Dialect Society email list (in a thread beginning here), and wondered if the alternation was just for euphonic purposes. The possibility of taking it as a remote conditional seems not to have occurred to him. In a response, Larry Horn raised the possibility, and made his point by replacing lay/lie with the less-confusing sit/sat,:

If I sat here,
If I just sat here,
Would you sit with me and just forget the world?

With sit/sat, I have no problem getting a remote-conditional reading.

The Master of Grammar got tripped up on these lyrics too, and publicized his misunderstanding in this blog post. Three commenters set him straight, but I take the difficulty of getting this parse, even among the grammar-savvy, as a sign that the lay/lie distinction is on its last legs.

So it looks like “Chasing Cars” may be one of those songs that “get it right”. Against all expectation, it uses the standard option when faced with a grammar shibboleth, like Beyonce Knowles singing “If I were a boy” when you’d expect just about any pop singer to go with “If I was a boy”. But wait a minute…

I’ve just watched the video, and every time the singer gets to the refrain, he’s lying on something: twice on a bed, once on some asphalt, and once at the top of a subway escalator. He’s not standing up and thinking about lying in some location; he’s actually doing it. He even lies on a slab of rock during one of the verses of the song, so clearly, lying down in even the most unusual locations is not such a remote possibility for this man. What do you think? Is If I lay here being used in a standard or nonstandard way in “Chasing Cars”?

Posted in Music, Prescriptive grammar, Uncategorized | 23 Comments »

Between Me and the Pawn Shop, Not My Daughter and I

Posted by Neal on October 5, 2011

Doug has gotten into watching the reality TV show Pawn Stars in the past year. Yes, he and Adam are well aware of the word play in the title, which reminds me of a tweet from Bill Walsh that I retweeted a few months ago, to the effect that porn is more egalitarian than the rest of the movie industry, because every actor is a star. Anyway, I’ve gotten so I know by hear the opening monologue: “I’m Rick Harrison, and this is my pawn shop. I work here with my old man, and my son, Big Hoss. Everything in here has a story … and a price. One thing I’ve learned in twenty years: You never know what is gonna come through that door.”

Why did Snoop Dogg carry an umbrella?

Doug was watching an episode a few nights ago, and in one segment a man wanted to sell a doll-likeness of Snoop Dogg, still in the box, which his daughter had given to him. He and Chumlee settled on a price of $100. Out in the parking lot afterwards, the seller told the camera crew about what his daughter might think of selling her gift to him. He said:

That’s gonna be between me and the pawn shop, not my daughter and I.

This is an interesting new piece in the developing between you and me/I picture. There’s of course the standard rule, such that as part of the object of the preposition between, the first person singular pronoun should be in its accusative me form. Then there’s the politeness-based rule, which is by now just about standard for a big chunk of English speakers: It’s politer to use the nominative form I when it’s in a coordination. (And myself when it’s not.)

Then there’s whatever rule this guy is using. In the first coordination, he has me and the pawn shop; in the second, my daughter and I. Is his rule that in a coordination, the first person singular pronoun is me when it comes first, and I when it comes last? Me when it’s emphasized, I when it’s not? Me when it’s first and emphasized, I otherwise? Me when it’s about business, I when it’s about family? Or is it possible that he just uses me and I in free variation?

Posted in Prescriptive grammar, Pronouns, TV | 8 Comments »

Not As Much As You!

Posted by Neal on August 30, 2011

On April 30, I tweeted about an episode of The Big Bang Theory I’d watched the night before. I said

This is the kind of situation where grammar sticklers point out that there can be a big difference between more than I and more than me. In a nice summary of both sides of the argument, Grammar Girl writes:

[People who maintain that than is a conjunction rather than a preposition] would argue that the sentences Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I and Aardvark likes Squiggly more than me are both correct but have entirely different meanings. Both use than as a conjunction, but when you use the subject pronoun I, you’re saying Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I [like Squiggly], and when you use the object pronoun me, you’re saying Aardvark likes Squiggly more than [Aardvark likes] me. If than is a preposition, however, you would always use the objective pronoun me and then the same sentence would mean both things–you don’t care for Squiggly as much as Aardvark does AND Aardvark prefers Squiggly to you. It would be unclear which of the two meanings [was] intended. Avoiding ambiguity awards a point to the conjunctionists.

