Syntax

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This workshop is a review of a few basic ideas about English syntax. It will help prepare us for some elementary study of historical syntax in English.

Let's make some very broad generalizations about present-day English syntax.

--English sentences tend to follow a Subject-Verb-Object order:

The SVO order of simple English sentences is not always mandatory. If you want to "topicalize" an element of a sentence in English, you tend to put it first, as in this OSV example:

In poetry, almost anything goes. Emily Dickinson, painting a winter scene, can say

and we get the picture, even though the sentence has a VS order. But word order is crucial to meaning in many sentences, especially for distinguishing subject from object. If we say

then the inversion of Starr and Monica gives the sentence an entirely different meaning. In order to topicalize Starr in this arrangement, we have to change the "voice" of the verb and make the sentence passive, with Starr as subject:

Writing teachers may tell you the passive voice is terrible, but it's frequently the best way of calling attention to the object of an action by placing that object in the position of subject of the sentence, because in English sentences the subject tends to come first.

SV seems so natural to native English speakers that they tend to see it as the natural order of the universe. While in written English we can sometimes be creative and bend the rules, in spoken English we tend inexorably to put our subjects first, follow them with verbs, and then say something after the verb about either the verb or the subject. But there are nearby languages in space and time that follow quite different "natural" arrangements. In Irish, one says

which means, "The sun is shining," but in literal word order means "Is the sun shining." The natural English order in this kind of sentence is Subject-Linking Verb-Complement; in Irish it's Linking Verb-Subject-Complement. If an English speaker uses the Irish order, the "inversion" of subject and verb means that the sentence is most likely a question, not a declaration.

Here's Josef Joffe, writing in the German newspaper Die Zeit about the 2000 Presidential election:

Word for word in English, this would give us:

In the first sentence here (a passive), the main verb comes last in the sentence; in fact, the subject and "agent" of the passive construction (Wahlzettel, Generälen) are bracketed by the auxiliary and main verbs of the sentence (werden . . . tabuliert). In the second sentence here, the VSO order is normal, because in an active sentence in German the verb must come after the initial part of the sentence whether the subject is found there or not. "Die Gerichte sprechen das letzte Wort" would be fine, but because the writer has chosen to topicalize "Amerika," the subject must follow the verb.

In some languages, the function of a word in a sentence is signalled by inflectional endings. We still have a few inflectional endings in present-day English--think of the difference between "dog" and "dog's"--but for the most part a word's function is heavily dependent on its place in word order. In classical Latin, word order was very important, but it was reinforced by inflectional endings that showed how the sentence was to be understood. Poets could manipulate the language into some very elaborate word orders, as in these lines from Vergil's Aeneid, Book VI that describe how hard it is to twist off a magical golden bough:

word for word:

a word order which suggests why a lot of students don't make it into fourth-year Latin. But to Vergil and his contemporaries, even though the word order would have sounded funny (or poetic) even to them, the -o endings on "duro" and "ferro" connect those two words no matter what else is going on, giving the phrase "with hard steel" (the "with" being signalled by the -o "case ending").

When English poets try to do the same adventurous thing with word order, as in Milton's famous line from Paradise Lost:

they can end up sounding like Yoda.

 

--In English, adjectives tend to come before the nouns they modify.

In French, however, "a blue dress" would be

and a "hanging chad" would probably be

though I havenít verified this.

In English, a genitive (indicating that something possesses something else) can come before the thing possessed.

In French, the common phrasing is for the genitive to follow the thing possessed:

Of course, as you can see in the phrase "the ballot's design," use of the genitive inflection in present-day English, though quite available and grammatical, can sound awkward at times. Much more natural is "the design of the ballot," which is called periphrastic genitive--a genitive that uses a phrase rather than an inflectional ending. English periphrastic genitives come after the thing possessed, and are much like French genitives.

New genitives in English tend to be periphrastic and come after the thing possessed. If you have a new motherboard and you want to talk about its speed, would you say

or

You could say either and be understood. But the periphrastic genitive sounds better and comes more naturally in a wider range of circumstances.

It may not seem immediately apparent, but with English genitives, we are observing a typical long-term linguistic change. Two alternatives in syntax co-exist; one is losing ground. Such a process takes generations and may leave a final result that is an irregular system full of subtle idiomatic alternatives.

To illustrate, let's take a phrase we've already looked at, Luke 2:9 in Old English:

þa stod drihtnes engel wiþ hig and godes beorhtnes him ymbelscean: and hi him mycelum ege adredon.

Two genitive phrases occur in this sentence: "drihtnes engel" and "godes beorthnes": "God's angel" and "God's brightness"--though the ending is spelled differently, it's the same English genitive inflection we use today.

These phrases translate two ordinary Latin genitives: "angelus Domini" and "claritas Dei," where the genitive comes after the thing possessed.

In Middle English translations of the Bible made in the 1300s, the phrases are rendered "þe aungil of þe lord" and "clernesse of god." (The most famous later translation, the 1611 Bible, has of course "the angel of the Lord" and "the glory of the Lord.")

The Old English genitive order, with the genitive first, gave way as early as the 1300s to a genitive-last order. But the older order is still available, though not preferred in these kinds of phrases. What we see at work is a long process, never entirely resolved. Genitive-first phrases tend to persist most strongly where persons are the owners:

Genitive-last phrasings are most common when the possessor is an abstract or impersonal noun, or plural, or a phrase:

Though once again, it's not like you can't use the alternative in any of these cases, at more or less risk of sounding awkward.

 

Verbs are harder, so I want to stress just one element here: verb tense, the relation of the grammatical form of the verb to time. In Latin, there are a lot of verb tenses. In the basic "mood" of Latin verbs, the indicative, there are six tenses:

How many tenses do English verbs have in the indicative mood? The answer is seen in the translations above.

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