Reporter's Notebook

Your Grammar Gripes and Guilty Pleasures
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Atlantic readers and staffers debate the value of the serial comma, the limits of wordplay, and more.

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Does Grammar Pedantry Perpetuate Ignorance About Language?

That’s the charge leveled by one reader, J., who responds to my grammar confession from earlier this week by advising me to “battle the misinformed pedantry of the peevers”—and points out a number of ways in which I’m guilty of misinformation myself. But first, two more readers offer their defenses for linguistic laxity.

Knox, a self-described “ambiguity ally,” says her attitude to English was shaped by growing up in a family of dyslexics:

In my younger years, I thought I had missed out on the family superpower. Today, we’ve come to terms with the differences: Acute writing skills are as much of a wieldable power as the extraordinary three-dimensional thinking that can make reading more difficult. But in the name of intellectual stimulation, debate around the importance of grammar and spelling still arises at the dinner table.

My youngest brother has a favorite defense; he likes to define “a word” with a sly smile and a hefty dose of side-eye. “Well. Don’t you know the definition of a word?” (He’ll pause for dramatic effect.) “According to the dictionary,” a stab at my English degree, “a word is a unit of language that functions as a principal carrier of meaning. The purpose of a word is not grammatical accuracy but a mode of conveying meaning. So, if you understood what I meant, then my mastery of language is intact.”

I’ll argue with him in the name of a good dinner debate, but truthfully I can't help but agree. The English language for me is less a network of rules and codes and more a tool for impact. However, the upshot here: It’s always the combination of the two—the codes and the meaning—that will craft the highest-impact message.

George takes a similarly laissez-faire approach:

Years of teaching both English and French as second languages has convinced me that when it comes to usage, the bottom line is getting the message across. All languages (except dead ones) are in a constant state of flux and there is nothing any of us can do about it. It may seem at times that a language is “deteriorating,” but those who are most knowledgeable about language know that no language has ever “deteriorated.” All languages evolve.

I love to quote—perhaps not totally accurately—the inimitable “Mr. Language Person” (Dave Barry of the Miami Herald—retired) who reported an overheard conversation between Eileen and her friend. Eileen was complaining about being unable to go to the church social for lack of a ride. Her friend replied: “Eileen, ’f I’d a know’d you’d a wanna went, I’d a see’d you’d a got to get to go!” This is 100 percent wrong grammatically, but the message comes across perfectly. Why correct it?

But another defense of what I’ve described as “rule-breaking” lies not in rejection of grammatical rules, but in a more precise interpretation. Here’s J., whose point-by point response to my post begins by unpacking Ruby’s critique of the Atlantic Daily verbs:

In “croissants uneaten,” uneaten is indeed a verb—specifically a passive verb—not an adjective. A “croissant uneaten” is a croissant that no one has eaten. That is, the verbal sense is clearly intact.

Although it appears in many of the same syntactic positions as adjectives, uneaten does not meet most of the criteria for adjective-hood (an asterisk indicates that something is ungrammatical):

  • It is not gradable: *more uneaten, *most uneaten

  • It cannot be modified by words like too and very: *very uneaten croissants

  • It doesn’t work with a verb like become: *The croissants became uneaten.

To get a better sense of all of this, compare uneaten to a past participle that has clearly become an adjective, like embarrassed. To be sure, when we’re discussing past participles, the line between verb and adjective is sometimes hazy. All we can do is look at the evidence.

***

I too have sometimes wondered if “Verbs” would be better titled “Past Participles”

The past participle is one of the six forms that every lexical verb has. The title "Verbs" encompasses those six forms. Don’t let a few misinformed peevers cause you to change the name.

Last week, a reader who signed his email “J.” gave us a detailed critique of what he calls the “zombie rules” of grammar—the gripes against such things as split infinitives and dangling prepositions that “fuel ... people’s misconceptions (and their nervous cluelessness) about English.” This next reader, Chris, has a rebuttal from his experience as an ESL teacher:

I find that adhering to grammar rules, however zombified they may be, is important for me in teaching university students—the reason being that once they complete their studies, they will be on the job hunt, and their English abilities will be on trial. The likelihood that a future employer might be a follower of zombie rules to English grammar is quite high, so rather than that student be judged at the most crucial time for them, I attempt to nip it in the bud early if possible.

NB: In “croissants uneaten,” uneaten can DEFINITELY still be looked at as something other than a verb with the verb left or went having been elided. For example,

The croissants were left uneaten by the partygoers.

This seems to act more as an adjective disguised as an adverb, similar to hungry in “The children went hungry for three days.”

Just my tuppence.

Which brings us back to the so-called verb that started it all: In the context of this list from our newsletter’s “Verbs” section:

Walking Dead autopsied, croissants uneaten, scare machine terrifies, diva reigns Supreme

… can “croissants” be read as a passive verb, according  to J.’s argument? Or is it, as Ruby first pointed out, actually an adjective? Another reader, John Williamson, lays out his case in great detail:

Here are some considerations:

a. If we were to say this:

Sentence 1: The uneaten croissants were finally discarded.

we would see that the verbal structure in this sentence employs a passive form: “were discarded.” “The croissants” is the subject and “The uneaten croissants” is the SP (subject phrase).

Since an SP consists of a determiner (the), any number of adjectives, and some number of nouns, gerunds, etc., but not any embedded verb forms;  and since Sentence 1 already has a well-formed verb structure (“were discarded”); then the tentative conclusion is that in Sentence 1, uneaten is an adjective and not a verb form.