Of course, this distinction only works when there actually is a difference between nominative and accusative forms, which limits us to pronouns, and not even all of those. In particular, you can be either nominative or accusative, so Leonard could be saying either “Not as much as [I hate] you!” or “Not as much as you [hate Greek food]!”

I’d venture to say that in most cases, the ambiguity is only what Arnold Zwicky calls a potential ambiguity; not a realistic one that will confuse people. What’s fun about this example is that neither of the possible readings jumps out as the intended one. Sheldon is such an insufferable character, with so many showstoppers when it comes to food preferences, that you could imagine his roommate Leonard getting so fed up with Sheldon that he decides to punish him with that night’s purchase of take-out food for their group of friends. There are two ways doing this could punish Sheldon. On the one hand, Leonard could reason that although he (Leonard) hates Greek food, he’ll eat it because he knows Sheldon hates it even more. On the other hand, Leonard might reason that he (Leonard) hates Greek food, but he hates Sheldon more, so he’s willing to eat Greek in order to make Sheldon eat it too. I wouldn’t be surprised if the writers of the show even intended this ambiguity.

Karen Davis (aka The Ridger) sent me another example of an ambiguous VP ellipsis that hinges on the pronoun you. It’s exactly parallel to the Big Bang one, except that here, instead of finite clauses like I hate Greek food, we have a nonfinite “small clause”: your ex living with us. In her email, Karen wrote:

Today’s Tiny Seppuku answers a question from someone whose parents like her ex enough to let him live with them. … In one panel, the parents say to the woman: “Let us tell you how much we enjoy having your ex living with us instead of you.”

One reading has …your ex living with us instead of [your ex living with] you; the other has …your ex living with us instead of you [living with us] Both were plausible, because the strip is about someone whose parents like her ex so much that they’re letting him live in their home, in their daughter’s old room. At least in print, you’re left wondering which meaning is intended. However, if you actually heard it spoken, the ambiguity would probably disappear. They would say either “your EX living with us instead of YOU [living with us]” or “your ex living with US instead of [living with] YOU”, and the focal stress would make things clear.

You get this kind of ambiguity with ordinary noun phrases, too. In my dad’s logic textbook from his college days, there’s an example of spurious reasoning that takes advantage of it. A passage goes something like this:

A psychological survey has revealed that whereas the value Mr. Jones places on money is slightly more than the societal average, the value Mrs. Jones places on it is slightly less. We can predict, therefore, that Mr. and Mrs. Jones’s marriage is unlikely to last. How could it, when Mr. Jones loves money more than his wife?

Again, the stress could disambiguate the spoken sentence: “Mr. JONES loves money more than his WIFE” vs. “Mr. Jones loves MONEY more than his WIFE.” But you can also pronounce it with a carefully evened-out stress that leaves the ambiguity open, which is nice because it lets you make the joke and confound your unwary listeners.

Go ahead and distinguish between than I and than me if you want to. There may be times that there are two plausible meanings to distinguish, but if you’re dealing with anything other than I/me, he/him, she/her, we/us, they/them, you’ll have to disambiguate some other way.

Posted in Comics, Ellipsis, Prescriptive grammar, TV | 4 Comments »

Grammar Girl Guidebook Giveaway

Posted by Neal on June 28, 2011

On July 11, Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, has three books coming out: 101 Words Every High School Graduate Needs to Know, 101 Misused Words You’ll Never Confuse Again, and The Ultimate Writing Guide for Students. I have a copy of each of these books, and I’m going to give them all away. I’ll send one to my parents, another one to my brother Glen, and the last one to my sister Ellen. Just thought you’d like to know.

No, on second thought, I’ll give them away to readers of this blog! Readers other than Mom, Dad, Glen, or Ellen, that is. Here’s how I’m going to do it. From now until 11:59PM, July 11, Eastern Time (GMT -4 hours), I’ll take comments on this post for a topic you’d like to see covered in a blog post here or on an episode of the Grammar Girl podcast. On July 12, I’ll select the three most interesting topics (in my opinion), and contact the commenters who submitted them in order to get their postal addresses to send them one of the books. And I won’t stop there. I’ll then actually send one of the books to each of those addresses! Oh, and I’ll write a blog post on each of the topics, too. Or, if a topic proves to be suitable for Grammar Girl, it will be the subject of a future episode.

The disclaimers:

  1. I can’t promise a particular book to a particular winner, although the winners are welcome to make their preferences known.
  2. Whether a winning topic is covered on the Grammar Girl podcast or here on the blog will depend on whether it’s already been done on the podcast, whether it lends itself to a more prescriptive or descriptive treatment, whether Mignon Fogarty finds the topic as interesting as I do, and possibly other factors. You can search the existing Grammar Girl episodes to see if a topic has already been covered there. If I’ve already written about a topic on the blog, I’ll give a link to the relevant post in the comments.
  3. Multiple suggestions are fine. If a single commenter has more than one of the winning suggestions, I’ll send them more than one of the books.
  4. Mom, Dad, Glen, and Ellen: Even though I’m disqualifying y’all, you’re still welcome to suggest topics.

Comments are (as always) open!

Posted in Prescriptive grammar | 169 Comments »

If You Can Say “Graduated College,” Can You Say “Graduated Harvard”?

Posted by Neal on May 31, 2011

Over at Visual Thesaurus, my latest column is on the annual (or at least, annually relevant) arguments over whether it’s grammatical to say that someone “graduated college” or “graduated high school” (or even “graduated elementary school”), instead of “graduated from college/high school,” etc. I talk about the different versions of graduate that take different combinations of direct objects and prepositional phrases, and put them in a larger context of verbal diathesis alternations. My columns are usually behind a paywall there, so if you don’t have a membership, you have several options. One, of course, is to get a membership for something like $20, which you might find worth it just for the articles alone, by Ben Zimmer, Nancy Friedman, Mark Peters, Stan Carey, and others. Another, of course, is not to bother reading the column. But now there’s a third option: Wait three months and then go to the magazine. There you can find the formerly premium content that is more than three months old.

Anyway, here’s a detail that didn’t make it into the VT column. For me, although graduate from college/high school is the normal phrasing, graduate college/high school is not too bad. However, once you put in the name of a particular school, you can’t drop the preposition. So to my ears, graduated college is a little sloppy but OK, whereas graduated the University of Texas is out. I asked my followers on Twitter what they thought, and got a couple of responses that agreed with me, but as I thought more about it, I began to wonder if speakers would say graduate plus a school name after all. Here’s what I found in a small search in COCA:

  • graduate from Harvard vs. graduate Harvard: 115 to 1
    The one example of graduate Harvard was I guess my middle-schoolers would be graduating Harvard this year if the bumblers at their school had know [sic] about this smaller class size.
  • graduate from (the) Ohio State University vs. graduate (the) Ohio State University: 5 to 0
  • graduate from Stanford vs. graduate Stanford: 40 to 2
    The two: I graduated Stanford, and I’m also a member of the Horror Writers Association, and Lives in Palo Alto, Calif, and graduated Stanford in’ 98 with a political science degree.

Feel free to try this with other school names, and report in the comments!

One of the Twitter respondents was L. Michelle Baker, who goes by the handle of corpwritingpro. After her first tweet (which stated that from was customary before the school name), she surprised me with this one:

Wow! A professional writer was not simply dismissing graduate high school, nor even grudgingly accepting it in informal contexts, but actually granting it fully standard status, complete with a semantic distinction between graduate high school and graduate from high school. Furthermore, the part about describing an accomplishment is precisely what I found in Beth Levin’s English Verb Classes and Alternations as the difference between, for example, walked on the grounds and walked the grounds, or escaped from New York and escaped New York. I’m confused by how graduating from high school denotes less of an accomplishment than graduating high school, but maybe the fact that speakers look upon graduation as an accomplishment is what’s driving the loss of the preposition. Have any other readers noticed, or developed in your own usage, a semantic distinction between graduate from X and graduate X? And does it matter whether X is a common noun like college or high school, or a proper noun naming the institution?

Posted in Diachronic, Lexical semantics, Prescriptive grammar, Verbal diathesis alternations | 7 Comments »

Time for the Saving of Daylight

Posted by Neal on March 13, 2011

Nancy Friedman tweeted last week,

Now that we have daylight saving time 8 months of the year, shouldn’t it be renamed “standard time”?

I immediately retweeted, since this is what I’ve been thinking for months. In fact, I’d probably say it’s my biggest objection to the extension of daylight saving time. Gordon Hemsley responded to us both with this complication I hadn’t considered:

Then we’d have to rename the other 4 months Daylight-Losing Time.

Daylight-losing time … no one wants that. On the other hand, there wouldn’t be any confusion over whether to call it daylight-losing time or daylight-losings time, since losings isn’t nearly as common a word as savings. To tell you the truth, I’d been saying “daylight-savings time” for years, until I listened to this episode of Grammar Girl and learned that the original and preferred term is daylight-saving time. The form is saving and not savings because it’s just an ordinary gerund, turned into a compound noun by putting a direct object in front of it, the same as you do with hog-killing, cherry-picking, and pie-eating.

I didn’t believe it at first. I figured whatever usage guides GG had been looking at must have had some prejudice against the pluralia tantum (“plural only”) noun savings. True, savings usually refers to money, but I didn’t see any problem extending the concept to time, since you can certainly do that with the verb save. You can save both money and time, and the money or time that you save can be referred to as your savings, right?

But the story checked out, as I found when I went searching through the Google News Archive. Garner’s Modern American Usage confirms it, too: “the singular form daylight-saving time is the original one, dating from the early 20th century…. So my question is why people started calling it daylight savings time. Garner proposes this explanation:

The rise of the plural form (daylight-savings time) appears to have resulted from the avoidance of a miscue: when saving is used, readers might puzzle momentarily over whether saving is a gerund … or a participle….

In other words, we don’t want readers asking themselves, “Does this mean ‘the time for saving daylight’ or ‘the time that saves daylight’?”

Here’s my problem with calling it daylight-saving time. The way you pronounce this kind of noun phrase, with a compound gerund modifying a noun, is that you put primary stress on the first word, and secondary stress on the modified noun. So with this pattern, we getting HOG-killing time, PIE-eating contest, BABY-sitting service. In fact, this is generally how you put stress on compound nouns composed of words A, B, and C, where A and B form a compound that modifies C. Other examples are ANGEL food cake and BABY-butt legs, or INCOME tax time. But I don’t put primary stress on daylight; I put primary stress on saving(s), and as far as I know, most other speakers do, too. (If I’m wrong about you, comments are open.)

Why do I pronounce it as daylight SAVING(S) time? Actually, I don’t know. Even if I was interpreting it as “time that gives you a savings of daylight,” that would still mean that daylight and savings formed a compound that in turn modified time, so it would still be pronounced as DAYLIGHT savings time, wouldn’t it? Going by the examples of model DOGhouse and gourmet CAT food, I would expect the pronunciation daylight SAVINGS time to mean “a savings time that has to do with daylight” — maybe a time when you save money during the day but not at night.

Maybe it’s significant that daylight saving(s) time is a compound word, while model doghouse and gourmet cat food are still transparently compounds (doghouse, cat food) modified by a third word (model, gourmet). Or maybe the stress is landing on saving(s) because speakers are thinking of it as contrastive focus: STANDARD time as opposed to daylight SAVING(S) time, with the initial-S commonality subtly encouraging this.

Whatever the reason, this stress pattern is very ingrained with me, and if I use it while saying daylight saving time, I end up with daylight SAVING time, which sounds really goofy. It sounds like another contrastive focus: daylight SAVING time as opposed to the gloomy daylight LOSING time that Gordon brought up.

Posted in Gerunds and participles, Prescriptive grammar, Stress and focus | 7 Comments »


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